Profiles: Norm Abram

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This article is from Issue 77 of Woodcraft Magazine.

I’m not often in the right place at the right time. But I got lucky in 1988. I was looking for work, and Norm Abram was planning the first season of ­ The New Yankee Workshop with producer Russell Morash. They needed help producing a book to accompany the TV show. I worked with Norm as coauthor and photographer, while my wife Barbara did all the graphic design and layout. None of us had any idea how successful the show would become. Recently, Norm and I had a chance to talk about the show and his journey from building contractor to TV personality to woodworking superstar. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

—Tim Snyder
mesquite bookcase

Mesquite masterpiece. Inspired by an antique example found on a trip to Tuscon, Arizona, this cupboard is one of Norm’s favorite projects.


WC: You started your career as a building contractor. Did you ever imagine you’d make the change from carpenter to TV personality to master woodworker?

NA: I could never have imagined how things turned out. I learned carpentry from my father, and my major goal was to build a successful contracting business. If Russ Morash (the producer of ­ This Old House) hadn’t hired me to build a garage with an attached workshop, I wouldn’t have had the start at ­ This Old House that led to The New Yankee Workshop.

WC: Is building furniture more difficult than building or remodeling houses?

NA: House construction was more complex when I started out because the most accomplished builders were true master carpenters. They had working knowledge of masonry, framing, finish carpentry, roofing, flooring, and other aspects of construction. Building today is much more specialized; you’ve got subcontractors who handle these different jobs. Because I came up through the master carpentry tradition, I learned to appreciate the value of careful planning, doing things in the right order, and building a project in your head before you lifted a hammer. These skills served me well when I turned to woodworking. Construction and remodeling can be challenging because of unpredictable factors like the weather. But I think making furniture is more demanding because precision is so critical from start to finish.

WC: Do you have a favorite project, from all those episodes of The New Yankee Workshop?

NA: I’ve got several favorites. The tiger maple highboy stands out because it was definitely the most difficult piece I made. Using a museum-quality antique as a model certainly put me under pressure, but I enjoyed the challenge as well as the end result. The mesquite bookcase (at right) and Adirondack chair are also among my favorite projects.

Norm Abram

Not bad for carpenter. During the 21-season run of The New Yankee Workshop, Norm somehow found time to write eight books, appear on This Old House, serve on the board of trustees for Old Sturbridge Village (osv.org), and shake hands with thousands of fans at trade shows across the country.

WC: Have you seen woodworking change since The New Yankee Workshop began nearly 30 years ago?

NA: I sure have. Adhesives have improved, enabling me to use fast-setting glues that save time. I like the increased emphasis on safety in different areas—flesh sensing saws, quieter motors, better dust collection. CNC technology is becoming more affordable, providing woodworkers with design, and fabrication options they didn’t have before. But I also like the fact that hand tools haven’t lost their importance in the workshop. It’s great that high-quality hand tools are still being made. I’ve always enjoyed using reclaimed lumber, and it’s good to see this trend gaining popularity. Old wood isn’t good just because it’s being saved from the landfill; it often has a patina you can’t find in new lumber.

 WC: What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a woodworker today?

NA: Apart from being safe, I think the most important thing is to be patient. Enjoy the learning process and build your skills one technique at a time. Despite the impressive array of power tools available today, it’s still important to master basic hand tool techniques, so take the time to feel comfortable using chisels, planes, and hand saws. It’s also smart to take advantage of the good instruction you can find in magazines and books, at a Woodcraft store or a woodworking school. There’s plenty of advice online, too—but you’ll have to separate the good from the bad. Finally, get together with fellow woodworkers to share ideas, and to keep learning that there’s always another way to do something.

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