Woodworking books tend to be on the dry side — and a bit saw-dusty. Tired of reading about this year’s Ultimate Power Tool, the overly complex jig you can’t live without or yet another shaker nightstand I often find myself digging around in old woodworking books or reprints for inspiration and a glimpse into the past. I find it interesting to see what other generations found interesting and what they took for granted.
When I heard that Roy Underhill’s latest book — “Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker! A Novel With Measured Drawings” a period novel set in 1930s Washington D.C. and the surrounding area was available I quickly snagged a copy.
I have a tendency to buy books faster than I find the time to read them cover to cover, and I ordered the hard-copy (forthcoming) along with the digital edition figuring I might find some time to read it via my phone as I am tending to our newborn baby at odd hours. The book moved along at a frenetic pace and I got through it in a couple of evenings.
Before I go much further I do have to note the following — I grew up watching Roy Underhill and visiting historic sites up and down the east coast. I remember seeing Roy’s work at Colonial Williamsburg as a child. Over the years I got into modern woodworking (yes I watched a lot of This Old House and New Yankee Workshop with my Dad) and not satisfied with that went deep into traditional woodworking chasing ‘rabbets’. As an adult I rediscovered Roy and found a new appreciation for his work and his story-telling. If you watch an episode of the Woodwright’s Shop learning about the project or technique at hand is only part of the experience — Roy is also filling your head with history, funny anecdotes, philosophical questions and of course ‘subversive‘ woodworking concepts.
We’re dumped out of a cab as we meet Calvin for the first time and follow him as he navigates the city, a section of strong personalities and some brushes with history. If you’re a fan of Roy’s storytelling style — a mixture of fact, humor, interesting and sometimes obscure details — I found myself Googling the occasional odd term like ‘ziggurat’ and ‘swagger stick’ and enjoyed learning about them — then I think you will also enjoy this book.
There is not much time to dawdle on the vivid details of Calvin’s world as he is surrounded by an energetic team of wounded female WWI vets with a penchant for computing, a mysterious woman who caught his attention, and the challenge of woodworking over the radio all while trying to hold down the government day job as the section chief of ‘Broadcast Research’. Let’s just say their agricultural muck-spreader gets a workout.
Since I know Roy usually has a story to tell on a few levels I felt a bit like a detective with a hunch — knowing a bit about Roy’s work and having met him a couple of times I had a nagging feeling that some of the story followed aspect’s of Roy’s own life — stylized of course given this is a work of fiction. Some of the evocative imagery also reminded me of my own trips through the area. So I put on my deerstalker cap and made some notes about what seemed to click with me as I felt like I had crossed paths with the world of Calvin Cobb on several occasions.
I read that Roy had grown up in the D.C. area and after reading the book’s description of the Old Post Office Building I kept thinking — wow, I know I must have seen this building at some point, but now I really have to visit it the next time I am in D.C.. In the photo above from my last trip to the Capitol I did snap a picture that shows how prominent that clock tower still is today. (At the time of this writing that building is being re-developed as a Trump property, but the tower will re-open again to the public next year as a publicly owned section of the building run by the parks service)
I also make an annual pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg and have visited the colonial Capitol building on many an occasion. It’s interesting to think of the restoration — which is historic in its own right given its age — as an active construction site. The carpenters in that building when Calvin visited acted much the same as guys I met while I was a preservation carpentry student. I still vividly recall Rich (the second year instructor) sending one of the students to another classroom to retrieve the ‘board-stretcher’ and on other occasions to pass the ‘screw hammer’ — so it seems that some things do not change with time.
I also recall, from a blog post on Chris Schwarz’ blog that an early version of Roy’s manuscript for this book was hanging on the wall in his classroom so I went back to look at photos from when I was at the Woodwright’s School and sure enough it was there — I wish I knew to look for it at the time.
And from that same visit I saw Roy with his trusty Stanley Multi-plane plowing a groove. Near the end of the book Calvin is thrust on stage and asked to wear a tool-belt which he sees as ridiculous in that context — which of course made me think of some of the occasional jabs Roy has made over the years at Norm who regularly wore a tool belt in the workshop though it seemed unnecessary and I thought it was a pretty funny reference. So why all the focus on Roy? I found it interesting that there seemed to be a lot of Roy in Calvin — maybe a revisionist/time traveling biography. Calvin struggles with his new-found stardom, pressures from the media superiors, communicating through media, meeting fans and trying to do what you love — all things that seem relevant to a certain TV Woodwright.
While you won’t learn much actual woodworking from this book (though there are some PDF plans that come with the book and tie into some of Grandpa Sam’s Woodshop of the Air episodes; the Roy faithful may be familiar with them from his books and TV show), you will go on an enjoyable ride through the late 1930s D.C., learn a bit about some of the woodworking tools, general technological advances and social issues of the time (segregation/racism, anti-semitism, etc), and may find a new appreciation for Roy’s storytelling abilities and fact that the truth is about as crazy as the fiction given all the absurdity he’s encountered over the years to bring us woodworking over the air via TV and now the radio too. Let’s hope that Calvin Cobb gets picked up for a second season so we can see what else he has in store for Grandpa Sam’s Woodshop of the Air.
As Calvin would like to say at the end of a broadcast: “This is Calvin Cobb wishing that, as you slide down the bannister of life, all the splinters go in your direction!”
P.S. If you have other anecdotes about Roy or Calvin’s adventures, or if you build your own ‘Liberty Ladder’ please share them with us in the comments.