Roy Underhill picks up the grungiest wooden jack plane you’ve ever seen and cradles the old tool tenderly in his work-hardened hands.
The tip of the plane’s tote is missing. The iron is dark and short. The wedge looks like it has been struck by a thousand golf balls. The entire stock of the plane is covered in a jet-black substance, with the exception of three areas: the plane’s sole, its tote and a hand-shaped area at the toe.
“It’s covered in mutton tallow,” Underhill says about the plane. “They used it on everything. A lubricant.”
If a proper collector picked up this plane, he would do one of two things: Clean it until it gleamed or heave it into the burn pile with the rest of the world’s grungy jacks. But for Underhill, this plane is almost a holy relic.
“This is the rarity I’m into,” Underhill says. “See where his hands were? This plane saw a tremendous amount of hard use.”
This Greenslade handplane belonged to Robert Simms, a traditionally trained English joiner who later worked restoring pieces for Colonial Williamsburg. Simms got the plane from another joiner before him. And now Underhill has it. But the tool isn’t under lock and key. It’s a working tool and lives in a tool chest.
As Underhill explains the plane’s provenance he picks a thick shaving from the tool’s mouth. It’s a fresh curl of pine or ash that he’s been planing in his new shop and woodworking school in Pittsboro, N.C.
This plane is one of the dozens of tools Underhill has been sharpening and tuning in preparation for the first classes of The Woodwright’s School, Underhill’s latest venture in woodworking education. After 30 years of writing and hosting “The Woodwright’s Shop” television show on PBS, Underhill has decided to also offer classes in the style of hand work he demonstrates on the show.
Part of the Town
After he decided to open a woodworking school, he had to find the right location. So Underhill scoured the North Carolina countryside until he happened upon Pittsboro, a tidy town of 2,500 outside the bustling cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. There he found a storefront with big bay windows that looks out on Hillsboro Street, the town’s main drag.
In addition to the other occupied storefronts, Underhill’s school is next door to a vintage-looking ice cream parlor (complete with tin ceiling) and directly in front of an appealing city pub (complete with taps serving Red Oak, a local microbrew).
“Even the people who live here say it’s Mayberry,” Underhill says about the town. “How about another piece of cherry pie?”
Then he mentions the photographer down the street who has a wall of unusually dressed Barbie dolls.
“Well, maybe some parts are Mayberry after dark,” he says with a laugh.
Pittsboro has a bit of an artistic bent. There are lots of local potters, “It seems every third person who visits is a potter!” he says. And he’s met beekeepers and musicians. “And everyone seems to have a Ph.D.”
Underhill has been receiving local guests with gusto as he has been setting up his shop because they are all part of his master plan.