An Ode to Roy Underhill, the Bob Ross of Woodworking
Josh Centers 03.31.22
When most people reminisce about classic PBS how-to shows, they usually think of Bob Ross or maybe Julia Child, but one of their contemporaries is still alive and kicking: Roy Underhill. Like Bob and Julia, Roy is also an artist, only his medium isn’t paint or food, but wood. There are no power tools in Roy Underhill’s shop. He has preserved the old ways using the kinds of tools a woodworker would have used in the 19th century; things like augers, bucksaws, chisels, hand planes, and a bunch of others you’ve probably never heard of. He dresses the part, too, with his trademark cap and suspenders.
Roy Underhill has hosted “The Woodwright’s Shop” since 1979 where he spends 30 frantic minutes carving, chopping, and sawing, usually all in one take. On occasion, he nicks himself and just keeps going, and it’s not unusual for Underhill to end a show out of breath and covered in sweat and sometimes even a little blood.
To understand why Roy Underhill does everything the hard way, it helps to watch that original 1979 season of “The Woodwright’s Shop,” and maybe even read the companion book called… The Woodwright’s Shop. Therein, you find Underhill’s fundamental philosophy behind what he teaches:
“How to start with a tree and an axe and build your house and everything in it.”
That’s a powerful concept. No factories, no shipping containers, no plastic. Just a man, an axe, and the woods. Not that long ago, it’s how everything was done. And if the global supply chain continues to deteriorate, it may be how we have to do things again. It’s worth studying the old ways, but you’ll find that they’re more organic and less predictable than modern methods.
For instance, Underhill spends an entire chapter of the book describing different trees and what they’re good for. Traditional woodworking requires knowing the traits of a species, and individual characteristics of each tree, like the grain pattern. Even if you don’t have the heart or gumption to chop down a tree, you can spend entire afternoons with a newfound appreciation of the wealth contained in the woods.
Before he chops down a tree in the first episode, he sheepishly admits that he’s about to kill it. In the book, he says, “Let it know that you appreciate what it has been doing and accept the responsibility of giving it a second life.” And a second life he gave that tree, transforming it into a maul and gluts, two powerful tools for splitting wood.
From there, he teaches how to split a tree and transform it into a shaving horse, a traditional foot-powered bench and vise, which holds a piece of wood as you work it with a drawknife or spokeshave. He then uses the shaving horse to make a rake, and on from there making chairs, baskets, hay forks, and even houses. He even delves into blacksmithing. And that’s just season one. Over the course of 37 seasons, Underhill has made doors, cabinets, windows, toys, tool handles, buckets, lathes, musical instruments, kayaks, and spoons. If it can be made out of wood, Roy Underhill has made it.
Underhill has never been shy to share the stage. Some of the best episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop” are when he invites fellow expert artisans to demonstrate crafts like blacksmithing, bow making, or crafting wooden shoes. (Despite all of the jokes about wooden shoes, they served a real purpose: they were protective footwear in the days before steel-toed boots.)
Sadly, there haven’t been any new episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop” since 2017. Thankfully, there are 37 whole seasons you can watch on DVD or through streaming with a subscription to Popular Woodworking Video, or on YouTube if you know where to look. You can also watch many of the more-recent seasons for free through PBS.
Roy Underhill also runs his own school, called The Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, North Carolina, but if you want to get into a class, you’ll have to sign up fast as they sell out quickly. Every single “Introduction to Hand Tool Woodworking” class taught by Underhill himself is sold out through 2022.
While Underhill may not have the cultural cachet of Bob Ross, he obviously has a large number of dedicated fans. It’s hard to say why he didn’t catch on in the public mind as much as his peers. Maybe traditional woodworking is too unapproachable, while painting and cooking are more so. Perhaps it’s Underhill’s high-pitched frenetic pace which is the near-exact opposite of Ross’s slow, soothing baritone, or maybe it’s the hat.
Roy Underhill has been a huge influence in my adult life. Watching “The Woodwright’s Shop” kickstarted my hobby of collecting vintage woodworking tools, and it even led me to train to become a blacksmith. I originally intended to forge my own woodworking tools, but haven’t quite made it there yet. So, it goes, but every time I venture into the woods, I look at the trees and imagine what I could make.