An Interview With Roy Underhill Host of The Woodright's Shop

A Plowboy interview with Roy Underhill, host of PBS' popular The Woodright's Shop television show.

  • 096-016-01-roy
    Underhill is undeniable proof that people who work hard and believe in themselves can still make an excellent living doing something they enjoy.

  • 096-016-01-roy

Have broadax—will time travel. A Plowboy interview with Roy Underhill, host of PBS' The Woodright's Shop. 

Every week, the lanky figure of Roy Underhill—better known to the public as the Woodwright—strides onto the television screens of PBS viewers. His popular television series, "The Woodwright's Shop, " has, for nearly five years, been introducing twentieth-century Americans to a more intimate relationship with wood . . . and glorifying the traditional craftsmanship of the days before power tools.

The show debuted in 1981 to critical acclaim and, since then, has been nominated for three daytime Emmy awards. As companion resources to the series, Underhill has written two successful books, The Woodwright's Shop: A Practical Guide to Traditional Woodcraft (in which he tells readers "how to start with a tree and an axe and make one thing after another until you have a house and everything in it") and The Woodwright's Companion: Exploring Traditional Woodcraft (two chapters of which, "The Whetstone Quarry" and "Hurdles," were excerpted in MOTHER NOS. 80 and 81 respectively). He is currently at work on the third volume of the Woodwright's series, scheduled for publication in the fall of 1986, and a fourth book on historical interpretation in a museum environment (the working title of the latter book, Roy says facetiously, is The Whores of Perception). Furthermore, Roy writes a column, "The Old Hand Ways, " for a new bimonthly magazine entitled Wood.

As if his Woodwright-related activities weren't quite enough, Underhill is employed full-time at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where he is the master housewright in charge of the Carpenter's Yard. And somehow, between writing books, filming TV shows, answering the ever-jangling phone, and making dozens of speeches and personal appearances, he finds the time to be a family man. He and his wife, lane, have two daughters, Rachel, six, and Eleanor, four. Roy dedicated his second book to Yane, a talented actress, noting her accommodation of his burgeoning career in the inscription, which reads, "To Jane: Broadway's loss is our gain." 

An individual of less substance would have been overwhelmed by such a grueling schedule and been satisfied to become a mere celebrity. But not Underhill: He feels that there's more to being the Woodwright than just filming the TV show. First and foremost, Roy views himself as an experimental historian. In his daily work at Williamsburg (which he refers to as a land-bound Kon-Tiki), he regularly discovers fragments of information that help fill the gaps that exist in the overall knowledge of eighteenth-century life and craftsmanship. Second, Roy is a communicator. And his communications skills are vital to his work, enabling him to chronicle and preserve accurately the historical discoveries he makes. 

Staff member Pamela Phillips and photographers Jack Green and Steve Keull visited with Underhill on two occasions, once at his work site in Colonial Williamsburg and again on the set of the PBS affiliate in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Roy films "The Woodwright's Shop." With candor and wicked wit (often self-directed), the interview with Roy Underhill discusses his unusual occupation and its relevance to contemporary Americans, who, he admits, are frequently better acquainted with a chain saw than an ax. However, in addition to containing entertaining commentary on woodhand tools, and appropriate technology—subjects on which Roy can discourse for extended periods of time—this Plowboy interview provides refreshing reinforcement of the American dream. Underhill is undeniable proof that people who work hard and believe in themselves can still make an excellent living doing something they enjoy. 



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