Canadian Woodworking

Roy Underhill and his “Mystery Mallet”

Blog by Rob Brown
The Mystery Mallet

Many of you likely have spent some time watching “The Woodwright’s Shop” on TV. This PBS program was hosted by a charismatic man named Roy Underhill, who wore a jaunty hat and had loads of woodworking knowledge.

The show was a lot of fun to watch, not only because it was about the tools and techniques that make up the hobby we all love, but also because Roy was a real character. First filmed in 1979, the show is a woodworking classic.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a hammer my father made in the 1960s. Shortly thereafter I got an email from a contributor to Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement, Rick Campbell. Rick has lots of experience working wood and has written for other woodworking publications as well.

From Rick Campbell:

Your recent posts and follow-up discussion from your readers reminded me of my own sacred hammer story, or mallet, actually. About 11 years ago Roy Underhill (you may know him as the Woodwright from the long running PBS television series “The Woodwright’s Shop”) invited me down to North Carolina to visit his woodworking school. I spent a couple of enjoyable days with some of his students building what Roy called the Mystery Mallet. The mallet gets its name by the seemingly impossible joinery used in the construction. At the end of my time with Roy, I asked if I could get a photo for my workshop wall. Roy’s flair for the unusual led to the attached photo suggesting that I stole the mallet from his shop…..causing Roy to chase me down the street on the end of a broom.  The mallet and photo have hung on the wall of my shop for the past 11 years. From time to time the display case catches my eye and I fondly remember Roy’s sense of humour and love for working with wood.

Has anyone else made a Mystery Mallet?

Roy had a lot of fun while filming his shows and I’m not surprised his witty sense of humour came up with the idea for the photo of him and Rick. Speaking of filming, from what I can gather, the shows were originally shot with very few takes, then edited, but eventually the show was shot in real time, with Roy moving quickly around the shop to the appropriate wooden props to move the build along as quickly as possible so it could be wrapped up within the allotted time. This approach even left Roy having to catch his breath from time to time, especially near the end of each episode. I’ve made many videos and know how incredibly hard this is. Roy was a natural talker and teacher, which was part of the reason he was so well liked.

The mallet is made with two tapered dovetail tenons on either face and a central mortise and tenon joint. At first glance it looks like this joint isn’t actually possible, but there’s a trick. The two outer tapering dovetail tenons are reduced fairly heavily in width at their centre on their inner faces, making both of them flex while being assembled. The area where the wood’s been removed is not visible in the finished mallet. This is a lot clearer to view than it is to read about, so check out the video by “Third Coast Craftsman.”

“Give me Back my Mallet!”

Rick Campbell made this mallet while attending a class at Roy Underhill’s workshop in North Carolina. The photo, which was shot shortly before Rick headed back to Canada, was Roy’s idea.

The Mystery Mallet
Published:
Last modified: December 25, 2023

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

3 Comments

  1. Hi Franco,

    Sorry, didn’t mean to worry you! To the best of my knowledge, Roy has been off the air since his 2017 season. That’s why I was speaking in the past tense.

  2. The whole article was in past tense…Roy had….Roy was…I had to Google him, to see if he had passed and I wasn’t aware. Thankfully, he is still with us.

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