Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Visit to The Woodwright's School

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 woodwrightroy@gmail.com.

27 thoughts on “A Visit to The Woodwright's School

  1. John Williams

    I think this is a great idea. Anything that can help kids feel that they can make something with simple tools gives them a feeling of worth and power.

  2. Patrick Secord

    By trade I am a chef, and since starting into hand tool woodworking I can truly appreciate sharpness. Next time your out for sushi, sit at the bar and check out the knives and razor accuracy when slicing the salmon.
    I have a passion for food as a career, and lke Cal mentions above, a love for woodworking as a hobby- for its colour, texture, omposition, the thought and process of building, cleverness of putting together, and ultimately sharing it with others. I think that’s part of what life is – sharing in our endeavours and appreciating what everyone has to "bring to the table", so to speak, if not making the table itself.

    Oh, and BikerDad- I have had my fair share of pesky organic vegans… not there is anything wrong with that.

    Roy, about the only thing I’ve got in the 30’s is my waist line. Would that count?
    Regards

  3. David

    "David: that’s a good point. I wondered why not somewhere in the late 1800s? Maybe this is Roy’s way to show defiance in the face of the current depression. Maybe he wants to make it more attainable by pegging it to a decade in living history. Or were most power tools were introduced in the 1940s?"

    Mattias – There’s another, potentially less-lofty possibility. No doubt equipping a period shop’s not a cheap endeavor, and as I understand it Roy bought a lot of antique Stanleys to go in the shop. Stanley planes from the 1880’s are expensive collector’s items. Stanley planes from the 1930’s were made in vast numbers and are relatively inexpensive. Of course, that still doesn’t explain the late 20th century European benches (Chris probably hocked up a loogie when he saw those in the shop!).

    David

  4. Ed Hobbs

    Chris,

    That foot powered table saw was actually made by W.F & John Barnes, not Graves. It was officially called a "Combined Machine" in that it could be obtained with a scroll saw attachement as well as a boring attachment. The scroll saw attachment (I still need to make a pattern of some of the parts of that and have castings made before I can finish Roy’s saw) is the same as what you see on a Barnes Velocipede scroll saw.

    The one in Roy’s school was fully restored including paint & pin striping and at this time looks like what it would have looked like when it came from the factory in about the 1890’s (the serial number, approx 6700 as I remember, out of 10,700 made would date it to that time frame).

    Ironically, foot powered machinery would be considered the "father" of todays modern home shop tools in that it was the first time a craftsman could have something other than hand tools in their shop. It would have been very costly in the late 1800’s to set up a line shaft with gas or steam engine as power, to have wood or metal working machines in the home shop and thus the popularity of foot powered machines. (They also offered significant productivity improvements you would find hard to believe.)

    Foot powered machinery was relatively short lived, from the early 1870’s to about the mid 1920’s. During that time frame, hundreds of thousands of pieces were made including scroll saws, wood lathes, table saws, bandsaws, mortising & tenoning machines, formers (shapers) and metal lathes. When electrical power came along most were scraped. Guess you could say all of this contributed to the demise of hand tools in some form or another.

    Very glad Roy is starting his school and think this will rekindle and interest in antique/traditional wood working tools.

    For those that are interested in antique/traditional wood working tools, check out the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. Really two misnomers in that name, mid-west (we are all over the US) and collectors (we have a lot of people who use the tools they have). Check out http://www.mwtca.org

    Thanks Ed Hobbs, Raleigh, NC

    PS.. I love foot powered machinery as well as antique/traditional tools and The Woodwright’s Shop!

  5. Charles Davis

    I’m very happy for Roy. No doubt that this new venture will be successful. In the extremely rare event that thing things slow down, I think he should consider pitching his classes to large companies as a corporate retreat.

    I imagine, if you can’t de-stress in his ’30s shop than you’ve been too institutionalized by corporate America to be helped. I’m sure he can add some team-building events… some trust falls with sharp chisels.

    In all seriousness I think this could work… I remember Chris’s posts with his bench building class not that long ago… one thing that came through was how everyone really worked together and seemed to have a bonding experience.

    Probably a good penny to be made as well given how we’re learning about the discretion with which executives spend money.

    -Charles

  6. Christopher Schwarz

    Ray,

    The little boy watched Roy sharpen until Roy insisted that I try his treadle grindstone. I didnt make it look so cool. The boy and his mom wandered off.

    Oh well…

    Chris

  7. Ray Drake

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful !!! But what happened with the little boy ? My hand powered shop was in a row of attached garages, almost ever kid in the apartment complex has stopped by at one time or another. The look of enjoyment on there faces as they planed shaving or drilled hole with a bit and brace, was priceless.

    I even had one mother spend a few evenings learning how to cut dovetail joints.

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    Actually, Roy wasn’t saying power-tool woodworking was unethical. Never passed his lips.

    He was referring to other hobbies outside woodworking that might be considered unethical. Perhaps snowmobiling in a nature preserve? Hunting endangered species? Eating more than your share of Oreos?

    Chris

  9. Jonas H. Jensen

    I would like to go, but if your means of transportation preferably should be like in the 30ies, then I need to find an immigrant ship or another similar steam powered liner going to NY…And then I suppose by train onwards. So that definitely rules out a weekend class for my part.

    I wish Roy all the best for his woodworking school, and I believe that it is a very noble approach.

    As the old saying goes: "Only dead fish go with the flow". Roy shows some courage in doing this.

    I hope that all of you who live nearby take the opportunity to support a project like this.

    Regards from Denmark
    Jonas

  10. Cal

    As a long time viewer and supporter of PBS (yes, as a Canadian, I pay membership and support US public broadcasting), I’ve spent more years than I (or Roy) would like to admit, watching his weekly manual wood-working show.

    What I liked is that it was "real"… including the occasional oops moment, where either he or the intended piece of work became slightly damanged. You just don’t see that in more polished (and might I say, more homogenous and less interesting) wood crafting shows.

    I sincerely wish him the best with his endeavor, and unfortunatley since I live about four hours drive north of Montana, visiting his new school would not be a weekend drive for me. I’m envious of those of you closer to his locale.

    From personal experience, I appreciate what he’s trying to do, and I think I might also understand the underlying drive behind what he’s doing. I work in a modern techology environment, and my income is based upon support of same. However, when I want relaxation, there is no greater pleasure than spending hours in my shop. I can’t say that mine is purely manual… in fact, I have many power tools. But, what I can say is this. I love wood. I love the smell of it, the feel of it, and the visual beauty of it. Learning how to perform a task manually gives you a better understanding of how to perform the task even if you choose to use power tools, so the basics are never truly a loss.

    I live in a subdivision that is themed towards a Victorian style environment… brick townhouses and lots of big houses with long verandas. All less than ten years old. That also means lots of young families. So, when I’ve got the garage door up, and a young kid wanders down the back alley and seems interested, I go out of my way to explain what I’m doing and how it works. Some are bored, but most seem genuinely interested and intrigued by seeing something they don’t see at home. Not only does the wood-working pull them in out of curiosity, so too does seeing me working on an old drafting table. I can do design using CADD, but when I want relaxation, there’s nothing like the art of putting graphite to paper. Its like painting, but different… and like manual wood working, closer to art than science.

    So where I’m getting to is this. There are times when all anyone wants is what’s fast and or inexpensive. Then there are the times when you want quality, and the look and feel that goes with knowing what you’ve created or purchased will last beyond your lifetime. Because of that, there will always be jobs for those that work well, and rapidly, with power tools. But, there will always be a nitch for those with the articistic temperment, skills and patience to create a wooden work or art… be that a book case, a table, bench… whatever. There will always be demand for quality and workmanship, and heaven forbid the day ever comes when no one is left who can deliver!

    Roy, hat’s off to you and your school. The future’s depending on you…

  11. Mattias in Durham, NC

    Nate: I am probably in your category (a hybrid woodworker), but who can resist getting swept away by Roy’s enthusiasm? That doesn’t mean I will sell my jointer, planer, table saw, or even my biscuit jointer (gasp!). Those things all have their place in my shop. That said, like you, I am trying to move towards human power. To me it’s certainly more fun. I consider myself extremely fortunate to live only 20 miles from Pittsboro.

    David: that’s a good point. I wondered why not somewhere in the late 1800s? Maybe this is Roy’s way to show defiance in the face of the current depression. Maybe he wants to make it more attainable by pegging it to a decade in living history. Or were most power tools were introduced in the 1940s? I thought the use of power tools really took off in the 50s? Maybe it’s pegged to the most recent predominant use of hand tools in shop class: He does say "This should look like you have stepped back into a shop class in the 1930s,". Now I’m curious – I think we need someone to explain this…

  12. David

    I certainly hope Roy does well with his school, but I question the reminiscence of the 1930’s. There was a certain societal problem during that decade that people would rather not be reminded of just now – called the "Great Depression". I suspect he’d have done just as well with calling it a throwback to the 1920s!

  13. Nateswoodworks

    I fall into a different group than most of you. I am a hybred woodworker. I love the feel of a freshly sharpened chisel as well as my electric power tools. I love the fact that there are so many people rallying around this great chance to relive the past. When I started woodworking I learned from Norm the basics. Then I really took of once I learned how valuable hand tools are. This is one of the reasons that when I teach my children woodworking I am starting tham out on only handtools, after they master a handtool only then can they move onto the power tools. I hope this will teach the values quicker than I learned. Keep up the great work to all of you human powered artists.
    Nate

  14. Brian Ogilvie

    All I can say is "Wow!" And, "Honey, I want to go now!"

    I was at the Marlboro MA Woodworking Show last weekend and while it was mostly a power tool extravaganza, there was Graham Blackburn showing folks how to use traditional planes.

    While Graham had two dozen or so of us greybeards under his spell, I saw later on that the Wood Magazine tablesaw jigs presentation had about 75 to 100 folks watching. I still thought this was a small victory for such an event!

    Chris’s "Coarse, Medium, Fine" DVD changed the way I approach power tools: there are no "fine" power tools!

    -Brian

  15. Josh B

    I wonder if we’re seeing the beginnings of a handcraft renaissance in woodworking similar to what’s been happening with American beer the last twenty years or so? There are plenty of parallels.

    Home brewing really began to come together in 70’s as a serious hobby for people fed up with the pathetic domestic beer selection which was pretty much bland light lagers or even lighter, blander lagers. Home brewers working alone and small groups rediscovered older ale brewing techniques and recipes and kicked off a vibrant hobbyist market that begot many small breweries around the country. There are thousands of small breweries around the country now hand making beers in small batches and despite charging 3-4x what the industrial brewers charge are growing their market share year after year.

    Hand tool woodworking is at the homebrewing as a serious hobby stage right now, it seems. There seems to be a new vendor on the scene every month offering a mix of innovative new versions of classic tools and others offering exact reproductions of classic forms. Craftsmen in small shops are now able once again to make a living selling tools to other craftsmen which is pretty amazing to me. Roy Underhill thinks he can run a successful business teaching other craftsmen (and would be craftsmen) the trade and I’m pretty sure he will be successful in this venture. The big powertool/industrial woodworking shows are scaling back and shutting down, while the WIA event sold out months in advance it’s first year and is now planning two conferences in 2009.

    With all this momentum building are we far off from the passion for craftsmanship spreading to the general furniture buying public? I think there’s a real good chance to be honest. Not just at the very high end of the line either, but in the kind of middle class furniture that Adam Cherubini often writes about. Recession aside working Americans seem to be moving away from the "MORE MORE MORE! BIGGER BIGGER BIGGER! CHEAPER CHEAPER CHEAPER!" mentality that has been de rigueur my entire life (I’m 30, btw) to one that seeks more quality and value in what they purchase. This seems especially true for people in my age range.

    I don’t think we’ll see a return for 100% handtool use in many commercial shops but I can see a future where a lot of Americans are buying furniture from local craftsman (or over the internet) built to order where everything after stock prep is done by hand. I think people, especially post boomer folk, are growing tired of living interchangeable lives filled with interchangeable parts molded to machine perfection and designed to fall apart and be replaced on schedule. People are starting to crave the uniqueness that only finds its way into objects that are shaped and judged by skilled people instead of programmed machines. It’s exciting to be around watching this happen.

    Cheers,

    Josh

  16. Reese

    To quote the Joker from the first Batman movie (you know, the one with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson), "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" I never seem to be able to find those old-timey machines.

  17. Glenwood Morris

    My wife and I stopped by Roy’s shop yesterday with some books for Chris and Roy to sign. I must say the shop looked amazing, and as soon as my schedule allows I plan on taking some classes with Roy. The shakes next door were excellent as well, and Chris and Roy are some gracious down to earth guys. It is pretty awesome to chat with the author of the project you are currently building. I’m just glad I live so close by!

  18. Rick Yochim

    Well if anyone can pull this off, Roy can.

    It’s my hope that ultimately he fills his classes with more youngsters than he does with old galoots like me. As he says, it’s about the future and it will be the kids who carry things over. I have expressed this to him privately and so say here.

    I believe that if even a small segment of the younger generation can discover the value and joy in making things in wood by hand – for all the definitions of "by hand" appertaining – then and only then will there be a hand tool/hand craft renaissance. Unless and until that happens, I don’t really think we have or will have all that much of a "rebirth" of hand tool/hand craft beyond the exciement and enthusiasm us older types are currently displaying. (As significant as that is right now.)

    This school is just the ticket and some day I hope I’ll be able to sign up for a class with one of my grandaughters and together we can go down there for chocolate malts and some subversive woodworking. After a week with Roy I’m guessing she’ll speak of the tools and the projects and fun at the bench and the malts will be an ‘oh by the way’.

    Rick Yochim
    Purcellville VA

  19. Bill

    [drool]

    OK, now I need to sign up for a class. It will have to be a few months down the road, though.

    But Pittsboro is only a 3-hour drive from my home, so I have very little excuse not to do this!

    And yeah, I’m loving that little treadle rip saw. How cool is that?

  20. AAAndrew

    I’ll be there March 1. I fully embrace Roy’s vision for a future generation being able to experience the joy of human-powered creation. My shop is personally bacon-powered (I’m a low-carber), and only sacrifices electrons for the radio and lights. I can afford to be this way because I’m not making a living at it, and I’m in it for the joy of the process, not the product at the end.

    I also think it’s pretty cool that he wants his students to dress appropriately for 1937. Roy does come out of the Williamsburg tradition of immersion in a time and place, and he’s bringing that to his school. As Chris points out in his description, this is more than just a school to learn woodworking, it’s an opportunity to learn period woodworking from a specific tradition as practiced in a region of the country. (Virginia/North Carolina) As the son of a history teacher, that resonates well with me.

    Judging by how quickly his classes filled up, I don’t think he’ll have trouble spreading his revolutionary ideas. And that’s a good thing.

    AAAndrew

  21. Mattias in Durham, NC

    What can I say? This is going to be awesome. I’m signed up for March 29!

    Maybe we can all chip in to get St. Roy a pedal powered website.

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