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While a classroom of students watches, Roy Underhill presses a mortising chisel against a piece of yellow pine that will become part of a window frame for the circa-1870 mill near Saxapahaw that he calls home. With a wooden mallet, he taps the handle of the chisel, chipping out the wood bit by bit, until he’s created a rectangular tunnel all the way through. There are faster, easier, more modern ways to cut mortises, but Underhill prefers this classic method. “It’s a connection with the natural world,” he says. “Our intelligence, our bodies, our whole civilization, our culture evolved from working with wood, and if you become disconnected from that, you’re kind of lost.”
Underhill began woodworking in the 1950s as a young boy living in Washington, D.C., teaching himself from library books and scavenging wood from the floorboards of his attic for his projects. In the woodshop that he set up in his basement, he would play pretend, hosting a woodworking TV show for an imaginary audience. His childhood games would prove prophetic when, decades later, he became the host of The Woodwright’s Shop, a how-to show on PBS through which he taught traditional methods for building with wood.
Underhill studied theater at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in directing but also continuing to work with his hands by building sets. He later earned a graduate degree in forestry at Duke University, focusing on historical woodworking. For his final graduate presentation, he gave a demonstration on using old tools. Afterward, an audience member suggested that something similar might work on television, so Underhill approached UNC-TV (now PBS North Carolina). In its second season, The Woodwright’s Shop went national. It ran on PBS for 37 seasons.
In 2008, Underhill opened The Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro. Nowadays, passersby on Hillsboro Street can stop, peer through the window, and watch as Underhill instructs students on topics like traditional window joinery. Another performance for another audience — and another chance to teach someone how to make something by hand.print it