A group of blind adults use tools on a large piece of wood.
A group of blind adults use tools on a large piece of wood.

Blind Artisans Come out of the Woodwork, Choose Enchanted Hills for Annual Conference

Photo: A group of men stand around a large tree trunk meant for turning on a lathe.

At the end of this summer, Enchanted Hills Camp and Retreat hosted a small but dedicated international organization, Woodworking for the Blind, for its first-ever conference in Napa. Our newly completed DeLong-Sweet Tactile Arts Barn in the woods of Mt. Veeder provided the perfect setting for this group of a dozen blind and low vision woodworkers to hone their skills and reinvigorate their love for tactile craftsmanship. George Wurtzel, Enchanted Hills Construction Manager and blind woodworking guru, facilitated an overall unforgettable experience. He provided guidance, training and engagement as the group learned the ins and outs of our new workshop.

If any of this intrigues, we encourage you to sign up for either of our two upcoming woodworking workshops at Enchanted Hills:

Meanwhile: Jeff Thompson, creator of the Blind Abilities podcast, was present for the whole thing, and had great things to say in his debrief after the conference. Read his essay, below.

The following is by Jeff Thompson:

WW4B stands for Wood Working for the Blind and is a group of International woodworkers that were invited to attend the Enchanted Hills Camp in the newly renovated Arts Building. This event happened over a 3 day period August 24-26 where 14 top notch blind woodworkers descended upon the 311 acres located on Veeder Mountain above Napa Valley, California.

Although this was the 5th such gathering for WW4B, this time the LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco offered their facilities at Enchanted Hills Camp where George Wurtzel, Construction Supervisor, has brought his talents and knowledge and where many camp attendees will learn about wood working, the arts and mostly, gain confidence. With such a response from wood workers across the states and Canada, George invited me to assist with the event. Such an honor to be asked by George Wurtzel who I consider my guru in the area of wood working. George has done wood working his entire life and openly shares his experience with anybody willing to learn and listen.

I arrived 3 days in advance with my wife and was welcomed with open arms and some very nice people working at the camp. Caretakers Janet and Donnie and handyman Chris were inviting and made us feel comfortable from the get-go. The wood working area was huge and the new oak flooring was impressive. The Redwood deck and steps were fresh and were milled at the saw mill just up the mountain. Most of  Enchanted hills Camp is covered with Redwoods and when opportunity happens and a fallen tree is offered up by Mother Nature, the tree is traded for lumber already cut. Nice to have neighbors with a saw mill.

George and I went over the shop which consisted of 4 table saws, 3 lathes, a massive band saw, planers, jointers, full-face sanders and on and on. I realized that this shop could produce just about anything. George knew that the WW4B group would be a bit different than what he or I have been accustomed to in the past. Typically, we are teachers of those wanting to gain confidence and overcome fears by working with tools and accomplishing a goal. This group of blind wood workers were not new to wood working, they are some of the best wood workers out there. Blind or not, they are some of the best. George took the approach that the shop could handle just about anything they would want to learn and was encouraging anybody who knew more to step up and share.

This was a great opportunity for me to meet all these guys that I followed on-line, in emails and on audio over the last 10 years when I returned to wood working upon discovering the click-ruler measuring device. We did not build a project, we did not construct much at all, but we all shared ideas, experiences and how-to-do’s till just around midnight each night. We would rise for breakfast the staff prepared –  wonderful fruits and veggies, breakfast foods and most important, good coffee. Then off to the shop where each day another machine or three was the focus of discussion and discovery. Most of us had experience on the machines, however, just as the WW4B group shares emails, this moment was unique as there were 16 of us, all accomplished wood workers putting our heads and thoughts together.

The Dove-Tail Jig from Lee Valley was a new tool that was thought of as not being accessible to the Blind. We shot that notion down as a few of us went through the settings and after some trials and discoveries, we put that notion to rest. We achieved perfect dove-tails and the confidence that any one of us could use such a jig in the future.

Block gauges, centering bits, plunging routers, tapering jigs, planers and lathes were just part of the 3-day workshop.
Being open to what the wood workers wanted to do was brilliant because each one of the attendees brought something to the table and everybody took from each other. It was like being surrounded by wood encyclopedias that actually talked! I was assisting, yes, and I was soaking up as much information as I could.

The after dinner gathering was just as rewarding. Talks and discussions opened my mind to different ways of doing the same thing. And believe me, finding out a tip or trick that saves me time is a real value. Time is priceless. The WW4B took over one night and showed us some accessible devices that with a Raspberry Pie, a controller, one could use an Angle block or caliper and get audio feedback. This isn’t a produced package but this is something that these guys have cobbled together and made it work. I myself and George immediately saw the usefulness of the angle block for setting bevels and angle cuts on the compound-miter saws. We will each take one, please. Aagard Group manufactures top quality packaging automation machines used around the world, they will be helping package the work that the artisans make.

At the end of the day and at the end of the event, I was stuffed and overflowing with new information, links to check out, contacts to make and most of all, I am now part of a wood working community.

I would like to thank LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco for their vision of Enchanted Hills Camp. Learning about how they manage and care for the 311 acres of Redwoods and the preservation of the land, water and trees is encouraging as they build the infrastructure at the camp to ensure the lasting impact that Enchanted Hills will be able to deliver in the future for years to come.