Roy Underhill, a teacher, writer and the owner of The Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, is ready to take on his next project
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Inside The Woodwright’s School at 89 Hillsboro St., Roy Underhill, 72, energetically steps around sturdy workbenches to offer his woodcraft students new earplugs. A minute later, tools begin rattling across tabletops from the pounding of mallets against chisels. The noises and activities draw the attention of passersby peering through the windows.
“I can’t tell you how often people come in and say, ‘I never imagined this sort of stuff was still going on,’” Roy says. “I think it’s one of the most fun when you get the dad or mom, or grandma or grandpa, explaining to the kids what they’re seeing inside. And, you know, they’re all fascinated with it.”
Roy’s sense of wonder is part of his charm, delighting anyone who will listen with stories about the connected past, present and future of man and nature. “My whole interest in [working with hand tools] stems from this point – quality of life and responsibility,” Roy says. “Working with muscle power is a good thing. It’s like riding a bicycle instead of driving a truck. The environmental impact of this. And that’s why I think this is the way of the future.”
He is a master craftsman, entrepreneur, author, historian and teacher. He is also a husband of 50- plus years and father to two adult daughters. After more than 15 years teaching woodworking classes, Roy has no immediate plans to retire but he feels compelled to close the school in Pittsboro. He will empty the storefront windows, clear out the piles of wood and hand tools and sweep out the sawdust by the end of summer.
When asked why he is leaving now, Roy shakes his head and presses the heel of his hand to his face, smushing his signature mustache (he has been compared more than once to Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain). “Don’t make me say this. I don’t want this to be the truth of it, but it’s just time. I’ve got another big project I want to do before I can’t do big projects anymore.”
Roy’s newest project is a book based on a collection of letters written by his great-grandmother, Rebecca P. Davis, who lived near Warrenton, North Carolina during Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime. Her words sparked Roy’s curiosity, inspiring him to research his family history during the Civil War. He says the issues back then still seem relevant today. “It’s gonna take everything I got,” Roy says. “As a writer, you know, it’s real work. It’s just hard to do well. I know what it takes to write and so I’ve got to do that.” He is the author of six woodworking books, numerous project guides, books on public speaking and even a woodworking novel complete with measured drawings.
“We’re limited in what we can pay attention to and do well,” Roy admits about his pragmatism. “I’ve done this, and I’ve shown it was a success. It’s also the first time I’ve quit something instead of being thrown out, kicked out, co-opted out or something like that. It’s very nice to end on your own terms.”
Roy says he plans to return to in-person teaching after his book is done. And, he might even step in front of the camera again.
An educated man
In 1972, Roy received a bachelor’s degree in theater direction from UNC, also his father’s alma mater. He wanted to pursue directing, and moved to Colorado where he directed some plays written by comedian Lewis Black, a fellow Tar Heel. But those early ambitions did not bear fruit, so Roy, along with his wife, Jane Underhill, left the theater experiment for another. They followed a road less traveled, and ended up in a commune miles off the grid in the remote mountains of New Mexico.
According to an interview published in Mother Earth News in 1985, the couple lived in a tipi for a couple of years and then on a mountain ridge in a hogan, which is a dome-like structure made with logs. Roy says at that time he met someone who collected old tools, like the 1874-era foot-powered lathe inside the school. “It was incredible,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is the answer.’ I realized there was this whole world of technology that was pretty advanced. Before everything got motorized, it was healthier, slower. But trying to make a living at it is like trying to make a living fly-fishing.”
By 1975, Roy and Jane left New Mexico and returned to North Carolina. He earned a master’s degree in forestry from Duke, mixing cultural anthropology classes with environmental science courses. While he was in graduate school, Roy began rebuilding a circa 1900 blacksmith shop where he imagined he could work and teach. Negotiations did not end in his favor, but he kept the idea in the back of his mind.
A time travelin’ man
In 1979, Roy became Colonial Williamsburg’s first master housewright, preserving the 18th century processes of carpentry and building. By day, he interpreted life as a tradesman in the 1700s and 1800s. At night and on weekends, he returned to the 20th century, using modern electronics for education and entertainment.
In the same year, Roy launched one of the longest running how-to series on public television. For more than 37 years, Roy demonstrated his love of working wood by hand in front of a television camera. Each of the 481 episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop” was filmed in a single continuous take lasting 24 minutes and 27 seconds. And, every show was unscripted. He would multitask, talking breathlessly to the camera as he showed his work.
Roy’s first workshop was located at West Point on the Eno in Durham. Later, he re-created his workshop inside a UNC-TV studio three different times. The first was built inside Swain Hall, which housed the old Radio, Television and Motion Picture department studio on UNC’s campus. The second in-studio workshop was in Raleigh, and the third was reconstructed within the present-day PBS NC studios in Research Triangle Park.
Out of the woodwork
Bill Anderson, a master craftsman and an instructor at The Woodwright’s School, says there is a resurgence of interest in woodworking. “I would be willing to bet a lot of that has to do with people watching Roy’s program and being inspired by that,” Bill says. “I’m positive the school has had a big impact on people thinking about hand tool woodworking.
“I think the main thing is the experience that we were giving,” Roy says about the school. “It’s not making things, it’s making time that’s worthwhile for people.”
Students have come to Pittsboro from across the country and overseas to attend Roy’s school. At the height of the pandemic, Roy and his instructors continued classes via Zoom. Students dialed in from Japan, Korea, Sweden, Australia, Russia and more. “It was a gas,” Roy says about remote teaching. “So it’s a kind of electronic version of the school. It was quite amusing.”
Among the myriad tools at his fingertips, Roy’s favorite one is teaching. “I think the whole thing here is putting the tools in people’s hands and letting them discover for themselves what they can do,” Roy says. “When they’re in a partnership, when that tool is part of the dialogue between them and the material, [you can] take enough of the mystery out and they can find that last little bit for themselves,” he says. “We try and have the planes sharp, the chisels sharp, and [make sure] everything’s working. And then they discover for themselves what they’ve got inside.”
A lasting impression
Vicky Oldham, owner of S&T’s Soda Shoppe next door to The Woodwright’s School, says she’ll miss Roy, his instructors and students.
“They all love Roy,” Vicky says. “They just love him. They think he’s the bomb. And I think, you know, we used to watch him on TV, and now they get to work in a class with him. He’s been a good neighbor.”
Vicky says she adores Roy’s humor, even when it’s silly. “Some of the funny times were… Oh, my God, I shouldn’t tell this, he would kill me. Don’t tell this unless you ask his permission,” Vicky says. “He was riding his motorcycle and jumped the curb and ran into the building and landed on my planters. And it probably saved him from, you know, getting really hurt or breaking the glass or something. And so we called him ‘Daredevil’ for a long time.”
Vicky laughs and shares another story. “One time, oh, my Lord, somebody’s car battery had died, and I said, ‘I’ll use my car.’ I had a little Miata, and Roy said he’d help me. Roy evidently didn’t know much about the Japanese cars. And he was, uh, he was looking under the hood. And I said, ‘It’s not under there. It’s in the trunk.’ And he looked at me like, ‘She’s a mom, and she thinks the battery’s in the trunk.’ But honestly, it is in the trunk. I made fun of him for a long time.”
Vicky says Roy added cultural value to Pittsboro. She says people having lunch or dinner inside the Soda Shoppe would see Roy and whisper, “That man looks like Roy Underwood.” Vicky says she would confirm their hunch and politely correct them, saying, “Yes, that’s Roy Underhill. His woodworking school is right next door.”
She laughs again, remembering Roy out on the sidewalk sharpening his ax using a foot-powered grindstone, and splitting logs. “He would talk to people, and he was always friendly and fun. He’s just really kind to everybody and very welcoming. We’re gonna miss him.”
Books by Roy Underhill
“The Woodwright’s Guide: Working Wood with Wedge & Edge”
“The Woodwright’s Shop: A Practical Guide to Traditional Woodcraft”
“The Woodwright’s Companion: Exploring Traditional Woodcraft”
“The Woodwright’s Workbook: Further Explorations in Traditional Woodcraft”
“The Woodwright’s Apprentice: Twenty Favorite Projects from The Woodwright’s Shop”
“The Woodwright’s Eclectic Workshop”
“Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker!”
Project Guides from Roy’s Books
Appalachian Dulcimer from “The Woodwright’s Eclectic Workshop”
Cabinet Maker from “The Woodwright’s Guide: Working Wood with Wedge & Edge”
Candle Stand and the Sliding Dovetail from “The Woodwright’s Companion: Exploring Traditional Woodcraft”
Making Wooden Screws from “The Woodwright’s Guide: Working Wood with Wedge & Edge”
Man Chair from the Ivory Coast from “The Woodwright’s Apprentice: Twenty Favorite Projects from The Woodwright’s Shop”