Most folks interested in woodworking are familiar with Roy Underhill’s long running PBS series, “The Woodwright’s Shop.” Roy transports his viewers back to a time when all woodworking was done by hand. Many of the tools and methods in use before electricity and power tools came along were quite inventive. Often, a tool had to be created to perform just one particular function. For example, before electric routers and shapers came along to create various shapes of moldings, hand planes did the job. A woodworker would need a large collection of wooden hand planes, each with a different profile to create various coves and beads, tongues and grooves, etc.
Some woodworkers and viewers may not know that Roy has a facility in Pittsboro, NC where he teaches classes. Called The Woodwright’s School, the classroom is in a corner storefront in the bustling downtown. Roy himself teaches many of the courses, and he also brings in other well known instructors on a wide variety of topics related to woodworking. Courtesy of a birthday gift certificate from my wife, I enrolled in one of the courses Roy was teaching, a two day class called Introduction to Hand Tools.
This was the first time this particular course was being offered, and Roy’s plan was to start the class with the natural wood as it grows in the forest, and take us through the refinements that result from the transformation we as humans impose upon the material, ending in a “cultural” piece.
Ten of us gathered on an unusually warm weekend at the end of January for the class. We began with short sections of a walnut log from a tree which had been blown down a couple of years earlier. It had been laying in a river bottom, still covered with bark until Roy retrieved it a few days earlier. As Roy explained, the bark kept the tree protected from bugs and decay, and also had kept the wood quite wet.
Our first project was to make a set of bench hooks, a kind of Z-shaped device to help hold objects on a workbench. We began with wedges and mallets, splitting the wood in half, then into smaller pieces that could be worked into bench hooks.
We all took turns using the wedges, then pounding on a froe, a tool which is basically a wedge with a wooden handle. Once we had split out enough blanks for everyone to make a couple of bench hooks, we got busy at our respective workbenches. The process was to take a piece of essentially very wet firewood and shape it into a useful object, with the help of drawknives, hand saws, chisels, hand planes, etc. Roy showed how to square the stock, lay out the marks for the cuts, and helped with how to use the tools. Eventually, everyone ended up with a pair of bench hooks, and learned quite a bit about how to work green wood.
There was a lot of time to work, critiques and tips as the work progressed, and frequent breaks to demonstrate how to perform a particular part of the process. It was also fun and lively, with Roy’s showmanship and sense of humor on full display.
Roy then gave the class some options on what each participant might want to make next. There were several joinery projects, some puzzles, etc. and the students began to work on their selected items. Some folks worked with a foot-powered lathe, others on an old mortising machine, and we all stayed busy creating a lot of wood shavings piling up on the floor. Hand tool work results in shavings, which is quite different than the sawdust created by power tools.
At the end of two very full days, everyone had something to show for their time, as well as some new knowledge about how things were done “back in the day.” If you are interested in woodworking and want to enjoy a fun experience, I would recommend a class at The Woodwright’s School.