Norm Abram: Life After ‘New Yankee’

Can America’s most recognizable woodworking personality actually retire?

By Jefferson Kolle
Pages 54-62

Norm Abram first stepped in front of a television camera in 1979 as the lead carpenter on “This Old House,” a show on which he still appears. A decade later, Norm began “The New Yankee Workshop,” and for 21 seasons he taught a glued-to-the-screen audience how to make furniture. Norm never skipped the hard parts, and while he didn’t make them look easy, he did show you that they were doable. As such, his gentle smile and reassuring manner coaxed countless people to take up the craft of working wood.

He has appeared on lots of other shows as well as in countless magazines, including two articles in the August 2005 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine (#149). “The New Yankee Workshop” may be over, but Norm is hardly retired. He just bought a new old house that he’s renovating and he’s mulling over ideas for a new shop, so he can keep building and building.

In a recent discussion, Norm talked about TV, the Internet, woodworking and safety.

Your show, “The New Yankee Workshop,” introduced countless people to the craft. What’s the best thing people can learn from watching a woodworking television show? Also, what are the limits of TV? In other words, what can’t people learn from watching “New Yankee.”

In the television show, we touched on every step in the process of making a piece of furniture. Because of the time constraints we couldn’t show every setup – every time we set the rip fence on the table saw, for instance. And if there were four table legs to make, for instance, we’d only show how to make one of them. The idea was to give a woodworker the inspiration to try building a piece of furniture.

Sometimes people who ordered the plans from an episode would write to say that they thought the cutlists should have exact measurements for every single piece of wood. I’d tell them that for many of the pieces the cutlists only contain approximate dimensions to be used as a guide. Part of making furniture is cutting and fitting pieces as you work your way through the piece. It’s a step-by-step process.

For all the confidence and inspiration we gave viewers – and I think video is better at this than a book or magazine – there are some things that television can’t do. It can’t teach you how it feels to have a tool in your hand or what wood grain feels like. It can’t show you what it’s like to squeeze just the right amount of glue out of a tight mortise-and-tenon joint. Hands-on is the only way to learn. You have to get out in the shop and work the wood, learn how the tools work.

So, watch a video to get inspired, then get out there and put that inspiration to work.

 

Video: In 2007, Norm Abram was interviewed by Popular Woodworking Magazine senior editor (then editor and publisher) Steve Shanesy.
Blog: Read this blog post about Norm’s decision to stop production of “The New Yankee Workshop.”
Web site: Visit the official “New Yankee” web site to watch selected episodes of the show, or purchase project plans and DVDs.
Articles: Our August 2005 issue (#149) featured a visit to ”The New Yankee Workshop” and a build-along of Norm Abram’s Adirondack chair.

From the November 2012 issue #200
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