Jim Murray once helped to design the autopilot system for the Blackbird spy plane.

Now you can find the 78-year-old Honeywell retiree in the basement workshop of a former North Side school, where he helps to design and make furniture that’s critical in helping Minneapolis special education students.

Murray is one of a half-dozen men, all but one retired, who gather weekly at the former North Star school, where the smell of fresh-sawn Baltic birch mingles with the buzz of saws and the good-natured banter of retirees. They analyze, redesign and produce chairs, boards, tables and incidentals that help students who often have trouble sitting or standing to focus on class work, at a fraction of the cost of commercial versions.

“They’re all master craftsmen with a passion for woodworking,” said Murray, of New Brighton. “They have kind hearts, great brains and a sense of humor.”

Their latest design — one they call affectionately their All the Bells and Whistles model — is a chair that’s a marvel of adaptability for different sizes and shapes of students, featuring interchangeable accessories, such as trays. It’s designed to be more flexible than commercial chairs that sell for $400 to $700.

Workshop volunteers build them for as little as $40, according to Mike Meyers, who runs the district’s assistive tech center. The district has built about a dozen so far — one student can require several for different classrooms — and has plans for another 10.

Tapping experience

The district’s occupational and physical therapists, who work with students who have physical or cognitive disabilities and delays, tell the volunteers what they need. The men listen, analyze commercial designs, try to improve them, and test a prototype. All volunteers bring woodworking skills but some bring engineering skills, such as Murray, who worked as an aeronautical engineer in Honeywell’s military avionics section.

“Under that gray hair is experience,” Murray said of his fellow volunteers. “We try to tap into it. We sit around the coffee table with sketches and try to agree on something that people think will work.”

That’s one of the workshop’s advantages. The woodworkers churn out some of their more popular items in bulk and can cut costs to fractions of what a commercial seller would charge. For example, they salvage legs from broken tables, attach them to ¾-inch plywood and have a wheelchair-accessible desk for a few dollars. Tables from school libraries with damaged surfaces can be covered in foam and Naugahyde for a few dollars to make a treatment tables where physical therapists can work with students. “We’re scroungers,” Meyers said.

Besides the savings, there are other advantages: “We think we produce a better product than we can purchase because we can customize it to the child we are serving,” said Ann Casey, the district’s executive director for special education.

Laser-guided ball launcher

Perhaps the most unusual device is a bowling ball launcher. It costs $850 commercially, according to Meyers, but the shop can make it for $160, making it easier to afford for adaptive physical education and extracurricular sports. It features a large switch that a physically restricted student can activate, releasing the ball down a ramp.

The most exotic feature added to the launcher was its sight, and it demonstrates the collaborative nature of the work. “We sit around a table and drink coffee before we make sawdust,” is how Murray describes it. He came up with the idea of aiming the launcher, but someone else in the group suggested a laser sight. The issue was cost, but when Menards put laser-guided construction levels on sale for $7.99, that problem was solved.

Bob Bonde of Minneapolis extracted the laser mechanism and mounted it on the launcher. “I personally have bowled a 200 with it, and it took two shots to get it sighted in,” Meyers said.

Bonde came to the workshop through the Minnesota Woodworkers Guild, one of two major volunteer sources over the years, along with Honeywell’s retirees. The shop’s volunteers are typically hobbyists who worked with wood for decades in their own basements or garages before retiring. “It feels like I’m doing something worthwhile,” Bonde said. “I do it for the fun and the camaraderie.”

A grateful mom

They’re appreciated, both from a personal and an institutional standpoint. Tawanna Morris’ daughter Zamir, who turns 2 this month, was born with congenital muscular dystrophy, leaving her with low muscle tone and limited mobility. But she’s eligible for early childhood special education help from the school district. One workshop device is a stander that she can be strapped into to develop spine control and adapt to bearing her weight. There’s also a chair with a desk that she uses to work with a physical therapist on her range of limb motion.

“They came out. They did her measurements. They allowed us to put little fancy things on it,” Morris said. “They’ve been very, very helpful for me and my family.”

The volunteer program goes back to 1985 when the late Lucian Brown came to Dowling Urban Environmental School, where Meyers was working as an occupational therapist, and offered to build adaptive furniture. Dowling was founded in 1924 as a school for students with disabilities, and still serves special education students.

Brown worked out of his home, but in 1990 the district rigged up the workshop in Lincoln Community School. That shifted to the North Star building when Lincoln was closed.

It’s an unusual shop but its efforts are available for others. Its volunteers document how its several dozen products were built, both for future generations of volunteers and for anyone in another district who wants to try them. But be prepared for lots of details: The documentation for one design runs more than 100 pages.