“The New Yankee Workshop” series ended in 2009 after 21 seasons, to the dismay of its loyal viewers, as it had become a credible source of information on anything pertaining to woodworking. The Emmy award-winning show featured Norm Abram, who easily charmed his way into the hearts of people, inspiring them to pick up their tools and build something. Devoted followers can still see the master carpenter and woodworker extraordinaire on PBS’ “This Old House” series, and the official website of the much-loved show remains accessible online.
- 1 Get to know Norm Abram
- 2 From “This Old House” to “The New Yankee Workshop”
- 3 Norm, the furniture maker
- 4 Rumors surrounding “The New Yankee Workshop”
- 5 The fate of “The New Yankee Workshop”
Get to know Norm Abram
Norman L. Abram was born on 3 October 1949, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island USA, and grew up in Milford, Massachusetts. He may have been destined to become a carpenter, as his father was one. When he was around seven, he received his first tool kit, a Handy Andy Tool Set, as a Christmas gift. He was nine when his father took him to a job site on Christmas Eve, and he helped install hardwood flooring at that.
He recalled playing with wood pieces for hours in their basement, using his imagination, and from when he was 15, he spent his summers and school vacations working under his father for a construction company where the latter was employed, learning all the basic skills, and working his way up. Norm was hooked right from the very beginning, as he said, ‘I just love the fact of the site, the smell of the wood, the day you can go there and take a pile of lumber…and start building a house.’ Seeing the progress they had made was very rewarding.
He was studying toward a mechanical engineering degree for two years, then switched to business administration at the University of Massachusetts, but in his fifth year at college, he quit school and took a carpentry job. While he was working for a Boston-based construction company that built condominiums, he was swiftly promoted to site supervisor. Before long, he became due for another promotion that would take him off the job site and into an office, so he left to open his own firm.
From “This Old House” to “The New Yankee Workshop”
Home improvement shows may be prevalent on television today, but “This Old House” was one of the first series, if not the first in that genre, when it premiered in 1979 on WGBH-TV, a Boston PBS station.
In 1976, Norm had established Integrated Structures, Inc., a general contracting firm, and one of his clients was Russell Morash, producer and director of Julia Child’s cooking show of 1963 called “The French Chef.” Russell hired Norm to construct a small structure that was part garage, part garden shed, and part woodworking shop on his suburban Boston property. He was impressed with Norm’s work, and the fact that he had a small scrap pile so he wanted him to be part of the show he was creating.
Norm had no idea what he was really getting into when Russell invited him, saying, ‘Come and look at this project with me and see what you think.’ ‘This project’ was the rehabilitation of a Victorian house in a Dorchester neighborhood, and the first one for “This Old House.”
A film crew was recording the process, and Norm thought that he was just going to be in the background doing carpentry work; he was even hoping that his family would catch a glimpse of him. However, before he knew it, the host of the show, Bob Villa, was asking him questions, and he was right in front of the camera. The show’s main focus was on the work being done so attention was paid to Norm as the master carpenter and other professionals. It was Russell who had him wear a plaid shirt that became his signature look.
The whole project was aired for 13 episodes, and the place was then sold through a public TV auction, with the producer saying, ‘Well, you know, this worked out pretty well. We broke even and showed some people how to do things, and maybe we’ll do this again.’ Norm received a call five months later to do another project, and never looked back. The appeal of the show came from having real people doing real work, with the message that one didn’t have to buy a new home to be happy, as one only needed the right tools and a little ingenuity.
The show has since become a cultural icon, with its producer, Russell Morash, earning the title “Father of How-To.”
Norm said, ‘People dream about how good they can make their house, and then they do the best they can with what they can afford.’ There were some misgivings on the part of building contractors at first, as the show was giving away too many trade secrets. They could lose potential business as homeowners could do the work themselves having the show as their guide, instead of hiring skilled workers to do it. However, there were always people who would prefer to have others, professionals do the work. What this show actually did was made people learn and appreciate the value of the trade. Knowing the skills, time, and manpower required to do a job well, would help them communicate better with their contractors.
Norm, the furniture maker
“This Old House” became so successful that it spawned the spin-off series “The New Yankee Workshop,” which premiered on 7 January 1989. Russell believed that the viewing public would also be interested in woodworking, and thought of no one else whom he would cast in the series but Norm, as the latter was compelling, skilled and credible. He further said, ‘I never thought he couldn’t do something. In his very quiet way, he would figure it out.’ Norm became the host as well as the furniture maker.
He along with Russell and his wife, Marian Morash, scoured for pieces in the area where “This Old House” was filming, and would then decide what to feature in the show. He wanted every project tackled to be something that would inspire people, as well as provide a challenge for woodworkers. Norm said that the word “Yankee” in the series’ name stood for quality craftsmanship, while “New” indicated his desire to show new materials and applications.
The show was all about constructing old things using modern tools. He tackled a variety of projects from simple to complicated, be it functional or decorative.
Simple and complex builds at the workshop
For the first episode of the show, Norm constructed a medicine cabinet based on the one he had seen in a retiring room or bedroom at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It had shelves inside with a nice overhang. Back at the shop, he used oak plywood and red oak with box-joint joinery and incorporated his own design that included a mirror on the front, and adjustable glass shelves inside. The dimensions of the cabinet are 26-inches high x 22-inches wide x 7-inches deep.
Roll Top Desk
The Old Schwamb Mill in Arlington Heights was built in 1860, and in 1864 it was bought by German immigrant woodworkers Charles and Frederick Schwamb.
The two built a business out of making oval picture frames that were ideal for displaying photos of Civil War soldiers. Norm visited the place, and spotted a quarter-sawn oak roll-top desk with cubby-holes, secret compartments, and drawers used to organize paperwork, stamps and pens; the roll top came with a key to secure the contents of the desk. It was owned by Charles, and built by his brother Theodore in 1893. The desk inspired Norm to construct his own version using white oak with three coats of polyurethane for its finish, and the whole process was featured in two episodes of the show in Season 10, aired in 1998.
Norm was on the island of Nantucket for the tenth anniversary of the show, where he visited an antique shop called Celtic Pine that had country pieces from Ireland, and was drawn to an antique pine table.
The 36-inch round table with four tapered legs and mortise-and-tenon joinery on the rails was for sale at $700. In his version, he used antique pine from a floorboard in an attic for the top, old thick planks for the legs, and salvaged timber for the rails that would support the top and join the legs together.
Norm went to The Great Salt Lake in Utah to see how workers dismantled the wooden trestle on the deeper end of the lake, that was part of the transcontinental railway. He checked out the 3 feet by 12 feet redwood used for the deck, and which was still in good condition. The people of Salt Lake City sent him several timbers so that he could build something with a piece of history in it. After cutting out all the defects, he was left with wood in a variety of sizes, and was able to construct an outdoor chaise lounge. It had a full reclining position, with a backrest that could be in an incline position. He even included redwood wheels to move it around.
Rumors surrounding “The New Yankee Workshop”
The workshop was a set designed for TV production
The show was actually filmed in the backyard of Russell’s 1851 Massachusetts farmhouse. Norm expanded a structure he once built for the producer, and turned it into a fully functioning woodworking shop. It was shaped like a sandbox, measuring 36 feet by 26 feet with skylights – there were no strategically placed cameras hidden behind a wall, and no missing walls. Without the lights hanging from the 16 foot-high ceiling, no one would know that a TV show was being filmed there. The finishing was done in another room, and the lumber was stored in a different building. Norm’s only complaint was that the concrete floor was hard on his feet after a long day at work. The show’s iconic sign was behind the property so the famous workshop was well hidden.
Norm had a crew that built the projects
It was Norm who built each project from start to finish, and no one else, but he did have a shop assistant, who cleaned the workshop and kept the machines well-tuned, and the tools sharp.
He would look for furniture that he was interested in building, took photos, noted down its dimensions, and then created sketches. Norm built a prototype first, saying, ‘I could have other people do it for me, but it wouldn’t be the same. I’ve got to figure out how to do it,’ and then re-created it in front of the camera from scratch. He rarely made mistakes, but one time he botched a piece of wood that he was using for a Butler’s table; the staff then put it on display on a wall at the shop, as a reminder that Norm wasn’t infallible. Only one guy was filming him as he worked on a project and explained what he was doing; there was no script. It only took one or two days to complete the shoot. Norm said that he’s been a carpenter for so long, that he’s used to people watching him work, so he didn’t mind being filmed.
All the machines and tools used were from the show’s underwriters
As per PBS guidelines, all manufacturer names of the tools and machines that Norm used were covered with stickers, as the goal was to create a generic shop. Only those who were familiar with the items would recognize them. A lot of manufacturers gave items that one would need in a woodworking shop, hoping that it would be featured in the show, however, Norm refused to use one just because it came from an underwriter, or that it was the most expensive. He only used those pieces that he knew were the best for a particular project. He was careful talking about those that he preferred, to avoid being seen as an endorser of a particular brand.
Norm didn’t use hand tools
According to an online dictionary, the word “Normite” was coined to mean one who worships Norm Abram, or that like him, believes that there’s a power tool for every task.
Norm has earned a reputation for using only power tools, but not because that was the only way one could construct the furniture that he featured on the show; it was just more convenient and time-saving to use them. He said there were projects from the show that required the use of hand tools, such as the Federal-style Gaming Table for which he had to hand cut the dovetails in building it.
The fate of “The New Yankee Workshop”
It was announced in 2009 that the much-loved series was closing its doors after 21 successful seasons; the decision was made by WGBH Boston and Morash Associates Inc. Many were at a loss as it had become a part of their lives with Norm Abram as the go-to guy when it comes to building furniture. He’s a perfectionist, so his careful attention to detail made each project seem doable, even for amateurs, no matter how difficult it actually was to make. He was such an engaging teacher that watching him was never boring.
Norm took the audience through every step of the process of building furniture, with the ultimate goal of inspiring people to pick up the craft, work on wood, and learn how the tools work.
Speculation arose as to what and why it happened. However, back in 2005, Norm was candid in saying that ‘everything has to have an end point.’ The show’s creator also knew that, and was hoping that the woodworking shop would someday be in The Smithsonian National Museum of American History display, in the same way that Julia Child’s Kitchen is an exhibit there.
Russell said in an interview that Norm would be focusing on his personal projects. With his busy schedule, he has a lot of unfinished projects at home, and he was looking forward to doing that. He would still be appearing in “This Old House.” For those who were wondering why Norm gave up his own show instead of the other one in which he was just one of the industry professionals, he said that “The New Yankee Workshop” took too much of his time, as he was the one doing all the work, so felt that it was time to step back from it.
The website can be accessed by future generations, so they can learn from Norm. One can order plans for a particular project, and then watch the videos to help in constructing the furniture or structure that was featured in the show.
According to the producer, they didn’t consider replacing Norm with someone else, as the show was tied to him and comparisons would be inevitable between Norm and the new guy; he’s also still open to the possibility that Norm may want to do it again. Norm was far from retiring as a carpenter, as he still wanted to continue building. All of the furniture he built at the shop was inspired by items he saw at various locales, as he didn’t believe that creating something he personally designed would make great TV. However, he would spend the following years trying to see if he could come up with items that have his own signature style.