Cover of American Woodworker Magazine april/May 2014

Cover of American Woodworker Magazine april/May 2014

George Wurtzel

A Great American Woodworker-- An Artisan’s Life Story

 

Blind, but visionary.

by Spike Carlsen

 

Photo of George in tan baseball cap, denim shirt and bib overalls, complete with mustache and beard--in the photo George is applying spring clamps to the edging of the small sailboat discussed in the sidebar at the end of the article.

 

Sixty-Something Year Old George Wurtzel has turned porch posts for mansions, built furniture for R&B stars and crafted hundreds of kitchen cabinets. He's run a cabinetmaking and countertop fabrication shop, worked as a Volkswagen repairman and taught industrial arts. He's attended design fairs in Milan Italy and skied 500 miles across Finland. An impressive resume--made even more impressive by the fact that George is blind. "That I'm blind is no more challenging to me than a lefty trying to use right-handed scissors," he explains. "You just need to use different scissors."

 

Poor vision; great passion

 

"You've got to follow your passion in life regardless of the obstacles in your way," George says. "Never allow someone who doesn't have to pay the consequences dictate the consequences of your life."

George started life with poor vision and it deteriorated from there. But that never kept him from working with his hands. His grandfather, a carpenter and cabinetmaker, introduced George to woodworking. His father, an excavator, introduced him to mechanics. "Most kids had swingsets in their backyards. We have backhoes, cranes and a thousand acres to play on." But his mother, who grew up on a farm and was extremely creative, was the one who taught George that he could make anything. "On a farm you grow up learning to do stuff--and she knew how to do stuff. It rubbed off on me."

George primarily attended schools for the blind, where he learned to read braille and navigate a world designed by and for sighted people. While attending one such high school--one that offered metalworking, woodworking and auto mechanic classes--George realized he was gifted with his hands. "Some people pooh-pooh schools for the blind, but I feel like I'm a better person for it," he reflects, "because there was no one to tell me I couldn't do something because I couldn't see."

After deciding to become a mechanic, George worked in Volkswagen and bicycle repair shops. But he didn't like getting greasy, so he turned to woodworking. "Being the stubborn cuss I am, I just started building stuff," he explains. "I built a few pieces of lawn furniture and put them oputside. Within a month I got an order for a hundred chairs. I put a radial arm saw and a jointer on my brother's charge card and I was in business."

Business boomed for nine years. George's shop expanded

to 5000 square feet and eight employees. During this time,

he built a piano-shaped coffee table. A one-third scale model

of a Steinway & Sons Model D concert grand, it was presented

to Stevie Wonder—George’s former classmate—as an outstanding

achievement award. 

 

Photo of piano shaped coffee table as outstanding achievement award made for Stevie Wonder.

 

But when interest rates soared and the economy crumbled

in 1982, so did George’s fortunes. He lost his shop,

house and livelihood before deciding to relocate from

Michigan to North Carolina. “You know you’re not doing

so well when you can move everything you own on a Greyhound

bus,” he recalls.

George applied for and was accepted into the Catawba

Valley Community College Furniture Production Management

program. The entry process was not without incident. “I

walked into the admissions office with my white cane and the

first thing the guy said was ‘We have a problem.’ I said, ‘Who’s

we?’ He said ‘You’re blind.’ I replied, ‘I noticed when we shook

hands that you were missing two fingers.’ He explained he’d

lost them in a woodworking accident. I told him that all I was

looking for was the same opportunity to cut off my fingers

that he’d had—and I got in!”

While finishing his course work, George was hired to set

up a cabinet-manufacturing shop. He designed the space,

bought and set up all the machinery, and wound up managing

the facility, which produced up to eight kitchens per week.

A few years later he went back into business on his own,

naming his new company “SellAmerica.” “I wasn’t sure what

I was going to make,” he recalls. “I figured a name like that

would allow me to sell anything,” . George designed a triangular

display box for veteran interment flags and established

accounts with 2500 funeral homes and the armed forces.

He eventually sold the company and spent the proceeds on

“drugs, sex and rock and roll—and the rest foolishly.” For a

while he dabbled in raising horses, worked in a bakery and

ran a camp for blind kids.

In 2009, George moved to Minneapolis to work as an

industrial arts teacher for an organization called Blindness

Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND). He enjoyed working

with students facing the same challenges he had faced. “But

you know,” he explains, “when you work by yourself for a

long time, you like to do things your own way.” In 2011, he

again dove headlong back into the furniture-building business,

this time concentrating on a line of puzzle furniture.

 

Designing without erasers

 

George’s puzzle furniture is based on the interlocking wood

puzzles his grandfather made for him when he was a child.

The furniture has a Craftsman-style look and feel . 

 

Photo of standup computer desk:

Caption reads: Computer Desk (2013); White Oak, 48" x 30" x 18"

 

 

 

 

Designed for people living an “urban, nomadic lifestyle,”

according to George, it can be easily assembled, disassembled

and moved. Each piece is held together with a single

fastener—a hidden thumbscrew. George has applied the basic

design to create coffee, end and dining tables, as well as bookshelves

and a laptop desk that adjusts for standing or sitting.

The joinery is complex and precise. As with all of his

pieces, George designed everything in his head. “Good

design can be felt, not just seen,” he explains. When asked

about the challenges of designing cerebrally rather than on

paper, George says, “Creativity doesn’t come out of your

eyeballs; it comes out of your head. Some people are blessed

with the ability to sing, some with playing baseball. I’ve been

blessed with the ability to see everything in my mind’s eye.

When I’m designing something I can look at it from every

angle by rotating it, using my brain’s built-in computer

mouse.” George maintains most people design with a pencil

because there’s an eraser on one end. “My eraser is the scrap

bin,” he jokes.

 

Working in darkness

 

George’s shop looks like any other woodworking shop. It

sports a drill press, miter saw, bandsaw, half a dozen routers

and stacks of wood. A huge lathe—large enough to turn

porch posts—occupies one corner. As George lives in an older

part of Minneapolis, he’s recently found a niche reproducing

architectural millwork 

 

Photo of large house column sitting atop a newly turned based--looks to be about 16 to 18 inches in diameter.

Caption reads: Reproducing architectural millwork is one of George's specialties.

 

 

 

 Heturns delicate vases and sculptural bowls on the same lathe

 

 

Photo pf turned bowl with partial live edge.

Caption: Turned Vessel (2013); black ash burl 6" x 11 1/2" x 10 1/2".

 

 

A massive Felder multi-machine that incorporates a

shaper, jointer, planer and rolling-table saw occupies the

center of George’s shop (see photo, page 24, bottom left).

One tool that might look foreign to most woodworkers is

the small “click ruler” that George keeps in his back pocket.

 

Photo of Click Rule and Rotomatic

 

 

The heart of this ruler is a 12" long 16tpi threaded rod

with one side flattened and scribed in 1/2" increments.

This rod slides inside a tube that has a stop at one end and a

spring-loaded ball bearing located precisely 6" away. Each

time the ball bearing engages the next thread, it clicks—

indicating a 1/16" change in dimension.

By engaging the stop and adding together the 6" fixed

dimension, the number of exposed 1/2" scribe marks and

the audible clicks, this ruler measures up to 12" in 1/16"

increments.

To measure in 1/64" increments, George uses a “roto”

ruler that’s also based on 16tpi threaded rod. This ruler

simply has an adjustable nut with a square head. Each

quarter turn of the nut measures 1/64". Screwing on additional

threaded rods extends the capacity of both rulers in

12" increments.

George uses a scribe for marking, rather than a pencil,

so he can feel the lines. Two other tools he’s fond of are the

audio-output tape measure he uses for rough measurements

and the push-button remote that allows him to control his

dust-collection system from any place in the shop.

George doesn’t use a blade guard on his tablesaw.

Because he works primarily by feel, he says, the guard continuously

gets in the way. Yet, after 40 years of woodworking

he still has 9-7/8ths of his fingers; he nipped one while doing

a repetitive task at the end of a day. We’ve all been there.

As a person who “sees” with his fingertips, George

doesn’t understand people who focus on how a piece of furniture

looks and ignore how it feels. When it comes to sanding

and finishing, he’s a perfectionist. “Don’t be in a hurry,”

he explains, and then adds—with a twinkle in his eye, “If it’s

worth the effort to build it, it’s worth the effort to sand it.”

Some people feel a piece of furniture or wood art should

stand aesthetically on its own; others feel a greater appreciation

can be gained by understanding the era in which it

was created or knowing who created it. George’s furniture

and turnings surely stand on their own, but knowing the

man—and his story—makes them even more special. And

yes, George’s eyes do twinkle.

 

Sidebar

 

Photo of George with a Small Sailboat Under Construction

 

A Special Project

 

Maire died at the age of 24—but not before she and

George met face-to-face to discuss an idea—building a

sailboat that would allow her to complete the journey

in the afterlife. This vessel would carry Maire’s ashes

to the sea, following the route described in the book.

Based on her wishes, George crafted a prototype and

tested its seaworthiness using bags of sugar as surrogate

ashes. Then he built Maire’s boat.

This summer, Maire’s boat will be launched from

Northern Michigan with the goal of making its way

through the Great Lakes “to the sea.” This message

from Maire will be painted on it: “My name is Maire

Kent. I died of sarcoma cancer. I’m making my way to

the ocean. If you find me, please set me back on my

path. I will bless you from heaven.”

Keith and his Emmy-winning production company

Visionalist Entertainment Productions will film

the voyage, documenting how people react to Maire’s

custom-built vessel and the journey she’s on.

“We’re not sure when the boat will reach the ocean,”

George explains. “But we know two things: First, we

want it to travel down the Detroit River during the

fireworks celebration on the Fourth of July. Second, it’s

definitely not sturdy enough to go over Niagara Falls.”

For more information about “Maire’s Journey,” visit

v-prod.com.

 

To see more of George’s work, visit gmwurtzel.com.

 

Spike Carlsen’s newest book, The Backyard

Homestead Book of Building Projects (Storey)

will be available spring of 2014. For more information,

visit facebook.com/spikecarlsenbooks.

 

Larry Martin

woodworkingfortheblind@comcast.net

 



 

 

 

Here is a wonderful article about fellow-member George Wurtzel that will appear shortly in American Woodworker Magazine.

The attachment is the PDF of the article and I've included the  test below.



George Wurtzel
A Great American Woodworker-- An Artisan’s Life Story

Blind, but visionary.
by Spike Carlsen

Photo of George in tan baseball cap, denim shirt and bib overalls, complete with mustache and beard--in the photo George is applying spring clamps to the edging of the small sailboat discussed in the sidebar at the end of the article.



Sixty-Something Year Old George Wurtzel has turned porch posts for mansions, built furniture for R&B stars and crafted hundreds of kitchen cabinets. He's run a cabinetmaking and countertop fabrication shop, worked as a Volkswagen repairman and taught industrial arts. He's attended design fairs in Milan Italy and skied 500 miles across Finland. An impressive resume--made even more impressive by the fact that George is blind. "That I'm blind is no more challenging to me than a lefty trying to use right-handed scissors," he explains. "You just need to use different scissors."

Poor vision; great passion

"You've got to follow your passion in life regardless of the obstacles in your way," George says. "Never allow someone who doesn't have to pay the consequences dictate the consequences of your life."
George started life with poor vision and it deteriorated from there. But that never kept him from working with his hands. His grandfather, a carpenter and cabinetmaker, introduced George to woodworking. His father, an excavator, introduced him to mechanics. "Most kids had swingsets in their backyards. We have backhoes, cranes and a thousand acres to play on." But his mother, who grew up on a farm and was extremely creative, was the one who taught George that he could make anything. "On a farm you grow up learning to do stuff--and she knew how to do stuff. It rubbed off on me."
George primarily attended schools for the blind, where he learned to read braille and navigate a world designed by and for sighted people. While attending one such high school--one that offered metalworking, woodworking and auto mechanic classes--George realized he was gifted with his hands. "Some people pooh-pooh schools for the blind, but I feel like I'm a better person for it," he reflects, "because there was no one to tell me I couldn't do something because I couldn't see."
After deciding to become a mechanic, George worked in Volkswagen and bicycle repair shops. But he didn't like getting greasy, so he turned to woodworking. "Being the stubborn cuss I am, I just started building stuff," he explains. "I built a few pieces of lawn furniture and put them oputside. Within a month I got an order for a hundred chairs. I put a radial arm saw and a jointer on my brother's charge card and I was in business."
Business boomed for nine years. George's shop expanded
to 5000 square feet and eight employees. During this time,
he built a piano-shaped coffee table. A one-third scale model
of a Steinway & Sons Model D concert grand, it was presented
to Stevie Wonder—George’s former classmate—as an outstanding
achievement award. 

Photo of piano shaped coffee table as outstanding achievement award made for Stevie Wonder.



But when interest rates soared and the economy crumbled
in 1982, so did George’s fortunes. He lost his shop,
house and livelihood before deciding to relocate from
Michigan to North Carolina. “You know you’re not doing
so well when you can move everything you own on a Greyhound
bus,” he recalls.
George applied for and was accepted into the Catawba
Valley Community College Furniture Production Management
program. The entry process was not without incident. “I
walked into the admissions office with my white cane and the
first thing the guy said was ‘We have a problem.’ I said, ‘Who’s
we?’ He said ‘You’re blind.’ I replied, ‘I noticed when we shook
hands that you were missing two fingers.’ He explained he’d
lost them in a woodworking accident. I told him that all I was
looking for was the same opportunity to cut off my fingers
that he’d had—and I got in!”
While finishing his course work, George was hired to set
up a cabinet-manufacturing shop. He designed the space,
bought and set up all the machinery, and wound up managing
the facility, which produced up to eight kitchens per week.
A few years later he went back into business on his own,
naming his new company “SellAmerica.” “I wasn’t sure what
I was going to make,” he recalls. “I figured a name like that
would allow me to sell anything,” . George designed a triangular
display box for veteran interment flags and established
accounts with 2500 funeral homes and the armed forces.
He eventually sold the company and spent the proceeds on
“drugs, sex and rock and roll—and the rest foolishly.” For a
while he dabbled in raising horses, worked in a bakery and
ran a camp for blind kids.
In 2009, George moved to Minneapolis to work as an
industrial arts teacher for an organization called Blindness
Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND). He enjoyed working
with students facing the same challenges he had faced. “But
you know,” he explains, “when you work by yourself for a
long time, you like to do things your own way.” In 2011, he
again dove headlong back into the furniture-building business,
this time concentrating on a line of puzzle furniture.

Designing without erasers

George’s puzzle furniture is based on the interlocking wood
puzzles his grandfather made for him when he was a child.
The furniture has a Craftsman-style look and feel . 

Photo of standup computer desk:
Caption reads: Computer Desk (2013); White Oak, 48" x 30" x 18"



Designed for people living an “urban, nomadic lifestyle,”
according to George, it can be easily assembled, disassembled
and moved. Each piece is held together with a single
fastener—a hidden thumbscrew. George has applied the basic
design to create coffee, end and dining tables, as well as bookshelves
and a laptop desk that adjusts for standing or sitting.
The joinery is complex and precise. As with all of his
pieces, George designed everything in his head. “Good
design can be felt, not just seen,” he explains. When asked
about the challenges of designing cerebrally rather than on
paper, George says, “Creativity doesn’t come out of your
eyeballs; it comes out of your head. Some people are blessed
with the ability to sing, some with playing baseball. I’ve been
blessed with the ability to see everything in my mind’s eye.
When I’m designing something I can look at it from every
angle by rotating it, using my brain’s built-in computer
mouse.” George maintains most people design with a pencil
because there’s an eraser on one end. “My eraser is the scrap
bin,” he jokes.

Working in darkness

George’s shop looks like any other woodworking shop. It
sports a drill press, miter saw, bandsaw, half a dozen routers
and stacks of wood. A huge lathe—large enough to turn
porch posts—occupies one corner. As George lives in an older
part of Minneapolis, he’s recently found a niche reproducing
architectural millwork 

Photo of large house column sitting atop a newly turned based--looks to be about 16 to 18 inches in diameter.
Caption reads: Reproducing architectural millwork is one of George's specialties.


 Heturns delicate vases and sculptural bowls on the same lathe


Photo pf turned bowl with partial live edge.
Caption: Turned Vessel (2013); black ash burl 6" x 11 1/2" x 10 1/2".

A massive Felder multi-machine that incorporates a
shaper, jointer, planer and rolling-table saw occupies the
center of George’s shop (see photo, page 24, bottom left).
One tool that might look foreign to most woodworkers is
the small “click ruler” that George keeps in his back pocket.

Photo of Click Rule and Rotomatic

The heart of this ruler is a 12" long 16tpi threaded rod
with one side flattened and scribed in 1/2" increments.
This rod slides inside a tube that has a stop at one end and a
spring-loaded ball bearing located precisely 6" away. Each
time the ball bearing engages the next thread, it clicks—
indicating a 1/16" change in dimension.
By engaging the stop and adding together the 6" fixed
dimension, the number of exposed 1/2" scribe marks and
the audible clicks, this ruler measures up to 12" in 1/16"
increments.
To measure in 1/64" increments, George uses a “roto”
ruler that’s also based on 16tpi threaded rod. This ruler
simply has an adjustable nut with a square head. Each
quarter turn of the nut measures 1/64". Screwing on additional
threaded rods extends the capacity of both rulers in
12" increments.
George uses a scribe for marking, rather than a pencil,
so he can feel the lines. Two other tools he’s fond of are the
audio-output tape measure he uses for rough measurements
and the push-button remote that allows him to control his
dust-collection system from any place in the shop.
George doesn’t use a blade guard on his tablesaw.
Because he works primarily by feel, he says, the guard continuously
gets in the way. Yet, after 40 years of woodworking
he still has 9-7/8ths of his fingers; he nipped one while doing
a repetitive task at the end of a day. We’ve all been there.
As a person who “sees” with his fingertips, George
doesn’t understand people who focus on how a piece of furniture
looks and ignore how it feels. When it comes to sanding
and finishing, he’s a perfectionist. “Don’t be in a hurry,”
he explains, and then adds—with a twinkle in his eye, “If it’s
worth the effort to build it, it’s worth the effort to sand it.”
Some people feel a piece of furniture or wood art should
stand aesthetically on its own; others feel a greater appreciation
can be gained by understanding the era in which it
was created or knowing who created it. George’s furniture
and turnings surely stand on their own, but knowing the
man—and his story—makes them even more special. And
yes, George’s eyes do twinkle.

Sidebar

Photo of George with a Small Sailboat Under Construction



A Special Project

Maire died at the age of 24—but not before she and
George met face-to-face to discuss an idea—building a
sailboat that would allow her to complete the journey
in the afterlife. This vessel would carry Maire’s ashes
to the sea, following the route described in the book.
Based on her wishes, George crafted a prototype and
tested its seaworthiness using bags of sugar as surrogate
ashes. Then he built Maire’s boat.
This summer, Maire’s boat will be launched from
Northern Michigan with the goal of making its way
through the Great Lakes “to the sea.” This message
from Maire will be painted on it: “My name is Maire
Kent. I died of sarcoma cancer. I’m making my way to
the ocean. If you find me, please set me back on my
path. I will bless you from heaven.”
Keith and his Emmy-winning production company
Visionalist Entertainment Productions will film
the voyage, documenting how people react to Maire’s
custom-built vessel and the journey she’s on.
“We’re not sure when the boat will reach the ocean,”
George explains. “But we know two things: First, we
want it to travel down the Detroit River during the
fireworks celebration on the Fourth of July. Second, it’s
definitely not sturdy enough to go over Niagara Falls.”
For more information about “Maire’s Journey,” visit
v-prod.com.


To see more of George’s work, visit gmwurtzel.com.

Spike Carlsen’s newest book, The Backyard
Homestead Book of Building Projects (Storey)
will be available spring of 2014. For more information,
visit facebook.com/spikecarlsenbooks.


Larry Martin
woodworkingfortheblind@comcast.net