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“That walk gets longer every time…”


Roy opens episode five with a joke, but it’s also a reminder to those of us in the future looking back at 1979 Roy, that his introduction was really long when the series first began, a full minute and eight seconds to be exact. It wasn’t until season nine that the intro we have all come to know and love took its final form. The original version takes its time presenting its message. Roy crosses a busy intersection where a man interrupts his assault on a broken parking meter to wonder what a guy with an ax is doing in the city. Gas guzzling cars of the 70’s honk their horns as he passes a police cruiser and heads down the shoulder of a busy highway, ax over his shoulder like the opening minutes of a horror film. But he’s not going toward the people with murderous intent, he’s actually trying to get away from them and before you know it he’s reached the forest. Missing here are the happy dog waiting for a head rub and the lazy afternoon fisherman at the creek as seen in the later introduction. Instead Roy walks for what seems like miles until he arrives at the shop, opening the doors to let nature in. The sign above the shop is different, but the message is the same as in every episode from 1979 to today- leaving the hustle and bustle of the modern world behind to live a simple life.


The introduction does seem to get longer every time, but the show is worth the wait. This time he arrives in the shop more energized than ever, you can tell he’s excited about episode five. Over his shoulder is an ax as usual, but this time it’s a caveman’s stone ax. “Oh, I must have grabbed my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaddy’s ax this morning… but it does bring to mind what we’re going to talk about today… the evolution of technology”.


This will be a different sort of episode. He doesn’t build anything, he just talks about the development of tools from the reciprocal motion of a stick between his cave man granddaddy’s hands, to the addition of a flywheel for added momentum. “Jumping ahead thousands of years… as the mind sits around in a cave trying to figure out how to bore a hole....” he adds a string to his stick and flywheel to create a crude pump drill. Discarding the string he imagines the “very first example of a spinoff from military technology into civilian use” by using a small bow to spin his stick.


And so he progresses through the evolution of reciprocal motion to the crank and the conversion to circular motion, increasing speed and efficiency, until he finally reaches the intended point of the episode, the advent of the lathe. One of the most noticeable fixtures of his shop is the treadle lathe which uses a crank and flywheel to convert the up and down motion of his foot on the treadle, to the circular motion of the spindle. “They say Leonardo made a drawing of this lathe, I don’t know, sometime during his lifetime.” I believe Leonardo actually got the idea from the Egyptians, but you wouldn’t expect a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to invent the lathe anyway. (Kids of the 80’s will get that joke.)


One impressive machine that is seldom seen in the shop is his Great Wheel Lathe, the bulk of which is mounted in the shop rafters. A rope would run from the giant wheel down to the lathe on the shop floor where the master turner would work while “his apprentice or the local wine-o or the kids or the old lady or whomever” would operate the wheel above their heads with a long pole. You’d get all the local wine-os together and a big jug of wine ”and whenever they finished a newel post they’d get another shot.” They used to say that this kind of lathe “ran on cheap wine.” If he’s hiring, I’m in!


Working back in time he moves to his spring pole lathe, a very primitive yet elegant tool run by a rope attached between a sapling above his head and a treadle board at his feet. “Chair bodgers, as they were called… would move into the beech woods” and set up their lathe right under the trees. Very fine furniture can be turned on this type of lathe, even wooden bowls with a homemade mandrel which he demonstrates for us. He even shows off his sash saw attachment which is nothing short of ingenious, if a little dangerous. Interestingly the “bed” of Roy’s spring pole lathe was actually made from part of an old rope bed frame, complete with the rope holes in the side.


“Author’s message time.” Roy takes us over to his post drill and you instantly get the feeling that he’s got something important to say. Machines like this, he says, run on apples, on food. He points to a poster of a bicycle on the wall.  “A man on a bicycle is the most efficient moving thing on earth known to science”. But the development of these manual types of machines were abandoned with the advent of electricity. This is a unique moment in the thirty-five year history of the show, where Roy openly says “here is the thing I’m trying to sell to you…” meaning he wants us to buy into what he’s saying. He sets aside the woodworking entirely and his activism takes center stage. Early Roy Underhill used his new show as a way to reach people with his message of a sustainable lifestyle. Roy was a lover of history, of craftsmanship to be sure. But what really drives him, especially in these early years, is his love for nature and the environment that he sees as threatened by modern technology. Old time woodworking is his way of demonstrating that a satisfying life can be found in a self-sufficient, environmentally conscious, world of muscle power. He stops short of a full on speech, but with a long pause and a “well, you get my point”, he lets his message sink in.


Back to the lathe. “We cannot work with dull tools, it simply does not happen… what we have to understand is what happens down there in that little microscopic world where the molecules of the steel and the molecules of the wood meet.” Using a big slick chisel he shows us how a wedge cuts wood fibers. “There’s an optimum angle, 30 degrees” for a cutting edge. If you think Roy needs a protractor to check his bevel angles you don’t know Roy. He has a formula: The width of the bevel surface should be twice the thickness of the bevel’s back. Then you know you have a perfect thirty degrees.


“The very first thing you have to do (in sharpening) is grind to a proper edge”. Here we see his big foot powered sharpening stone for the first time. This is an amazingly efficient grinder with a gravity fed water drip and a slow speed. You’d have a hard time overheating a tool on this thing, though if you bet me enough money I might see just how fast I could peddle. He warns us about proper maintenance techniques for such a grind stone, as if we’ll ever own one, and then moves to the bench to grab his favorite Belgian clay water stone. As he polishes he transforms into a poet, quoting from the ancient “Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools”:


Then said the whetstone,

“Though my master’s thrift be gone,

I shall him help within this year

To get him twenty marks clear.

His axes shall I make full sharp,

That they may lightly do their work,

To make my master a rich man

I shall assay, if that I can.


Here we see Roy’s love for books, something that becomes more apparent through the years as he often quotes the classics of both woodworking and literature. The funny voice he lends to the whetstone is alone worth watching this episode just to hear!


Besides making tools easier to work with, a mirror finish protects a tool from corrosion. “A Euclidian line in space, as you know...” (Oh, of course we know our Euclidian lines!) What he means to say is there should be no light reflecting off the edge, so you can use sunlight to check your tool’s sharpness. And that is the final lesson in this episode of Woodwright’s Shop.



Season One, Episode Five: Lathes

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.

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