After our Woodcraft Magazine blog on the Wheelchair Woodworking Shop, we were contacted by Carl Smith, a disabled woodworker who uploaded his handmade workbench photo to our Woodcraft Facebook page. The bench has a built-in grate area to catch the shavings from his Jet lathe with bed extension. After some commentary back and forth, and a phone call or two, we were fortunate to learn about Carl and his story.
Carl was an auto mechanic working on his true passion, hot rods. He also worked at Staples Distribution Center as a material handler and fork lift operator. On the side, he was very active with home remodeling and building cabinetry.
In February of 2000, Carl was injured when he fell on the ice which left him facing surgery to repair his spinal column which collapsed around the spinal cord, leaving him to be an invalid for over a year. This injury was only 1/2cm difference less than that of Christopher Reeve. After cervical spinal plates and screws were applied to his C2, C3 and C4 vertebrae in surgery, Carl went through 5 years of rehabilitation, re-learning to do things all over again. Although he has 100% mobility from his neck up, he currently has only 75% use from his neck down, working every day to become stronger. Carl stated, “My limitations are like wearing oven mitts all the time, or like a kid in a candy store that cannot touch anything because of a plate of glass in front of him.” Carl suffers from pain, stiffness, and lack of ability to completely feel while trying to grip things, often dropping items or inadvertently having items release from his hands.
During his rehab, Carl obtained a Rottweiler Service Dog, from a friend in 2003. Drago, an older “pass-around” dog was already set in his ways, a non-retriever type, but was good for Carl’s depressive mind set. Drago would help him to be stable when getting up from sitting or laying, and staying at his side as his best friend. Carl owned the dog for 5 years before Drago passed on from kidney failure.
One month after Drago’s passing, while out doing household shopping, Carl would watch for bulletin board ads at pet stores for another pup to train into a service dog. He came across a 14 week old Saint Bernard in one ad, but the cost was more than he could afford. At this point Carl was intrigued because of the photo and by the Saint Bernard breed as they are not usually bred or trained for this type of duty. By chance at another store that very same day, Carl lucked out with a family that had posted the same breed of dog but had no time for the 14 week old Saint Bernard pup, and the price was perfect for Carl’s disability budget.
On the way home, the pup stuck his head out of the car window when he heard a bunch of Harley Motorcycles passing by, thus endearing him to the name of Harlee.
About now you’re asking, what’s all this got to do with woodworking. Well I told you the above story, so I could tell you this story. Harlee is no ordinary service dog, but a Mobility Service Dog. Carl said, “Having the type of disability I have is awkward, painful and very tiring. I have total nerve damage and only true feeling in 20% of my body. Over time I have learned to grasp things but with the censory and motor nerves in my hands damaged, it gets awkward. I grip things really hard. I have my shop table built so Ido not have to bend over very low, and rubber work matts on areas that I work. My service dog Harlee, is a big help, he’s always there to pick up anything I drop. If he can get it in his mouth he picks it up. I won’t let him pick up sharp objects I use a magnet or my pickup tool for that. If I do have to get down on my knees, he is there to help me get on my feet.”
He helps Carl get in and out of his bed, chair, car, and stabilizes him when he needs to get up from a kneeling position or walking up and down stairs to his woodshop.
The Chambersburg, PA on-line newspaper in Carl’s area, The Public OpinionOnline.com interviewed Carl and created a video that has been archived since the January 2012 posting of this blog. We have added their online article they picked up on from this blog in PDF format: Public Opinion Article.
Carl added, “Working in a woodshop with disabilities is very dangerous. Depending on your disability, it is more dangerous than a person who is not disabled. It makes you think differently and be more creative on how to achieve certain tasks. Especially when it comes to saws and jointers. I have a jointer, but because of my unsteadiness it scares the crap out of me. I try not to use it as much, so my Delta planer gets used a lot more.”
“The table saw, I’m ok with but cautious, and the bandsaw, I’m getting better with it. I have all kinds of push sticks and use clamps in many ways to cut wood. A disabled person like myself and others probably have more jigs on their shelves then able body woodworkers because of the difficult level in doing cutting and drilling tasks. I wear out those mechanics gloves because of the issues with my hands, (not being able to grip properly). A pair may last me 3 months if I’m lucky! With my particular disability my pain level also makes it difficult to be in the shop. It gets as bad as the feeling of jamming your toe in the corner of a dresser, imagine that pain from your shoulders to your toes. It never goes away no matter what pain relievers the doctors prescribe. But I would rather be in my woodshop making something; sanding, measuring, cutting, building, turning, or just tinkering, than to be sitting in a bar drinking, thinking about poor me!”
Harlee wears a special vest with a built-in handle to assist Carl when his spine locks up to get mobile again. Carl trained him from a pup in a non-treat dependent way using the Susquehanna Service Dog Program to learn how to retrieve small things at first. Then graduating to larger things as Harlee grew. Carl not only trained him on what to pick up, but what not to pick up, as in no sharp items or edges allowed.
Now full grown at 4 years old this August 2012, weighing in at 125 lbs, Harlee is quite the woodworking dog in his own right, enabling Carl to do his woodworking.
Harlee picks up and brings woodworking items inspiring Carl every day to have fun in the woodshop.
…and by the way Carl, it’s hammerin’ time!
All Harlee requires in reward is some scratching behind the ears!
Well, maybe some self-indulged peanut butter too!
What does Harlee enable Carl to accomplish in the shop? Well first, his injuries never stopped him from acquiring tools to do the job! His first project after the rehab was a blanket chest which took him 8 months to build as he slowly started to heal.
Followed by a sewing center, Carl built a matching desk for his girl friend. Carl stated, “In regards to the sewing center, the base cabinet is a 64″ vanity cabinet, with the matching medicine cabinet above. I used that as a baseline for the entire unit. I built the desk to match the center for her, using the same 3/4″ melamine materials.”
“For the peninsula table below, I had to special make it to be the same height as the first unit, extending the legs 6″. It’s top is glossy because it has a 1/4″ Plexiglas sheet on it, so she can do her scrap-booking and other crafts! It has it’s own power source with all the electrical tied into a 15 amp junction box with one central 12ft, 12 gauge power cord. Since we moved to a new house, I had to make adjustments to the unit with the addition of another 18w x 15d x 84h cabinet. The entire unit comes apart in sections so it can be easily moved. The entire unit end to end is 24″ dp. x 20ft. in total length. The desk is 24″ dp. x 6ft. in length x 6ft. in height with its own power hookup. The table is 24″ x4′! She still does not have enough room for all her craft items!”
Additional surgeries followed, and building furniture is more difficult, but Carl never gave up woodworking. During the summer of 2011, he hit the woodshop hard with a determination, entering the world of woodturning. The items below are made from Carl’s favorite wood, cedar!
These lighter vertical grained turnings below are from a 4 X 4 premium grade poplar post.
Carl’s hope is to continue turning, and perhaps make a side income from his new found abilities and craftsmanship. The bowl and candle holder below is made from apple wood. You can view all of his woodworking photos on Carl’s Facebook Photo Gallery.
Carl learned woodworking all on his own, reading books and magazines, but especially loves the “how-to” articles and videos from Woodcraft. His favorite tool from Woodcraft is the Wolverine Grinding Jig, stating, “it was the best purchase he has ever made.” Carl mentioned, “He does more drooling than his Saint Bernard when it comes to woodworking”, hoping and dreaming of new tools to purchase and new projects to turn and build with his limited disability budget. Carl does not consider himself a professional woodworker or artist, just a guy that has found something that helps him maintain a positive attitude with everything that has happened over the last 12 years. In his words, “My brain is not dead, but my body is broken, my hands are crippled, but my heart and my desire to be creative is still strong!”
So take a lesson from Carl, never let your world be without inspiration, turn something, build something, and let your light shine!
As a closing note, Carl asked us to post the following:
Even though Harlee is a very mild mannered and loving service dog, and would never hurt anyone…
…”Whenever you see a service dog, no matter what breed, always stop at a distance and ask to pet him first before reaching out to touch him! Please do not walk up on the dog, call, whistle, or startle him. You can cause the handler serious additional injury through falling or losing balance by distracting the service dog. Please be respectful, thank you!”
Here’s hoping all your woodworking days are as happy as Carl’s……Frank!