Future Reflections        Winter 2012

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Working with My Hands: From Paneling to Powder Horns

Fred with his toolsFred Noesner with a tableful of his tools.

by Frederick W. Noesner

From the Editor: Frederic Noesner has had a lifelong interest in antique weapons and colonial history. In 2011 he published a novel, The Fortunate Ones: Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia as Seen without Sight, which depicts how blind people may have lived in the years before the American Revolution. A digital audio version is available from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and the book can be purchased in print from the author at fwnoesner@verizon.net, or from the publisher at orders@masthof.com.

Totally blind since early childhood, I was very fortunate to grow up in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. I was blessed with wonderful, loving parents who did all that they could to give me the skills and opportunities I needed. Dad had an extensive home workshop, filled with both metal- and woodworking equipment. He had a lathe, a milling machine, a drill-press, a grinder, a sander, a table saw, and an amazing variety of hand tools. Nothing was off limits to me, as long as I used it carefully and correctly. I learned that every tool had a specific purpose, and it was to be used for that purpose only. A screwdriver was not a chisel. A wrench was not a hammer.

Dad's workshop was neat and orderly. Every tool had its place, and one was expected to return it to that place at the end of each job. In fact, during large jobs, Dad often advised taking a break, putting every tool away, and cleaning up. This method made it easier to find the tools one needed, rather than sifting through a jumble of items on the bench.

Dad was always aware of safety issues, and he passed that awareness to me. "You only have ten fingers," he used to say. "Keep them. They do not grow back." He taught me that when a tool makes an unusual sound, that is often a sign that it is not being used properly, or that it is hurt and needs help, such as oil.

My father was a demanding teacher, and working for him was not always easy. He could make anything, and he was willing to share his knowledge with anyone who wanted to learn. He often told me that I should be able to do most of the things that he did, but that I might have to do them in a different way. I learned to think a job through and plan alternative methods in order to achieve the desired outcome without vision. These principles and practices, learned in early childhood, have stood me in good stead throughout my life.

Although I was allowed to use any tool in the workshop, the first one that was truly my own was a Braille ruler. It was a one-foot cast aluminum rule with a lockable slide on one end and a scriber tip on the other. It arrived under the Christmas tree when I was five years old. The following Christmas a Braille watch arrived--only after I had demonstrated that I could tell time. I learned to tell time when Dad made me a clock face about four inches square with brass pins in the configuration found on most Braille watches of that long-ago era. (Today's ubiquitous talking timepieces did not appear until the 1970s.) Dad or Mom would set the hands on the clock model and leave it at my place on the breakfast table. Each morning I had a lesson while Mom was making breakfast.

Most tools designed for the use of blind people are related to measuring. One of the most useful of these is a ruler made from a threaded rod. The threads are one-sixteenth of an inch apart. On one side of the rod most of the threads are milled away so that the user can feel the remaining threads at every one-half inch. As the rod slides into a slightly larger tube, the user can feel and hear clicks at every sixteenth of an inch. I believe this type of ruler was originally designed by a shop teacher at Philadelphia's Overbrook School for the Blind. For many years these wonderful rulers were made as a training project by blind people at the New Jersey Commission for the Blind's Rehabilitation Center in Newark, New Jersey. Sadly, this project was scrapped during the late 1970s, when it was decided that it was more important to evaluate blind people for work than to teach them a particular job.

Prior to its transformation into an evaluation center, the Rehabilitation Center of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind was truly a place where blind people could learn to use their hands. They learned how to use tools that could help them gain dexterity and confidence. During the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s the Rehabilitation Center was administered by Dick Friend, who was totally blind himself. Dick could use all of the tools and machines at the Center, and he taught other blind people to do so as well. I had learned a great deal growing up in my dad's shop, but I also learned a lot of ways to do things without looking at them from Dick Friend. In my dad's shop I was never able to use a machinist's micrometer, a tool for making minute measurements in thousandths of an inch. Dick Friend introduced me to a micrometer that had been adapted with very fine notches in order for blind people to read it.

In one corner of the Rehabilitation Center's wood shop, Dick constructed a model room for a house. The room had exposed beams, and a student could easily follow the wiring for electrical switches and outlets. It had a sink, so a student could learn to change the washer in a faucet. It had both a window and a door, so students could learn about window sash weights, doorknobs, and locks. Dick believed that if, after a few weeks at the Center, a blind person could return home able to deal with small home projects, it would do wonders for that person's self-esteem and overall confidence.

Tools on a table.A closeup of Fredís tools.

Although I never attended the Rehabilitation Center as a client, my first job out of college was as a rehabilitation counselor for the New Jersey Commission. I had many occasions to visit clients who were students at the Center. Many of us counselors were in our twenties, and we were buying and working on our first homes. Dick often held informal little seminars around his desk at lunch time. The topic depended on who was doing what on a house at the time. He covered such projects as rewiring and plumbing, mixing and pouring cement, paneling a room, and installing a drop ceiling. As I was restoring my first house, an 1890 Victorian that had been badly neglected, these little seminars were a golden opportunity for me to learn from a blind craftsman.

Dick and his wife had a wonderful little summer cottage on the coast of Rhode Island. A contractor had put up the rough shell, and Dick had finished all of the interior work himself. He often invited staff members from the Center to visit for a weekend. One year he invited me and my wife to stay at the cottage for a week of my vacation. He would be there with us on the weekends, but we would stay on for the entire week. Over the first weekend, I helped him staple up some insulation at the end of the living room. As he left on Sunday evening, he commented that in the morning the local lumber yard would deliver the pine tongue-and-groove paneling that was needed to finish the job. He thought it would be nice if I had installed it by the time he and his wife returned.

By the time the next Friday evening rolled around, I had all but the final board cut and fitted into place. The last board was tricky, as it had to be cut at a very careful angle so it would blend into the remaining wall of the room. I ruined two boards trying, and finally decided to wait for Dick's arrival. When I explained the problem, he was delighted to teach me how to set up the radial arm saw to cut the angle. That teaching opportunity meant more to him than the fact that I had completed the rest of the job.

I don't think I have ever been happy for any length of time unless I was making something with my hands. While I was away at college I could no longer work in Dad's shop, but I made some attempts at wood carving. One of my roommates remarked that he felt as if he were living with a beaver. As time went on, I gradually added to my collection of specialized tools. My brother, who is a tool and die maker, made a level for me. It was a large ball bearing that rolled back and forth in a polished section of angle iron. More recently I acquired an audible level that is more accurate.

In his workshop my dad made flintlock rifles and restored antique weapons, clocks, and tools. As a result, I have always had a deep interest in colonial history. When I was ten or eleven I tried my hand at making a powder horn. As time passed I made others, whenever the need arose to have a particular horn for use with a flintlock rifle or musket.

In 2006 I secured a seasonal job acting as a colonial person with Historic Philadelphia. I needed to find a colonial craft that I could demonstrate to the public. Making powder horns seemed just the thing. For the last two seasons, I have been assigned to make eighteenth-century-style powder horns in a lovely shaded spot in the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House, and I joined The Honorable Company of Horners. However, I realized that my horns were only primitive copies of the beautifully carved and inlaid horns that other members of the guild were making. I decided to seek out more knowledge. At a seminar I met Frank Willis, whose eighteenth-century-style powder horns are truly wonderful. He invited me to his shop, where we explored methods for making better and more traditional powder horns.

Eighteenth-century powder horns fall into two major categories. The first and most primitive horns were those that an individual made for himself, most likely from the horns of his own cows. He probably worked on them in the yard of his cabin, or possibly in front of his fire on a cold winter evening. These horns were very utilitarian. The base plugs were usually fitted by hand to the natural oval shape of the cow's horn. In addition, there may have been a few simple decorative rings filed around the horn.

The second type of powder horn was produced in some quantity in horn shops. These shops produced everything imaginable that could be made from horn--combs, thimbles, spoons, dippers, cups, and bowls. Most shop-made horns were fitted with round lathe-turned bottoms. The large open end of the horn was forced into an even round shape to accept the lathe-turned plug. This was achieved by boiling the horn in oil at about 350 degrees Fahrenheit to make it pliable. Frank Willis has urged me to adopt this method of traditional horn-making. Turning a bottom on a lathe is not a problem for me, but I must admit that I am a bit intimidated by dealing with 350-degree oil. We are working to find a safe way for me to handle this part of the process. One of my goals is to discover methods that a blind crafter might have used during the eighteenth century as well as making horns with the type of tools that were used during the colonial period.

Over the years I have collected a number of antique hand tools. The ones that interest me most are those made by a smith or cabinetmaker for personal use. When I hold one of these old tools in my hand, I can almost absorb the loving craftsmanship and knowledge that went into its creation and use. I feel that these tools have been placed in my care so that I can preserve them and their heritage of knowledge for future generations.

I hope this short article may encourage the parents of blind children, as well as blind children themselves, to know that there are ways for us to achieve the things we wish to do or learn in life. Whether it is with our hands or our minds, there is always a way.

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