Engineer & Entertain

Ideas I grapple with

Archive for the tag “Roy Underhill”

A Class Cut Up

My goal in life, aside from being better than sliced bread, is to engineer and entertain.  I want to make things and entertain people. Roy Underhill does this effortlessly. The main instructor of the Woodwright’s School and personality of The Woodwright’s Shop also enlightens, engages, and educates like a fish swims.

The school is in downtown Pittsboro, NC. It is a quaint town that has not forgotten its 1785 establishment. While waiting for Roy to open the school, I chatted with my classmates. Most of them were from North Carolina and the rest were from the East Coast. Out of no where, Roy turns the corner carrying a 10 foot board of tulip poplar with a box of donuts balancing on it. Clad in a gray vest, a flat cap, and a smile, I was surprised when “Kildare’s Fancy” was not playing.

Our benches were decorated with models of the joints we would soon be learning and cutting. Mr. Underhill quipped we could just take those home and go to the bar now rather than learn the skill.

Guess whose bench this was?

Roy warmly greeted all of us and asked us about our experience levels in woodworking and creating dovetails and mortise & tenons by hand.  There were people with no experience all the way to more experienced than St. Roy. If you think you are not good enough to take a class taught by Roy, you are wrong.

Roy demonstrated the through dovetail and along the way shared hilarious anecdotes and delightful feghoots. He then set us to task and we created our own dovetails. At one point in time I was having difficulty paring. Rather than removing thin curls with my chisel, I was pulling off chips. I called the Master over and he performed the same task with the same results. He blamed the chisel and I was relieved that he used that excuse as well.

He set out to sharpen the chisel and this came to a tangent on sharpening tools. What is typically a 4 minute shop task became a 40 minute discourse on grinding and honing.

With no tools to blame, I finished my through dovetail. There are many dovetails, some better and some worse, but these dovetails are mine.

Shake your dovetail feathers.

After lunch at a soda shoppe next door, we made half-blind dovetails. Half-blind dovetails are like through dovetails, but the tails are shorted and sit in a socket.

Half-blind dovetail wears an eye patch

The method Roy taught us to make half-blind dovetails could easily be used to make through dovetails and vice versa. There are many ways to the tree, Grasshopper.

We then moved on to making a mortise and tenon joint. Mortise and tenons are frequently used in making tables. Roy imparted some great wisdom about making tables, “How long do you table legs need to be? They must reach the ground!”

The joint is very simple in that we are cutting a peg to put into a chiseled hole. That said, I still managed to err the layout of my mortise and tenon. Roy shrugged it off and said I am just creating a new school of art.

What you see on The Woodwright’s Shop is exactly what you get when you take a class from Roy. He is a warm and entertaining teacher. Not only does he teach you a skill, but he teaches its application to bigger projects. With practice, I will be making neater and tighter joints. And in no time, I will be applying them to making tables, drawers, keepsake boxes, blanket chests, and plenty of other items my family will hate to receive for Christmas and gift-giving occasions.

Yes, I am holding a 4 foot dovetail saw.

He signed my lab notebook. “Thank you, Benji. May the grain be with you! Roy Underhill 2013”


Nailed it.

On the Woodwright’s Shop “Water & Wood” episode, Roy Underhill covers the relationship between water and wood.  The episode titles are not always clever, but one of the projects certainly was.  While using “squozed” as the past tense for squeeze, Roy explained how to make a tooth and nail puzzle.

Makes a great Father’s day present.

The process is simple – cut some gaps in the wood, boil the wood, compress it in a vice for a day, put the nail or screw in the middle tooth, and boil the wood to restore the shape.  I deviated from the instructions and like Thomas Edison, I did not fail, but rather discovered methods which did not work.

I cut the gaps with a fine toothed Japanese pull saw and cut away the waste with a coping saw.  My first attempt involved soaking the wood for a few hours in room temperature water.  The wood compressed, but I over did it and cracked it.

Under pressure.

Chipped a tooth

I tried several more times experimenting with wood grain, length of time in the water, and depth of the cuts and none of it made a significant difference.  What did make a difference was boiling the wood in water.  Once the wood was boiled the tooth is able to compress to about half its size.  I was able to compress it and apply the screw or nail shortly thereafter.  I also made one where I left the wood in the vice over night.  The wood remained compressed until it was placed in water – it is akin to the magic growing sponge animals.  If you do not leave the piece compressed overnight, you will need to work quickly in setting the screw.

Ugly, mediocre results which I can call a success.


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