Guest Post: Adaptive Woodturning by John Briggs

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(John is a professional woodturner, T12 paraplegic, husband, and dog dad from Washington state)

In October of 2008 I was in a rollover car accident that left me with a T12 complete spinal cord injury. At the time of my injury I was a 26-year-old journeyman electrician, die hard snowboarder, skateboarder, sailor… living on my small sailboat in Seattle.

I’ve heard that some people transition to wheelchair life rather peacefully. That was not me. There was no peace or grace in my transition. I really struggled with the fact that all the things that I felt defined who I was were gone. My mental health and identity of self were shattered.

It took a while but eventually I started venturing outside looking for new passions, things I could do from my chair. I had moved out of the city to a small rural island in northwest Washington. The house I was living in had a decent yard so I decided to build a vegetable garden. I got pretty into gardening and it felt like chickens were the next step in that adventure. I got some baby chicks, raised them in the bathtub and during that time starting building a chicken coop.

By the time I moved off the island, with my wife, I had built 2 large raised bed gardens and 4 chicken coops. It turned out that I enjoyed the woodworking more than the gardening. Don’t get me wrong I loved and still love gardening I just loved woodworking more.

I went back to school studying electrical engineering and started experimenting with different forms of woodworking as a hobby. My father-in-law and I share a birthday and most years we get a shop tool to be shared between us. One year he asked how I felt about a lathe. I had never heard of a lathe before but he told me we could make wood bowls, I was sold!

When it arrived neither of us knew how to use it or had any of the tools required to make anything on it. I did a ton of reading and YouTube watching, ordered some cheap tools and dove in. It quickly became an obsession occupying every moment of spare time.

What I loved so much about woodturning was, for me, it was therapeutic and meditative. There was no room for anything in my mind other than exactly what I was doing. I just sank into the work and the rest of the world disappeared. If you’ve ever seen someone turning a bowl its absolutely hypnotic!

John turning a bowl.

And unlike other forms of woodworking, it was more about flow, feeling, and your artistic eye than traditional woodworkings angles, geometry and precision cutting. There’s just something about making a salad bowl, something beautiful to be used by a family for a lifetime or more, that really speaks to me. I eventually decided to leave school and start a small woodworking business.

Being in a chair definitely presented some challenges to operating a functional shop. I’m not too proud to ask for help when I need it but at the same time I can’t be asking friends and family to come help me all the time.

A few major hurdles:

1. No saws or woodshop equipment are designed for the wheelchair user in mind. So, all my saws (band saw, chop saw, table saw) and lathe needed to be lowered on custom built stands on rolling bases so I could use them safely and move them without help.

2. Using a chainsaw (electric) safely. I cut up large rounds into slabs with a chainsaw before they go to the bandsaw and eventually the lathe. Because of my injury I can’t cut these rounds on the ground. The weight of the saw would cause me to fall forward. I built several cutting tables to cut the rounds on so I wouldn’t have to lean forward with the saw.

3. Lifting. Getting a log/round onto my cutting tables was a huge issue. I put a cutting table in my driveway so when I had a load of timber I could move it straight from the bed of my truck onto the table. To do this without crawling in the back of the truck I use a rake like a gaffe hook to pull rounds out. I got a cherry picker (engine hoist), on wheels, that was operated by hand to pick rounds off the ground. Eventually I invested in a ½ ton electric hoist on an I beam trolly that runs across my shop. Now with a push of a button I can lift a log and move it where it needs to go.

It took time, thought and effort, failures, more thought more time more effort but eventually I was in a place where I could run the shop on my own. With only the occasional call on a friend.
The curious look I get when someone asks how I got into woodturning and I reply “gardening” always makes me laugh.

– Check out his site: JB Woodworks Pacific Northwest

– Follow John on IG at @jbwoodworks_pnw


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