Monday, August 6, 2012

Taking Roy Underhill's Joinery Class

Roy Underhill, master woodworker and showman, displays one of the frame-and-panel doors we'll be making at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren, ME.

This weekend I got to meet one of my true heroes of woodworking. Thursday evening a tweet showed up in my Twitter feed announcing that Lie-Nielsen still had a couple of spots open in their weekend class with Roy Underhill. Yes, Roy of the long-running PBS show The Woodwright's Shop.

What?!? Roy was going to be within 3 and a half hours driving distance? I had to do that. First thing Friday morning I called and signed up. This was simply not an opportunity to be missed. Roy's show and books have been among my primary resources in learning hand tool techniques. Popular Woodworking Magazine is now in the process of releasing the entire 30 years of The Woodwright's Shop on DVD.

Roy has steadfastly kept hand tool woodworking alive in the public eye for that entire time, playing a major role in its current resurgence. Those few who kept it alive with him, derisively branded Neanderthals and galoots for their throwback methods, now bear those names as badges of honor. They've become symbols of skill and self-reliance. We new converts gleefully join in greasing the slippery slope.

(click on any of the book covers below to purchase)
The Woodwright's Apprentice: Twenty Favorite Projects From The Woodwright's ShopThe Woodwright's Guide: Working Wood with Wedge and Edge 
The Woodwright's Shop: A Practical Guide to Traditional WoodcraftThe Woodwright's Companion: Exploring Traditional Woodcraft
The Woodwright's Workbook: Further Explorations in Traditional WoodcraftThe Woodwright's Eclectic Workshop 

Now, just try and find a place to stay on a Friday before a midsummer weekend in midcoast Maine. I finally got one of the last rooms available at the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, where Rt. 27 heads south from Rt. 1. We've been driving by there for 10 years because we were always either heading down to Boothbay or further up the coast. It turned out to be a real gem. This was possibly the cleanest hotel room I have ever been in, as neat and trim as any sailing ship of the Royal Navy ready to receive the Admiral of the Blue. And their homemade lemon poppy seed muffins were fabulous.

The topic was joinery, primarily mortise-and-tenon frame-and-panel doors, with half-blind dovetails and the famous "impossi-tail" rising dovetail. Virtually all of this information is available in his books (and now DVDs as they come out). I know because I had brought all his books except his very latest (which I forgot) for him to sign, along with the first four DVDs to be released.

It was great to meet him and spend time with him, and there's a real practical benefit to having him help troubleshoot the problems that inevitably crop up. Nothing beats hands-on instruction. It's all about the subtleties that are so easily overlooked in books or on screen.

The experience was just like being there in the workshop during his show. What you see on TV is what you get in person, full of knowledge and enthusiasm and a desire to share it all. He also had a video camera hooked up to a projector so he could show everything in closeup on the wall.

The classroom at LN with 28 students on a hot, humid day.

It's also great to take a class at Lie-Nielsen, because every tool they make is available for use. Plus Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is downstairs in the showroom for any emergency purchases. It's like being in the candy store and the toy store at the same time. They also had two sharpening stations with waterstones set up. Deneb Puchalski, LN show coordinator, and his assistant Jay were busy the entire weekend keeping the tools sharp and helping people out with them.

The first item we worked on Saturday was not an actual joint, but a benchtop appliance used for joinery, a pair of bench hooks. These were the traditional style Roy said you would make as your first project in a Sloyd class. We made ours out of maple, though you could make some more easily out of pine or cherry, they just may not last as long.

A maple block marked up for the hook shape.

Rather than ripping down the waste, Roy had us kerf it out...

...then rough it down with a chisel, bevel down. Boy, you forget how hard maple is to work!

Roy demonstrates paring a rounded end.

Here I'm smoothing the face down with a #4. Photo by Roy Underhill (OK, that's the coolest photo credit ever).

My small shoulder plane was very useful cleaning up the hook end where the bench plane couldn't reach.

Trying out another tool: LN chisel plane. As Deneb said, this is a tool for flushing down to match a flat surface, not for general flattening. Photo by Sean McClory.

Here we come to one of the great lessons of the weekend for me. Those subtleties, remember? I was having trouble getting my paring chisel to work well. I asked Roy for his advice, and he initially suggested a little more flattening of the back before honing. I tried that, but still no luck. He gave it a try, then looked closer at it. It was sharpened at about 30 degrees. He suggested taking it down to near 20 degrees. He said a paring chisel not only needs to be dead sharp, it also needs to be a very fine bevel. This is not a chopping bevel.

That was part one of this little lesson. Part two came when I went up to the sharpening stones to reshape it. I had brought my portable sharpening station with oilstones, but I figured I'd give their setup a try. They also had an extra-extra coarse DMT Dia-Flat lapping plate for flattening the stones, and an extra-coarse DMT Dia-Sharp plate for rough sharpening, so I quickly ground the bevel down about 10 more degrees freehand on the Dia-Sharp. Then I honed the edge on the two waterstones, about 30 seconds each on a 1,000, then a 10,000; it measured out to 22 degrees on the protractor.

When I turned it over to remove the burr on the back, I was amazed. The 10,000 stone had given it the same polish I get with a strop and compound. That was impressive. I asked Deneb, and he said these were new Ohishi waterstones that didn't need to be pre-soaked, just give them a spray of water. That really caught my attention. He said they're like Shaptons, but with more media. I generally prefer oilstones, because while I like the results that waterstones give, I find them rather messy and the pre-soaking inconvenient. But this was enough to convince me to give them a try. The slurry is still messy.

So I paid a visit to Kirsten and bought a pair of stones, along with a DMT Dia-Flat lapping plate (which was half the total purchase). I already have a Dia-Sharp extra-extra coarse, the same grit, but the Dia-Flat has a harder, more durable coating to stand up to lapping. Here's a writeup Chris Schwarz did on them. Note that he says you can also use them for flattening oilstones, which a few people have asked me about.

For the waterstones, Deneb told me to flatten the 1,000 first, then use that slurry to flatten the 10,000. Don't do them in the opposite order, because the finer slurry of the 10,000 can clog the pores of the 1,000. As of this writing, the stones are not yet listed on the LN website, but you can call and order them, with several intermediate grits also available.

The results? The paring chisel was transformed. It took crisp singing curls with hardly any effort. This was in fact a totally new experience for me, so I'll have to work on my paring skills. And I need to regrind all my paring chisels and gouges.

Paring down the corner of the hook with my newly transformed chisel.

Complete and incomplete hooks. The rear one is at least functional for now.

The next item for the day was making the grooved, mortise-and-tenon frame for the frame-and-panel door. This was the first use of the bench hooks, for cutting the frame stock to length, and as a hold-down in the vise.

Roy mortising a pine stile.

Using a bench hook in the vise as an auxiliary hold-down for mortising (not a hold-fast, mind you).

Grooving the mortised stile with a Stanley 45 (purportedly the only worthwhile function of a 45).

Trimming the shoulder of a tenon, holding the rail in the paired bench hooks.

Plowing a groove with my wooden wedge-arm plow plane. Photo by Sean McClory.

By the end of the day, I had my frame all made up and dry-fitted together. However, it was not very flat. Roy promised to work on tuning the next day.

People bring some gorgeous toolboxes to things like this. This one was made by J. Wesley Sunderland, who was working at the bench behind me. He had the finest collection of Millers Falls planes I've ever seen, as well as a beautiful brass-bodied eggbeater drill.

By the way, if you're in the region of West Baldwin, ME, Wesley makes 18th Century furniture reproductions, and is also available for demonstrations and lessons. As you can see from the photo of his toolbox, he's quite skilled (as was borne out by his projects during the class). You can reach him at

Sunday, Roy started off with tuning of the frames, showing how to clean up the tenon cheeks with a router plane. This goes a long way to taking any twist out the frames, with the panel helping to provide additional flattening. He said do not try to clean up the mortises. Then he went through raising the panel and fitting it to the frame. He completed the project by drawboring the joints and trimming the horns off before planing up all around.

Roy uses a router plane to clean up the tenon cheeks. I don't know where he got that strange shirt.

There were two students in the class who told me they've read the blog here. Chris, the first one, actually lives just two towns away from me. I'd briefly met the other gentleman, JP, at the LN Hand Tool Event at the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, where I had demonstrated making cabriole legs entirely by hand.

Chris trimming his panel to length on his bench hooks. That's Sean behind him, sharing my bench.

JP marking out the field of the panel.

Roy used a very nice wooden panel-raising plane on his panel, as well as an LN 610 which he found to his liking. I used my wooden badger plane, though I'm still not very good with it. The corner tends to tear up the edge of the raised field if I don't pay very close attention. So I also used my small shoulder plane to define the field, and took down the chamfer with a low-angle block plane. I used one of the grooved rails as a mullet to check the fit.

I was able to significantly improve the overall flatness of my frame by cleaning up the tenon cheeks with my router plane, though it resulted in looser joints. With the panel fitted in place, it was even better. The coup de grace that finally tamed it completely was the drawboring with rived and chiseled cherry pins. This pulled everything up tight and solid (I'll just note that you couldn't have a much more humid day than this one). The corner of the door wasn't more than a 32nd out of flat on the benchtop. This door will hold together for two centuries, no glue required.

My glamor shot with Roy and my badger plane. Photo by Sean McClory.

Final cleanup of the door face.

Roy's mark of approval on my completed door. Now I just need to build a cabinet to hang it on!

Next: half-blind dovetails, the dovetails "blind of one eye". Roy makes the tail cuts, but leaves the waste in place. He sets the tail board on the end of the pin board and sets the saw back in the kerfs, drawing it back to mark the pins. Then he removes the tail waste with a couple of quick chisel blows, and saws down at an angle as much as possible in the pin board, without cutting through the front face. To remove the waste from the tail pockets in the pin board, he alternately cuts down across the grain, then flat in with the grain, a bit at a time. He says it's working first with edge, then with wedge.

He also says not to use a dovetail marker. Instead, use a bevel gauge, and space things out according to the chisel you're using. That way, you have consistent dovetails on a single piece, but from one piece to the next, they'll all be slightly different. This distinguishes your body of work from that made with rigidly uniform machine-made dovetails.

Sawing down the tails.

My completed joint. Not the tightest, but certainly functional.

The final project for the weekend was the rising dovetail. While the layout looks a bit wild, it's not all that complicated once he explains it. The real trick in all this is the sawing out. These are odd compound angles that require the utmost care. One person likened it to cutting diamonds. As Roy said, this is forming an oblique section of a prism. You remember conic section from math class, right? What about prismatic sections? Or phantasmagorical tesseractic sections? Just rotate that in three dimensions in your mind's eye! You can read more about this joint at Popular Woodworking Magazine.

Carefully paring out the waste in the ramped socket.

Ripping down the sides of the sliding tail.

Sliding it home.

Again, a little gappy, but functional.

This weekend class was awesome. I'm so glad I was able to make it. If you ever get the chance, take it! I look forward to the next time I get to take a class from him, when I'll have that last book and a new stack of DVDs for him to sign.


  1. Terrific post. Thanks for sharing!

    I had the opportunity to stop at The Woodwright's School on my way through North Carolina once. Roy's a gentleman and an entertainer, all around.

  2. Thanks for sharing. The tool chest you photographed caught my eye. I'm curious what selection of planes he has (looks like several small smoothers, with some redundant sizes?)


  3. I can't find like button, so I'll just leave it here.

    Nice post!

  4. Thanks everybody! I just added a like button, good idea, Ethan!

  5. Great post Steve, sounds like a great time. I'm counting the days til I pack up the car and head down to Roy's school in less than a week. Thanks also for the toolbox pic. I'm in the design throes of one right now and there are elements of this one that speak to me.

  6. Excellent writeup Steve and it was great meeting you! I hope we cross paths again sometime!

    Chris C.

  7. I'm sold on life on the West Coast, but stuff like this always makes me envious of the woodworking in the East. Thanks for the great writeup. Almost as good as being there?

  8. Great write up Steve! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Man, this looks like it was an absolute hoot! Thanks for letting us take in the class vicariously Steve! What were the dimensions of the board you start with for the bench hook? It looks like a great little afternoon project to hone my skills on...

  10. Ryan, the hook stock was 1 3/8" x 2 5/8" x 12. The hooks are formed 2" from the ends, down to the centerline of the sides. Of course, you can use whatever dimensions are convenient for the scraps you have lying around. You could make a pair of these very quickly from a 2x4, maybe drive a peg down through each hook face to reinforce the pine so it doesn't crack off in use.

    Since this particular hook doesn't have a sacrificial sawing ledge, you need to be careful when sawing not to go into your bench. Or you could notch off the side of one hook end to create a ledge.

  11. I emailed Wes about his toolbox and the planes, here's his response:


    When I began professional woodworking, 1962, Miller Falls hand tools were substantially better than others available. Since then, I've always had a favorable desire for those tools. The hand planes show in the tool box are the newer version of Miller Falls tools before they went out of business. I recently acquired (past 6 years) these models that have a solid, flat brass, adjusting wheel and a 2 piece clamping cap. Really nice!

    Miller Falls number their planes as they are long in inches. From left-to-right, #10, #8, #9, #11BG, and #14. As Stanley numbers their planes, these in the same order would a #5-1/2, #2, #4, #5-1/4, and #5. As example, Stanley's #3=8", #4=9", and #5=14" long. The Miller Falls #11BG/5-1/4 is somewhat rare and I'm lucky that I stumbled upon it. The #10/5-1/2, at the left, is the most recent find and so it's out of sequence order as arranged in the box. I almost got a Miller Falls (Stanley equivalent #2) plane at an auction, but the when the price raised to $375, I decided that I didn't really need it that much.

    The tool box was made in 2007-08. Really didn't have a plan for interior other than the side pockets for the chisels, etc. So, the interior arrangement is a "make as accumulated". The box is 33" long, 16" deep front to back, and 9" high with a 3" interior lid depth. I like to put a lot of items into the lid storage area. The drawer has wood full extension slides. Actually, it's almost too big for moving and traveling weighing 102 lbs. If you need to travel with tools, think smaller and make stackable.

    And yes, the egg-beater drill was a good find. I have no make, model, or historic info about it. Thanks for inquiring and I'm available at


  12. Haven't sweated that much in a while.
    I like how they passed out the earplugs when we started chopping up those bench hooks!

    nice write up!

  13. Steve,

    thank you for this nice post. I hope one day do the same, but France is away from home!


  14. I have been to 2 of Roy's schools, I got to tell you, it is a great time! I've not had so much fun working my ass off! Good time had by all. The last class was saw making with Tom Callisto, great experience! I have 2 great saws.
    Thanks Roy

  15. Bom Dia, assisti o video do Roy e ao ler os comentarios gostei da indicação feita pela LeeValley sobre seu Facebook, acessei e tomei a liberdade de colocar sua postagem em meu blog: onde posto projetos e assuntos interessantes de marcenaria, alem de linkar o video do Roy
    Everaldo Seckler/ Porto Alegre / RS / Brasil.


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