A great woodworking weekend with Roy Underhill

I received and email a couple days ago informing me that this was going to be the last year of the the Woodwright School.  This made me pretty sad as I had always meant to get  back to it for another class.  They fill up so fast it is hard to get the class you want at the right time.  So I will have to be content with the one class I got to take with Roy Underhill.  Thank you Roy Underhill for everything you have offered us and congratulations on your retirement.  I realized I had never published the post about my class.  This is from October 2017.


Each year when the Woodwright’s School would release its calendar, I would hem and haw about it and evaluate how it would fit my schedule.  By the time I made up my mind, any of the classes with Roy Underhill would be filled.  This past December I decided to try a different approach. I would pick one, purchase my spot, then figure out how to make it happen.  It worked.  I managed to get into the 2-day Introduction to Hand Tool Woodworking.  I probably did not need the “introductory” class as I have been all hand tool for many years, but this was not about the content of the course as much as it was about spending a couple of days in a workshop with Roy Underhill.  Roy does not get credit for sparking my interest in woodworking.  That credit goes to my father who could make so many things, and had me making shiplap paneling for our cottage when I was around 10 yrs old. However, Roy, his show and his books, absolutely did steer my interest toward old -time woodworking and contributed so much to my understanding of it.  Roy Underhill is responsible for my woodworking habit.  A habit that sustains my mental balance.

The night before the class, I walked the half a block from the B&B where I stayed to the School.  As soon as I saw the wood in front of the door, I knew that I was where I belonged.

The doorway of the Woodwright's School

It’s like the mothership calling me home.

Woodwright School front window

I peered through the windows and was delighted to spot so many old tools and props that I have seen repeatedly on past episodes of The Woodwright’s Shop.

The next morning I was at The Woodwright’s School with a few other eager students as Roy came around the corner carrying a wood stump and a jug of water.  I sat there dumbstruck at the realization that Roy Underhill and I drive the same make, model and color car, only his is a bit newer.  As the class started up, he explained to the 10 students in the class, that we’d be building a pair of bench hooks from green wood (using this method), and then making a dovetail box from seasoned wood.

Roy Underhill teaching and entertaining

The walnut log next to my water, would provide 10 students with the rived wood for bench hooks.

Roy would teach a bit, then turn us loose.  Like any great teacher, he would circulate around the classroom, check our progress and offer personal feedback, guidance and humor.  Then he would focus our attention again on the next steps.  Everyone was eager to stop and listen to him speak.   Well all but one anyway… there is always one, who thinks a class is a race to the finish line.  Roy’s explanations and examples were great.  He had his bench set up with video camera to show fine details and used it like the veteran TV pro that he is to clearly illustrate his points.  Roy would sometimes go off on tangents and then apologize for wasting our time.  It was hard to tell if he sincerely thought he was wasting our time… he wasn’t. His anecdotes and tangents were exactly why most of us were there.

Rived walnut ready for planing.

The rived wood started off fuzzy, a bit damp and may have had some ants.

Planed and squared wlanut

The jack plane soon left it no choice, but to be beautiful.

Releif cuts, set the depth for the chisel

Relief cuts from the back saw, set the depth for the chisel work.

A pair of walnut bench hooks

Before too long, a pair of walnut bench hooks emerged.

the start of a box

Poplar sections were ready for our next project of making a dovetail box.

As an added bonus to the class Roy introduced us to Amy McAuley   who is restoring the windows and doors on Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.  Amy was there, consulting with Roy for his knowledge and his access to books… old books.  She was kind and entertained questions from curious students.

In between the bench work, there were opportunities to look and touch items that Roy made famous with his show and woodworking expos.

Me with the famous Lie-Nielsen 1 pass saw

Me with the famous Lie-Nielsen one pass saw.

Memorable Moment with Roy Underhill

After lunch the first day I made my way upstairs to Ed’s Antique Tool Store.  Ed Lebetkin runs the tool store and has it well stocked with everything a galoot could want.  I was looking for a side rabbet ( a plane used for cutting rabbets and dados wider) .  There were easily 20 on the shelf.  Some were left, some were right.  I only needed a right one.  It seemed that most either had the cutter completely vertical, or had cutter inclined toward the back of the plane.  I found one that had the cutter inclined toward the front of the plane. 

side rabbets with upcut or downcut

The old equivalent of upcut vs downcut router bit.

Was I holding the 19th Century equivalent of down-cutting router bit and the up-cutting router bit?  I reasoned that the one tipped forward would shear the wood fibers down as the plane moved forward which might leave a less tattered edge.  I ran my theory past Ed.  He was not sure.  Amy McAuley was in the tool store at the same time, so I ran it by her.  She was not sure either.  Ed suggested that Roy really likes side rabbets and he would know.  Ed was very gracious and encouraged me to take both planes downstairs and see what Roy had to say.   Amy followed me downstairs, as I think her curiosity was piqued too.

Roy looked at both planes carefully and then paused and said, “Let’s try them both.”   I admired his pragmatic approach.  To heck with the theory, put them to work and see what’s what.    Roy hunted around the shop and grabbed a piece of wood with a groove in it. He took the up-cutting side rabbet and ran it down the groove.  It cut pretty nicely as it widened the groove.  Then he picked up the down-cutting side rabbet and looked at the iron.  “That’s set too aggressive.” he  exclaimed.   He used a mallet to try to loosen the iron.  When it didn’t move, he switched to a small hammer.  When that failed to loosen it, he smacked the plane firmly and squarely against the workbench top.  The blow should have loosened the blade sideways.  Instead, the three of us watched in horror as the nose of the plane broke off and flipped end-over-end in mid-air and landed a few feet down the bench.  The three of us took turns doing double takes, carefully studying each other’s faces, as if trying to determine who was the most shocked.  I think it was Roy.  He was the most shocked, but without missing a beat, he pointed to the other plane and said “That’s the one you should buy.”    Then he joked, “Ed will never know,” as he grabbed some glue and a bunch of rubber bands and glued the nose of the plane back on.

A bit later in the day, Ed came into the classroom and Roy fessed up to what happened.  Ed was a gentleman and said, stuff like that happens, then offered to give me the plane.  I made up for it by buying the other side-rabbet, an old DR Barton 1.5″ rebate plane, and a 2″ wide Swan pairing chisel.

Roy was kind enough to chase me out of the shop before I got too attached to being there.

Roy Underhill chasing me out of his school.

Back to Florida with you.

Thankfully he tossed my broken down-cutting rabbet plane to me as I made my get-away.

Side Rabbet plane with Roy's signature.

Thank you for the memories Roy.


Prologue: Saint Roy

I could go on and on about what Roy Underhill has done for woodworking, history, Television and all things related to crafting.  He has earned the moniker “Saint Roy” for good reason.  I could go on equally as long about the impact he has had on me as a woodworker.  It has been huge.. for me.  I have heard others say “What a nice guy Roy is.”  I accepted that on faith, but I always protected myself by thinking… that may just be what people say as they are sucking up to a celebrity.   

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait to meet him in-person to have my confirmation.  In September of 2017 hurricane Irma ripped through Florida and several other southern states.  We packed up our family and evacuated Florida in an effort to get out of the storm’s path.  The storm was predicted to track toward Alabama, so we decided to head to Charleston SC.  While we were half way there, I got an email from Roy Underhill that he sent to all his Florida students, offering us safe haven at the school if we needed it.  I was dumbstruck by this act of kindness and faith.  Why faith?  He hadn’t met me yet.  My class with Roy was not until a month later.  Luckily my wife was driving at that time because the tears of gratitude in my eyes might have made me drive off the road.

Of course, the storm changed course and hit us in Charleston, be we emerged fine.  A month later I was meeting Roy in person and realizing he is just the same person you see in his show.  Energetic, funny, thoughtful, and knowledgeable.  Passionate about sharing.  I smiled when some people would be gawking through the windows of the Woodwright School while class was going on and he would wave them in. Answer their questions and move on with the class.  

Thank you Roy, for everything you do.

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