Where Roy Underhill is From | Popular Woodworking Magazine
 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Chris Schwarz Woodworking Classes, Personal Favorites, Woodworking Blogs

I’ve always been hesitant to get to know my personal heroes because it’s usually a disappointment. They almost always turn out to be just like the rest of us. A bit vain. Self-conscious. Insecure. Troubled.

So when Roy Underhill of “The Woodwright’s Shop” invited me to stay with him at his converted mill in North Carolina while I taught at his school, I was delighted and dejected.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to hang out with Roy for six days? See where he lives? Get to chat about the crazy stuff that he’s done, learned and seen while host of his PBS show, which is in its 30th season? Me, I was a tad worried that the Roy Underhill in my head wouldn’t be the same guy after I saw him come down the stairs in a bathrobe and mussed (seriously mussed) hair.

After six days with Underhill I can say that my opinion of him has indeed changed. But how it changed was not what I expected.

This evening Underhill invited a bunch of the North Carolina woodworkers to come to his shop, buy me a beer and see some outtakes from the two episodes we shot during the weekend. The turn-out was great (I managed to drink only three beers, which is why I can still type right now).

As we all sat in the City Tap (the sweet bar behind “The Woodwright’s School”), Underhill said some things that brought his personality into focus. He told the story of when he was invited to be on a radio program with other guests that was titled “The Past, the Present and the Future.”

“They hired me to be the guy representing the past,” Underhill said, sounding a bit astonished. “I’m not the past. I’m all about the future. What I do is the future.”

That’s when the whole week came into focus. His program is not about the past at all. Nor is his school, nor are his books. Sure, they look like they are about the past because he is using vintage tools to make traditional woodwork. But he’s not seeking to explain the past so we can understand it. Instead, he is seeking only to influence the future course of human events.

“You don’t need to buy things,” Underhill said tonight at the bar. “You can make anything you need.”

And that is the real lesson Underhill has been trying to teach us for 30 years. And it is something that flows through the way he treats people (even people who don’t know Underhill from a hill in the ground). Yes, he looks like the rube on television sometimes, but inside beats the heart of a professor, a historian, a craftsman and an entertainer.

He structures his program so it moves fast , almost like you are being mugged , and is filled with messages that stretch back to the beginnings of civilization and stretch forward beyond our time here.

Will we merely consume the resources around us? Or will we build something that outlasts ourselves and everyone we know?

It is astounding that Underhill has managed to ask this question for 30 years and still remain optimistic, curious about the world and open to new ideas.

And that was the narcissistic revelation of the week , what will happen with my future? Will I become bitter, narrow, inflexible and guarded as I get older? Or will I become like Underhill?

– Christopher Schwarz

P.S. For your viewing pleasure, here are some of the pictures I took at Underhill’s mill.

The dam behind Underhill’s mill.

Rolling mills that were in the mill, plus odd round stuff.

A detail of a cotton press , an enormous sight by the stream. It looks like an iron Space Needle to me.

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Showing 12 comments
  • Jordan

    I really like the couple shot at the end….kinda cute.

  • Mark Wells

    I recently read MADE TO STICK, so everything is getting a jazzy new description.

    Michael Pollan is the Roy Underhill of food.


  • Dusty Lenscap


    Thumbs down on our mindless consumer "culture".

    Take back what has been stolen from us (our skills to survive), and make quality objects with our hearts and a view towards conservation of our resources to pass down through the ages.

    Thanks Roy!!

  • Jonathan

    It looks like that cotton press would make on sweet wagon vise.

  • BOO YA!
    Attaboy and so forth!
    It was hearing Eric Brende
    on the radio and finding
    a Yankee screwdriver in the old barn
    on the property we just bought in 2002
    that set me on the path,
    but it was Roy (attaboy Roy) that hewed the way
    through the wilderness and kept the path clear
    and you Mr. Schwarz getting the word out
    into the 21st Century ether.
    Thanks very much to both of you!

  • Eric R

    I’ve never met Roy Underhill in person, but just watching his show you can detect flashes of something much, much more then masterful woodworking skills.
    This installment of your blog points that out precisely.
    Thanks Chris.

  • Gary

    Chris (and I mean this in all of the nicest ways) YOU SUCK! AND I WANT YOUR JOB! (maybe we could do a job exchange for a month, ever do hazardous materials management? Other than bourbon?)

  • Hi Chris,
    The point you made about Roy’s hidden agenda (teaching for sustainability and the future) reminded me of the "head fake learning" that Randy Pausch talked about in his"Last Lecture" (http://www.cmu.edu/randyslecture/). It’s all about giving more than just information or skills; it’s about helping people learn and understand so much more than the obvious. So, thanks for the post and for sharing your insight.

  • LizPf

    I was inducted into the Cult of St. Roy in his first season on PBS … though I used to call him Professor Underhill. Watching his show was what started my interest in woodworking, though circumstances got in my way until recently.

    I grew up with a Maker philosophy, that I could make just about anything if I put enough time and effort into it. Roy extended that, showing me that people with this philosophy have always existed, and are the real force behind improving humanity.

    Just yesterday, I taught my 14 year old daughter how to paint her bedroom. She’s turning into a Maker, too (and she’s a great sushi chef). I have hopes for my 9 year old son, though he’d still rather play computer games.

  • BryanS

    I took a seminar at his school on foot powered lathes. $30 for 3 hours of his time. What surprised (and impressed) me was that there was nothing I could by at his school. No gift shop, no copies of his books, no T-shirts. He handed out printouts of sections of his books. Heck, he even offered free snacks. He was only interested transferring information to us.

  • Badger

    I took a class on joinery this spring, and I was also pleasantly surprised, and very happy to find out that Roy is really just Roy. He’s more complex than his TV persona, but at the root of it, he IS that guy on the TV for the most part.

    He’s a fantastic guy, and I’m even more inspired by him now that I’ve met him.


  • Glenn Madsen

    St. Roy came out to California, and taught a couple of seminars for our club. He’s a treat.


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