BROOKINGS – “Don’t put your fingers where there’s a lot of noise.”
That’s the watchword for craftsman Ismael Collazo, 36, who owns and operates “Blind Guy Boards” out of his Brookings garage.
His business also notes that he’s “Blind One Board at a Time.” Add to that his work ethic: #BlindWoodWorkerHardAtWork.
“The best way I can describe it is, I’m just really careful,” Collazo explained, as he worked with a table saw, doing some of the preliminary cutting, one of many steps he takes in turning out custom cutting boards. “I have a lot of guides to help me.”
He does a lot of measuring, and he then cuts wood, shaping pieces into the guides he uses. In addition to the table saw, he also uses a miter saw, a router, and a drum sander.
Collazo uses three different species of wood, which are needed to bring color, because no paints or other agents could be used: they include walnut, maple and cherry; he joins those in combination with exotic woods that include tiger, purple heart, red heart and Russian olive.
Joining different woods together is needed for the most intricate piece he makes: a “flag cutting-board” resembles Old Glory, less the individual stars but with individual strips making stripes and a field.
“There are three different types of cutting boards that I make right now,” he explained. Each board, after its parts are joined together with glue, is sanded and sealed with mineral oil.
“I just soak it in mineral oil for two hours, and that seals it,” Collazo said. “When someone buys a cutting board, I give them care instructions; and if you follow them to a T, you’ll have a cutting board that will last you for life.”
Lifelong battle with diabetes
Collazo is a native of Miami. His grandparents came to the United States from Cuba in the 1980s. His grandfather had been a political prisoner.
Around 2007, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miramar, Florida. He worked in several fine restaurants in various parts of Florida. During this time, Collazo met his wife, Heather Johnson; both were working at Seminole Hard Rock Café and Casino in Immokalee, Florida.
They married in February 2014; six months later Ismael lost his eyesight.
“I’ve had Type 1 diabetes since I was 11 months old,” he explained. “Throughout my 20s – the restaurant industry is known not to have good health care insurance – so I was insulin rationing. I wasn’t getting the right amount of insulin I needed. My sugars were always high. By the time I got good insurance, it was too late. The damage was already done.”
Over about a year, he had surgeries on his eyes and received shots. He and his wife then decided against further surgeries. He was concerned about the potential for fatal infections.
“That was one of the hardest years of my life, going from seeing to not seeing,” Colazzo said. “I drank. I don’t know who wouldn’t.”
Finally, his wife told him he’d had “self-loathing enough; it was time to get moving.”
He started “blind training” at Southwest Florida Lighthouse for the Blind, in Fort Myers. Following that, Heather, who’s from Aberdeen, wanted to come back to South Dakota to be closer to her family. In 2015, the couple and their two children – Caleb Harty (his stepson), 17, and Keya (Johnson), 11 – would make the move. Their daughter Kahleesi, 5, would be born in Sioux Falls.
Finding a home in Brookings
The family’s first stop in South Dakota was Aberdeen, where Heather found a job. Meanwhile, Ismael received some additional life-skills training at the rehab school for the blind in Sioux Falls.
Next, via a government program, the couple spent 1 1/2 years in Sioux Falls overseeing the cafeteria at the Eros Data Center; however, they didn’t like “dropping Keya off at six in the morning and picking her up at six at night.”
“This isn’t worth it,” they decided. “No amount of money is worth not being there for your kids.”
They moved to Vermillion, so Heather could earn her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of South Dakota.
Finally, they moved to Brookings in 2020. Heather is in a doctorate program in biochemistry, and Ismael’s woodworking, which he started about three years ago, has turned into a successful business.
“The business is up and running,” Collazo said. “Most of my sales have been through Facebook (which he went on in October 2020). I’ve shipped all around the United States.”
He did his first show at the Juneteenth celebration this year.
“A lot of people were interested in seeing a blind woodworker and what he could do.”
During the Brookings Summer Arts Festival weekend, he set up a booth outside Pioneer Park. “It was really good,” he said. “I got a lot of inquiries to make future cutting boards.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]