Solid Surface, Journal of Solid Surface Industry

January/February 1999 | By Tom Pinkske

Tom Pinske has seen a lot of fabricators come and go through his Plato, RUN fabrication school, but there is one solid surface fabricator he will never forget. “I saw this guy come walking in with a white cane and I said, ‘Who is this guy anyway?’”, Pinske recalled. “This guy” was George Wurtzel, and he is blind.

“There was nothing on the application for Pinske’s school that asked if I was blind,” Wurtzel said. “I find it’s better to just show up and handle the questions on the spot rather than get shot down over the phone.” A 26 year veteran of the woodworking industry, Wurtzel, who has been totally blind most of his adult life, started fooling around with Corian when he was first introduced to it in 1978. After he and two partners opened up a kitchen cabinet dealership in Lansing, Michigan last May, he decided it was time to get more training. So he enrolled in the Pinske fabrication school. “I didn’t know if I should let him go through the training or not,” Pinske said. “I mean, he is blind, don’t ya know. But then George said, ‘I listen well and I have a good memory.’ There was something about the way that he said it—something in his voice—that made me think that maybe he could do it. So I asked the other guys in the class if they would mind having a blind guy with them—they had paid their money, too—and they said, ‘go ahead and let him take the class’. So I said, ‘Okay.’”

This article first appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of Solid Surface, Journal of Solid Surface Industry.

During the course of instruction, the students in Pinske’s class learned how to fabricate a vanity top with an integral bowl, coved backsplash and an inlay stripe on the deck. That can be fairly complex work for -a beginner, but for an experienced woodworker like Wurtzel, familiar with the tools and techniques of the trade, it was a piece of cake. “I have one adaptive tool that I use,” he explained. “It’s a threaded rod that has been machined into a tape measure.” The rod has 16 threads per inch. One side of the rod is milled perfectly flat while the other side is milled flat with every eighth thread left standing. The two remaining sides are left untouched. Then, a square block is threaded onto the end of the rod. Each full turn represents one-sixteenth of an inch. Half a turn is one thirty-second and a quarter turn is one sixty-fourth of an inch. “His measure was so accurate that the top came out perfectly square,” Pinske said. “Everyone else’s tops were anywhere from a sixteenth to an eighth inch out of square.” Wurtzel was able to machine, fit, glue up and finish a solid surface deck seam with no problem. In fact, there is no task in solid surface fabrication that he feels incapable of performing, except one. “I have to let someone else check for color match between sheets,” he conceded.

Wurtzel suffers from a degenerative eye disease known as retinitis pigmatosa. When he first entered the millwork industry as a 19-year-old high school graduate he could see just enough light to barely distinguish shapes. Now he is totally blind, and has been for many years. After working several years in the millwork shop, Wurtzel moved from Lansing to North Carolina where he built furniture and one-of-a-kind pieces for industry showrooms in Highpoint. Now, after 15 years in the sunny south he has returned to Lansing “because I didn’t get in enough time shoveling snow when I was here before,”

he joked. Now he and his two partners are selling and installing kitchens in their own business, known as, Kitchen Encounter. Kathy Weldon handles Sales; Mary Fouty oversees the books and Wurtzel runs the countertop shop and uses his technical knowledge to help sell.

One would think that a blind man in a countertop shop would require everything to be kept exactly in its place. Not so for Wurtzel. “This is a regular shop,” he said. “I use my cane to tell me where things are. Things change daily around here and I have to stay on top of them. The only thing I ask of my employees is to kindly put the tools away in the same cabinet they got them from. It doesn’t have to be the same shelf—just the same cabinet.”

When asked if he thought blindness was a handicap, Wurtzel answered, “For some occupations, yes. A blind person can’t do a very good job driving a racecar. For the woodworking industry? Absolutely not. This is a profession that I love, one that I do well at and can compete effectively in. People think that if they lost their vision today, they couldn’t continue to do the things they do. They would. They would just do it differently. They would use alternative skills.” And developing skills, after all, is what being a craftsman is all about.

Despite his casual attitude regarding his accomplishments, the fact that George Wurtzel has managed to take on an industry that is built around color and visual design, and has succeeded, is impressive. Or, as Tom Pinske said, “It’s the damndest thing I ever saw.”