Bernie Vinther, blind machinist

Northwest Profiles: Challenging Vision

Entering into machining as a hobby can be a bit intimidating for the uninitiated, but Bernie Vinther had no fear.

The 65-year old former electrician took up the hobby 10 years ago after a medical condition forced him to retire at only 38. He enrolled at classes at a local community college, and began the slow process of learning to transfer his skills designing, building and fixing radios into machining.

His entry into the hobby sounds the same as countless others, but what makes his story remarkable is the medical condition that forced him to retire: Vinther is blind.

Now, Vinther has another battle. He and his guide dog were crossing a busy four-lane road in Kennewick, Wa., last month when a driver who was looking behind to change lanes struck them both. The dog was killed on impact, and Vinther was sent to the hospital. He suffered a cut on his eyebrow and cracked a few teeth.

The dog had served as a guide for Vinther for nine years and without him Vinther is forced to use a white cane and a Braille compass.

During his time living in Kennewick Vinther has gained a bit of notoriety for his work in the machine shop and the lengths he went to in learning it. To complete a required course for blueprint reading he used a drawing kit that included Velcro and yarn and made three-dimensional images from clay.

He listens to the machinery to judge its relative speed and uses a special device designed by a non-profit eye institute to read out the more precise measurements. Vinther also labels all his cutting tools with Braille printouts and has a multi-page index of drill sizes in Braille that he spent hundreds of hours to create and organize.

It sounds difficult—and even Vinther concedes that it is—but he said becoming blind was “one of the best things that ever happened to me” because it helped him learn his true capabilities.

“Most of the challenges of being blind can certainly be very frustrating, but I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in striving to keep blindness from becoming an obstacle that keeps me from doing all the things I like to do,” he said in an article published in the American Foundation for the Blind. “I just won’t take “No” for an answer. Blindness has taught me not to sit in the corner and be passive.”

Vinther came into machining after retiring. In 1988 he bought an IBM 286 clone and took a booth at a local industrial products fair to try to find work designing and prototyping electronic devices. He found work with a machinist who was working on a gas bottle warning flasher, and after visiting the man’s shop Vinther asked if he could use one of his lathes for a simple project.

Soon Vinther started working more and more on the lathe and milling machines in exchange for doing some light work making duplicate parts. Vinther decided he should learn the skill more intently so he bought a lathe and enrolled in a two-year machinist program at his local community college.

After completing the program he tried to find work using his new skills, but had no luck.

“I got some calls to come in for various interviews, but when I walked through the door with a white cane and a guide dog, the interview was over before it could begin,” Vinther said in the American Federation for the Blind article. “A couple of times they acted insulted that I had the nerve to even come through the door. Being blind, I figured it would be harder to get a job, but not this hard.”

So now the work he creates is mostly for people he knows, but Vinther does some contract work too, including making stainless steel parts for LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory at Hanford operated by the California Institute of Technology.

A fund has been set up to help Vinther get a new guide dog, and donations can be sent to:

Washington Trust Bank
c/o Guide Dog Fund
3250 W. Clearwater Avenue
Kennewick, WA 99336

(509) 734-0450

2 thoughts on “Bernie Vinther, blind machinist”

  1. This is an excellent article. As a guide dog user myself, I am always horrified to hear of such terrible things happening to our devoted canine friends. I am curious though, I don’t quite understand the setting up of a fund to get a guide dog. Many schools, such as the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind (Smithtown, NY) give the dogs away for free. This includes room and board, equipment, training, aftercare and even airline tickets and transportation from the airport to the school. Is the fund for the dog, to sponsor a dog in memory of his poor friend who was killed or to cover other needs that he has? Also, what’s the American Federation for the Blind? I know about the National Federation “of” the Blind, the American Council of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind. Can you provide a link to this article?

    • According to a press release from the Kennewick Police Department, the fund was “an independent account set up for Bernie Vinther for expenses incurred as the result of his accident.” The link to it is no longer valid. 08/24/2010


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