Feature Mondays - Michael Blankenship in profile archive
Monday 13 June 2016
We meet Michael Blankenship, who taught himself to turn after he lost his sight
Michael Blankenship has been a woodworker all his life, but remarkably he didn't become a woodturner until he lost his sight due to a rare disease. Based in Chatham, Illinois, he uses timber from urban logs or trees that would have ended up in landfills. Each bowl he produces is unique. Here, Michael tells us how he learnt to turn and how he teaches and inspires other turners.
A self-taught woodturnerBefore losing his sight, Michael worked at a hospital as a Cardiopulmonary Technician and did flat woodwork in his garage in his spare time. "I made furniture and grandfather clocks and lots of scrollsaw pieces. I had never seen a bowl turned on a lathe", he says. About 11 years ago he developed a rare disease called AZOOR. "At that time, there were only 500 documented cases and no one ever went blind. I was the first," he explained. "The disease process started with the flu and caused a type of autoimmune disease in which the antibodies that were developed to destroy the flu started to destroy the cones and rods of my eyes. It took a year to diagnose the rare disease and then a year of unsuccessful experimental treatments before I went completely blind. I have absolutely no vision at all. Totally dark."
In the meantime, as he did not expect to lose his sight, Michael started a small sawmill business with his brother-in-law and it was here that he had his first experience of turning a bowl. "A customer – now a good friend – placed into my hands a bowl that he had turned on a lathe. I knew nothing about turning on a lathe, I had never even seen one turned when I had sight. My friend said that I should try turning a bowl. I told him I did not know how and was it not dangerous? He told me that if I went really slowly and took my time I could make a bowl. My sons had a mini lathe that was in the corner of the garage that they made pens on a few times, so I decided to venture out into the garage for the first time in three or four years and give it a try. I took a faceplate and screwed it to a glued-up piece of wood and started chunking out a bowl. I went into the house and told my wife ‘I’m a wood turner.’” Michael admits that his first attempt was not entirely successful: “It looked awful, something like a dog dish! Thick and heavy and flat on the bottom.” However, this did not put him off him and he was determined to learn more about woodturning.
After buying a lathe, he bought some tools and several videos about woodturning. “I would listen to the videos and then go into the garage and practise what I understood. My wife would come home from work and watch the video with me and take a large mixing bowl and wooden spoon and show me how she would see the turner’s hands and the position of the tool with the mixing bowl and spoon. I would go into the garage the next day and try again. So I taught myself to turn.”
Turning styleWhen he first started turning, Michael made utility-type bowls but he has now advanced to more complex work. “I’ll try anything or figure out a way to turn it blind style”, he says. “I have gone from simple to more complex, thicker to thinner, and small to large or visa versa if it is challenging.” He describes his style as “a freelance or free spirit style. The wood tells me what shape or turning it will become.” Michael relies on his sense of touch when making a piece: “Since I have never seen a turned piece or any of my bowls or pieces that I have turned, I feel the piece. Everything has a feel about the piece that brings an image to my mind that comes out in my work.”
Inspirations and influencesMichael told us that he feels inspired by the challenges of woodturning: “I love learning and attempting all types of techniques.” Woodturning clubs have had a great influence on his work. “I didn’t know that they existed. I discovered woodturners at tool shows and would pick their brains about turning. Woodturners are the nicest people and they told me about woodturning clubs. I now belong to two clubs, Lincoln Land Woodturners in Springfield, Illinois and Woodturners of St. Louis, Missouri. So many woodturners have helped me to improve my skills, have given me ideas and have made me a better turner. I want to thank all of them.”
Workshop and toolsMichael’s workshop is in his garage. He has a Powermatic and Jet lathe, a tablesaw, planer, bandsaw, joiner, chainsaw, mitre saw and all the equipment that a woodworker needs. “I use these tools all by myself in the dark. Everything is arranged in a specific place and is not moved so that I can find what I need. I know exactly where everything is in the garage.”
His essential tools are the lathe, 12mm bowl gauge, 12mm scraper, grinder and sandpaper. “I always tell my wife that I don’t want any more tools, I need them!” he says. He spends roughly six to eight hours a day in his workshop, he turns for a few hours, then spends time cleaning, sanding and finishing. As a blind turner, it takes him a little longer to make an item. A typical simple bowl takes him between one and one-and-a-half hours to complete. To aid in his turning, Michael has modified an adjustable circle hole cutter to enable him to turn any size of tendon easily. To do this, Michael took the drill bit out of the centre and discarded it. He then turned the cutter around 180° in its holder. Instead of cutting a hole, it now cuts a straight tendon or spigot the chosen size every time. If you need a dovetail, a pass with a slew with create it. This device is mounted into a jacob’s chuck in the tail stock – hang onto it – and advance it slowly.
“I do all my own sharpening and grinding,” Michael tells us. “I use the wolverine system with the vary grind for all my fluted tools.” Michael has made three different 1/4in plywood jigs that mount on the wolverine grinding table secured with wing nuts. He continures: “They slip into the same position every time ensuring the same angle every time for my scrapers.” This method makes it quick and simple for Michael to make repeat angles for his square end and angled scrapers, adding: “CBN wheels are a plus.”
Highs and lows of turningMichael told us that his lowest moment in turning was a painful one: “I smashed my finger and could not turn for a month. I turn almost every day so that month was torture.” Aside from that, he has experienced many highs, including all the demos he has done for his clubs and at the Colorado and Utah symposiums. Becoming a woodturner has meant a lot to Michael: “It saved my life. It gave me a purpose and a sense of accomplishment, a sense of succeeding and lots of really good friends.”
Self-promotionThese demos also give Michael a chance to promote his work. His pieces are also featured in three galleries in the US, The Studio on 6th in Springfield, Illinois, Turned Treasures in Belleville, Illinois and The Vault in Tuscola, Illinois. Michael also has a website, www.turningblind.com
Aims for the futureIn the future, Michael wants to do more demos for clubs and at symposiums. Michael has, in fact, just been accepted to the 2016 AAW symposium in Atlanta, Georgia. He has also been invited to demonstrate in the Australian symposium in 2018 and is demonstrating in Vancouver, Canada and Seattle, Washington in 2016, and in 2017 at the Oregon symposium. Clearly Micheal has a busy few years coming up! “I love doing demos especially since it encourages clubs and other turners to help people with disabilities,” he says. “My demos also encourage those with disabilities such as vision loss to not give up their love of woodturning. I show that there are other ways to achieve the same goal – turning.” As well as this, Michael’s plans also include mastering new turning skills. “I see myself continually trying new techniques in woodturning. I recently started segmented turning and that has given me a new challenge that I can attempt to conquer.” We look forward to seeing the results!
LIKES AND DISLIKESLikes
1. It’s a very fulfilling hobby
2. I can make quality gifts for charities and family and friends
3. Woodturning meetings and symposiums – I love to learn
4. Meeting people – woodturners are some of the nicest people
5. Demos and teaching
4. Broken tools
5. Cold weather
6. Not enough time in a day to go to all the symposiums
HANDY HINTS1. I use all my safety equipment and I tape my fingers with masking tape so I can touch the bowl frequently and not burn my fingers
2. Don’t be afraid to try something new
3. Don’t be afraid of scrapers and sandpaper
4. Go to as many demos as you can and join a club. I always learn something and so can you
CONTACT DETAILS:Contact: Michael Blankenship