Roy Underhill: Still an Agent of Subversion

More than 30 years on TV hasn’t softened his approach to the craft, tools or people

By Christopher Schwarz
Pages 14-19

It’s a typical day at The Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, N.C. Sunlight floods the storefront room through two enormous plate-glass windows. Six students carve ball-and-claw feet at their German workbenches while 1930s-era music tinkles through the air.

Something crazy, radical and perhaps dangerous is about to happen.

Roy Underhill makes the rounds at the benches. He checks on each student, cracks a few jokes and retires to his miter box to crosscut the material for the next day’s class.

A bell rings. The door to the school opens and in walk two women and a man. They stand at the entrance and look a tad bewildered, as if they accidentally stepped into a small flaw in the space-time continuum in this small Southern town.

Within seconds Roy and instructor Mary May are in front of them, all smiles and welcoming them into the shop. They invite them to look around at the benches, they explain what the students are doing. And they talk as if nothing unusual at all is going on in the bench room.

The students play along. They chat up the visitors, who gawk at the work on the bench, ask questions about the tools and still look a bit confused, but pleased.

After about 15 minutes the visitors leave, and the room falls silent again as the students return their full attention to their work.

This scene is repeated almost every day at Roy’s small school. It is the unintended consequence of Roy opening his shop to students and the public a few years ago.

“I had this revelation about a month ago,” Roy says. “I wanted to do the subversive woodworking thing with my school. But I didn’t want to open it in a resort area because there you aren’t working as an activist, you are preaching to the converted. Somehow I had the idea that the school should be in an old downtown.

“Then I got it. It’s that window on the street – that’s where you are making the change. That is where the subversive work is being done.”

Indeed, many of the tourists who visit the school are genuinely floored to see ordinary people make things with their hands and not machines. Some of the visitors say they have distant relatives who used to build furniture or something with wood. But for many of them, it has never occurred that what happens within those four walls is even possible.

For Roy, what happens within those four walls is a simple continuation of his entire adult lifetime. Born in 1950, Roy grew up in the nation’s capital and had his first brush with the future as a boy.

“When I was 11,” he tells his students at the bar behind his school one night, “I was pretending to host my own woodworking television show. So that just goes to show you that what you were doing at age 11 could be your destiny.”

I kept at him with more questions. What, I asked, do you remember about making up your own show?

Roy says his family had a hand-cranked grinder in their shop, and he vividly remembers pretending to be on television while grinding away on a piece of wood that was on its tool rest.

“And I remember saying to the pretend camera: ‘Don’t let me catch you doing this at home!’” Roy says. “So nothing changes – I mess something up on the show and say, ‘Well… you get the idea.’”

 

Classes: Find out what classes are coming up at The Woodwright’s School.
Video: Start your collection of “The Woodwright’s Shop” with DVDs of the venerable PBS television show.
Video: Watch episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop” online at our Roy Underhill streaming video channel.
To Buy: “The Woodwright’s Guide: Working Wood with Wedge & Edge,” “The Woodwright’s Apprentice: Twenty Favorite Projects from The Woodwright’s Shop” and “The Woodwright’s Eclectic Workshop.”

From the November 2012 issue #200
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