Rediscovering Woodworking

When I was a kid, most of my favorite television shows were on PBS. They weren’t the ones most kids liked though; they were The Woodwright’s Shop, The New Yankee Workshop, and This Old House. These shows weren’t my only exposure to the wood crafts: one of my grandfathers was a carpenter, the other was skilled at building machines of his own invention out of wood, and my dad did most of the remodeling of our house himself during my elementary school years. I watched and helped them build. Because of this exposure I always had access to tools and loved building things out of wood (and Legos) but I was frequently frustrated by my less than perfect results. The things I built didn’t look like the things Roy Underhill and Norm Abram built on the PBS shows!

My passion for building went on hiatus when I was in college but I managed to build a CD shelf and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in my apartment after graduate school (it may still be in place because the only way to remove its 8′ × 8′ mass would be to cut it apart). After moving to the east coast, I embraced another lifelong love of mine: sailing. I read dozens of books and websites to learn about building wooden boats but I never had the space to start building one, although I did manage to build an 8-foot paddle boat using a friend’s driveway for cutting and my studio apartment for epoxy work. While that boat floated, it was unstable and rarely got used however, I learned some valuable boatbuilding lessons from the exercise.

The 8-foot plywood boat I built in the spring of 2012.
The 8-foot plywood boat I built in the spring of 2012.

When Emily and I moved to a larger apartment together in Virginia, she gave me the go-ahead to build a liquor cabinet in the living room. I dusted off my big-box store hand tools and actually produced an interesting and functional piece of furniture. I knew nothing about mortise and tenon joinery at the time so the door is held together with very rough glued half-lap joints cut with a Japanese-style pull saw and the shelves are screwed in. I am proud of the woven dowel rod door though!

The liquor cabinet I made in our apartment living room.
The liquor cabinet I made in our apartment living room.

A year after finishing the liquor cabinet, I enrolled in an adult education woodworking class offered through our county public school system. The class was heavily focused on machine woodworking and I learned a lot about how quickly machines can destroy your projects and injure you. Most of my previous woodworking experiences involved hand tools and handheld power tools. In the class I managed to build two wooden toy airplanes for Emily’s twin nephews and a decent dovetailed box from rough-sawn walnut lumber. I started reading books and searching for information on the Internet where I discovered the great rivalry between the hand tool camp (represented by Roy Underhill) and the power tool camp (represent by Norm Abram). My tendency toward quiet and my lack of space steered me toward the hand tool camp. I started watching episodes of The Woodwright’s Shop again after all those years, now via the web. By a stroke of luck, I discovered The Woodwright’s School, Roy Underhill’s very own woodworking school, and I was determined to attend with high hopes of improving my technique by learning from a master. It was a strange feeling being able to send an email to Roy himself asking to be placed on the school’s mailing list.

After a month’s wait, the long-anticipated email finally came: registration was open! Within five minutes of receiving the message, I signed up for the dovetail and mortise and tenon workshop for January 10, 2015; when I finished registering, there were only two spaces left out of ten. Emily booked us into the Rosemary House Bed and Breakfast in Pittsboro, North Carolina, just a block away from the school, and we drove down the night before class. I was bubbling over with excitement.

The Woodwright’s School occupies an old storefront in downtown Pittsboro. Each student works at an individual bench outfitted with tools and coffee is always on. The day is packed with information and Roy’s stream of jokes. I was surprised by how many people walking by stopped to look in through the large plate glass windows; one couple even came in. After a full morning of cutting dovetails, the class adjourned to S&T’s Soda Shoppe next door for lunch. The soda shop was worth the trip alone; the vanilla coke was hand mixed and they gave me a Kennedy half dollar as part of my change: almost as good as time travel. After lunch, there was plenty of time to visit the tool shop above the school and choose some fine old tools. A few of us burned off some lunch calories by helping Roy rip an 8-inch diameter apple log with a frame saw. We continued with half-blind dovetails and moved on to mortise and tenon joints and I discovered that I’m in need of a lot more practice on those. Five-thirty came too fast and it was hard to believe I had the great opportunity of spending a day learning basic joinery from Roy Underhill. Now … practice, practice, practice.

Roy Underhill and me at The Woodwright's School, January 10, 2015.
Roy Underhill and me at The Woodwright’s School, January 10, 2015.

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