In Underhill's class, modernity is not welcome

Staff WriterMarch 28, 2009 

  • Roy Underhill's Woodwright's School, at 89 Hillsboro St. north of the old courthouse in Pittsboro, is operating part time while Underhill arranges the summer shooting schedule for his television show and prepares to move back to North Carolina. Once the Web site is up and running, students can register for classes online at www.woodwrightschool.com. In the meantime, to get on a mailing list for school updates, send Underhill a message at woodwrightroy@gmail.com.

— Electric saws and drills are not allowed in Roy Underhill's traditional woodworking classes. The power is in what happens when his students build something with their hands and the simplest tools.

"It's just an essential part of being human," Underhill said of the urge to build, which is driving students into his new Woodwright's School in downtown Pittsboro. "It's why we talk and think and do stuff. It's because we make things, and work with that opposable thumb. You get away from that, and you get disconnected from your own humanity. This is what we do."

For nearly three decades, Underhill has done it for a public television audience through his weekly show, "The Woodwright's Shop," where he planes and chisels his way through rocking chairs, tables and toy chests. It's one of the longest-running how-to programs on public television. It was started -- and is still produced -- at UNC-TV, though Underhill has lived and worked for years in Williamsburg, Va.

Just as the economy is pushing people to return to the basics, Underhill is returning to his roots, setting up the school in Pittsboro and coming back to North Carolina to live.

Underhill was born and raised in Washington. When he was a child, he says, an older sister was in college and working at the Smithsonian's "Life in Early America" exhibit.

He visited her there regularly and thought all adults fashioned log cabins with weathered hand tools.

He came to UNC, where he studied theater directing and helped build sets at Playmakers Theater. He used power tools then.

He married while still in college, and after graduation, he and his wife moved to Colorado with a group of other thespians. When that effort failed, they moved to an off-the-grid commune in the mountains of New Mexico. What they needed, they built -- with the same tools people had used before electricity was widely available. Underhill says he became aware then of the environmental repercussions of energy consumption.

Pitch for TV

In the 1970s, Underhill was back in North Carolina, in graduate environmental studies at Duke. He also began teaching woodworking classes in Hillsborough. It was during the first energy crisis, the days of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Foxfire books. People were learning how to make things the way their grandparents had. He pitched the idea of a television show and eventually got producers to bite.

Interest in handcrafting is coming back again, Underhill says. Since he announced his plan for the Woodwright's School a few months ago, his mailing list has grown from a few dozen to more than 600. He is working on a Web site now, www.woodwrightschool.com, where students will be able to register for classes online.

"It's indeed cyclical," said Underhill, now 58. "When people get caught up in big systems and find that they're losing control, there is a great comfort to be found in the skills and techniques of self-reliance."

The classes he has held so far, in a former antiques store a block north of the old courthouse, have been daylong sessions on Saturdays and Sundays on how to cut dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joints. There is a dress code: Students may wear only clothes that would have

been available in 1937. No modern coffee mugs or water bottles, no tools with plastic handles. When passers-by on Hillsborough Street press their faces against the front window to peer in, it looks like a mechanical arts class in the days of FDR's New Deal. It doesn't look out of place in the Chatham County town, where artists sell paintings, handmade jewelry and soap in a dozen small shops.

With eight hours to coach his 10 students -- versus 23 minutes to go from raw lumber to finished product on TV -- the pace of Underhill's classes is vastly different from his show. But his style is the same.

He combines his broad knowledge of history, tool engineering and the properties of wood with an erudite sense of humor. When asked why he's coming back to North Carolina after working for years as a master housewright and then in programming at Colonial Williamsburg, he says, "I had to get away from the sound of a fife and drum."

Blood and pain

The ears are nearly as important as the hands in woodworking, Underhill suggests. Absent the noise of machinery, it's possible to discern when a cut is complete by the way the wood sounds under the chisel's blade.

Underhill is known for his willingness to shed his blood for his art. He regularly nicks his knuckles on the TV show, hurriedly moving from one stage of a project to the next. Normally, he said, the more relaxed classes require fewer bandages, but when a finely honed chisel slipped during a demonstration last month, he all but sliced off the end of one finger on his left hand.

Rouse Wilson, a Pittsboro dentist who took the class one Sunday last month, found Underhill's class the perfect antidote to the goal-oriented style of woodworking he has been doing out of necessity.

"It's about getting back to the process," Wilson said. "Not just the end result."

martha.quillin@newsobserver.comor 919-829-8989

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