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Blind Woodworkers Build With a Sense of Adventure

June 30, 1988|SYBIL BAKER | Sybil Baker is a copy editor for the Los Angeles Times

After all the measuring and cutting and gluing and sanding, there's never been a piece of wood that didn't benefit from a light chuckling.

Or so you'd think, listening to the guys standing on three sides of a large square worktable in the Braille Institute wood shop.

Bill Holman, a gray-haired and sturdy one-time CHP officer who lost most of his eyesight in 1939, lifts his voice above the sound of a table saw and power sander whining and buzzing in the background. "They call me Bill because I was born around the first of the month."

He tightens a clamp on what will be a butcher block. Lines of white glue ooze out between strips of light wood and dark wood. Then he pounds the work with a mallet to make the pieces level.

"Stop making so much noise," says Harold Shoopman. He'll be 81 on Aug. 1 and has been totally blind since he was 68. He's making a nearly completed wooden frame, which he waves in the general direction of a friendly chuckle coming from Lee Katz, across the workbench.

"Talk to this feller," he says. "He's tickled to death if anyone wants to talk to him."

Katz, short and dapper, is running his hand over a small end table he is repairing. He says he has a little sight in his left eye and travels by RTD from his home in Carson to the Braille Institute at 741 N. Vermont Ave. in the Los Feliz-Silver Lake area. "Takes me 2 1/2 hours. Now you know I'm nuts, right?"

Naturally, there is a chuckle.

For those whose sight is dimmed, all the sensory accessories of working with wood are intensified, the students say. The scent of it. The various scents of various woods. The feel of wood--to "run it through the planer and make it smooth as a baby's behind," Holman says. "This is my pleasure down here."

Wood is alive, forgiving, audibly responsive. The sound of a good cut is as unmistakable as the thunk of a home run springing off a bat.

With the smile of a new mother, Katz speaks of creating a shape, controlling it. "Makes you feel like you've accomplished something," he says. He enjoys "the joy of seeing it done and taking it home."

The two-hour woodworking class is held at the institute every morning and afternoon each weekday with a limit of seven students in each class.

"In a typical class, two or three will be total," says the instructor, Ray Lopez, meaning totally blind. Most of the students have a small amount of sight, usually the ability to distinguish light and dark. Holman, for example, is able to select the woods he uses for his butcher blocks.

Limited to 2 Classes a Week

The students are limited to no more than two classes each week. "Some of them would come every day if they could," Lopez says.

The students' comments about the class confirm that it is a treasured source of small delights.

Most of the students are retired. Blindness is "typically an older person's disease," Lopez says. But today's group is as varied as the causes of blindness.

Alfred Jordan, 25, is the youngest. He says: "I got shot in the head in a pizza place. That was when I was 19."

Merrill Woods, 42, and Luis Durini, 30, both have new careers planned out.

Woods, who has a wife and four children, was a cook when he lost his sight in an accident at the restaurant where he worked. He says, "I was total for six years; now I'm partial."

Sawdust powders his long brown fingers as he sands an oak bowl and outlines his game plan. He has been studying food services and by fall hopes to work in a cafeteria or run a snack concession at a government building.

Luis Durini's sight "is similar to tunnel vision," he says. He is an electronics major at Los Angeles City College.

Women woodworking students at Braille are scarce. Durini says with a smile, "They don't like the dust."

The classes are free and so are the basic supplies such as sandpaper and nails, but class members pay for the wood they use.

A volunteer helps out at most of the sessions. Bob Castle of Glendale, for instance, has been volunteering in the wood shop twice a week for nine years after retiring 11 years ago from the job of Montrose postmaster.

Majored in Sculpture

Instructor Lopez, 37, majored in sculpture at Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design and has taught woodworking at Braille for about nine years. The students' faces glow when they speak of him.

Sagacious and soft-spoken, light of foot in the spacious, fragrant wood shop, Lopez evokes the image of a woodsman in another sense and from another age. He moves quietly from person to person, from worktable to worktable, from machine to machine: table saw, radial arm saw, drill press, jointer, router, planer, lathe.

The mere idea of power tools is alarming to some people. The idea of the blind using power tools can affect the psyche like the shriek of a dull blade ripping warped wood.

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