The Kaleidoscope Maker

American Artisans, Made in America, People, Traditions
on June 5, 2012
David Mudd Leonard Olson handcrafts kaleidoscopes in his Pomeroy, Iowa, workshop.

Leonard Olson, 58, wants people to slow down and be dazzled by the world at their fingertips, and that’s exactly what happens at The Kaleidoscope Factory in Pomeroy, Iowa (pop. 662).

“Here, hold this up to your eye and spin it,” owner Olson tells visitor Tricia Reichert as he hands her one of his handcrafted wooden toys.

Reichert, 46, from nearby Emmetsburg, turns the glass wheel on the end of the kaleidoscope and “oohs” and “aahs” as she views the colorful, ever-shifting patterns reflected inside the tube of mirrors. “Wow. This is better than photography because it’s constantly changing,” she says.

Olson reshaped his own vision of the world after a heart attack at age 44. “People don’t have enough fun,” says the cheerful artist, who wears bib overalls and sports wood shavings in his bushy white beard. “If you have a heart attack and survive it, you’ll change your attitude.”

For about 25 years, Olson wore dress shirts and neckties in his high-stress job as a computer programmer in the health insurance industry in Denver, Colo. While the former smoker was recuperating in the hospital from heart surgery, a friend gave him a kaleidoscope. Olson liked what he saw.

“It’s really hard not to smile when you’re looking through a kaleidoscope,” says Olson, who after his recovery bought a scroll saw and lathe and swapped his nicotine addiction for a woodworking hobby.

Building kaleidoscopes makes him happy. As a boy growing up on his family’s farm in neighboring Pocahontas, Olson could “find two boards, wheels and an axle and have a chariot.” He rediscovered that fun while crafting kaleidoscopes and other wooden toys and doodads, including puzzles, gavels, buttons, spurtles and dibbles.

In 2004, he moved his woodworking shop from a rented schoolhouse in Palmer, Iowa, into an 1893 brick building purchased for $8,000 in downtown Pomeroy. He hung out a shingle for The Kaleidoscope Factory and waited for people to show up and smile.

Learn more about Olson and where to buy his products by visiting The Kaleidoscope Factory website

“The only thing you can buy in Pomeroy is beer and kaleidoscopes, and the beer doesn’t come out until 3 [o’clock],” Olson says about the two-block downtown area.

Yet people arrive, sometimes by the busload, to watch Olson drill a hole in a block of bird’s-eye maple or exotic ebony, then turn the wood on his lathe into a cylinder or egg shape for a kaleidoscope body. He sands the wood to a satiny softness and finishes it with tung oil.

To create a prism, Olson cuts pieces of mirror and uses masking tape to bind them, typically into a triangle, before securing them with felt pads inside the tube. On one end of the scope, he attaches either a glass wheel or a clear round case filled with beads or glass chips for viewing the shifting patterns. Sometimes he inserts a clear glass marble for viewing objects in the outside world. Olson makes 10 sizes and styles of kaleidoscopes that generally sell for $10 to $100.

“Leonard loves people, and they’re entertained and captivated by his stories,” says Cynthia Binyon, 57, a rug weaver and artist-in-residence at the College of Leonard, housed in the back room of The Kaleidoscope Factory. Art classes are conducted at the school, along with imaginative events hatched by Olson to bring people to his town. At a “celebacon” last spring, residents relished 23 different dishes made with bacon. Olson also organized a philosophers’ convention and a class reunion, complete with parade, for the town that no longer has a school.

Olson wasn’t so lighthearted until a heart attack and a kaleidoscope opened his eyes.

“You wake up and think everything’s going well, but life changes quickly,” he says. “And just when you think you’ve encountered the most beautiful image possible in a kaleidoscope, a slight shift will change everything.”
“But the new image is also beautiful,” he adds.

Kaleidoscope patented in 1816

For centuries, people have delighted in the captivating images created with light and mirrors. Scottish scientist David Brewster is credited with inventing the kaleidoscope, which he patented in 1816. More than a toy, the optical device is used by artists and designers to inspire patterns for stained glass, rugs, quilts and jewelry.