The afternoon is quickly fading to evening in Roy Underhill’s shop in Pittsboro, N.C. And as the shadows across the workbenches grow longer from the windows facing Hillsoboro Street, Underhill announces he is going outside to do some sharpening.
He pulls a foot-powered grindstone out onto the sidewalk and fetches a coffee cup filled with water to drip on the stone. And as the evening car traffic builds in the street, he cranks the stone and sharpens a wide firmer chisel.
About 30 seconds into the job a mother and her toddler wander up to the grindstone. The little boy stares intently at Underhill as he grinds a new bevel on the chisel. Then Underhill stops and looks up , not at the mother, but at the boy.
“This is sandstone,” he tells the boy, as if he’s addressing an adult. “I use it to sharpen things like scissors. Or maybe an axe so I can chop down a tree.”
The boy says it must be hard , really hard , to sharpen. Underhill just smiles.
That’s because if Underhill’s plan works, his latest endeavor will make it easier for the next generation to enjoy hand-tool woodworking.
“This is not about the past,” Underhill says, his arms spread wide toward the 10 beech European workbenches lined up on his shop’s floor. “Well yes, of course it’s about the past in one sense. But it’s really about the future. The objective is the future.”
Then he pauses for a moment, and you know that something important is coming.
“If you have a hobby,” he says, “why not make it an ethical one , as opposed to one that is noise-making, planet-damaging and waistline-expanding?”
Roy Underhill, host of “The Woodwright’s Shop” TV show, has opened a woodworking school in the small but artistically inclined town of Pittsboro, N.C. The hamlet of about 2,500 is right outside the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle and is a nice assemblage of tidy old homes and active storefronts.
Next door to Underhill’s place, called The Woodwright’s School, there’s an ice cream parlor. Unofficially they have the best chocolate malts ever. To the rear of the school is a cozy bar that serves Red Oak, a locally brewed beer. Plus, there are antique shops, a music store, barber shop and photographer who has Barbie issues (ask Mr. Underhill about that).
“Even the people who live here say it’s Mayberry,” Underhill says. “How about another piece of cherry pie?”
The Woodwright’s School is an ambitious venture. Not only is it a tough time to start a business, but how about a school that focuses on hand work exclusively? All the woodworking tools in Underhill’s shop are powered by cholesterol (or alcohol). The closest thing to a table saw you’ll find is a Graves foot-powered treadle circular saw (want one) and a treadle lathe and scroll saw.
“This should look like you have stepped back into a shop class in the 1930s,” he says.
There are 10 German Hoffman and Hammer workbenches, and each is equipped with a basic set of tools for joinery (and everything is sharp , I looked). The walls are decorated with old prints and photos (FDR). There’s a huge old radio at the back of the shop. If you can ignore the digital camera attached to one bench, it really does look like an old shop.
As a result, there are a few rules for students when they bring tools to his classes. No tape measures are allowed. Or plastic-handled chisels. Or Japanese-tooth saws.
“We’re going to be doing English-style joinery,” he says. “You wouldn’t build a shoji screen with a big Disston. That would be like stir-frying grits.”
Then he thinks about it for a second.
“We’re trying to do early music with the original instruments,” he says.
The first music is being made this weekend (February 2009) with a series of one-day classes on basic joinery. Those will lead to classes on building a tool chest. And Underhill says he’s going to bring in other instructors as well.
Those people will teach a class for a week and then Underhill will shoot a segment with them during the weekend for “The Woodwright’s Shop.”
The other different aspect of Underhill’s school is that he wants to ensure that locals, especially young locals, get plenty of opportunity to take classes. That’s why he’s planning shops that will run on weekends or, for example, on consecutive Thursday nights.
“We’ll see,” he says. “We’ll see if I can get people to do this sort of stuff.”
– Christopher Schwarz
P.S. The school doesn’t have a web site yet (hey, it’s the 1930s OK?). If you want to get on Underhill’s mailing list to learn about future classes, send your request to firstname.lastname@example.org.