“Not so long ago we used to do things a bit differently…”
If I wanted to find one quote that would summarize the entire thirty-some year run of The Woodwright’s Shop, that would be it. Lucky for me it’s the very first line in the very first episode! Strikingly young and perhaps even a bit gawky, Roy Underhill began his iconic PBS show with a mission statement: Once upon a time, if we wanted something, we made if from local materials, with locally made tools, and with energy from locally grown food… “That is precisely what the Woodwright’s Shop is all about. We are going to rediscover the tools and techniques of the technology of self-reliance. We’re going to learn how to make things from baskets to entire buildings.” It seems like an ambitious introduction for a show that was at first rejected by the higher-ups at UNC-TV. But persistence, and perhaps the ax he carried with him to the meeting soon changed minds and hearts. The Woodwright’s Shop was off and running!
It’s 1979. Jimmy Carter is wearing nice sweaters in the Oval Office, the kids from “That 70’s Show” are going off to college, and in a musty North Carolina shed with poor lighting and sound, history is being made. “Early Roy” is already becoming “Classic Roy” as he takes us on a whirlwind tour of the shop. The blistering speed that characterizes all future episodes is on full display as we go from tool to bench to lathe to forge, and already I feel as breathless as Roy sounds. Which of these wonderful tools will we learn about first? Roy’s got it all planned out: “The best place to start is by making your own tools” beginning with the maul and the glut, which we’ll need for next week’s shaving horse project. And “just like an 18th century receipt for rabbit stew that begins: ‘First you catch a rabbit’ “, we have to go catch a tree. With that we’re off traipsing through the forest while I keep asking myself why he said “receipt for rabbit stew” instead of “recipe for rabbit stew”. We already have our first blooper!
His personal bit of forest is home to more than 110 different species. My home is surrounded by perhaps four. But Roy reminds us that we have to learn to work within whatever environment we have, just as our forefathers did. It’s interesting to watch him look around, naming every branch and weed that catches his trained eye. We’re barely into the series and I’m already learning more than I did in years at fat camp. Roy is truly in his environment, in the forest with ax in hand, surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature. He selects an 8” hickory and with tears in his eyes he sacrifices its life for the sake of his maul. “I’m killing this tree, I need it… that’s the problem with the planet, you have to deal with it.” He promises to return for the rest of the tree later. “What I can’t use to work with will keep us warm all winter”. It wasn’t a very big tree, but I bet he has some sort of idea for a high efficiency stove that can heat for months on nothing but a bit of tree bark and a few rainbows. I’ve already got that kind of confidence in this man’s abilities.
Roy has always been a vocal advocate for the environment, but these early episodes were more about living a sustainable lifestyle than you’ll find in later seasons. You get the feeling that he would like to live in some remote part of New Mexico in harmony with the planet… oh, wait… he did do that for a while, didn’t he? It’s not the main theme of the show, but it’s definitely there and you can tell he’s passionate about it. I do admit that his attitude toward Mother Nature helped inspire me to stop dumping oil in the river. But on the woodworking front, these first few episodes are an introduction to Roy’s style. He assumes you have nothing but an ax, and that’s all he uses. No fancy bench, no hand planes or chisels. Not even a shaving horse, because you won’t have that until after episode two. His idea of a full tool kit is to have more than one ax, and lest you feel like he’s keeping it too basic, he explains the differences between the bevels, how they cut the fibers, even how the moisture in the wood affects those cuts. This will become classic Underhill, an amazing amount of knowledge of the tools and techniques flowing freely between gasps for air as he works himself out of breath. Did you know medieval cathedral builders considered saws to be crude tools, confining themselves to the “nobler ax”? Roy did, and now so do we.
As his maul takes shape Roy upgrades to a “go-devil” (Iron splitting maul) and then a “dill ax” (froe) and with one “swell foop” he splits the waste away to reveal his new maul handle, setting the chunks aside for “good firewood”. Waste not, want not! Soon you realize that he isn’t just showing you how to make a crude tool. He’s providing a lesson in the importance of the wedge, in all its many forms. The ax is a wedge, the froe is a wedge, the glut is a wedge, and the new maul will be used to drive a wedge. Chopping and splitting with a wedge is the most basic form of woodworking, and the perfect place to begin the most iconic television series in woodworking!
The following article is a commentary written by Stumpy Nubs which includes his description of the episode and thoughts as he watched it. Only the phrases within quotation marks are the exact words of Roy Underhill.
Shirts & Stuff
Blue Collar Woodworking, Stumpy Nubs and Mustache Mike are trademarks of
Midwestern Trading Co
Copyright 2013 MWTco