From a Chopper Tragedy, a New Woodworker is Born
Earlier this year I met a fellow woodworker named Chuck Isaacson of Sun Prairie, Wisc., who broadcasts his wood shop on http://www.ustream.tv/channel/sac-s-woodshop. I was inspired and intrigued by how effortlessly Chuck got around his shop. He was able to move about in a way that most woodworkers would envy. The reason this stood out more than other woodworkers I have watched work in their shops is because Chuck is in a wheelchair.
Chuck was deployed in Afghanistan. On Feb. 18, 2007, in southern Afghanistan Chuck’s life was forever changed. Chuck was then a sergeant in the U.S. Army and a flight engineer on a Chinook helicopter. With only days left on his tour, the helicopter he was riding in crashed due to winter weather. He wasn’t scheduled to be on the flight but took it over for a friend who had injured his back and couldn’t make the flight. After the crash, Chuck awoke to find himself sitting in the snow and not able to move his lower body.
“The way I had been propped up against the helicopter I knew it was bad,” he said.
I asked him what his first thought was after the crash.
“Well my first thought was to get the hell away from the helicopter for fear of it burning, which as it turned out it was,” he replied.
It took three hours to retrieve the survivors because the weather prevented further flights from reaching them. Eight of the 22 passengers did not survive the crash. Chuck’s injuries were extensive and aside from the broken back he had two collapsed lungs, a broken neck, broken ribs, and a broken leg. He was whisked to Germany where his wife arrived in time for the first of several surgeries. He arrived in the States 10 days after the accident then spent a month at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington, D.C. His next stop was Tampa, Fla., for rehabilitation for six months. After he was finished with rehabilitation he was finally able to move back home to his apartment with his wife.
When November arrived Chuck wanted something to do and decided to pick up woodworking. He had taken a shop class in high school and his father-in-law was already a woodworker. At first it was difficult because he lived in an apartment. Also his father-in-law’s workshop was too small; he found it difficult to move around.
In January 2009, Chuck and his wife received a blessing, a new home built by the national nonprofit Homes For Our Troops. Homes For Our Troops builds housing for severely injured soldiers. Once moved in, Chuck built a shop in a 24′ by 30′ space suited for his needs. He bought a General cabinet saw around which he constructed an outfeed table. When setting up his Grizzly jointer he noticed the cabinet had a 4″ section of green metal that just had a couple of welds holding it together. He took it to a friend to remove them so he could lower the machine’s height. Chuck also purchased a Grizzly band saw that was too tall for him.
The band saw was left unassembled until he could design something to lower it. The band saw’s table is now about 30″ off the floor. Chuck built all the work surfaces that wrap his shop to accommodate him as well. His roll-under height needed to be at least 26″. He has expressed interest in building a workbench to meet his needs.
“It would need to overhang at least on one side and be low enough for me to work with,” Chuck said about the bench.
Until recently he had worked only on necessities for the shop. Chuck at the same time was scouring the Internet and magazines for information to help him in his journey to learn the craft.
“I was a sponge soaking up from anywhere I could,” he said.
Eventually he found Marc Spagnuolo’s web site, TheWoodWhisperer.com, where he has been visiting for over a year. In addition to the free portion of his site, Marc has a paid membership section that offers more content without advertising or sponsors. Recently, the members of the paid section o the site, called The Woodwhisperer Guild, has begun building projects as a group. The inaugural project was a Shaker side table chosen because it was simple and adaptable to the builder’s skill level. One goal of this project was to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
“With all the interactive technologies we have at our disposal, it seemed like a great time to create what would essentially be a virtual online woodworking program for folks who don’t have time, funds, or access to a real woodworking school,” Marc said.
The Guild build was started March 1 and ended the first week of April. Marc and the guild raised close to $9,000 for the charity.
Last Christmas Chuck received a gift of The Wood Whisperer Guild membership from his wife. Chuck decided to build along with the project and contribute to the cause.
“I had been given so much I figured I would give back and pay it forward,” Chuck said.
It also had personal meaning for Chuck, whose father had cancer.
This was the first real furniture project for Chuck, and he completed a lot of firsts with the project. He did mortise-and-tenon joinery, tapered the legs on a homemade jig his father-in-law made and beveled the underside of the table’s top. Chuck used cherry for his version of the Shaker table, and it took about 24 hours of building build.
Chuck says he’s determined to grow as a woodworker, and his wheelchair hasn’t hindered his love of woodworking. When I asked how he felt about woodworking, he replied, “It’s all I do outside of school.”
Like all woodworkers, Chuck equipped his shop to fit his situation. And I think it’s possible that he can serve to inspire people in a similar condition to take up woodworking. But for me, Chuck serves as a reminder for all of us to continue our passions and never give up no matter what life hands our way.
– Joseph Watson
Joe lives in Moore, Okla., and works as a computer programmer for Oklahoma County. He’s married and has one daughter. Joe likes to study Shaker furniture and build smaller projects such as boxes and small tables. He also uses lots of recycled wood.
Other Shop Design Resources You Should Find Useful
– “Projects For Your Shop” by Matthew Teague
– “Setting Up Shop: Completely Revised And Updated” by By Sandor Nagyszalanczy
– “Rules for Workbenches” by Christopher Schwarz, a free article on our web site.