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Woodworking with Hand Tools

Author Roy Underhill takes us from forest to furniture with historical woodworking techniques.

| Oct. 16, 2008

  • Spring-pole lathe
    Plans for this spring-pole lathe are available in the appendix of The Woodwright’s Guide: Working Wood with Wedge and Edge.
  • Roy Underhill
    Roy Underhill is an expert in historical woodworking methods.
  • Wedge and Edge book cover
    The Woodwright’s Guide: Working Wood with Wedge and Edge traces wood from tree to finished furniture — all using hand tools.

  • Spring-pole lathe
  • Roy Underhill
  • Wedge and Edge book cover

More than 25 years ago, Roy Underhill adopted the word “woodwright” when he developed the concept for his PBS television show, “The Woodwright’s Shop.” Since then, he’s been known as the woodwright — the expert on historical woodworking methods and proponent of hand tools.

How did you become interested in woodworking?

Just like all kids, I enjoyed making things. My sister worked at the Smithsonian when she was in college; early America was her area. That might have been a big influence.

But a lot of it was being a product of the times — getting out of college in the early ’70s during a deep recession and time of unemployment. This was the time of a strong back-to-the-land movement. That grew into the beginning of environmental awareness, and I jumped into that wave with both feet.

What’s your philosophy on using power tools?

I learned woodworking using power tools and later realized the errors of my ways, like the song says, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” Nobody understood that our actions had the kinds of consequences that we’re seeing now. Working with hand tools is a much more eco-friendly way to work. It’s a deep part of the human experience, working with that blade and the wood. It’s much like when Obi-Wan Kenobi gave Luke Skywalker the lightsaber and said, “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” The ancestral simplicity of the blade is a great thing.

Ron Duft
4/23/2009 10:27:17 AM

Excellent article I have watched the Woodwright’s shop since it started. My Family has their share of talents. My grandfather was a worker of leather from jackets with intricate bead work to harness and saddle craft. My father a cabinet maker, my sister a painter and sculptor. All use their hands and hand tools. I make Stone Age tools and learned to blacksmith from my great uncle and have a Bsc in Electronics. I have always believed we need to keep the old crafts alive with the younger generations. We have lost so much with our “progress “ the loss of these craftsmen saddens me. I wish Roy Underhill all the best and look forward to hearing about his teaching endeavors.

Charlie G.
4/7/2009 5:55:29 PM

This was a great article to find at the top of my first news letter. Roy Underhill has long been one of my heroes, and I grieved greatly when our local PBS stations dropped the Woodwright's Shop. It's good to discover that I can see episodes on-line. I've always loved working with hand tools, and can highly recommend it. Quieter, generally cheaper, safer, and much more connected with the wood and the final product. Better exercise than a gym. There still is a thrill for me when a sharp chisel leaves a crisp, clean edge on a piece of wood...especially a piece that I have "rescued" myself.

Stuart Home
1/8/2009 8:57:00 PM

Nice to read about someone still using traditional and old-fashioned tools. that's how I learned at the hands and under the guidance of my Grandfather. I certainly hope that this story encourages otehrs to follow suit.

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