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We are joined by a PBS legend this week!
Roy Underhill has been the host of the Woodwright’s Shop for almost four decades and has been an inspiration to many craftsmen throughout the construction industry. Eddie and Tyler were giddy to have him come on the show and talk about the way things used to be done and why we should be proud of our heritage as builders.
Make sure you stick around until the end. Roy absolutely kills the answer to our megaphone question. We came out of this interview with inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose.
Tyler: Welcome to the Construction Brothers Podcast. I'm your host, Tyler Campbell, and with me, like he is every week: My brother, Eddie Campbell.
Eddie: What's up, Tyler?
Tyler: Not much, Eddie. This week, we're talking about our heritage as builders.
Tyler: All right, well Roy, thank you so much for joining us today. Can you tell us who you are and what you do?
Roy Underhill: I am Roy Underhill, and I am not a craftsman, but I played one on TV. Actually, I’ll tell you more about that. There was a time when that changed, and I think I found I really was a craftsman. But I'll tell you about that later. But I have done, for 30 years, “old time woodworking” is one way to put it—early technology—and I’ve written books on it. I've done a television series, “The Woodwright’s Shop,” all about that. And gosh, it's been a long career, but very interesting.
Eddie: What made you start “The Woodwright’s Shop”? What kind of started the initiative of that?
Roy Underhill: I needed money! I needed money. It was a tough time. You know, it was a difficult economic time of recession when I started, and I could not get a job. Nobody was hiring. And so, luckily, I got to keep doing what I liked to do, which was make things. This was the start of the environmental awareness of the ‘70s. And I'd lived off the grid for a while up in the mountains of New Mexico. And so all those came together with an idea of talking about early, early technology, and how to work with your hands, and its application for a future better world. I did that as a thesis for a graduate degree, or thesis presentation for a graduate degree, in forestry and environmental science. After I finished the presentation, somebody said, you know, that would work on TV. It took a couple of years of pushing, but we got the series. Well I can tell you more about that, but that answers your question. That's why I started and how I got to where I was doing early woodworking on TV, being a TV woodworker.
Tyler: Now there’s an interesting story behind that that I've heard. How did you pitch the show to the local company?
Roy Underhill: Well, I went in the first time and they were saying, “Yeah…” The fellow talking said, “No, couldn’t you do some of it with a chainsaw? You know, to make it more accessible.” Well, you know, that would make it ordinary in my mind. I wanted that difference, but you know, the connection, everybody can connect to old American woodworking. You need something different, you know, you don't need to watch TV to see how to use a chainsaw. Everybody knows that. So I didn't like the idea, but anyway, I came back after a year. I had heard they had a new fellow in, and I came in and full regalia. So I had my axe and my suspenders and my tool chest and I walked into the guy's office. And I think it was, among all those things it was the axe, that I kept gesticulating with, that convinced him. So he said, Go. In fact, go out of my office. (laughs) I’ll probably tell you later, that was just done statewide in North Carolina. So we had “The Woodwright’s Shop” running the same year that “This Old House” started. Same year. To go national, of course, you need to impress people at PBS, but there are lots of folks trying to break through at PBS. We sent tapes to them, and I met a guy in an elevator once at a PBS meeting. He said to me, “You don’t know me, but I made a big difference in your life. Yeah, I'm the guy who decides who goes national on PBS. I just mainly look at cassettes, toss them in the trash, look at cassettes, toss them in the trash. And I had a little bit of a gastric difficulty and had my secretary watching. I came back from the bathroom and she was laughing. ‘Look at this thing, this fool cut himself and he kept on working.’” He was watching one of my shows where I had sliced my finger. He said, “Roll that back. He cut his finger. Yeah, what the heck? And that's why you're on TV, pal.” And the elevator door opened and he left. You never know. That's the joke I tell, too, because all the shows were shot live. One shot, one take, all the way through, continuous. And I've got to finish, or get as close as I can, in that limited amount of time. So it's pretty hectic. So I cut myself a lot. What I tell people is the director kept yelling, “Cut, cut!” And I didn't know what he meant, so. (laughs) What a business.
Eddie: We've got a guy in our shop here—You know, we do a lot of digital construction stuff, design, but we all kind of, we want to be builders. We all love it, and we love construction. One of our guys, he's got a whole business that he does working wood. And he said, when he found out we were going to have you on the show, “Man, I wanted to be that guy. He was like my hero.” And Jeff, like, you really, there's just a lot of inspiration for him out of what you have done. But I want to say, he relayed a very similar story about you cutting yourself on the show and just kind of finishing the take and saying, “All right, well, I'm going to go clean up,” or something like that. So this apparently happened often. I mean, you still got fingers, right?
Roy Underhill: I'm all here, but it's true. It's one of the few TV shows that offered real blood.
Eddie: That's excellent.
Tyler: Well, so I wanted to dive into some of your historical work, too, because you were part of restoring and maintaining Colonial Williamsburg. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you kind of came into that?
Roy Underhill: Yeah. Well, so many stories, but basically to give you the overview: My job, I was the Master Housewright of Colonial Williamsburg. And so this was the restored capital of Virginia in the 18th century, restored to the 18th century look. And my job there was to, among the other craftsmen, blacksmiths, the gunsmiths, the bookbinders, the weavers, on and on—my job was to build the houses, buildings, the way they were built in the 18th century. And as the saying goes, everybody who knew how is dead. And so part of it's the detective work of figuring out, how did these guys work? We started with, you know, we went into the woods with oxen and axes and started felling trees, bringing them back. Heu them with axes, square pitch-saw them, if you’ve ever seen that—the two-man rip saw, one standing on top of the log, one down below and you saw out boards, go about a foot a minute through pine. And you season the wood, you clean it. We made the windows, doors, floors, the framing of the house, split the Oak shingles, Cypress shingles, just built buildings and the blacksmiths made the nails. So the idea was to try, like experimental history, to replicate what these, what our bearers did back in the time. So that was my job. Pretty cool. Actually, hot.
Tyler: Well, I'm sure that you noticed a lot while you were working on that. So what was something that really showed through for you? Like what, what can you tell us about the craftsmen that built Williamsburg?
Roy Underhill: You know, one of the questions, “What did they do back then?” There's a whole lot of “they” and a whole lot of “back then.” So a huge variety, very formal construction, very slapdash, jack-legged work. One thing is, with time, you have a filter of the poorly built stuff. Doesn’t last. Thus we don't have evidence of those kinds of buildings, but they were there. Only the things that lasted are the things that we get to see. All the crap is gone. So if you want to replicate it accurately, you have to see a whole lot of work. One interesting thing, working in Virginia, we always recognize that we're a bunch of guys doing—well, this was very much done by slave labor. So one of the things is learning about folks like John Hemings, Sally Hemings’ younger brother, who worked with an Irish joiner. John Hemings was enslaved with the Jefferson household. John Hemings did Monticello, or, oh gosh what is it—Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s retreat. He was a master joiner, worked with a Irish fellow, Dinsmore. And there's actually a letter from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was President, Jefferson was writing this letter as President of the United States. He's writing to Dinsmore, saying, I need those planes that belonged to John Hemings. He is about to start on the windows and the glass doors at Poplar Forest, and cannot go to work until you return his sash planes that you have borrowed from him. If you will return them by the latest stage, I will be most grateful. So here's a letter from the President of the United States, writing to this Irish joiner, telling him to return the planes that belong to a man who doesn't even own himself. That's a strange time and you've got to take all that in. You can still see some of John Hemings’ work there at Monticello. You know, that's one of the things, if you builders—you talk to builders, right? What is your main audience? Folks that are in commercial?
Tyler: Yeah, commercial and residential, and mainly younger.
Roy Underhill: But one thing I would say, if they have young people working with you, take them, give them a chance to go see some of these historic buildings around—not just the colonial era, but some of the historic architecture around. It's such a great and fascinating heritage to work and to get your young folks that are working for you interested in that. I bet it'll pay off a great deal in how much they care about what they do. That's my soapbox.
Eddie: I love history. This comes up again and again when we talk. I really like what you said there about getting the work that we have left through a filter. We really get all of history through a filter. There are so many things that are mundane that weren't recorded. And so all of history kind of comes through a filter. We live in a nice little town here that has a lot of history to it, a lot of older homes in it. So you see that kind of architecture all throughout our city. But again, these are the houses that stayed. These are the edifices that are still here because maybe they were more prominent, had more money to them. And so, what a great point, not only for building, but I mean all of history, we get the high points. That's the filter we kinda hear history through.
Roy Underhill: I think so. Did I tell you about the axes we started out with at Williamsburg? Kind of goes the other way. When I started there, I knew I wanted to have the tools that were accurate for the period. And I talked to the archeologists and they told me that “We have samples of the axes that were used in the 18th century.” I said, “Do you? Do you have them dated to 1770? Because that's what I really need.” They said “Yeah, we do, because we find them down wells, and the stratigraphy, or the archeology of the wells, we've got perfect layers. We can tell you the exact year just about that the axe went in the well, axe heads, and we have them here from excavation. So you could have the blacksmiths duplicate them.” And so I did. They were unusual looking axes, these iron heads with the steel bit, but the blacksmiths made them for us, replicated them just perfectly. I made the Hickory handles and they were all ready and my crew went out to work with them. I took that first swing at the tree and, wham, this sting went up the handle into my hand— Oh, and the axe head bounced off the tree, just about took one of the guy’s heads off. He tried it, thunk, it was just terrible. And we worked it, worked it, and the tree finally went down like beavers on crack had been at it. I come back and see the archeologists that I got the axe heads from. I said, “Man!” She said, “How'd they do?” She was very interested. “I don't know. Maybe we don't know what we're doing, but you're sure we had the axes that they were using in 1770?” She said, “Well, no, no, no, no. What you have is a sample of the axe heads that they were throwing down wells in the 17th century. You may have a sample of the worst axe heads of the whole century, now that I think about it.” So there’s a case where the good ones were used up and the bad ones, down the well, “I'm not bothering with that. I hate that thing.”
Eddie: (laughing) I love it.
Roy Underhill: You never know. It's so fascinating.
Eddie: Well, you hear stories of those things flying off and hitting people and killing them.
Roy Underhill: Oh yeah. Off the handle, yeah. It’s been very, always interesting. And let me say, just, you know, working with the blacksmiths and other artisans there at Williamsburg, that was just the best thing. The wheelwrights, you know, building timber carriages for us. So it's like its own world that is almost self-sufficient there, really wonderful.
Tyler: What started you down this path of utilizing older technology, older tools?
Roy Underhill: Again, living off the grid. Out of college, a twisted path led me to an intentional community way up in the mountains of New Mexico. So this was the ‘70s and, you know, it was ostensibly a commune, but we would cooperate, we did. But nevertheless, we were having to work off the grid in the mountains, 17 miles from the nearest power line, way up in the mountains. And if you wanted to do it, you did it with your muscle power. So I was interested in that, and then the environmental awareness started, you know, people just starting to understand about the consequences of global warming and the various greenhouse gases. I was visiting one of my wife's professors, we were down visiting her old professor who’d moved to Albuquerque. He was just into collecting old tools, and he had an 1874 foot-powered table saw, and I was just amazed. There was this whole world of muscle powered machinery before electricity became general and abundant and available in rural areas. And so this foot-powered, bicycle-powered machinery from 1874, just bzzz there you go, wow, this has not been improved since 1874. But think about it. The bicycle was still the way it was in 1874. You look at them now, the height, the efficiency of a bicycle. I said, there's something to this. I think part of me also thought, hmm, nobody else is doing this. I better get in there.
Eddie: The opportunist.
Roy Underhill: Well, sure. And also a lack of opportunity. Like I was saying, the jobs I didn't get are some of the best breaks I ever had. Because I would have gone into a more mundane, compromising path if I'd been hired for some of the jobs that I did not get, and was forced to just continue on my own. And that's been very satisfying.
Eddie: What a great point that is for all of our listeners. Because here we find ourselves in a time where a lot of lost jobs, been furloughed and things like that—who knows the opportunities for creativity and innovation that we have right now because we have the time to think?
Roy Underhill: Yeah, you gotta make the best of it, that’s for sure. I do like the good times, too. We have our little school that I have right now, I have The Woodwright’s School. After I left Colonial Williamsburg—the constant fights and drum music, I couldn’t take it. I had to get out of there. Nevertheless, I have a little school. I take 10 students at a time because that's what I wanted, to teach traditional woodworking. And it's great, we've got a great demand for it. It's done real well. But man, we’re just barely running with, it's very trying to do this stuff with masks on. I put sneeze guards around all the workbenches. We only do five students at a time. So it's a challenge all around. People still want to dovetail.
Eddie: People still want to learn. I mean, no matter what, we have a hunger for that.
Roy Underhill: Yeah. Somebody wrote about this once who said that we have the “hungry neuron.” It just wants, never satisfied. Always wants more, wants to learn. That's what I've been on the supply end of, I hope, also the consuming end. I should say that— Let me tell you something here. You never get a word in edgewise, sorry. I have learned more in the past 10 years of running this school than I learned in all the years prior to that 30, 40 years working. Students— ‘Cause you don't know what you don't know until you start teaching, and you've got 10 people a week coming in and saying, well, how do you get that thought? You know, I saw somebody do it this way. I read this on the blog. Somebody said they do it… But then next week you're saying, show me the way to do that new technique, from your students. And you've seen this just constant laboratory of questioning, and having enthusiasts telling you what they have learned and what they think. And what a world, boy, you learn a lot when you run a little school, that's for sure. All right, now you can speak.
Tyler: I have a kind of a project question. If I wanted to start using some of these traditional techniques and using manual tools, what kind of project should I do? Do you have something that you just tell people, hey, you know, go build one of these?
Roy Underhill: Well, you know, I have my basic, gosh, I got so many basic classes. ‘Cause that's what I like to teach the most. One of the most popular ones, of course, the dovetail and mortise and tenon classes. So here's the elementary language of woodworking, doing true dovetails to build a chest as one would, and half-blind dovetails to do the drawers. Some tenon for windows, doors, sash. That's my favorite class, window making. That's not what you asked. I think building a toolbox is great. Because you dovetail the boards, you gotta tongue and groove and fit the bottom, do moldings for the skirt around it, and then frame up a lid with mortise and tenon uploading panels. So essentially you're building a door, but it's all on a real doable scale. That's a great thing for your folks who are experienced woodworkers, but maybe never done something like that. Building a tool chest is great. And if you don't like it, give it to someone for a selling chest. You know, I think that's a great project to do.
Tyler: I think I might have to take you up on that challenge. That sounds like a lot of fun, because yeah, I mean, you know, like everybody, I started using power tools when I was younger. And when I started to learn, I mean, as did you, that's just kinda what's around so you use what’s around.
Roy Underhill: Yeah, so did I.
Tyler: So yeah, I mean, I guess that'll be a challenge for my garage one weekend, is to make a toolbox.
Roy Underhill: It’s a combination of things as you— One thing I was saying, I think we talked about this once, those hand tools will give a texture that is unusual and special to the surface of the work. So they’ll have those hand tool marks, the hand plane, the draw knife, the chisel marks, and it has a real beauty to it. It's not like, Oh, look at that crude surface ‘cause it's not polished and finished. Pretty much anybody can accomplish a flat, smooth surface. But something that’s attractive, but has some texture to it? That's pretty neat.
Tyler: It has soul to it.
Roy Underhill: Yeah. The human touch.
Tyler: Yeah, that's something that I've noticed when I'm looking at older construction or smaller, you know, yeah, like windows, like you'd said. If you're looking at that, and you see where the draw knife has come across, or you see where the plane has gone across, the saw marks. There's, I don't know, there's more of almost like a spiritual connection to it in a way. It's like, man, this is, you know, you could see that this really came from the woods, and somebody took the time and energy to make that thing.
Roy Underhill: I think the word that always comes to me is connection. It’s what you're just saying. You see a human touch there and you have a connection to that person that did that work, looking at that piece and through them there is connection, not just that person, but with the ancient, ancient tradition that I think is deep in all of us, part of our evolution, working by hand.
Eddie: I used to love when I'd get inside of the walls of some of the older houses down here, because of the old heart pine. The things you would uncover, the studs don't look like the studs we have now. I mean, none of that looked the same. And so a lot of, I mean, if you're opening plaster up and getting in a wall that, I mean, nobody's been in that for a hundred years. Yeah. It's just, it really is a cool connection that you have to the last guy that looked at that was the guy that covered it up. And I just opened it up and just, it's, sometimes it's almost like a time capsule. I mean, there are things you find in the wall.
Tyler: Jokes and cans and stuff.
Eddie: You never know what somebody's going to throw in the wall. I sheetrocked a cat in the wall one time. No kidding. Went home, came back the next day and then had a story from the homeowner where I had sheetrocked a cat inside of their bathroom wall.
Tyler: Well maybe if you were using hand tools, you would have slowed down just a touch.
Eddie: Maybe, yeah. If it was a plaster wall, that wouldn't have happened then. I would have seen it.
Tyler: I think there's a little bit of a disconnect in what we do today. And that's the reason that I love what you do, Roy, is that if it forces people to slow down. I'm not saying that in a way that you do your work slowly, I'm saying that like you're focused on the work, and when you're done with it, there's a story behind it. And I think a lot of times, and I think that's a story that our industry needs to hear is, you know, way back when, back in the 1800s, when we were using hand tools, like those people would make things and those things would have a story attached to them. There would be a labor of love. There would be blood on the wood when they were done. Hopefully not too much. And today, it's not even... There’s no soul in what we make today, in a lot of cases. Like you walk into a Kroger or a Publix or something like that, and you look around and it's just, it's a building, you know? It doesn't really have much of a story to it. It's just there to house food or, you know, it's there to house some people. That's what I love about this, is that story. It kind of goes back, it connects you, it roots you back into history. And I think it's so valuable to remember the history.
Roy Underhill: Yeah. You being aware of that— I think you have a lot of the younger people who’re just working for builders there, don't have that connection and don't know that you respect it. Maybe that's another word there, not just connection, but respect for the work of the hand and appreciation. So that's, again, share that with your young people coming into the trade so that pride stays alive.
Tyler: Yeah, it's funny, our dad has a box of old tools, and it was tools that our great grandfather used on the job.
Roy Underhill: Oh, man! You’ve got the connection.
Tyler: Yeah. So that's something that— I would not, I wouldn't feel that if I opened up a box of power tools. You know, you just see DeWalt and all this stuff and you're like, okay. I mean, they’re tools, whatever. But you open this up and you see the old drills, planes, and you pick those up and you feel something. You're like, hey, I'm connected to my family in a way.
Roy Underhill: Eric Sloane, one of the writers on this, he said using these old, picking them up, it's like shaking hands with your ancestors. That's great.
Tyler: It warms my heart. So I'm curious, too: What would you want to tell the younger people coming up and learning how to build, the builders of tomorrow? What would you want them to learn from you and what you've done?
Roy Underhill: Oh gosh. You know, if they're working with wood, one thing that the hand tools do often that the power tools don’t is connect you with the grain of the wood. We've got to be aware of grain. Wood is not Velveeta. It has structure. It is not a homogenous thing. High speed rotary tools can treat it that way. But when you're working very closely connected with that, it's just the blade and you and the wood, you connect up with the grain in a different way. Man, get out on life and start whittling a peg. ‘Cause that connection with the grain and that understanding of the structure of the material—and I don't mean understanding it intellectually, but being able to look at it, feel it, know the quality of timber by touching, smelling it, feeling it, checking it with a knife—that's an absolutely great skill to have, being connected with the organic material that the planet has given us to work with.
Eddie: You mentioned earlier your call to people, your soapbox. I want to bring that back and just see if I can get you to, you know, break it down for us one more time. We do this megaphone question at the end of our shows. And so I want to hand you that megaphone right now and tell ya, we've got a whole construction industry listening to you. What would you tell them if you had 60 seconds?
Roy Underhill: Share with your young people the great heritage of the trade that you’re in, the dignity, honor of work in building. It's one of the greatest tools you have in the tool chest there, to have that respect and pride. And you'll get that from feeling that you're part of a long heritage. And I mentioned at the beginning, I said— Oh, now I get to say it! I said though, I'm not a craftsman, but I play one on TV. I had a revelation, and maybe this will connect with that question. I had a shop—and I live in an old mill down right by the river, and the rain that we're getting, these things, you know, flooding is in effect—so I'm down below the dam from the old mill and my shop will flood. Water will come in. So I'm working on it, doing the walls and the floor, and I’m having to make decisions when I was working on it. “Gosh, this is gonna flood. Shouldn't I just do a kind of a cheap job, a lame job? Why bother, because it's going to go underwater?” And I was struggling, you know, was that economic decision going to drive me? And I slowly realized I had to do the best job I could, a quality job. Why? Because I didn't have any choice, I had no choice because of who I had become. I worked at this long enough to become a craftsman, and you better do it the best you can, because that’s the only way you can do it now. So go underwater or not, I don't care. That's who I am and that's what I do: the best I can. So help your young people get to that stage and share the heritage, and the respect and the pride. There you go.
Eddie: Very well put.
Roy Underhill: I’m gonna get off that soapbox now.
Eddie: You can have it anytime you want it here, Roy. We want to steer people to you, so where can they find you and The Woodwright's School?
Roy Underhill: Well, The Woodwright’s School is online. You'll see the classes that we offer and such at woodwrightschool.com. So that's W-O-O-D-W-R-I-G-H-T school. So that's one thing. And I think most of the TV shows are out there on the Internet somewhere. “The Woodwright's Shop” shows and just lots of stuff. I don't look at it myself. I don't look at the movies, I saw the play. So I don't need to know where they are myself. Anyway, that’s where they can find me. I sure appreciate you guys letting me talk to folks who do the real thing.
Eddie: Thank you for being with us today, it’s been a pleasure, man.
Roy Underhill: Yeah, thank you guys. All right, so long everybody.
Tyler: Hey guys, thanks for joining us today. I wanted to take a second and point you at a couple of things before you go. Number one, make sure that you go check out our website. It is www.brospodcast.com. We're constantly posting new blog updates on there and thoughts of things that we're seeing in the industry. And then also, make sure while you're there, go check us out on social media. We are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. We're constantly asking questions there, trying to get people involved and engaged and learn more about what's happening in the industry, so we can keep bringing stuff to you that's relevant. And also, share it with somebody. If there's something in here that you thought was valuable, forward it over to your friends, let them know about the show. Again, that's going to help us out a lot. And finally, please leave a review. If you found this interesting or helpful at all, you could help us out in a big way by just hitting a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. So thank you so much for joining us this week. Have a good one.