How a Washougal Man, Known as 'The Blind Woodsman,' Became a TikTok Star

John Furniss uses his spatial memory and a special measuring tool to create beautiful, one-of-a-kind bowls and canisters for his adoring social media fans.

By Eden Dawn Published in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Portland Monthly

John Furniss sits on a stool surrounded by his miter saw, his lathe, and a number of hefty chisels. Sawdust blown by a breeze from the open door of his Washougal, Washington, woodshop floats in the air like snow. The sign on the door reads “The Blind Woodsman,” but if you’re on TikTok—where he has racked up 4.7 million likes in a matter of months—you already knew that.

His online popularity ballooned this past summer when he and his wife, Anni Furniss, began making short videos of him at work. They show not only how he operates as a blind woodworker but also how he navigates other tasks, with fun segments like “Cooking with the Lights Off,” in which he shows off his impressive baking skills, and “What Is It?” for which he’s handed an item—like an avocado or a pincushion—and guesses what it is.

Viewers on the app embraced the posi vibes. Soon Buzzfeed came calling, as did UK-based Ladbible, and a devoted fan base grew. The press and followers helped the two fill the hole COVID-19 put in their income after the craft shows they once relied on disappeared. Now, new pieces are put online once a week, and often sell out in a single minute.

John Furniss uses a chisel and lathe, among other tools, to create one-of-a-kind shapes for his canisters and bowls.

Certainly, TikTok has been an unlikely life changer for John, who lost his eyesight and sense of smell at age 16 after a suicide attempt by gunshot. In the years after, he ended up with a felony conviction in Colorado for aiding a drug sale after telling someone where they could buy marijuana before it was legalized there. That narrowed his already limited employment field even further. “Blind and a felon,” he says. “I might as well have just lit those applications on fire anytime I tried to get employment.”

Then he met Anni. It was 2012, and he was studying at the Emil Fries School of Piano Technology for the Blind in Vancouver, Washington, when she arrived to help with a fundraiser. The piano repair route provided a job, since he could work for himself instead of waiting for an employer who would overlook a felony record. But the monotony of it made his creative spirit restless and unhappy. Anni encouraged him to quit around the same time a job counselor was praising his woodworking skills, after another blind woodworker had taught him some basics.

“I got the hang of it right away, really. I’ve got a very visual imagination and really good spatial awareness. So I was able to work it out almost like I’ve got a computer program in my mind,” he explains. “I see it right in front of me, and I can move it this way, change its shape, color, layers, whatever.”

In John Furniss' workspace, spalted maple farmhouse bowls and elegant pine canisters are delicately shaped and no two pieces ever alike. 

With that mental computer program, John now produces exquisite, one-of-a-kind pieces like spalted maple farmhouse bowls and elegant pine canisters, each one delicately shaped and no two pieces ever alike. The only tool he has in his shop that might not be found in a sighted woodworker’s is a rotomatic—a threaded rod with a measuring nut where each full turn of the nut equals a precise 16th of an inch, allowing him to feel his calculations. His pieces are selling out more quickly than he can make them, thanks to his newfound fame and some A+ teamwork, with Anni filming  the content, plus handling the emails and shipping. All this, on top of running her own company where she turns her surrealist paintings into prints and cards.

“She’s not only the love of my life and a wonderful lady,” says John. “She’s my press secretary.”

It’s a job, Anni says, that comes easy. “I’m an artist, too, and as an artist, it’s hard to promote yourself, but it’s easy to promote somebody you know,” she says. “So we make a really good team that way. It’s perfect.”

When they’re not creating or hanging out with their rescue dog, Pickle, John and Anni make it a priority to speak openly about blind awareness, drug abuse prevention, and suicide prevention in schools. They say having those important connections with kids has led to some heavy and life-changing conversations, and trying to reach that age bracket is part of what led them to social media in the first place. Last December, after a lengthy process, John’s drug charge was pardoned in full by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. In the pardon letter, Polis wrote, “Others who have experienced circumstances similar to yours may look to you for guidance and inspiration.”

“I really enjoy being a motivational speaker. And I’ve been able to do that on literally a global scale because of TikTok. We’ve messaged back and forth with a man and his son in Portugal. We’ve had messages from people in Peru, Australia, and I have a really big German following,” John says. “We thought, that’s really popular among them, we might as well take a gander into their world. And it has turned into an extraordinary thing.”

John and Anni Furniss (Not pictured: Pickle the pup).


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