Our Readers Want to Know: Can I Continue Woodworking with Vision Loss?

Editor’s note: One of the many benefits associated with an online information center and website, such as VisionAware, is the ability to track readers’ search terms [i.e., information readers are seeking as they search the Internet]. The following questions about home repair and workshop safety with low vision or blindness consistently appear in VisionAware’s information queries:

  • Do I have to give up woodworking now that I’m blind?
  • I have low vision. How can I make simple repairs around the house?

An Answer from Blind Woodworker Gil Johnson

This week, during Workplace Eye Health and Safety Awareness Month, our answer comes from Gil Johnson. Gil is the author of Gil’s Guide to Home Repairs and Gil’s Guide to Woodworking on the VisionAware website.

First, Some Woodworking Safety Tips

Gil Johnson in his workshop

If you’re experienced in this area, you know that safety is the most important consideration when using any type of tool or power tool. Even if you’ve had many years of experience with power tools and home repairs, I recommend you use a safety checklist that includes the following:

  • Regardless of your visual status (blind, visually impaired, or low vision), always wear impact-resistant safety glasses that completely enclose your eye area and are shielded along the sides and top edge of the lenses. They can be worn like glasses, or can fit over your own eyeglasses. Many types of safety glasses can also be obtained with prescription lenses.
  • When using power tools, you will also need ear protection, such as foam ear plugs or headphone-style ear muffs.
  • If you have low vision, make sure that the lighting in your work area provides sufficient illumination. You can read more about lighting at the VisionAware Home Repairs Safety and Preparation Checklist. A lamp with an adjustable flex-arm or gooseneck is usually a good choice because you can adjust the direction of the light as needed. A flexible-arm floor lamp on wheels allows you to move the light with you as you move around your work area.
  • To help with locating and using your tools and controls, you can mark the tool handles and the most commonly-used settings with any of the methods and materials in Organizing Your Workshop Area.
  • Clamps can help secure pieces that you are gluing, cutting, or drilling.
  • Keep track of the location of your power cord before and during the time you are cutting or drilling. One solution is to use your power tool with an extension cord, keeping the cord over your shoulder and behind you. Also, the thickness of an extension cord should be equal to, or greater than, the cord on the power tool. Otherwise, the extension cord can overheat and cause a fire or severe burns.
  • Become familiar with the controls and make sure you are able to turn your power tool “on” and “off” immediately, prior to plugging it in and using it.

Measuring Tips and Techniques

One of the challenges facing people with reduced vision is taking accurate measurements. For people with some vision or no vision at all, this can seem like a real barrier. However, there are several ways to take good measurements if you have difficulty seeing the markings on a ruler or tape measure.

Estimating Measurements without Using a Ruler

  • One inch is approximately the distance from the first knuckle to the fingertip.
  • Four inches is approximately the width of the hand along the base of the fingers.
  • Eighteen inches is approximately the distance from the elbow to the fingertips, with the arm outstretched.

One- and Three-Foot Rulers and Retractable Tape Measures

  • Most hardware stores or home supply centers have one-foot rulers or three-foot yardsticks. Sometimes they are free or are quite inexpensive. These may have large enough markings so that you may be able to read them if you have low vision.
  • If you can’t read the numbers, ask a friend or family member to make a notch along one edge at one-inch increments and on the other edge in half-inch increments. This can enable you to use your fingernail to count the notches and get a reasonably accurate measurement.
  • You can use a piece of string to measure available space. Tie a knot in the string at the length you want to measure and lay the string along a ruler or tape measure to determine the length.
  • Make a dark pencil mark or use a push pin on a one-foot ruler or yardstick to indicate the available space.
  • If you have some remaining vision, you may be able to read the markings in better lighting, or you can ask a family member or friend to read the measurement for you.
  • Most retractable tape measures have a built-in lock. You can lock the tape at the measurement you want and read it in better lighting or ask a family member or friend to read the measurement to you.

Specialized Measuring Tools

Several types of measuring devices have been adapted or designed for use by persons with low vision or no vision. Most are easy to use and allow for fairly accurate measurements.

Rulers and Yardsticks

  • One-foot rulers and three-foot yardsticks with pre-made tactile markings at 1/4, 1/2, and 1 inch
  • One-foot rulers with large print and/or braille markings
A person's hands holding a one-foot ruler with tactile and braille markings against a board

A one-foot ruler with tactile and braille markings

Talking Tape Measure

  • The Talking Tape Measure is a 16-foot retractable tape measure that has been modified to give a measurement reading in synthetic speech.
  • Speech is available in the following languages: English, French, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, and Swedish.
  • The Talking Tape Measure is available from Cobalt Systems Limited.

You can find resources for adapted measuring tools in the Assistive Products category in the VisionAware Directory of Services.

Additional Woodworking and Home Repair Information