Vision for a Challenge

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This article is from Issue 4 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Earl Stresak

Gordon Mitchell learned woodworking back in public school many decades ago. Now retired after many successful years as a computer programmer, he’s finally finding time to indulge his passion for woodworking in his fully equipped shop. The fact that he’s totally blind barely slows him down.

Visitors can find it a bit unnerving to stand at the threshold of Gordon Mitchell’s shop and hear the screech of a table saw coming from inside the pitch-black basement. Is someone actually working in there on a power saw in the dark? 

That would be correct.

To blind woodworker Mitchell, shop lights are strictly optional equipment. 

People’s reaction to his working in the dark can make Mitchell chuckle a little. 

“Sometimes I forget to turn the lights on and people walking down the steps to the shop get a little nervous hearing me bang around in the dark,” he said.

When he built and wired the home shop himself at his Brantford, Ontario, home, fancy track lightning was probably Number 125 on his list of Top 100 things to get.

Paramount in his mind was the welfare of family members whose allergies would be aggravated by excess sawdust.

“I sealed the walls and ceiling really well and put in an air cleaning system,” he said.

 Next on his list came tools, including power tools, which he feels less guilty indulging himself with since his four children have grown and Mitchell himself has retired from full-time computer work.

“Thank goodness that my wife understands about my lust for tools,” Mitchell laughs. She also takes time to drive Mitchell to area woodworking shows where he also lusts after new knowledge to take back to his shop.

His wife Linda works at a hospital in Brantford, a city of about 88,000 people 90 miles north of Toronto, where the couple makes their home. It’s also where Gordon spends long hours working in his 12' x 29' shop, well equipped with a 10" table saw, a band saw, router table, a 12" planer, scroll saw, chop saw, drill press, biscuit jointer and 6" belt sander, among other tools.

He has built a variety of projects, small and large – pushcarts and window boxes for his home garden (four at a time), a 7' ash desk they use each day, a sewing thread holder for his wife. He’s currently building a whirligig for the couple’s garden. 

“If my work pleases my wife, what more could I wish for?” Mitchell wrote in an article posted on the internet at WoodCentral.com.

Mitchell has also successfully tackled construction projects. He and his 13-year-old daughter built both his home and shop. With the help of a sighted person for direction, he has installed wiring, climbed a roof to hammer down shingling and even hauled up and installed trusses.

Mitchell often uses phrases such as “I see,” or “I was looking that up.” But to understand the sightless woodworker’s attitude toward life is to understand that inside his mind’s eye, he sees things very clearly indeed. He cites his “bull-headedness” as a reason for his being able to tackle challenges that could seem overwhelming to others, but Mitchell has had some practice in overcoming challenges.

this ash desk is the heart of Mitchell’s computer center.

A nightmare event

How Mitchell lost his sight is a dramatic story that is testimony to life’s uncertainties and his own strength and perseverance in overcoming adversity. He was born and raised in Toronto and until the age of 21 had a relatively normal life. That changed dramatically one night in Toronto in June of 1965.

“I was out in the evening with a buddy,” Mitchell said. “We were sitting on my car fender in front of his home, a block and a half from my house.”

As the two made small talk and enjoyed the outdoors during a time of day when life in a big city slows down, not far away another 21-year-old man, drunk and despondent after an emotional breakup with his wife, had just left his house with a loaded shotgun.

“He ran through his backyard and hopped a fence. That was about the time we saw him,” said Mitchell, recalling his first glimpse of the enraged man as he ran past. The man stopped about 5' away from the pair, raised the shotgun, and pulled the trigger. “That was the last thing I ever saw.”

The assailant fled, and Mitchell’s friend – who wasn’t hit – rushed him into his house and called police as his mother tried to tend to the injury. The police arrived to find the gunman crouched behind Mitchell’s car, and took him into custody.

Mitchell underwent surgery that lasted several hours. “They removed 26 pellets from my right eyeball alone, 16 from the left eyeball,” he said. He was unconscious for one week and in intensive care for two weeks. When he awoke in the hospital, his mother told him what had happened.

“The first thing I said was, ‘Mum, call work and tell them I won’t be in for a few days.’ That was my main concern for next month and half while I was in the hospital. How am I going to work? How am I going to make a living? It was so much a big part of my reality.”

Forty-some years later, Mitchell still carries a few of those pellets in his head and face which show up on X-rays.

mitchell made these sewing boxes for family and friends.

Life after blindness

As could be expected, losing his sight changed Mitchell’s life in ways he wasn’t prepared for.

“It was a growth period for me because I had no knowledge of blindness or what blind people could do,” he said. He had some stereotypical notions of sightless people that would be dispelled. “All I knew was that they sold papers out of a booth on the corner and you helped them across the street. I found the world was not really equipped to deal with blindness. You had to be strong. People would insult your intelligence and say you couldn’t do things.”

After training in a school for the sightless, Mitchell studied computer programming at the University of Manitoba, then went to work for the Canadian government as a programmer. He worked there for seven years. After government service, Mitchell spent much of his life as a computer programmer and analyst, working contract jobs, but he also traveled down some interesting side roads that included running a successful small business – a dog kennel.

It wasn’t anything he thought he’d ever do, but when he learned the kennel came with a business license and six acres of land, he decided to give it a try. 

“When I opened, I wondered if people would have use for a blind guy taking care of their dogs,” he said. His worry proved unfounded when the business blossomed. “After a year of service, I had to build an addition to double the capacity. I could write a book about the people who brought their dogs back and told their friends to bring their dogs. I had 40 dogs, everything from pocket poodles to Newfies, plus cats and birds.”

the mailbox on mitCHell’s home combines his woodwork with Linda’s painting.

Using the computer as his eyes

Mitchell’s background in computers and software developed for sightless people have been a good match for him. Computer screens exist that can utilize Braille, plus Mitchell employs a software program that translates text files into audio.

“You have a hardware synthesizer, or you can have a sound card,” he said. 

“Everything else is the same as on any other computer.” 

A drawback for Mitchell is that the program doesn’t read photos or graphics. A message comes back giving him a code number. “They [photos] are not there as far as the computer is concerned,” he said. 

 That is a problem in a computer environment saturated with pictures and graphics. When the program reads a description of a woodworking project and comes to a picture, Mitchell can have a problem understanding project instructions. When this happens, he e-mails the author of the article, explains that he’s blind, and asks for clarification. Answers aren’t always forthcoming.

“I get about 25 to 50 percent returns,” he said, which greatly hinders his desire for more woodworking knowledge. 

Unanswered questions are only part of Mitchell’s frustration in bridging this communications gap. To understand his predicament, try explaining how to build a wood project using only verbal communication – no pictures or blueprints; or using your hands to illustrate shapes, sizes and procedures to explain something to another person.

“I always wanted to make a whirligig,” Mitchell said, remembering them from his sighted days. He found a man who makes them and asked for an explanation of how to build them. 

“I asked if he could explain how his whirligig works. People have told me – a prop goes around, there is a wire joint through the guy’s arm, etc. I can visualize that, but not enough to go down to the workshop and build one.”

Mitchell hoped for a step-by-step, verbal explanation of how to build the whirligigs.

Like many folks, the whirligig maker could build one – but couldn’t effectively explain how he did it.

“He had one heck of a problem explaining it to me,” Mitchell said. “He could not describe, in words, anything about it, because he’d never had to do it. I’m not knocking him. It was just that he had never had to explain something to a blind person. You just have to say, ‘OK, this guy is blind. How would I describe what I’m doing here?’ I just need step-by-step instructions.”

Mitchell sometimes asks his wife to explain what is in a photo, but as in any household, time is at a premium. Linda works full-time and has her own interests and hobbies – she is a tole painter and gardener, and is not always available. During the day, Mitchell will resort to e-mailing people, then hope for a response.

measuring blocks in various sizes ensure correct setup for Mitchell’s power tools.

“I do a lot of router work, finger joints, and so on,” Mitchell said. “One day, someone on the Internet wrote about a finger-joint modification. I wrote the chap because he had done the explanation in pictures, but so far I haven’t heard back.” 

Things that most woodworkers take for granted, like looking at a picture for clarification while planning out a project, can quickly put the brakes on a project. He has tried using patterns for his work, but said he prefers to develop a clear step-by-step mental picture of a project in his head. It’s extremely useful for Mitchell to run his hands over a completed piece he would like to build. It helps set a mental blueprint in his mind. Once his mind has grasped the whole construction concept, he can forge ahead on just about anything.

Techniques in his shop

Like his computer and its audio system, Mitchell’s hands and fingers provide another part of his vision system for woodworking. He can do most any procedure others can do in a shop, although more slowly, which means carefully setting things up and double-checking all facets of a job. Mitchell said he may cut or shape a piece of a project several times before being satisfied with it. What someone else might do in minutes, might take him hours or even days, but he doggedly persists in doing whatever needs to be done to get the project done.

“My wife’s tole painting has come in handy covering up my mistakes,” he laughed.

Dropping things on the shop floor can also mean an aggravating loss of time, forcing him to get down on hands and knees to feel around for a part, fastener, nail, screw or tool.

One of his most valuable tools is a shop apron with plenty of pockets to hold things for easy access. He jokes that another valuable tool is a good belt to hold his pants up as he often stuffs things into his pockets, too.

Like any other woodworker, shop safety is always on Mitchell’s mind, so he takes precautions to accommodate his sightless lifestyle. He does use hand tools, but his primary power tools are of the table variety, in permanent fixed positions so his movements around them can be consistent and measured. He doesn’t start any power tool unless his hands are well out of the way and his body clear of danger, although he confesses to occasionally nicking fingers while trying to guide a drill bit. 

He does not use a push stick for guiding lumber through his saw, as it hinders his “feel” for the movement of the wood. Instead he uses a metal guide or boot. He stands to the side of his large table saw as a precaution against kickback, and he listens for any change in the sound of the motor or blade pitch that warns him of possible trouble. The only power tool he will not use by himself is the scroll saw.

He works in all types of wood and has, with the help of a family member, cut and seasoned his own lumber stockpile. He has worked a good bit with cherry, ash, oak, maple, beech and hickory, but prefers working with softwoods like pine and cedar. Mitchell can distinguish hardwood from softwood by its weight, but cannot “feel” the grain to tell the different types of wood.

this planter is one of several pieces Mitchell has made for his home.

Measuring blocks – his shop lifeline

Mitchell uses a 12" and 36" folding ruler with Braille markings. Those are the only tools in the shop that could be considered “tools for the blind.” He has used audio and “talking” tape measures, but found them annoying. One day Linda gave him a present that has become his trusted standby – metal measuring blocks.

Mitchell finds that the set of Veritas set-up blocks given to him by his wife has become his “constant companion.” The anodized aluminum set contains five 2" long blocks 1/16" through 3/4" thick and are accurate to within 0.0002". He also uses a companion set of steel blocks, dubbed “1-2-3 blocks,” so named for their 1"x 2" x 3" size. Combined, his blocks will stack from 1/16" to 411/16" in 1/16" increments.

His only regret about the handy metal blocks is that a 1/32" or thinner block is not available. He has used the blocks to set his biscuit jointer, Kreg jig, table saw and router fences, plus the depth of saw blades and router bits. 

Mitchell said he has even used them to put up curtain rods.

Greatest regret

Mitchell was first exposed to woodworking in Toronto while still in public school, and learned then that he enjoyed it. Although he continued working in wood throughout his life, he believes his retirement has finally afforded him time to really grow and push his techniques and skills up a notch. Being able to glean more information from the Internet and the woodworking shows Linda takes him to has been a real boon. It has made him conscious of the myriad techniques, materials and options open to him as a woodworker.

“You open a newspaper or magazine every day and something new catches your attention. I have missed a lot of that,” he said. “I’m looking back at myself and saying, ‘You’re old-fashioned in your work habits.’ Through all those years, I didn’t progress as a woodworker; I didn’t learn. 

“Sometimes I feel so in need of knowledge. I would love to take courses. But, what I’ve learned over the years is that there are very few courses that are designed for disabled people, and not many teachers that would accept a blind person in a workshop where there are power tools.” Mitchell would love a chance to just sit and listen inside a classroom.

Ambassador for the blind

“I like to think of myself as an ambassador for the blind.” he said. “I like to think that I can help somebody coming up behind me.”

Mitchell hopes that maybe someone, somewhere, might have a neighbor who is blind and they can help that person get into woodworking and strive for knowledge and self-sufficiency.

“Blindness is a disability you can live with, and survive with; you simply have to do things differently,” he said. When thinking about others with disabilities, 

Mitchell has often thought that in some way he might be able to help. To that end, he hopes that any disabled people reading this profile will understand that the things he has done, they can also do.

There’s a good chance that while working down in his basement woodshop – in the dark – Gordon Mitchell has already shed a lot of light on what people can accomplish when they set their minds to it.

Earl Stresak

Earl Stresak is a Branson, Mo., freelance journalist who specializes in articles on outstanding woodworkers. By day, Stresak is a newspaper reporter who covers local issues and stories. 

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