Ben's Workshop: Danica McKellar and Napier's Bones

Ben Napier has opened up his Scotsman Co. Woodshop to share the love of woodworking with people from all walks of life, to learn about their passions, and to build something impactful for the Laurel community together.  

In this episode of Ben's Workshop, Ben invites well-known actress Danica McKellar to the shop. While most people know Danica as "Winnie" from The Wonder Years, her other life's passion is mathematics and advocacy for children. She even proved the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem and made history as a female mathematician. 

That's why Danica and Ben are on a mission to create a tool that will inspire young children to love learning math and feel empowered to chase after their interests — whatever they may be! 

Ben said, "As soon as I found out that Danica was coming, I knew we were going to build a set of Napier's Bones. Children can use Napier's Bones to learn multiplication, and it was originally invented 400 years ago by my ancestor, a 16th and 17th-century mathematician, John Napier."

Danica and Ben sketched out the small frame and pieces and got to work. 

Ben said, "His [John Napier] advancements in mathematics were so impressive that he was believed to be a magician. Lattice multiplication is the way that multiplication is taught today, and John Napier helped advanced that with his tool."

Using southern walnut, quarter-sawn white oak, birds-eye maple, and mahogany, the Napier's Bones was beginning to be a complicated yet solvable build, but the team was up for the challenge. Danica led the charge in getting the correct calculations for the angles and proper cuts for the edges and even shared her experience as a young student.

She said, "I've not always been good at math. Actually, in the seventh grade, I struggled with math. I thought I couldn't do it, and I thought I was stupid. Then midway through the seventh grade, something amazing happened. We got a new teacher, and somehow the same concepts that had been so scary and foreign to me made sense, and they were understandable. She changed my life!" 

Danica also shared that being a child star on The Wonder Years played a fundamental role in her young life in good and challenging ways. She even experienced her first kiss on the show!

She explains, "The Wonder Years was my childhood. It started when I was 12, and it went 'till I was 18. My first kiss in real life happened on television. We all know how nerve-wracking it is before your first kiss because you don't know if it's going to happen or not. I had a huge crush on Fred at that time, and to make matters worse, after the first kiss, the entire crew broke out into applause!"  

Yet Life on the big screen was not always easy for a young girl.

"I had a dual life. Like I'd do 20 minutes of a math test, and then go off and do an emotional crying scene, and then come back and finish the test. It taught me how to get a lot done, which is why I'm able to have the career that I have with acting, writing math books, being a homeschooling mom... and now a woodworker," Danica laughs.

Ben and Danica make their way through the woodshop and finalize all of their cuts. Glue and miter joints hold the frame together, and the mixes of different wood species begin to pop out against the mahogany. 

Ben explains, "This approach is similar to a waterfall pattern. When we connect the pieces and glue them together, the grain will start on one corner, and it will run all the way cleanly through the next three quarters. The goal is that it'll end where we started."

Danica shares that her life has had a similar pattern, but much different than she expected when she was younger. After working for The Wonder Years for six years, she was accepted into UCLA and began her college career as a filmmaking major. 

"At that age, we're all trying to figure out who we are, and I planned to get a degree in filmmaking. I had to take physical science, and I thought college math would be so difficult, just beyond me. When I look back, I realize it was the stereotypes that I held in my mind."

She continues, "The idea is that most girls aren't going to be smart enough to study math. So I studied hard and took the first midterm. The professor came up to me afterward and said, you have a gift in mathematics, and you must pursue this. But even more importantly, the next day in this math class, a guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, Excuse me, aren't you that girl who got the 22? [The highest score in testing.] For me, that moment was magical because I felt this sense of pride and value. It helped me ground myself and find a new identity outside of the persona of Winnie Cooper." 

Ben and Danica finish up the Napier's Bones and set off to surprise a group of talented fifth graders in Mrs. Thigpen's class. The kids were so excited to practice their multiplication tables, and Danica was able to show them a few helpful tricks in using the new tool.

Ben said, "I've seen pictures of Napier's Bones, but to see it all come together with the engraving and the spline joints with the different wood species is really cool. This is a really beautiful piece. I'm glad we were able to leave it in good hands."

Be sure to stop by the Scotsman General Store and Woodshop to watch Ben's Workshop in real life. Catch the new episode on HGTV or Discovery+ today!