Visit our New Yankee Workshop coverage page for podcasts, videos, photos and features on the show!
If you think “The New Yankee Workshop” stands for craftsmanship in the finest tradition of American woodworking, you’re only partly right. What legions of show host Norm Abram fans often overlook is the word “new,” as in using the latest tools, materials and techniques.
Norm, as his folksy TV persona fittingly dictates he be called, will accentuate the “new” next season when he rebuilds a 30-year-old kitchen over nine NYW episodes. Focusing on the cabinets, he will use the latest glues, engineered woods, construction techniques and sophisticated hardware. And he will use a combination of joinery, screws and glue to make strong joints instead of just labor-intensive traditional joinery.
“I’d rather screw things together anytime. The hammer is only an accessory now to bang things,” says Norm, speaking during a lunch break in an NYW taping session of episode six for 2008. “Materials, adhesives and finishes have changed a lot. We have this pre-finished plywood which five to six years ago you couldn’t even get. When it first came out, we used a little and we liked it. We do not just throw things out there because they are new. There’s still a lot of tradition in the workshop. I do a lot of projects with traditional joinery. Those techniques have been proven over hundreds of years and you really can’t improve them.”
Time, money and expertise will discourage even the most venturesome handyman or engineer from tackling an ambitious project like a kitchen. After all, Norm has the latest and sharpest tools in his shop with, for instance, a drawer and countertop populated by 10 or so top-of-the-line routers set up to do any job. By comparison, the home craftsman has a rack of screwdrivers. But you might change your mind after watching NYW next year upon seeing how simple cabinet-building can be and how much money you could save.
“When you go to a cabinet shop, you are watching them build plywood boxes. Some are better than others, but they are plywood boxes. A contractor buys them and you get handed a bill for $45,000. That’s very expensive,” grouses NYW Executive Producer and Director Russell Morash. “I said to Norm, could we build a pretty high-tech kitchen from scratch that would satisfy the demands of a consumer and yet be something a home craftsman could aspire to build with a limited number of tools. We break the kitchen down into the hot wall, wet wall, pantry, home office, island and the bar. It’s proven to be exactly as we imagined.”
Norm estimates the materials for his kitchen will run about $8,000. They include the incredibly durable pre-finished plywood for the boxes, Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) for the door panels, poplar for the door rails and styles, paint for exterior, screws, glue and hinges, knobs and drawers rails. He’ll deviate from that contingent a bit when he uses solid cherry and veneers in the bar and some “river-recovered” long leaf pine on the island’s wood that shows. Some of the cabinets will use glass panes in the door and some of the cabinet backs will be mirrored.
“You have to start with a good box that’s strong, square and true. One thing about building your own kitchen is that you can make it any way you want. We’ve made some changes to industry standards. We made our cabinets a little deeper because we wanted a little more room in the counters. That is the luxury of building your own kitchen,” says Norm. To join the box pieces, he uses a dado blade to cut rabbetted joints and then glues and fastens them with something akin to deck screws. Glue and a panhead-like “pocket screw” slipped into a drilled slot tightly bond the door rails and styles.
“Commercial shops have the luxury of huge machines placing dowels anywhere you want. They can put a dowel in every 6 inches and basically butt-joint everything together. A guy in his shop would go crazy doing that. Rabbet joints, glue and screws are very strong and I know cabinet makers that use techniques similar to that,” says Norm.
Even though the pre-finished plywood is pricey at $100 a sheet, it’s well worth it. The durable finish lasts a lifetime and spares the craftsman the messy job of painting the insides of the cabinets.
Several trends are driving craftsmen and builders away from dimensional lumber and toward engineered wood like MDF, laminates and even extruded wood composites such as Fibrex used in Andersen’s Renewal replacement windows. Expense is an obvious one, but the dwindling supply of quality dimensional lumber and the advantages of composites are just as pivotal.
“You look at the house I grew up in and built in the 1950s. It’s beautifully framed and all hard as a rock, Douglas fir with a nice tight frame. Pick up a 2 x 10 at the lumber yard today. It’s spruce. It rots easily and is not a stable material. Some of it’s coming from Russia and Europe,” Norm says, adding that North America generally produces the world’s highest quality lumber.
Enter engineered wood, which many craftsmen and builders shunned at first. Norm offers the example of a Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) beam. “When you want 9 and ¼ inches (in width), you get 9 and ¼ inches.” (Builders) have to go with engineered materials if they want to build a house that’s strong.”
Of course, the wood suppliers were the first to be pinched by poor lumber quality, high cost and constrained supply. At Columbia Forest Products (an NYW sponsor), which claims to be the largest domestic producer of hardwood-veneered plywood for decorative purposes and flooring, depends on engineered products such as MDF for a third of its plywood substrates. In five years, the dial should move to 50 percent natural products and 50 percent engineered, says Columbia’s Executive Vice President Ed Woods, who adds Europe is already 80 percent engineered wood. By engineered, Woods means “fiberized” wood chips and sawdust mixed with resin subjected to low and high pressure to form useable sheets.
“One of the benefits is that you don’t have the shrinking and swelling of dimensional lumber. That means an engineered substrate is much smoother to place your veneers on. Engineered laminates get the defects out. With natural veneer, you’re always going to have defects, knots and burls you have work around,” he says.
Woods also cites the advantages of using pre-finished laminates used by Norm in his cabinet project. “When panels are finished in the factory, cabinet makers don’t have to worry about applying finishes and releasing VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) into the air,” he says. At the factory, the panels are UV cured, so VOCs are not released, he adds.
As for the fasteners, Norm will use a simple inset hinge for the doors, but will go more upscale with a 72-piece drawer rail, using Austrian firm Blum Mfg.’s TANDEM units with BLUMOTION.
“We’ve just been exposed to the Blum line. I have them in my kitchen, which gives it a very clean look. They are very well built. For look and function, you have to be willing to pay the price for the good hardware,” says Norm. The drawer rails employ Blum’s popular BLUMOTION technology, which promises to make drawer closing “silent and automatic.” The rails can be purchased for around $50 a pair at online supply firms such as Rockler Hardware and Woodworking.
Norm and Morash visited Blum’s 450,000-sq ft manufacturing plant in Stanley, NC and will go over some advanced kitchen cabinets in NYW’s first episode next January. The corner drawer, Aventos Lift System and tap technology to open a lower cabinet with one’s foot caught Norm’s eye.
“The corner drawer blew me away. I don’t know how many they sell, but somebody had a dream and executed on it,” says Norm. And watching the drawers being manufactured really fueled Norm’s affinity for the new and modern. “The (metal) slides come in six-ft in diameter rolls of steel, 6 to 8 inches wide. It goes into a machine with all these dies. When they came down, it would bend the piece, move it over, make the holes, bend it, move the piece over and so forth. The concrete floor was shaking,” he says. “With my engineering background, I love that kind of stuff and take every opportunity to go and see how something is manufactured.”
Blum, founded 55 years ago by Austrian blacksmith and iron fitter Julius Blum, claims to be the “Bentley” of the cabinet hinge and fastening industry, according to Blum U.S. spokesman Dennis Poteat. He issues a challenge to companies trying to knock off BLUMOTION. “We tell people to try ours next to theirs and start adding weight.” As for what’s coming next year, Blum will come with motor-driven hardware for drawers, meaning touch it and it opens. “This is a little more advanced handle-less technology,” says Poteat.
The glues in Norm’s kitchen cabinets are Titebond III and Titebond Molding & Trim glue, which are popular with both amateur and professional woodworkers. The “white glue” revolution actually began in 1947 when Borden’s developed “Cascorez Glue,” which a short time later became “Elmer’s Glue-All,” symbolized by Borden’s corporate symbol, Elsie the Cow. Titebond III, which came out three years ago, improves upon Titebond II because it’s waterproof and cleans up with water, yet is still very strong.
Norm usually builds prototypes before he starts taping a series to make sure everything works. And he always tries to show a new technique or tool that he can recommend. During episode six, for instance, he showed a pneumatic pin nailer whose namesake ammo holds the molding to a door cabinet while the glue dries. In other words, the pin, which is not visible, serves as a clamp.
“When I build a prototype, I am trying to think of a technique I have not demonstrated to the viewers before. It also gives me a chance to try things that I don’t want to try on air live. I want to try it in the shop to see if it would help the woodworker. If it doesn’t work very well, I am not going to show it on the air,” Norms says.
Therein lies another essential value of the show, interjects Morash.
“Pin nailers have been around for while, but no one has bothered to show how to use them, certainly not in your living room. Norm comes around today and says I do not want to see the head of the nail. I just want the pin to hold the joint until the glue sets. Manufacturers never take it to the next step of showing people how something works except in the double-lying commercial. Take power washers. Once you see it work, you may choose to buy one, but in the box at Home Depot with a $500 price tag on it, you’re not going to buy one. I’m not,” he explains.
Norm isn’t likely to use a CAD tool in place of prototyping anytime soon, but does envision a role for CAD tools in woodworking. One epiphany he had came while opening his freezer door. He realized that the way his freezer door opened could be used to solve another problem.
“It had an angle guide and I wanted to do it in wood. But the hardest thing to engineer was the jig to cut and angle the slot,” Norm says. “I think there will be a future for computers in woodworking. There are companies selling small CNC machines to woodworkers, now. You’re going to see more of that. I have a friend who built his own CNC machine to build guitars.”
Clearly, the lifelong allure of woodworking to Norm is continually coming up with new projects, methods, tools, materials and ways to make the end more appealing and lasting. Hence, the New in New Yankee Workshop.
Find a supplier on oemsuppliersearch.com