Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Day at The Woodwright’s School

This is my third time teaching at Roy Underhill’s school in Pittsboro, N.C. And I can definitely feel the rhythm of the school, the community and the man sinking into my bones with every passing day.

I wake up in a small addition to the old mill that Roy and his wife, Jane, live in with three cats and a dog. The back wall of the guest room is all glass and open to the creek and dam below the mill structure. For the last eight hours I have been listening only to the water rush though the dam and the cicadas – which are competing with my own snoring (I’m sure). The mesmerizing white noise and insect drone lulled me into the kind of sleep you get only in the country.

But the water sound. Dang, I have to go to the bathroom.

After coffee on the back deck overlooking the dam we head to the school in Pittsboro, which is a 20-minute drive in Roy’s minivan. It’s always a stop-start affair with us trying to gear up for a day of teaching, attempting to tell stories about the world around us and soaking in the intensely green North Carolina forest around us.

Roy holds a dainty porcelain coffee cup between his fingers as he drives, and he has never spilt a drop on his cerulean shirts and red L.L. Bean suspenders.

The Woodwright’s School is in an old general store on the main street in a small Southern town that stands perched between two centuries. There’s a barber shop with two men cutting hair every morning. You can choose your political conversation: right wing or far right wing.

Across the street is a coffee shop that specialized in steampunk accessories – need some absinthe-flavored lip balm?

Between these two worlds is The Woodwright’s School – a bridge to the past and a rope to the future. As you walk in the front door the first sense that needles off the register is your smell. Wood. Glue. Linseed oil. Maybe a little sweat, coffee and dust. It is intensely pleasant for woodworkers and the non-converted.

I walk in, and I can feel my insides relax. Funny, I didn’t know they were balled into a knot.

The students trickle in and then Ed walks in; he runs the store upstairs from Roy that sells tools. Ed has a large room filled with an ever-increasing collection of hand tools – and only hand tools. I spend as little time up there as I can. After all, I’ve been selling off all my tools. Selling. Not buying. Shudder.

The teaching and work begins at 9 a.m. and then time becomes elastic. There’s an HD camera and screen showing off the tiniest details of 17th-century wisdom. No cell phones. No Wi-Fi. A room bathed in the morning sunlight from the front windows. And the sound of sawing, hammering, planing.

“It’s like Santa’s workshop!” Roy exclaims at one point. He means it.

After eight hours of talking, working, eating and more working, the manual clock on the back wall begins to toll five bells.

The students sweep up the shavings, chips and chunks of wood they threw to the wooden floor that day. They shuffle out the back door of the school and into the back door of the City Tap, a bar with good taste in beer and no televisions.

Conversation starts at a low pitch with the first round of beers and builds as the day’s events unfold in slow motion over the long table down the center of the bar.

After two or three beers it is back to the minivan and the mill. The night awaits, with its insects and deep-water sounds. It’s 10 p.m. and the sun is down. Tomorrow is another amazingly short day.

— Christopher Schwarz

8 thoughts on “A Day at The Woodwright’s School

  1. texasbelliott

    Terrific writing, Chris. What a great account of the atmosphere and enjoyment had by all.

    Now, you will confess your sins and let us all knows which tools you purchase from Roy? I’m sure he’ll make you a good deal or two or four. ;-)

  2. AAAndrew

    I’ve taken two classes at Roy’s school, including the first class. It’s a true pleasure, and a Neanderthal’s dream school. Pittsboro is a fun little town, you forgot to mention the soda fountain next door, and a perfect environment for The Woodwright School.

    I only wish I could hit the lottery and take every class offered.

    Congrats, Roy, on building one amazing school. Long may you prosper! And thanks, Christopher for sharing, in your inimitable style, the joys of being there.

  3. The Patriot Woodworker

    Beautiful writing Chris, I felt as if I was right by your side taking it all in, the running water, the smell of the shop, and the atmosphere in the shop, thanks for sharing. By the way, what was the main brand of beer on tap? I love Roy’s dedication to hand tools, he makes it known, that it’s ok if a dovetail is not perfect, a spindle is not perfectly round, or the hole it fits into is not perfect either, that’s why it’s called hand made! Great trip and wonderful adventure!

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