Chris Schwarz's Blog

Review: New Book from Roy Underhill

One of the biggest struggles with learning hand tools is finding instructions that make sense. Many modern hand tool teachers have taught themselves to saw, plane and chop. And while their idiosyncratic techniques might work, they also can be inefficient.

You can go back to the original published sources, such as Joseph Moxon’s “Mechanick Exercises,” but the instructions there assume you are a denizen of the 17th century. So when you try to learn about using the hatchet, these are the instructions:

“The hatchet marked L, in plate 4. Its use is so well known (even to the most un-intelligent) that I need not use many words on it, yet this much I will say: Its use is to hew the irregularities off such pieces of stuff which may be sooner hewn than sawn.”

Then there’s Roy Underhill, host of PBS’s “The Woodwright’s Shop” and author of six books on the craft. He is one of the few people I’ve ever met who can bridge the gap between the hand craft of the pre-industrialized world and today. He reads Andre Roubo’s works in the original French. But he carries a Macintosh laptop, codes his own animations and is on television.

This summer while I was teaching at the Northwest Woodworking Studio in Portland, Ore., Underhill and I overlapped by a couple days , he was teaching a class in making a lathe the weekend before my class on handsawing began. While we were chatting, he handed me a loose-bound copy of his latest book “The Woodwright’s Guide: Working Wood with Wedge & Edge” (UNC Press).

During the following week, I devoured the entire tome during my free evenings with the company of a few great Portland beers.

I own all of Underhill’s books. They are dog-eared second-hand affairs I picked up after finishing college that I have carried with me from town to town. I laugh out loud every time I read “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools” in “The Woodwright’s Work Book.” (Yes, I am aware this is a problem and there is help available.)

So it is no small thing when I say that Underhill’s new book (his first in 12 years) is his best. For starters, this book uses illustrations (by his daughter Eleanor Underhill) instead of photographs. This lends an air of consistency to the work and also allows you to focus on what is important in each image (instead of wandering over to look at the chisels on his bench in a photo).

The narrative of the book is just as clear. It begins in the forest with a description of a tree being cut down by a faller. Then you follow the tree as it passes into the village in the hands of the cleaver and countryman, the hewer, the log builder, the sawyer, the frame carpenter, the joiner, turner and cabinetmaker.

Each profession brings new skills into the narrative, but they are all joined by the fact that they manipulate the wood by splitting it or shearing it (by wedge or by edge). You clearly see how edge angles (simple geometry!) flow throughout and unite all the professions.

And, as you might expect, the prose itself is enlightening, literate and amusing. As Underhill writes about the qualities of wood:

“Like age on a man, water makes wood softer, heavier and fatter , but not taller.”

Unlike his previous books, however, “The Woodwright’s Guide” is focused entirely on technique. Good thing, because that is what is sorely missing from the space between our ears. We can all find plans for a tool tote, bench or cabinet to build. But figuring out how to make a rule joint with moulding planes is beyond the grasp of most.

Underhill’s other great strength is his ability to explain extremely complex ideas in a way that makes it feel like you’ve suddenly achieved Buddhist enlightenment. In this book, Underhill’s explanation of how to determine and mark out compound angles for the splay of a sawhorse was worth the price of admission. I went around for several days after that in a giddy haze at finally , finally , understanding it. (The beer also assisted this warm and fuzzy feeling.)

And whatever you do, don’t miss the book’s short but hilarious and thoughtful conclusion titled “A Great Wheel.” I refuse to spoil it in any way by even giving you a hint.

The book is not available yet, but you can pre-order it from a variety of sources, including direct from the publisher.

- Christopher Schwarz

5 thoughts on “Review: New Book from Roy Underhill

  1. Doug Fulkerson

    My wife surprised me with a copy of Roy’s new book the other day. Apparently she got it directly from the publisher. Overall, it probably is the best book in the series, (I have all the others, too), because it is a bit more comprehensive than the others. The starting with a tree and going through all the stages and techniques until you have a final product is a wonderful way of showing the reader the whole process of woodworking; kind of like a time line in the front of a history textbook that shows the order of important events.

    However this "wholeistic" approach is much like being on a tour of a museum with a knowledgeable guide. At every piece of artwork you get the essential information you need and a good look at the subject, but you don’t necessarily get to linger and explore the subtleties. I think that is the strength of Roy’s other books. He really allows the reader to explore those topics in many of their subtleties.

    Having said that, I think The Woodwright’s Guide should be treated like a prequel. Reading this book first will make it that much easier to enjoy the others.

    Another difference is Roy has supplied dimensions for several of his projects from the show and other books. Most notable is the treadle lathe. A bit of a departure from most of his other writings. I used to think not having the dimensions was a nuisance, but as I attempted a few projects I realized it was really a teaching method. It really makes you think about what you are doing and how you are doing it.

    Just my two cents worth; and it may not be worth that.

    Doug

  2. Nib

    Hi Chris-

    I assume the pic is one of Roy’s daughter’s from the book. Any idea who’s shop/bench it is?

    I haven’t bought a woodworking book for a while, but I am getting this one for Christmas.

    Thanks for the great blog!!!

    John J.

  3. J.C.

    Schweeeeet! I’ll take the hardback edition, thank you. You can’t help but love Roy’s down-homeyisms and puns. His knowledge base is awesome and while some might dismiss his focus as "Luddite" they’re simply missing the point. Wood is a malleable material that requires the budding woodwright to "know" how to process it for maximum effect i.e. form, function and beauty. To skip the basic tenants or dismiss them as old fashioned is to remain ignorant even if blissfully so. Bless you St. Roy and thank you Chris for keeping the "faith."

    always,
    J.C.

  4. Brian Ogilvie

    Wow! I am such a huge fan of St. Roy and this is really great news! Roy’s show got me started in woodworking, with hand tools only on a 6th floor apartment balcony at first.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    –Brian

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