Roy Underhill’s “The Woodwright’s Guide”: A Review

Since this is “The Literary Workshop” blog, I like to remark on woodworking books from time to time.  I wouldn’t want to review every new (or old) book on woodworking I read, but some are especially worthy of note, as well as grassroots promotion.

When I first started working wood, I was a poor graduate student, so I pillaged all my local libraries for any books I could find on woodworking with hand tools. When I discovered Roy Underhill’s books–I had never even seen his television show–the world of wood began to open up to me. He helped me work how I wanted to work, with a small set of tools powered by my own body. The writing was good-humored, and while the instructions were detailed, they were never pedantic. Nevertheless, I recall being disappointed with the chapter on shaving horses in The Woodwright’s Shop (1981); after reading the whole chapter, I had a good idea of how to build a shaving horse, but had no clue what it was supposed to do.

That was not normal for Underhill, and I found his books far more informative than almost anything else I could get my hands on. This latest book, The Woodwright’s Guide (2008), collects and enhances much of Underhill’s earlier efforts to put his show into print. Instead of organizing the book around a series of projects, this book begins with the tree in the forest and moves through the tasks of the feller, the sawyer, the timber framer, the joiner, the turner, and the cabinet maker. At each step, the workmanship becomes more precise and refined, though not necessarily more skillful or complicated. It helps that Underhill has direct experience in all these areas, so he speaks from the point of view of the craftsman as well as the historian.

Okay, confession time. One of my obsessions is reading user reviews on I’ve written my share of them myself, and this blog post is a longer version of a review I posted there. Some of the other Amazon reviewers complain that this book repeats a lot of information that is scattered throughout Underhill’s earlier books. Fair enough. For those who have read and digested his previous books, there won’t be a lot of new information or techniques here.

However, in this book, Underhill has taken more time to explain techniques in detail. Want to know how to make a lapped dovetail joint in a timber frame with just a saw and axe? A hidden dovetail in a miter joint? Or a rule joint for a drop-leaf table? This book gives you the details, complete with line drawings that show important steps. I should emphasize, though, that these are not the step-by-baby-step instructions of conventional woodworking literature. Underhill is content to explain the crucial principles, guide you around common pitfalls, and let you work out some of the details on your own. But that has always been his way, as anyone already familiar with Underhill, either through his TV show or his books, will know already. Implicitly, the book shows that once you master the basic principles of a process, you become free to improvise at any number of levels.

The book is driven by a very simple thesis: there are two ways to cut wood, with an edge and with a wedge, and every possible woodworking operation uses one or both methods. This was something of a revelation to me, although I have been working wood for a few years now. This illustration alone was worth the Amazon price ($16.60):

Underhill shows that, although a sharp edge is merely the intersection of two planes, the angle at which they intersect is crucial. He explains the diagram: “With increasing acuity, the line of cutting ease goes up as the line of durability goes down. The durability line slides to the right with better steel, to the left with harder wood. Optimum sharpening lies at the intersection of these two lines” (pg. 7). Furthermore, the less acute the angle, the more the edge starts working like a wedge. That explained to me why, when I sharpened a plane iron at 35*, it never seemed to cut well, no matter how careful I was in my sharpening technique. At 35*, the edge just wasn’t sharp enough. Lowering the angle to somewhere between 25* and 30* helped immensely, even though the angle at which the edge meets the wood (45*) is perfectly constant.

Readers of Underhill’s previous books will no doubt recognize a lot of the drawings in this one, many of which are rendered from photos that appeared in the older books. I happen to like the drawings better, since they tend to be clearer and less visually cluttered. The photographs in the early books tended to be very heavily shaded, which interfered with clarity. Plus, there are a lot more images than in previous books, so the book is on the whole much better illustrated than previous works. The layout is very effective, with the images confined to the wide margins and the text in a single column. If you happen to be in the habit of annotating your books, the layout offers amble opportunity.

An added bonus is a short essay, “The Great Wheel,” which originally appeared in Woodworking Magazine. The book’s appendices have some otherwise hard-to-find information on making taps and dies for wooden screws. There are also basic plans for two workbenches, including a Roubo bench that features a rising dovetail joint for the front legs. Ingenious. There are also plans for a spring-pole lathe and a treadle lathe. Be warned, though: the lathe “plans” are minimal. Underhill sets up the crucial details and lets you figure out the rest yourself. There are no cut-lists or exploded diagrams, just a couple illustrations with dimensions indicated. Many woodworkers are uncomfortable with this approach, but I think that a experienced woodworker should be able to build either lathe successfully without further directions.

Underhill’s spirit in this book is very consistent with his earlier work–he combines historical research, traditional techniques, and American-style improvisation to inspire the woodworker to discover woodcraft afresh.

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3 Responses to Roy Underhill’s “The Woodwright’s Guide”: A Review

  1. This is one of my favorite books. Very worthwhile.

  2. This book inspires me too, even though I’m not an experienced woodworker yet. The lack of minute detail can be liberating. I usually need play-by-play instructions, but Underhill has helped (and is helping) me to take in the “big picture” first. Figuring things out for myself, as you said, is my goal. This book certainly prods one in that direction.


  3. It reminds me of a remark once made by novelist and translator Dorothy L. Sayers: “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.” In the same way, the author of a book on woodworking (or any other craft) should be helping the reader to work for him or herself, rather than merely providing templates. There is great value in imitating the work of a master, but at some point the student has to strike out on his or her own. I have always appreciated how Underhill has helped me do just that as a woodworker.

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