The Charming Woodwright

July 17, 2008

Roy Underhill came out last week to the Studio. He came, he saw, and conquered us all laughing, as he must do everywhere. What a delight to have the charming woodwright in our midst. Roy of course hosts the Woodwright Show on PBS and has hosted it, get this, for the past 28 years. My goodness, that’s a heck of a run. Well he’s on to teaching in person now and he taught a class for us on building a foot treadle lathe. But he did more than that as he warmed hearts and won over new friends. What fun to have him here to share his love of traditional woodwork.

It’s not every teacher who can proclaim to his class that they have stemmed the tide of the norm. That in  their three days together they have managed to put another 13 foot treadle lathes onto the earth.  A magnificent if perhaps ultimately fruitless gesture, a gallant shake of the fist at the microchips of the world. But no matter, Roy would get up every morning and pronounce: We will slay bad woodworking today!

And not in false hope I truly think. As Roy said, working wood is what makes us human. We are too used to this wood. We have it, here comes the pun, ingrained in us. We have worked with wood as long as we have held tools in our hands. And this close connection with a material is not just a history of our time on earth although it can be viewed through that lens as well. It is part of our being, part of our living here on Earth. If we have forsaken it in the past 30 some years, it still does not diminish its sway on our being. We would dismiss it if we could but even the printed surfaces at our fast food restaurants show wood grain, not the grain nor hide of the nauga. Wood speaks to us with its warmth, with its utility, and with its beauty.

I believe this is true: that working with wood and tools puts us in touch with some ancient place inside of us. Some place that is calming and satisfying and right. Building or making is a common and necessary fact of life and when we make things with our hands it gives a kind of satisfaction that is unmatched by, for instance, finally reading the rest of my e-mail for the day.

So, Roy came among us and reminded us all of our past, of our connection to the world, of our connection to wood. He did it with grace and humor and I thank him for that. It was a fun weekend and we hope to repeat it again soon.

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Published in: on July 17, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Roy enlightens and entertains with an enormous amount of energy. It’s really a pleasure to hear him talk about woodworking or just tell stories about the history of the craft. I’ve been lucky enough to witness that in person.

    I think his show has got to be the longest running woodworking show on TV. I wish more PBS stations would carry it.

  2. My wife and son (4 years old at the time) were extremely fortunate to have been invited to visit Roy at his home in 1997. He invited us into his home and spent over an hour talking with us; he even baked some cookies for my son prior to our arrival! My son and I next saw him in 2005 (my son then age 12) at our local Woodcraft Store. I had brought along a photo of Roy, my son and I, taken at his home eight years prior, and Roy remembered our visit.

    I can honestly say that there are a small handful of people I have met in my life who truly are unique and genuine and command my respect, and Roy is one of them. He was exactly the same in person as he was on TV, even when the topic changed a bit from woodworking. His dry humor and obvious love for crafts is unparalled…his show is truly “woodworking above the Norm (Abrams)”, to steal a pun.

    My question is, despite the good-natured ribbing (“on today’s New Yankee Workshop show I will make a Windsor chair…I start by throwing a pile of boards into my Windsor chair making machine…and out comes a Windsor chair!”), have the two ever met in person, and are they friendly towards one another?


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