Thursday, March 11, 2010

Blind guy with power tools

It was my sister who asked me once: "What part of 'gay', 'blind' and 'jewish' makes you think you should own and operate power tools?"

Although the gay and jewish part are just stereotypes, which I refuse to dignify with an answer, the blind part does make life interesting while working on 62nd Street. As my vision has deteriorated, I have had to re-learn how to use the tools that Tom and I have had since we moved into the Wool Street house back in 1983.

Some tools are relatively easy. A drill, for example, is pretty simple for someone who can't see well. Once you line up the bit with the spot where you want to drill, you don't really need to be able to see to make a hole.

Nails and screws are harder. When I use a drill to put in screws, I do a lot of it by feel: I can tell when the bit seats in the phillips screw head, so then it's just like drilling. (Standard screws are a lot harder.) When driving nails, I often miss the nail, but I've gotten pretty good at figuring out where the nail is, and then whacking it repeatedly. One trick you learn with vision like mine is how to hold the hail when you hammer it: you don't hold it between your thumb and forefinger. Instead, you hold the nail between your index and middle finger, and you put the back of your hand against the wood - so if you miss the nail, you hit the soft part of your finger (not nearly as painful, and you don't end up with black marks on your nails).
The nail gun is also pretty usable by someone with low vision. Again, it's just point and shoot - I don't have to get that close to it. When using the finish nailer, it requires more care, but even that I've been able to do without shooting a nail through a body part.
Some tools I have pretty much abandoned. For example, the circular saw. In order to use it, I have to be able to see the line that I'm cutting - this means I would have my nose within inches of a rapidly spinning blade with no guard. So when trimming doors down or cutting plywood, I let Tom make the cuts, while I hold the work.

Other tools we have replaced. We bought a good chop saw that has a laser line in it. I can put the wood into the saw, and see with the laser exactly where the blade will cut. Once I have it lined up, I can sit back, and just cut the wood smoothly.

I still use our table saw - something which scares anyone who watches - but using the guide really doesn't require me to see it all that well.
I wonder about how much longer I'll be able to do some of the work I do. Last weekend's soldering incident kind of brought me up short. I have a pretty severe second or third-degree burn on my right ring finger. On Tuesday, while walking to work, my cane caught in a crack in the sidewalk, and I managed to rip the blister off the finger in one fell swoop (or rather, one round of loud swearing). So I'm feeling a little gun shy around solder - maybe I really can't do it that much any more. The water pipes of the Delaney House are pretty much done, but the Cheney Cottage will need all new plumbing too. Andus has suggested using Pex, but I'm a traditionalist, and don't want to use plastic pipe for potable water. So I'm going to have to figure out some new strategies for sweating pipe.

Somewhat battered, but all 10 are still there
Wiring is something that I can pretty much do with limited vision. The hardest part is nailing the romex clips down - each one has two tiny little nails that, if you don't hit them spot on, tend to bend over. But the wiring itself is pretty easy, except for getting the neutral and ground wires hooked up at the breaker panel. But so far, allt he wiring works, and I haven't electrocuted myself.

Painting requires some close work too, but since we use low VOC paint, and there's no power tool around, I'm pretty safe with that. And window work is the same: I can cut glass, put in glazier's points, and glaze the window without using any power tool, so I can get as close as I need. In fact, most tools that aren't power tools are still pretty usable. I have a large print tape measure that helps me make measurements - but again, for important measurements, I let Tom do them.

So for now, the work goes on. I'm not sure when I'll know to give some of this up - maybe when I look at my hands and can only count to 8 or 9.


  1. I saw a tip the other day -- use packing peanuts to hold nails and self-threading screws.

  2. I'll give it a try. It would be nice to come up with some goo duse for those things.

  3. I think I'll be joining you soon, Dmitri. I need to get a white cane. I'm peering into the computer screen so much that, when I looked at that picture of your hands, I saw twenty fingers!

  4. Actually it was the caption below - I read '20'...

  5. Day (year) late, but there are ways to use most of the power tools without vision, including the circular saw.

    When cutting with the circular saw, you need to clamp a guide fence in place so you’re effectively using it like you would a table saw, just upside-down and the blade moving instead of the wood.

    Without vision, you mark your lines with an awl instead of a pencil. And blue painters tape becomes your friend all around, if it hadn’t already! Talking tape measures and a clever little gadget called a click rule replace the more traditional measuring tools.

    A laser line is still handy, if you can use it, but if you can’t a second power control near (but not on) chop/miter/similar saws can help a lot. You can kill the power to the tool so that you can safely expose the blade and take direct measurements off of it using the click rule or talking tape measure.

    Soldering pipes and the like can be done using non-visual techniques as well, but this takes practice, and it’s not something I’ve personally done, so I can’t offer a whole lot of advice. I wound up reading this posting while looking for suggestions of how a blind person can do the much finer soldering work needed for electronics. I am sure it can be done as well, but it might require a reflow oven or some technique I cannot come up with on my own.

    Soldering notwithstanding, I’ve used all of the tools I mention above and others while blindfolded. Yes, really! I was at a training center for the blind, and I still have a fair amount of vision. It’s actually safer for someone with eyes like mine to NOT use their eyes around the tools! Too much temptation to get close enough to see what you’re doing, and that could be extremely dangerous!

  6. Hello Dmitri,

    I a junior-year product design student. I am currently working on a design project on power drills for the visually handicapped. Would it be possible if I could get in contact with you so I can ask you more questions?