The 100 or so active members of the Diablo Woodworkers club are amateurs in name only. They know their way around a drill press and a lathe, routinely crafting chests, tables, desks, cabinets and chairs. But at their monthly meeting in Pleasant Hill last week, they sat quietly captivated as 75-year-old Gil Johnson stood before them and explained how he made many of the same things.

Johnson, born with impaired vision, has been blind since he was 14.

The San Leandro resident can't remember a time when he wasn't drawn to a workshop. ("The smell of fresh-cut wood, the sound of a sharp saw whisking across a board, the sound of a drill -- all those things really touch my soul," he said.) He credits his father, a plumber, for whetting his appetite as a youth.

Woodworker Gil Johnson, of San Leandro, who has been blind since age 14, displays a cribbage board that he designed. Johnson spoke before the Diablo
Woodworker Gil Johnson, of San Leandro, who has been blind since age 14, displays a cribbage board that he designed. Johnson spoke before the Diablo Woodworkers club last week in Pleasant Hill. (Photo courtesy of Rich Schwerin of the Diablo Woodworkers)

"He did things with his hands," Johnson said. "The trades were strong then; it's not that way now. There's Facebook and this electronic stuff. Young people don't get the exposure to doing something with their hands."

A high school shop teacher who also was blind introduced Johnson to woodworking techniques. One of his first projects was a chessboard for the blind, with raised and lowered squares, each drilled with a hole, and chess pieces with pegs that fit in them.

"So when I touched the pieces," he said, "they didn't go scattering across the board."

By the time he was 17, he had built a nine-drawer desk out of birch wood. It sits in his house today. Later on, he built dressers, nightstands, bookcases and three sets of bunk beds for his grandchildren. He has remodeled kitchens, rewired electricity, repaired a garbage disposal, poured concrete retaining walls and even re-shingled roofs.

"You just climb up there and make sure you don't slide off," he said, making a blind man on a rooftop sound almost normal.

His biggest challenge is measuring, he said. For projects requiring exact dimensions, he uses a special "click-rule," with notches spaced one-sixteenth of an inch apart, and counts the clicks.

Interestingly, he prefers power tools to hand tools. They don't frighten him, with two exceptions. He won't use a band saw or a chain saw. ("I don't want any flying blades around my hands," he said.)

His hands are his windows to the world. He "looks" at the quality of workmanship with his fingers. He senses wood grain with his fingernails. He dislikes wearing gloves because that's like "putting blinders on."

For someone who has operated in the dark for more than 60 years, he has been remarkably free of injury. Oh, he needed a skin graft when his hand got caught in a belt sander, and he required stitches when his arms scraped against a protruding screw on a fence he was fixing. But, as he said, "I still have all 10 fingers."

It comes as no surprise that the man with the can-do attitude has spent most of his life encouraging others. He worked more than 40 years as a rehabilitation counselor in public and private agencies. Before retiring in 2008, he directed the American Foundation for the Blind's employment center.

He has a favorite poem that neatly summarizes his outlook on life. It begins:

"Somebody said it couldn't be done,

But he, with a chuckle, replied

That maybe it couldn't, but he would be one

Who wouldn't say so till he'd tried."

The folks who listened so attentively knew the speaker was no ordinary guy.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.