Get a group of woodworkers together, and, eventually, the topic of Norm Abram will come up.
It’s not difficult to figure out why. He’s been a fixture on This Old House since the show’s inception in 1979 – nearly three decades. This year, the New Yankee Workshop marks its 20th anniversary.
He’s built projects that can fit in nearly every room of the house – including the workshop! Different period styles – from the plain, strong lines of Shaker to the ornate Hepplewhite – have been tackled in detail. He’s worked with high-tech plywood and antique timbers.
His plaid shirts, safety glasses and beard are as essential to his persona as Santa Claus’ red, fur-trimmed suit and black boots.
One other thing Norm does is bring strong opinions to the surface. Some woodworkers see him as a bad influence, cheapening the craft. Their knocks on Norm include:
- Reliance on the brad nailer. Looking at several seasons of the New Yankee Workshop, you’d wonder if anything could be built without the ubiquitous brad nailer. Norm uses it for assembly of dust frames, setting shelves into dadoes, attaching face frames and a whole lot more. I’ve heard woodworkers pin this on his background as a carpenter instead of a true furniture maker.
- All those danged tools! “If I had a shop like that, I could build anything, too,” is a frequent lament of woodworkers – especially those who are just starting out. More than a dozen routers, a Unisaw, huge jointer – it would appear that Norm has just about every tool imaginable at his disposal. The biggest offender in the shop is the Time Saver wide belt sander. That piece of industrial equipment is well out of the price range of most hobby woodworkers. This tooling requirement is often seen as a reason why new woodworkers either go into massive debt or give up on the craft.
- More Power! In his first book, The New Yankee Workshop, Norm describes the philosophy behind the show. Old Yankee furniture masters relied on tried-and-true hand tool techniques. The New Yankee approach is to incorporate power tools into the traditional methods – seemingly shunning more traditional methods. Sometimes, it seems as if Norm spends quite a good deal of time jigging up a power tool to do something that could easily be done in a lot less time with the proper hand tool.
- He’s beholden to his sponsors. For years, whenever Norm used pocket screws, he turned to his Porter-Cable production machine – even though Kreg Tools has been offering pocket hole jigs at a much more affordable price since 1990.
- Fast and cheap. Plate or biscuit joinery has been used in European cabinet shops since its invention in 1956. When the technology jumped the Atlantic, Norm was an early adoptor. While the biscuit speeds production, many see it as a less-than-adequate way to create a joint. Some novice woodworkers will frequently use the biscuit where other, more appropriate joints should be used – in chair production, for example.
- Finish fussiness. Why do most New Yankee Workshop cherry projects come out looking so dark? True, many different styles of furniture did rely on dark finishes, but most modern tastes are dictating a natural look – letting the wood speak for itself. Cherry and Mahogany are two beautiful woods with just a clear finish on them.
- Norm, Inc. What do you get when you order plans for a project from the New Yankee website? A measured drawing. No step-by-step instructions. You want step-by-step? Add the DVD – a $15 upcharge – to the cost of the order.
- The final authority. “How would Norm do this?” Sure, he’s popular. His show is just about everywhere you look. And, many woodworkers see only this when they think of woodworking authorities. It took years for me to discover who Sam Maloof, Frank Klausz, Glen Huey, Doug Stowe and dozens of others of talented woodworkers are. Others like David Marks, Roy Underhill, Scott Phillips and Bob and Rick Rosendahl are on TV, but their growth has certainly taken place under the influence of the very popular New Yankee Workshop.
Now, for all of the knocks Norm takes, there are many more supporters out there. Their arguments include:
- He’s an encouraging force. It’s true that many of us grew up with a parent, grandparent, shop teacher, etc. to thank for our interest in woodworking. I’d be willing to bet that many hobby woodworkers got into the craft watching the New Yankee Workshop. Norm’s friendly, accessible personality has welcomed viewers and his clear explanations have taken away most of the mystery that existed around the craft. Just think how many woodworkers would not be building today if it weren’t for Norm.
- He’s come a long way, baby. Go back and watch some of the New Yankee Workshop’s early seasons. His spindle sander was a sleeve chucked in a drill press. His miter saw didn’t have a laser. He built a lot of jigs because he didn’t have his stable of tools. In other words, his shop has grown over time with the acquisition of new tools – just like every other woodworker’s, including mine.
- He’s getting back to the roots. In recent seasons, Norm has put down the Leigh jig and picked up the backsaw to cut dovetails. He’s used more hand tools to sculpt and form pieces, such as the top rail support in the Dominy Clock. He’s become more concerned with aesthetics – shying away from the brad nailer to more blind joining methods. He seems to be transitioning from his carpentry background to a more polished furniture making form.
- He’s diversifying. Over the past few years, Norm has added a number of new tools to his arsenal that aren’t the most expensive on the market. This season’s nine-part kitchen cabinet opus sees him using the affordable Kreg jig for pocket screwing face frames together. You have to admire this change in philosophy – a move to get beginners back to the table.
- He’s offering his wisdom for FREE! Good luck trying to get a talented woodworker to take the time to explain how the lathe works. Or how to build his jigs. Norm does offer his step-by-step instructions free every Saturday (in my market). All I have to do is DVR or – gasp – tape the episode, and I can go back to watch the technique until I get it right.
So, where does this leave us? In my opinion, the case against Norm is overblown. He may have his detractors, but the contribution the guy has made to the craft can’t be ignored. If it wasn’t for Norm, where would This Old House – and the scores of home improvement shows that have followed since – be? How many folks would not have taken up the craft? And, with fewer woodworkers, how many manufacturers would have been so innovative over the past decade, bringing affordable new technology to the home workshop?
What are your thoughts? How do you think history will judge the New Yankee Woodworker?
8 thoughts on “Is he the Norm?”
Norm is a major reason that I have this woodworking hobby today. There will always be haters. When your at the top everyone wants to take a shot at you.
I also got into woodworking because of Norm’s show. My first woodworking project was a clever extension table/stand for my (then) bench top style table saw. I’ve since done everything from custom window trim and cabinets to art boxes. Norm’s chief strength is “accessibility” – the view that “anyone can do it.” If I’d started with Fine Woodworking, I don’t think I would have started at all.
As has been said above, The New Yankee Workshop gives people like me the confidence that “anyone can do it.” The projects he selects, the portions of the show that are aired, the way he explains things are very approachable.
I’m a self-taught woodworking hobbyist. Ten years ago, as a first-time home-owner, I would look in the Yellow Pages to find someone to replace burned out light bulbs in my recessed lights. Now, I’m building built-in entertainment centers, fire place mantels, and smaller furniture-style cabinets, tables, and benches. Without the help of a local friend & mentor, and The New Yankee Workshop, I think I’d still be looking in the Yellow Pages.
I’ve watched Bob & Rick Rosendahl and while I like their work, they extreme focus on routers, routers, routers leave me wondering how to mill the lumber properly, and how to build all those jigs they use. While I’m impressed with their work, there are too many gaps in what they air on their program to make me feel like I can do the same work.
I’ve watched David Marks as well, and while I learned a LOT more about hand tool work and attention to detail from him, his 12″ jointer and multi-router again leave me wondering how I could possibly duplicate some of his projects.
I enjoy Roy Underhill as well, but I don’t have nearly enough time (or skill) for all of the hand work involved in his projects. It’s great history TV, but not all that helpful for me.
Granted, Norm has a Time Saver and a Porter-Cable Pocket Hole machine, but…there are inexpensive alternatives. A belt sander and a Kreg jig do the same thing. I don’t know what replaces a 12″ jointer in a hobbyist workshop?
As for Franz Klausz, Sam Maloof, and the other great woodworkers, I have learned about them from news articles, their books, and various trade events. I’ve come to appreciate their creativity, their work methods, and definitely the furniture they produce. The gap between knowing about them, and feeling like I could build something even remotely similar…is still a gap. For me, I find that Norm helps will that gap and I appreciate that VERY much.
Hey, Pete. Those are some really good observations on Norm and his colleagues. While I’m sure there is truly no “one size fits all” woodworking show/book/magazine out there, Norm does come close.
He has the personality, the ability to explain and the proper range of projects to apply to a wide range of woodworkers. From the simple picnic table for the beginners to the ornate highboy for the more advanced and adventurous, he does have a strong appeal.
Now, here comes the biggest question – no one can woodwork forever. Well, Sam Maloof might be close, but not even Norm will be able to do the NYW for many more years.
Do you think that there will ever be a replacement for the venerable one?
A replacement for Norm? That’s a good question, and while I don’t like the thought of Norm stopping, I realize he has to at some point. Had you asked me that question a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer the question. However, seeing new video podcasts like Marc Spagnuolo’s is encouraging to me. There’s a big difference in being a good woodworker, and being a good woodworker that can teach others — and I’m starting to see people that can do both. Hopefully the television scouts are watching these podcasts, too, and find someone that could indeed be the next Norm…at least for woodworking.
Will there ever be a complete replacement for Norm? I doubt it — his carpentry/construction experience is not typical for most woodworkers, and has been a source of criticism by some of his detractors. For me, I think it has freed him from some of the constraints that otherwise come from learning the craft “correctly” and is what makes him more accessible.
Let me digress for a moment while we’re on the topic of “other Norms.: For what it’s worth, the terribly short-run “Freeform Furniture” was also interesting to me for two reasons: 1) it was hosted by a woman (Amy Devers) — all too rare in this field, and I appreciated that; and 2) it focused on fast and functional, rather than lengthy but perfect. I disliked it because 1) the designs were too ultra-contemporary for me; 2) she mixed woodworking with cement mixing and welding — I don’t have enough tools for woodworking, how am I going to afford tools for all those other materials?; and 3) she used a lot of basic joinery (like butt joints) and didn’t really help me explore or learn new techniques — just the same techniques in different pieces. I’m not sure why the network didn’t like it (and continue it), but in the end it’s not being produced anymore…so she’s not the next Norm.
What do you think? Will there be another Norm? Where do you think he will come from?
I’m not 100% sure there can be ‘another’ Norm – just as there can’t really be ‘another’ Sam Maloof – each is just too unique.
However, I do think the replacement – if there will be any – isn’t on the traditional radar now. You are dead on – it’s gonna be someone a la Marc who is pushing his ‘brand’ using the newest technology.
It is also going to take someone with a lot of personality who can teach and woodwork as well.
Someone I think still has a good chance is Gail O’Rourke of Hometown Woodworking. She did a pilot that never really took off. You can see a tease of it here:
It kinda didn’t go anywhere, but you gotta admit, she’s very clear and – having worked with her before – she’s a heck of a woodworker. Her site is at http://www.hometownwoodworking.com.
Thanks for pointing me to Gail — I ended up exchanging some email with her. She definitely has an easy style of explanation and is approachable.
I have watch Norm since he started and love to watch him work. I love power tools and love using them. I have build some of his projects. I think he has done a lot to build the interest in woodworking.