Woodworking In The Dark

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From our blog on Easy Wood Tools, and meeting Rory Curtis, comes a story about a woodworker and an extraordinary individual.  I am fortunate to have had the humbling experience to learn about Bob Kennedy’s story, and speak with him personally as Bob has been completely blind since the age of 12.  Now Bob does not consider himself special, handicapped or challenged in the sense of being blind.  He loves to share his perspective about it, and definitely does not sit around feeling sorry for himself or let anyone else feel sorry for him either.  He has accomplished more in his lifetime than many people will ever experience.  He may be challenged in the same way we all are in our day to day activities, jobs, and lives, but he does not let his lack of sight be a deterrent from living his life to the fullest.  Born with Glaucoma, having poor distance and periferal vision, he could still see well enough to play baseball growing up.  But, after a baseball injury from a bat to the side of his head, Bob suffered permanent blindness for the rest of his life.  That never stopped Bob from becoming the happy, energetic, educated, busy, and yes…”normal” person that he is today.  Did I mention he’s also a woodworker?

Here is his story, through his words:

I was born in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a long time ago.  It was discovered too late that I was in the group of less than 1% of kids in the world that are born with Glaucoma.  Not a special honor I can tell you.  With the medical knowledge limited at that time, many doctors missed the early diagnosis blaming it instead on psychological reasons.  I’m not here to fault medicine for my blindness.  I didn’t have a lot to say about it then, and still don’t.

I spent a lot of my early years with my grandparents in West Virginia.  Granddad was a preacher and I got to travel with them all around the country while I could still see.  This was back before the interstate system was finished.  Several of our trips brought us to North Carolina, and I loved it so much that I moved to Charlotte in 1984.

I attended the school for the blind in Batavia, New York from the middle of 5th grade until the end of 11th grade.  I had already decided before I started high school that I was not going to graduate from that school.  I was afraid of how it would look when I filled out a job application and had to put “blind” anywhere on the page. I found my niche in sports.  I wrestled in high school and that was my ticket out of this school.  During my Christmas break I asked the coaches at the high school in the town where I lived if I could work out with their team so I wouldn’t lose the conditioning for which I had worked so hard.  After just a few practices, the coaches asked me why I wasn’t going to school there.  Are you kidding? I’d been trying since seventh grade to get back in a public school system.  They spoke to those in charge and I was able to make the big switch if only for my senior year.  While in the school for the blind, I had two industrial arts teachers that taught me the love of woodworking, and the difference between fear and respect for power tools.  My careers have taken me all around this country, and my love for sports has allowed me to travel beyond our boarders.  I competed in Canada and Japan as well, a time I’ll never forget.  I have to say I have been blessed over my lifetime.  I have met and worked with some of the greatest people I could hope to meet.

After high school I went to Daytona, Florida to attend the American Motorcycle Institute.  Only the third totally blind person to attend; they were not set up for special needs.  Bob Burns and John Matthews ran the teaching side of the school when I attended, and the extra time they spent with me was invaluable.  When I didn’t understand the description on the board or paper, they took me to a live example or made a model up for me to grab hold of.  What made me feel so much a part of the school was the way they didn’t change the rules.  The first project we were given was to take a two cycle engine apart and put it back together.  This little engine powered a pogo stick.  I can remember finishing it and hearing it start up.  Not really a special thrill, I had already been rebuilding car engines that were much larger and more powerful.  I carried the machine into Bob’s and John’s office and said I was done.  They asked me if I had road tested it. I stood there with, I know what was my “Are you serious?” grin and they told me “everyone has to road test their work before they can call it done.”  I turned around in their office door and fired up the power pogo stick.  With my anything for a laugh attitude, I got on and cranked the throttle.  Down the hall I went!  Taking out chairs and ash trays on the way.  I decided the trip was over when I ran into the Pepsi machine.  Sometimes you have to work hard for a laugh.


I graduated from the school in the fall of 1973, which was a terrible time to look for work in the motorcycle field in New York.  The following spring I found work at a Kawasaki shop. Kawasaki had just come out with their Z1, 900 CC the year before.

The shop I was working for had a few problems with the bikes going out with set up problems.  The owner called us into a meeting and said “I don’t want one more bike going out the door without it being tested first. If you work on it, you drive it!”  Well, I’d heard this speech before, and I knew I could drive a motorcycle.

So when I finished up a big beautiful Z1, my brother walked in to pick me up, and I told him about the meeting.  I don’t think I ever remember my brother getting scared when I wanted to do something.  He just got on the bike behind me like it was done every day.  There was a huge parking lot across the four lane highway where the shop was located.  The business was closed so we had that whole parking lot to drive around.  When my brother told me traffic was clear, I shot us across the highway and into the parking lot.  He looked back at the shop and my boss was standing in the showroom window biting his nails!  He obviously didn’t know what he had said earlier was taken seriously.  When we came back, it was explained to me that there was no need for me to test drive any more bikes!  My heart was broken!


I like Florida so much that I went back to attend the American Marine Institute classes for stern drive boats.  This was something I was already somewhat familiar with because they run car engines in the boats.  I graduated at the top of my class and was the first blind person to ever go through the marine part of the program.  From that point, things were tight for many years to come.  It was hard to find work where I lived because people saw me as a liability.  The chances of getting hurt they felt, out weighed any benefit I could offer.  Since I had already worked on cars and had gone to school, I figured I’d just go to work for myself.  I had no idea what would happen if I placed a business sign out and ran a small ad in the phone book.  I was buried with work in no time.  I’ve been a fixer most of my life.  I couldn’t afford to call a repair person for a long time, and I guess when I got to where I could afford one, I did not “see” a need too.  I’ve gotten past the point of worrying about what everyone thinks.  If I have to get on the roof, I go up the ladder like everyone else.  That scares people more than it scares me.  Heck yeah I think about falling off, and I don’t care for the idea at all.  So I’m careful.  The same goes for using my table saw.  I take precautions, take my time, and don’t get careless or complacent.

I built my current little woodshop on my own for the most part.  I had my youngest son Daniel help me a couple of times, but when he shot a 16 penny nail from an air powered framing nailer through my finger, I went back to working by myself.  I think I’m probably safer if I work the nail gun.  At least I’ve never shot myself with one, so I retired him from the woodshop and hired him for other types of help.  I moved to Chapel Hill in 2006 after marrying my wife Ruth.  While my current shop is about a third the size of my shop I owned in Charlotte, I have been able to get much more involved in woodworking.  You never know what might be going on in the shop at my house in Charlotte.  I rebuilt transmissions for a number of years for dealerships selling Pontiac and Dodge.  When I left the automotive field as a certified mechanic, I had no shortage of customers even though I was trying to get away from it.  You could find a car up on jack stands with a transmission on the bench, while a tractor might be sitting beside the car ,or I might have been building an entertainment center on the bench at the back of the shop.  Now I don’t mess with cars much anymore, except for occasional brake jobs or a timing belt for my kids or a friend.  I feel like I’ve gone back in time having to work in the driveway once again and I don’t care so much for that.

Pretty amazing wouldn’t you say?  You can only imagine how Bob maintains his busy life despite of his lack of site.  Bob continues to maintain a healthy lifestyle by playing beepball (see video below), coaching wrestling, and has 3 black belts in different levels of karate.  He has also been an alternate for the Sydney and Atlanta Paralympic Games in 1996 and 2000.


Bob also does all of his own repairs and upkeep on both of his homes including roofing, plumbing, flooring, and kitchen cabinetry, making his own mortise and tenons with a Pinnacle router table with a Woodpecker lift, and Freud router bits, as well as building furniture.  He is has rebuilt their kitchen and a new woodshop with a friend, Glen Permar, who is also a sight challenged woodworker.  Pictured below is Bob and Glen at the Raleigh, North Carolina Woodcraft store teaching two customers how to turn bottle stoppers.

The woman in the picture stopped into Woodcraft with her husband to purchase a bandsaw.  After spending time with Bob and Glen, she also walked out of the store with a Rikon mini-lathe and some turning tools!  Herb Shelley, manager for the Raleigh store commented, “He would love to have Bob as a Woodcraft employee because he is so knowledgeable about the products, downloadand outgoing with helping the customers.”  In fact, Herb also mentioned that, “During the upcoming Turn for Troops event, I may have Bob and Glen demo and spearhead the occasion.”  Be sure to check out this giving back activity at the Raleigh Woodcraft store.  Herb’s fondest memory is when Bob was demonstrating a two day turning event on the porch of his Woodcraft store.  On the second day, the outside temperatures took a little dip.  Bob asked if they could move inside because his hands got cold and he could not “see” as well with them!  Herb stated, “It is mind boggling to watch what these two can do, and it’s uncanny everything they can remember because, as Bob says…they have too!”

Another anecdote is when Bob built a set of golf club heads for a professional golfer, and as a joking gift, he took a set of his acrylic eye contact covers (used to make his eyes appear normal) and glued them to a golf ball.  On the plaque he quoted the first rule of golf, “Keep your eyes on the ball!”

Bob’s favorite tool products are his Easy Wood turning toolsFestool 6″ random orbital sander with the CT36 shop vachis TS75 Festool TS75 Plunge Cut Saw with T-Loc and rail,and his DeWalt 18V XRP Lithium Ion 4-Tool Cordless Combo Kit, Model DCK475L.  Now in that DeWalt set is a gooseneck spotlight.  Bob commented, “Yes I need that light, because when the lights go out for everyone else in the house, they all come to the blind guy for the flashlights!”  Festool has a jigsaw with LED lights, but Bob claims, “That’s overkill for me!”  Other tools that allow Bob to participate in his craft are from MaxiAids and Stabilawhich are braile or talking tape measures, levels, and other electronically aided equipment.

By clicking on the links below from the website, “Woodworking In The Dark”, you will find Bob’s additional projects,

Bob’s final remarks were,

“I love Woodcraft, and appreciate all the fine people and help I have received through the years from the Raleigh and Charlotte stores,” and, “I don’t have the rest of my life to prove I can do something, so I just do it!  No one knows what the future holds, so I try to make the most of everything I do.  I hope you have also found a direction to follow in life beyond a job.”

With that being said, all I can say is, I hope this may inspire you to start making some saw dust, and pursue your woodworking dreams.

auf Wiedersehen…Frank

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