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Norm Abram's Big Break and Continuing Wood Working Education

August 14, 2007

6 Min Read
Norm Abram's Big Break and Continuing Wood Working Education

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In 1978, “New Yankee Workshop” host Norm Abram created so little waste building a garage/workshop in Russell Morash’s backyard, the latter asked him if he wanted to be the contractor on a new TV show called “This Old House” (TOH). That serendipitous series of events led to NYW and a career in TV for Norm.

Located in suburban Boston, the 936-sq ft NYW attached to an original workshop/garage that Norm built is situated in the backyard of Morash, who is often credited with creating the genre of how-to television. NYW is co-produced by PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston and Morash Assoc. 

“He didn’t have anything better to do, I guess,” quips Morash. Tentative at first, Norm, 57, a lifelong carpenter, craftsman, tinkerer, welder, plumber, electrician, roofer, auto mechanic, almost mechanical engineer and Olympic handyman, knew zilch about TV but signed up anyway. “(TV) was a total mystery, but ‘78 was slow. I went home saying ‘wow I am going to be on TV maybe.’ He didn’t say he was going to put me on air. I was going to sort of run the job and be a contractor,” says Norm. At the time, Bob Vila would be the star host to emerge.

Vila has moved on and Norm has been the star of NYW for 19 seasons and will enter his 20th season next year. Based on PBS’ 2006-07 numbers, an average of 1.45 million viewers tune in to NYW every week. TOH averages 3.9 million. Five books published over the years lay out all the projects aired on NYW.

So, that’s how Norm Abram became the most celebrated woodworker in America, but how did he become the most trusted?     

“Norm is not a human. He reads the instructions and understands them when others are ripping the packages open and trying to do it based on landmarks. He actually understands the project before he builds it. He has an uncanny ability to think in the abstract,” says Morash.

One of Morash’s favorite tales is how, on the show, Norm built a gazebo rife with complex angles without first building a prototype. Of course, Norm cut every piece correctly the first time. The host of a competing home projects’ show tried the same thing which was big mistake, according to Morash, arguably Norm’s biggest fan.

“They started to cut their platform without a prototype. The host said, ‘cut this 22.5 degree angle’ and so forth. About six minutes go by and the host looks up at the camera and says: ‘remember I said 22.5 degrees. I was wrong. Make it 17.5 degrees.’ That would not have happened with Norm because he is not mortal,” Morash says.

Norm’s love for working with his hands is lifelong. To say he is likeable and more important, credible, is an understatement. In person, he is exactly what he appears to be on TV. “My father was a jack-of-all-trades primarily as a carpenter. He had been a mechanic in the service. He could weld. He could do plumbing and electrical. And he could do it well. He wasn’t a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. He was a master of a lot of trades. And I was by his side most of my time as a kid,” he says.

Norm is actually an engineer in carpenter’s clothing. He studied mechanical engineering in 1967 at the University of Massachusetts when the future was not bright for engineers. And he aspired to be an aeronautical engineer when NASA headlined the news with moon shots. True to form, Norm found the classroom wasn’t for him. After all, his genius is working with his hands. 

“I hated sitting in a class of 600 in a thermodynamics class, but I loved being in the lab working with metals. I hung in there for a couple of years and said this isn’t for me. You can learn a lot from school and books, but you really learn from experience,” he says. Going with a gut feeling, he switched to production management in business school, sensing he wanted to be a building contractor. He came close but never earned a degree because midstream in college he “felt it was time to go to work.”

For several years, he went through the usual ups and downs of a building contractor, working in Vermont, New Hampshire, Nantucket and eastern Massachusetts. His break came when he was hired by Morash to build the fortuitous garage/workshop where the cabinets are stored. The rest is history: Norm became the contractor on TOH where today he still serves as “master carpenter.”

While he might not be an engineer in the strict sense, Norm has many insights into the engineering mentality.

“We had some tool guys in here the other day and were talking about making tools to satisfy the needs of (retired engineers) who come out of the auto industry. They are the toughest crowd to please because they work in ten thousandths of an inch. Those dimensions are unnecessary in woodworking. I can glue up a panel today and it will grow a little if it’s humid or shrink if it’s dry. There is a level of tolerance you have to understand if you come from an engineering background,” Norm says. “It’s like anything you build. You have to be patient.”

 Math and especially geometry have served Norm well in woodworking as well as what he learned studying mechanical engineering. But in the long run, his instincts, experience, motivation and talent have been the key elements in his illustrious career.

“Part of it is my engineering education and what my father taught me. Maybe it’s in the genes. I can think three-dimensionally in my head. But when I’m building, I’m focusing on the task right in front of me,” Norm says. “As soon as I feel comfortable that I’m moving forward with that task, my checkpoint is what’s next. How will this impact the next step? What do I have to be careful about so I don’t get into trouble?”

Finding a mere mortal who’s seen Norm in trouble would be difficult, but he confesses to a surprising shortcoming — spending too much time woodworking.

“There’s still stuff I have not attempted and experimentation with wood I have not gotten to. I still have a long way to go. Certainly we’ve come a long way from a Shaker bedside table to a high boy. I have not had the time to experiment as much as I would like to,” he says. “I spend more time woodworking than I should. That’s what I’m trying to overcome. Maybe I should spend more time smelling the roses. Don’t be afraid of other things.”

The notion of overworking perfectly explains his definition of a master carpenter. “People might assume it means you’ve attained a level of ability. My belief is that a master carpenter is not the level you reach because there’s no end point to it. There’s always new things.”

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