"The Woodwright's Shop" Episode Review #4: Roy Underhill rakes it in...

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Blog entry by StumpyNubs posted 09-18-2013 09:40 PM 2941 reads 0 times favorited 2 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 3: Season 1, Episode 3: Roy cuts himself but the horse is finished... Part 4 of "The Woodwright's Shop" Episode Review series Part 5: Roy Underhill debates the carpenter's tools... »

The next installment in my episode by episode, wise cracking review of the greatest television show ever…

“One of my (Roy’s) fav-o-rite projects of all time… There’s no way a machine can make this better than a person. We have to have maximum strength, minimum weight in an article of this kind.”

Clearly we are about to get a lesson in old-time woodworking worth its weight in hickory! Roy taught us chopping and hacking in the first three episodes, now we’re moving on to a deeper understanding of how wood works. And what better project to demonstrate the fundamentals than a traditional hay rake…

“The tines have to be dry and in order to get them dry we make them first.” If you were expecting saw mill stock this time, you can put that out of your head. Real woodworkers cut their projects right out of the tree, and Roy is definitely the real deal. He tells us how we can use a billet of white oak, ash… willow is used in England, and Roy uses hickory. He wraps a 6” long log chunk with a leather strap. The leather “gives you the best springy wraparound” to hold the billets together and avoid scattering them through the shop. To prove it he takes out his favorite froe, homemade from an old car leaf spring, and splits the billet into a bundle of rectangles without losing a single one. Now that’s something I want to try!

Whoever saw a rake with square tines? Rounding them requires some more homemade solutions. All you need is a piece of ¼” iron and a hardy hole. He’s already drilled holes through his iron plate and as he lays it on the anvil you can see how excited he is. Roy loves this part, the satisfying “plunk” the tines make when forced through the hole, dropping into a bucket beneath. He’s filed the holes in his plate to a slight oval, applying the same principal he taught us while making the shaving horse. If you’ve already forgotten, you need to pay better attention!

“One way you can tell dryness, you’ll develop a sensitivity to this… you don’t need all kinds of meters and stuff like that. They get light weight and they feel dry on your lips.” He kisses one of the new wood tines like a long lost lover. If it feels cold on your lips, it’s not ready yet. I walk through my shop kissing all sorts of things now, another way Roy has changed my life.

Making the long bows is a similar process, except you pull the dowel through successively smaller holes in the plate rather than pounding it through a single hole. “Just like an old wire draw-er… it’s really satisfying.” Watching the thin shavings curls around the plate as he pulls the dowel through, I can see what he means. Every woodworker loves to see the shavings curl, be it with a hand plane, a spoke shave, or a rusty iron plate filled with various misshapen holes.

He has “a very interesting” piece of wood for the rake head, one that he says has bark that was once “worth its weight in gold.” In the 15th century sassafras bark was thought to be a cure for syphilis. I bet you never expected to discuss STDs on The Woodwright’s Shop! “I wish you had smell-a vision” he notes as he inhales the spicy sassafras. “It’s completely useless as a cure for syphilis” but it is a good species for the rake because it splits straight and will not rot. “You can use beech, ash, aspen… Pacific Madrone (he says with a conquistador’s accent)…I’m going to go at it roughly with an ax, and give it forty whacks (a reference to infamous ax murder, Lizzie Borden).” We can work very fast “if we use the right tool at the right time” (taking out his “big teutonic cooper’s ax”) “You can either use these for jumping out of a long boat and storming an Irish monastery” or you can use it as a cooper did, to smooth the wood. You’d think it a rough tool but the big head in the right hands makes a good finishing tool. Not only does Roy make a good joke, but he has the right hands to wield a cooper’s ax.

Another new tool that we will see a lot of in The Woodwright’s Shop now makes its grand entrance, the marking gauge. Using his ax flattened surface as a guide he scratches a parallel line down the length of the board and chops it to match. His ax has become jointer and thickness planer and I am as impressed as I’ve been in some time. He doesn’t tell us the length of the part because “we don’t all need to make these alike” but shows us that it’s about an arm’s length. I’m not sure if my arms are the same length as Roy’s, nor can I say if his freckles are a factor.

With a pair of dividers and some trial and error he finds the center of his board. There will be an odd number of tine holes so he paces off six on each side of the center. At this point it’s almost strange to see him wielding such a precise tool as a bit and brace. He must not have a giant T-handle auger to fit his tines. The dry tines fit into the wet rake head and will only become more secure with time. No glue, though he suggests using it on the first couple you make just in case. I bet he glues his behind the scenes too, not even Roy Underhill can be that confident in his fit!

I am positive that, if Roy had a pencil to sharpen, he’d do it with an ax. That’s not far off from what he does to sharpen the points of the rake tines, and as I watch I’m expecting him to accidentally chop at least one of them right off the rake head, but he doesn’t. He does, however, show some impressive forethought by not placing the center tine onto the head yet. First he had to make and fit the handle, then that final tine will lock it in place. I know Roy didn’t invent that design, but I most certainly would have forgotten and been forced to extract the center tine like a bad tooth later.

He’s running out of tine…er, I mean time… so he makes his handle at the shaving horse in about fifteen seconds, introducing a pair of new tools, a large hollow bottom plane and a rounder plane, both made for making handles like this one. “Oh, a man in panic is a horrible thing…” He’s almost running by the end but making a rake from a tree in 27 minutes while teaching us step by step it is exactly what we’ve come to expect from The Woodwright’s Shop.

I’m going through the entire 30+ year run of The Woodwright Shop to create the ultimate guide to the series. It’ll be as fun to read as his show is to watch, so don’t miss a single one! Check out the archive at!

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2 comments so far

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6508 posts in 4055 days

#1 posted 09-18-2013 09:57 PM

Excellent show and even better craftsman. I saw an interview recently he did on TV, he is just so pleasant to speak with appears so at ease

-- Norman - I never never make a mistake, I just change the design.

View StumpyNubs's profile


7851 posts in 3852 days

#2 posted 09-18-2013 10:32 PM

Yes, Roy is a true classic in every way!

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