Highland Woodworking
Book Review: The Woodwright's Shop
By Roy Underhill

Book Review by J. Norman Reid

This month's book, The Woodwright's Shop by Roy Underhill, is a classic, as is of course Roy himself. Reprinted for no doubt the umpteenth time since it first appeared in 1981, this guide to woodworking is a rich source of information for woodworkers who wish to work from raw timber to create finished products of use around the country home and farm. But it's more than a guide to working timber into useful things; it's an essential guide for anyone desiring to live close to nature, as well as a spellbinding adventure into the craft of woodmanship for us all.

It all begins with the tree, and Roy offers clear advice on how to select good examples by reading the tree's bark and then how to harvest the most suitable examples.

Next comes an introduction to the tools needed to process the timber. Roy advises that tools mellow with use and require nurturing to retain their value. When first acquired, they are no more than potential. If they lack the possibility for growth in use, they're not worth your time and money. Carefully selected, they can be found at flea markets and junk stores for reasonable prices. Just be prepared to walk away.

Roy's collection of tools, though not large, ranges from axes and adzes to tools for moving logs, tools for holding work, saws, shaping tools, chisels, measuring devices and sharpening equipment. With such a set of tools, it's possible to build anything from other tools and small implements to buildings, as Roy amply demonstrates throughout the book.

Some tools need to be made before beginning serious work. Gluts and mauls are used to break logs down into usable pieces, and Roy shows how to make them as a first exercise in working timber. Likewise, a shaving horse is indispensable for shaping parts and Roy tells in well-illustrated detail how to build your own.

With a set of basic tools in hand, he proceeds to show how to build implements and objects. First are rakes, beautifully crafted from his first choice, hickory. Then he shows how to create a post-and-rung chair using only five tools—an axe, draw knife, shaving horse, auger and chisel. A chair needs a seat, and Roy shows how to split white oak and use it to weave seats. A hay fork is next, made of ash, hickory or white oak.

Then Roy shifts attention to a different technique: hollowing out logs to make elongated dough bowls. His preferred wood for this is tulip poplar, which he finds easy to work. Well-dressed and smoothed, the bowls are both useful and beautiful.

Following this, Roy describes his three human-powered lathes: a spring pole lathe, great wheel lathe and treadle lathe. Of these, his preference is for the latter, which combines features of the other two.

Next, he turns his attention to blacksmithing, since this skill, though not woodworking, is important to self-reliance, a sub-theme of the book. He introduces us to blacksmithing tools, including how to select a "lively" anvil, and to methods such as keeping the right kind of fire and tempering the steel.

What book on woodcraft could be complete without a discussion of dovetails? Roy describes how he cuts his tails first by gang sawing them to save time and illustrates the methods he uses to finish them.

A good door being essential, he says, to keeping out the cold and insects, he shows how to build a frame-and-panel door from raw timber. His example uses raised panels and a center mullion, but the techniques he teaches are universal and can be readily applied to other styles.

With all the skills acquired thus far, now you're ready to build a log house, starting with harvesting the timber, squaring up the logs in the woods before moving them, and then assembling the house with either V-notches or half-dovetail notches, each of which he demonstrates.

The final project is an example of timber frame construction and here Roy shows how his world-famous woodshop was built and erected.

A chief delight of this book is the rich detail it offers about woodworking practices that may be unfamiliar to many cabinetmakers. This is not a book about building fine furniture. It is, rather, a study in woodcraft. It is extremely well-illustrated with detailed, step-by-step black and white photos that clarify the procedures Roy describes in the text. For the woodworker who's interested in rustic work or back-to-the-land living, this book is an essential acquisition. The rest of us will find it informative and, yes, entertaining as Roy intersperses his famous wit between bits of sage instruction. As I said at the beginning of this review, this book is a classic and it belongs on the shelves and the tops of workbenches of many woodworkers.

Find out more and purchase The Woodwright's Shop by Roy Underhill

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net.

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