No Vision Required: Dale Leavens’ Satisfying Challenges

Blind woodworker uses a variety or resources to improve his work.

“When you’re blind, your environment suddenly shrinks to about as far as you can reach,” said Ontario, Canada, resident Dale Leavens. Dale was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that caused him to lose his vision when he was a child.

A woodworker since he took his first wood shop class at a high school for the blind, Dale has created many of the furnishings and decorative items in his home. “To sighted folks, the idea of blind people working with knives, blades, and dangerous cutting machines seems quite impossible and even evokes bloody images. In some measure I understand this,” said Dale. “But as a physiotherapist, I can’t tell you how many limb and digits I have rehabilitated subsequent to severe tool injuries, and every one of them was sighted.”

Like most woodworkers, Dale derives great pleasure and satisfaction in working with wood. “It is a three-dimensional form of art that provides a creative outlet for me. It also offers the satisfaction of planning, executing, problem solving, and completing a task or project in very definite terms,” he said. Dale enjoys the challenge of working with a variety of hardwoods, such as oak, cherry, and black walnut, but maple is his favorite. “I prefer maple because it polishes up to a near glass-like surface and smells wonderful when machined.”

Largely self taught, Dale admits that being a blind woodworker has certain limitations, such as the inability to learn by observation. “One cannot watch another use a plane, a router, or a mortising tool and reasonably deduce how it is used and how the technique might be modified for a blind person. Even memory as a seeing person doesn’t necessarily have application when perceiving the process from blindness,” he explained.

Acquiring knowledge and other resources can prove quite challenging, as well. “We probe the world for information with our computers, but so much of what is written depends on images and graphics,” said Dale. “Online tools, hardware, and other products usually offer very incomplete written descriptions. Even woodworking plans tend to be incomplete unless you can see the pictures.” Finishing projects can also prove difficult for the sight-impaired. “Getting an even stain isn’t possible either if you can’t see where it is blotchy or uneven.”

Dale’s advice to other blind woodworkers is the same advice he offers everyone: “Find the people and resources you need to achieve your goals, and then pursue them wholeheartedly.”

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