interview with Roy Underhill

Roy Underhill should need no introduction, I remember first seeing his books on traditional woodcrafts many years ago and wishing his TV series was available in the UK. Well the good news is that the early episodes are now available either online or as DVD. A good time then for an interview with Roy to see what makes him tick, of all the traditional woodworkers he has worked with who stands out? Which hand tool would he save if his home was burning down and if he could own one piece of woodwork in the world what would it be?

Robin. Do you remember your first experience of woodworking, how old were you and what did you see?

Roy. I can’t remember my first woodworking experiences in this body (I’m sure, however, it must have involved a hammer) so I’ll recall instead the genetic memory shared by us all. It was, of course, when our ancestral grandmother broke open that antelope bone with a sharp rock. We all remember how she used that same rock to split a stick to make a tool to dig out the marrow. “Hmm, she thought, grain in the wood. I’ll have to remember that.” And so we did!

Robin. Was that the thing that inspired you on the path you have taken? if not what set you off on that route?

Roy. Thirty five years ago, as a graduate student in forestry and environmental science, the evidence for human-caused global warming was quite clear. I was working on my thesis, hoping to write the American version of Edlin’s “Woodland Crafts in Britain.” Having just returned from some years on an off-the-grid commune in the mountains of New Mexico, the uses of….. aw crap, in truth, I just always like making things since I was a kid and simply never quit!

Robin. Going back before the TV work and books what did you do when you first started woodworking? what were your hopes and aims?

Roy. I don’t know that there was a “before.” I loved reading woodworking books for kids and making things, I grew up with TV, and I think all of them were always of a piece. I used to do a pretend woodworking TV show in my little shop in the basement when I was a kid. Should have gotten out more.

Robin. Is there any sort of regularity to your work today, could you paint a picture of a typical day or week?

Roy. I try to answer mail in the morning before I get into physical work. We live in an old three-story mill over a dam, waterfall, and millpond in the foothills of North Carolina. In such a place, entropy always works overtime, so the chores are endless and many. If a class at my school or a TV show is coming up, then I am working to prepare for them much of the day as well. I do like hard work, but also have a strict rule of no hard cider until after 4. Cider killed my father — took it 93 years, but it killed him sure!

Robin. You have inspired so many people over the years to engage with wood crafts how does that feel? and are there any stories that folk have told you or past students you have seen go on to do good things that feel particularly special?

Roy. I have a near constant exposure to work and pictures of work that is so much better than I have ever attempted, yet the creators will credit me as some sort of inspiration. It’s a mystery to me, but I’m not going to mess with it!

 Robin. Some folks might think that traditional woodworking doesn’t have a place in the computer age. Is it’s place as therapy for folk who’s work is not therapeutic? as a last vestige of self sufficiency? or do you see any of this stuff as serious modes of production? What is the place of traditional woodwork in the 21st century?

Roy. How can one claim to be a proper human being without having handwork in natural materials as part of your life. We evolved as a species with handcraft, and our brains probably developed because of it. What will we become if we stop? Blobby consumers? (Oops, too late?) Handwork can enhance products of mass production, but I mainly work with artisans and amateurs, and if you’re going to have a hobby, it might as well be one that makes you stronger and the planet healthier. An ethical choice for your endeavor of pleasure in the post-industrial age.

Robin. You have carried the flame of traditional woodworking for many years, others will come after you, what advice would you give to folk who have been inspired and want to take this  forward the next 50 years?

Roy. Keep fighting! They’ve all but taken straight-slotted screws away from us! Cut nails (when you can find them at all) are too damn soft! Use hot hide glue! Study the old stuff! Why do we use other people’s dovetail gauges? Planes have irons, not blades! They’re nibbling away at the corners of our memory! Fight the metric system! Stay cranky!

 Robin. All traditional woodworkers become attached to nice tools if your workshop was burning down and you could save only one tool which would it be?

Roy. An old, worm-bitten jack plane. Single-iron, British-made. Came to America and the nice beech handle broke. The owner replaced it with American dogwood, shaping it from a crotch like a ship’s knee. The mouth has been opened to almost 1/2 inch to keep it from choking. The iron (a James Cam or William Ash?) still has steel and I still use it. It is the old one, and has the most stories to tell.

Robin. You have met a great many talented woodworkers are there any of those meetings that stand out as particularly special or meaningful for you?

Roy. I learned more about woodworking from chairmaker Brian Boggs in a few minutes that I have in years in the trade. In books, it was George Sturt and “The Wheelwright’s Shop” that stays in my memory. Mostly, it is the near universal courtesy and kindness shown to me by my superiors in the trade. They are masters and gentlemen.

and finally if I could give you one wooden object from anywhere in the world what would you choose?

Anything made by John Hemmings, artisan (enslaved) in the household of Thomas Jefferson. His story and struggles express the eternal spirit of the craft that lifts a man to the the true nobility. Having a bit of his work would be to touch this spirit manifest.

Thanks for taking the time and best wishes from the UK.

Thanks Robin and best to you!

Here’s the bumf with links from the publishers.

If you’re a fan of hand tools and traditional woodworking, you’ll love watching Roy Underhill work his magic in The Woodwright’s Shop. Popular Woodworking is proud to introduce The Woodwright’s Shop on DVD and through online streaming. Although The Woodwright’s Shop has been on the air for more than 30 years with PBS, the show has never before been available for sale to the public. Currently Seasons 1-4 and 20 are online along with a new season to be added each month.

Fans can now get a free trial of the Popular Woodworking Shop Class website, which has over 80 hours of woodworking guides, tv shows, and other woodworking videos including hours of Roy’s fun and informative show.

UK fans can sign up for the subscription site on Popular Woodworking or buy DVDS of The Woodwright’s Shop through Amazon.co.uk. US readers can sign up for the subscription site as well or get the DVDs of The Woodwright’s Shop at ShopWoodworking.com.

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2 Responses to interview with Roy Underhill

  1. TREEWRIGHT August 8, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    Excellent RobLove the bit about "keep fighting" – I still have quite a good supply of Nettlefolds slotted screws. Roy is a real inspiration to many of us.

  2. joecrafted August 27, 2012 at 2:22 am #

    I just finished a class with Roy making a spring pole lathe. Used most of my Sunday practicing and hoping to someday get good enough to make my own set of wooden plates and bowls. He suggested your book for learning about traditional bowl making, and it is already on the way. I was encouraged that about half of the other students were my age (40s) and younger.

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