Part two of my wise cracking look at my favorite woodworking show of all time…
Season 1, Episode 2: Shaving Horse part one
Skinny Roy Underhill is back for more! “Today we’re going to start on our shaving horse. It’s just a foot operated vise, (but) it’s essential… to the kind of work we’re going to be doing.” Roy has begun to develop a theme for the show, taking us step by step from nothing but an ax and a tree to the basic tools and techniques a primitive woodworker would have had. The first episode blends into the second, and this will blend into the third. We had to make a maul and glut in episode one so we could split a large log to make a shaving horse in episode two. Call it a shaving horse, a draw break, draw bench, “schnitzelbank”… it’s a tool with as many names as uses and Roy will make certain that we know all about it from top to bottom, bench to dumb head. This time we’ll build the bench, in the next episode we’ll finish it off.
He uses a red oak log that he’s sure will split well because, presumably he speaks with the trees. But for those of us without such a bond to the forest he explains how we can judge the split-ability of a tree before we cut it down. If the bark runs straight up the trunk, the grain will also be reasonable straight. On the other hand, bark that spirals up the trunk of a tree indicates the presence of firewood. Roy’s eerie knowledge of wood may appear to be some sort of witchcraft, but before you burn him at the stake you should try and absorb as much wisdom as you can, and he’s certainly not stingy with what he knows! Later in the episode he gives a quick lesson on the differences between red and white oak. In what is fast becoming typical Woodwright style, he takes a long piece of each species and attempts to blow bubbles in a dish of water. Red oak, even in the form of a six foot dowel, allows air to pass through the fibers. White oak heartwood, on the other hand, has closed cells making it best for rot resistance and foiling any attempt to blow bubbles. If blowing on the end of a tree isn’t practical, he shows how to tell the difference between red and white oak, in all of their various forms, by the leaves alone, red oak having a tiny bristle at the points.
Using his new maul and pair of wooden gluts he halves his red oak log faster than you can say “wouldn’t a sawmill be easier?” Dismissing our complaint with a simple “who needs a sawmill”, Roy begins to show how the entire project can be built with just a few tools in a small shop or even right out in the deep, dark forest.
Of course an oak isn’t going to split exactly straight, no matter how the bark runs. “It does have a twist in it… as a reaction to stress. Just like us they get warped”. Roy is already giving us a glimpse of his trademark wit. Using an adze once wielded by an 1820’s shipwright, the 1970’s Woodwright produces a nice thick, semi-flat slab. Time to make the legs.
Here the saw makes it first appearance. Roy had previously referred to the ax as the “nobler tool” but he’s also familiar with the buck saw. Perhaps a bit too familiar as he completes his cut and fondles the turnbuckle to relieve the blade’s tension. “Got to loosen her up before you put her to bed.” Roy was a regular potty mouth in his younger years!
Of course the reason he prefers splitting to sawing is to preserve the natural strength of the wood fibers. He encourages us to “work with good wood, and let it do some of the work for us.” Most of the shaping of his legs are done with a camp ax and a trained eye. He’s really starting to enjoy himself as he flips the billet in the air like a juggler when he wants to switch ends. “It helps to talk to the wood.” Roy believes that the wood “must be very shocked” as you hack into it. I’m not sure I could find the words to “calm it down” as he suggests, but I also believe any bit of tree would think it an honor to receive Roy’s skillful chops.
Less we get too “bored” with all this ax work… (You see? His humor is contagious.) …Roy returns to the oak slab. He uses big T-handle augers frequently on the show but, since this is the first appearance of the tool, he takes a moment to give us a quick lesson in buying a second hand auger. I’m always impressed with how he inserts little bits of extra information throughout the show. The guy never takes a minute to catch his breath. If he’s not chopping or boring he’s teaching some nuance of the craft. Applying a “double lick” as he twists his auger into the oak, he begins an unexpected lesson in anisotropy. Yes, I had to look that term up. Turns out it’s “the property of being directionally dependent”. Roy didn’t have Google in 1979, he learned his stuff the hard way. As he applies the principal to the tendency of wood to split, Roy gives us the first glimpse of his considerable book learning. Don’t let the goofy act fool you, Underhill is a university graduate and accomplished individual even at this point in his career. Like a woodworking super-hero he works as Colonial Williamsburg by day as a master house builder, then changes into his trademark hat and suspenders to fight against the forces of power tool woodworking by night. In this instance he demonstrates the practice of shaving the sides of a round tenon so you can force it tightly into a hole without exerting excessive pressure across the grain. This is a handy little tip to remember as it comes up time and again in the traditional projects that we will build together as Roy progresses through season one the Woodwright Shop.
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