Monday, March 2, 2009

The Woodwright School - First Class

I had my class yesterday at Roy Underhill's The Woodwright School. This was the second session of the first class taught at his new school, and it covered dovetails and mortise and tenon. Saying that lays out the bare facts, but doesn't come close to describing what actually happened, or all what was taught during the day.

It was a chilly, rainy day in Pittsboro when we all arrived, and it kept raining all day long. Everyone was there by 8:30 when the class wasn't scheduled until 9:00. We filled out our paperwork, inspected the classroom for safety hazards (the most hazardous thing there was my own incompetance), and chose a bench.

Each bench had a compliment of tools, some new, some old, some very old. Down the middle of the room sat Roy's little Roubo-style bench with the splayed legs in back, a treadle-powered scroll saw, his spring-pole lathe, and his "new" 1891 treadle-powered table saw, which Roy explained was the outer limits of the technology we would be using in the school.

There were ten of us of varying degrees of skill. At the bench in front of me was Bill Andersen who himself teaches classes locally, and who had the coolest tool tote and nicest tools (at one point pulling out four 3/8" pigsticker mortise chisels for use of others in the class). In front of him was Peter Ross, formerly the Master of the Shop at Colonial Williamsburg's Anderson Forge for 21 years, and a friend of Roy's. (he also lives locally and was a really nice guy) It was the first time he had tried woodworking. The ten-person class was rounded out by other enthusiastic students from as far away as Tennessee. Overall, a great group.

Roy and his wife welcomed us, provided coffee and doughnuts and we began the class.

The class itself was a mixture of straight-ahead woodworking instruction, history and examination of actual pieces: some Roy had made for his show (and wonderfully recognizable by fans), some were of more historical interest. We got a chance to closely examine a wonderful old tool chest probably from around North Carolina dating to approximately late 18th, early 19th century. We examined the construction, what choices were made, the tools used to make them, what worked, and how it possibly has lasted so long while violating almost all of the rules we thought we knew. (we also got a chance to see two other chests full of tools which would have made anyone here drool as least as much as I did)

At various times Roy interspersed into the class other topics like getting a chance to examine, and watch him demonstrate, the Barnes treadle-powered table saw, or we pulled a set of squared timbers with pre-cut joinery out from the corner and he showed us how they all fit together to form a corner of a timber-framed house and how solid they were without any pegging or anything except the joinery.

We also got a great little intro and description of sash making, including the tools used to make window and door sashes.

It was in these interludes that the real differences between Roy's school and other very good schools of woodworking instruction comes through. Roy's a good teacher, he's had just a little experience explaining woodworking and its related arts for the last 30+ years, but it's his historical perspective, the knowledge he brings of craft and tradition that set his classes apart.

Thinking back on his class, it most reminded me of my graduate school classes in Art History. These were NOT the large, lecture-hall recitations of "Here's a painting of Virgin and Child by BlahBlahBlah, painted in 1672. Notice the fine brushwork...." The graduate-level art history classes that I was reminded of were ones where you meet in the back rooms of the museum and see five different Japanese woodblock prints of the same scene. The professor takes you through, in depth, just what's going on with each picture, including the history of when it was made, the significance of what they were showing in the scene, the technology of the print making including how they modified the blocks based on wear and tear during the printing process (as shown in the different versions, or "states" of the print), etc...

In other words, you're given context, background, explanation and even some well-informed speculation. It's a richer approach to the same information. It's the difference between being told that a house is a common example of a Queen Anne Victorian, and being told that this is a regional example of a Queen Anne Victorian which became popular with certain pattern books that came out of the Northeast at this date, but was modified by local elites in the area by extending the porch for added shade in the heat, and notice the extra roof lines as the attic was changed to allow for greater ventilation. We also see the attention to small ornamentation which became popular and replaced the taste for simple, geometric shapes. How did they turn out that much wooden gingerbread ornaments? Well, small shops sprung up to create nothing but the spindles, ......" You get the idea.

It's obvious that Roy's passionate about the old ways of woodworking, and making sure the hard-won lessons of our predecessors are not lost in a world of MDF jigs, flipping switches, and dust collection systems. He brings us quality woodworking instruction, along with a heaping helping of humor, historical knowledge and truly the spirit of the woodwrights of old.

And, to top it all off, I'm definitely going to cut better dovetails after this class. Wooo Hooo!


Cross-posted on NC Woodworker, and Old Tools.


  1. Left the camera at home? Would really appreciate pictures if you have them.

    Thanks for the description. It is very much what one comes to expect of "St. Roy."

  2. I didn't leave the camera at home. I will post pics later.


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