Frank Atkinson is an affable, unassuming man of 37, who lives alone in an apartment on Blanco Street. “I’m a local boy,” he says. “Although I was born in San Antonio, I was raised in Blanco and graduated from Blanco High School in ’95. I was diagnosed with diabetes when I was twelve.”
Frank lost his sight in 2003 due to the diabetes, high blood pressure and glaucoma. “I was working a landscaping job and helped another worker lift a heavy flower pot. I saw spider webs in my eyes. Overnight my eyes cleared and I went back to work the next day and the same thing happened again. That is when I found out I had a serious problem. I was one in a million to get glaucoma. I was 21.” Frank is now completely blind. He gets around with the help of a wand with a golf ball attached to the end.
He has undergone dialysis three times a week for the last six and a half years. “Now that I’m alone the neighbors keep an eye on me and watch me make my benches. I have experience as a mechanic, a landscaper, a builder, a rock mason, a ranch hand and a cedar cutter.”
When asked about his benches, he spoke with pride in his work. “A friend gave me some wood that I stored for a long time in a closet. One day while sitting around in an old chair, I decided to use the wood to make a bench for myself. I bought an old power miter saw and went to work. Some of the dialysis people saw pictures of my bench and asked me to make benches for them. That’s how I got started. I even have a new miter saw now.”
With the help of friends, Frank buys new lumber from Home Depot. “I make little benches, too—just the right size for children. Once I made a bench out of old wood. A woman saw it and wanted to buy it. It had a rounded back with arms. Some of my benches have cup holders with bottoms in them. They can hold nearly any size cup. I made one of cedar. I had it in the back of a pickup with the intent to show it around. I didn’t get out of the driveway before a lady wanted to buy it.”
The benches can be painted or stained at the discretion of the purchaser. “I use a wood file to round off the corners and I sand them down to make them smooth.”
When asked how he can make furniture without the benefit of eyesight, he said he has learned to feel his work. He has all of his fingers in spite of using power equipment including miter saws, table saws and hole saws. “I mark the cuts by making a little groove instead of marking with a pencil. I never put my hands on a saw table when the saw is running.” Frank also uses a small compressor and a nail gun to make bird houses and picture frames.
“I gave away the bird houses until someone told me I should be selling them. One day a lady came to me and asked me to make an old-fashioned shelf for her kitchen. I used old wood and put chicken wire on the back. She really likes it and the chicken wire keeps the dishes from falling out the back.”
“I use mostly 2x4 pine with some 2x6s for the arms. The legs are the most critical part of the operation,” he says. “They need to be perfectly measured and squared up. I use glue and bolts to put them together. I use a screw gun and high quality screws for the rest of the chair. I reinforce all the parts that need strengthening.” When asked if he mass-produces the parts and then fits them together, he said that he normally doesn’t do that. “I make them from scratch one at a time,” he says. “It is easier for me to keep up with it. It takes me two to three days to make a bench including glue-drying time.”
“I don’t like to sit around feeling sorry for myself and I don’t like other people feeling sorry for me, either.” One day a friend dropped him off at Super S to buy some screws but the friend was unable to wait for him. As he was walking home, Patty Coffee, who works nearby in the office of Justice of the Peace Riley, happened by and offered him a ride. He told her that he had just bought some hardware for his bench making and she wanted to see his work. She bought a bench.
“I ordered it with cup holders,” she said. “They have a bottom—the cup can’t fall through! His benches are sturdy and they won’t tip over.” She went on to say that the residents of the apartment complex look out for one another and they like to watch him making his benches. He has also found support from the good folks at the local Cowboy Church.
One reason the benches are so in demand is the low price he charges for his work. A bench can usually be purchased for under $100.
“I can joke about my condition,” said Frank. “I have been known to ask my friends to line me up with a blind date. I just take it one day at a time.” Need a custom bench? Call Frank at 830-387-9852.