An ode to Roy Underhill, the Bob Ross of woodworking
Josh Centers 03.31.22
When most people remember classic PBS hands-on shows, they usually think of Bob Ross or maybe Julia Child, but one of their contemporaries is still alive and kicking: Roy Underhill. Like Bob and Julia, Roy is also an artist, only his medium is not paint or food, but wood. There are no power tools in Roy Underhill’s shop. He kept the old ways using the kinds of tools a carpenter would have used in the 19th century; things like augers, hole saws, chisels, hand planes and a whole host of others you’ve probably never heard of. He also dresses the part with his iconic cap and suspenders.
Roy Underhill has hosted “The Woodwright’s Shop” since 1979 where he spends frantic 30 minutes carving, cutting and sawing, usually in one take. On occasion, he cuts and continues, and it’s not unusual for Underhill to end a show out of breath and covered in sweat and sometimes even a little blood.
To understand why Roy Underhill is doing everything the hard way, it helps to watch that original 1979 season of “The Woodwright’s Shop,” and maybe even read the companion book titled… The carpenter’s shop. Here you will find Underhill’s fundamental philosophy behind what it teaches:
“How to start with a tree and an ax and build your house and everything in it.”
It’s a powerful concept. No factories, no shipping containers, no plastic. Just a man, an ax and the woods. Not so long ago, that’s how everything was done. And if the global supply chain continues to deteriorate, that may be how we have to do things again. It’s worth studying the old ways, but you’ll find they’re more organic and less predictable than the modern ways.
For example, Underhill devotes an entire chapter of the book to describing different trees and what they are used for. Traditional woodworking requires knowing the traits of a species and the individual characteristics of each tree, such as the grain pattern. Even if you don’t have the heart or the courage to cut down a tree, you can spend whole afternoons with a new appreciation for the richness contained in the woods.
Before cutting down a tree in the first episode, he shyly admits that he is about to kill him. In the book, he says, “Let him know you appreciate what he’s done and accept responsibility for giving him a second life.” And he gave this tree a second life, transforming it into a mallet and gluts, two powerful tools for splitting wood.
From there, he teaches how to split a tree and turn it into a shaving horse, a traditional foot-operated bench and vise that holds a piece of wood while you work it with a pull knife or rack. word. He then uses the shaving horse to make a rake, and from there he makes chairs, baskets, hay pitchforks, and even houses. He even goes into the forge. And this is only the first season. Over 37 seasons, Underhill has manufactured doors, cabinets, windows, toys, tool handles, buckets, lathes, musical instruments, kayaks and spoons. If it can be made of wood, Roy Underhill has it.
Underhill has never been shy about sharing the stage. Some of the best episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop” are when he invites other expert artisans to demonstrate crafts like blacksmithing, bow making, or wooden shoe making. (For all the jokes about wooden shoes, they served a real purpose: They served as protective footwear in the days before steel-toed boots.)
Unfortunately, there haven’t been any new episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop” since 2017. Luckily, there are 37 entire seasons that you can watch on DVD or stream with a subscription to Popular Woodworking Video, or on YouTube if you know where to go. to see. You can also watch most of the newer seasons for free through PBS.
Roy Underhill also runs his own school, called The Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, North Carolina, but if you want to get into a class, you’ll need to sign up fast because they sell out fast. Every ‘Introduction to Hand Tool Woodworking’ course taught by Underhill himself is sold out through 2022.
While Underhill may not have the cultural cachet of Bob Ross, he obviously has a large following of devoted fans. It’s hard to say why he hasn’t garnered as much public attention as his peers. Perhaps traditional woodworking is too inaccessible, while painting and cooking are more so. Maybe it’s Underhill’s frenetic high-pitched rhythm that’s almost the exact opposite of Ross’ slow, soothing baritone, or maybe it’s the hat.
Roy Underhill was a huge influence in my adult life. Watching “The Woodwright’s Shop” kickstarted my hobby of collecting vintage woodworking tools, and it even led to me training to become a blacksmith. Originally, I intended to forge my own carpentry tools, but I haven’t succeeded yet. So, that’s fine, but every time I venture into the woods, I look at the trees and imagine what I might do.