Category Archives: Shop Talk

Is he the Norm?

Get a group of woodworkers together, and, eventually, the topic of Norm Abram will come up.

His NormnessIt’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?

In Love With Ugly

My workbench is ugly. It’s REALLY ugly. If ugly were bricks, my bench could build the Great Wall of China.

The beast was born one Valentine’s Day night when my wife was working evenings. I was the only guy at Home Depot that night (everyone else had the sense to take their sweeties out for a nice dinner). I cobbled a puny little bench together with some Simpson Strong-Tie connectors, 2×4’s, a half-sheet of ¾” plywood and a fistful of screws. And, it was good.bench1

Later, when I discovered that my 2 foot by 4 foot bench top wasn’t going to be large enough to work for me, I scrounged through my neighbor’s garbage after he did some renovation work and found his old wooden entry door. SUPER ugly 1970’s carvings and molding on the outside a dark, chocolate brown paint on the smooth inside panel. I carted that heavy sucker home, removed the small plywood top and screwed the big 36″ x 80″ door in its place.

Yes, it has the hinge mortises. And the bore holes for the deadbolt, door knob and security peep-hole. I consider that as part of my shop security plan.

Over the years, I have glued up on it, painted on it and tested the sharpness of plane irons on its corners. I’ve pounded on it, screwed jigs to it and (accidentally) cut into it with a circular saw. This thing is a beast! The creature from a nasty corner of the nasty garage.bench2

But, it has a beauty all its own, too. That ugly bench of mine is the perfect size for my shop. I have built countless projects on it – from the obscenely large to the dainty and delicate. I can lay a straight edge on the door and verify that yes, it is dead flat – once I scrape the beads of dried glue off of it. I can clamp projects down to the overhanging edges and know that they won’t move when I chisel, cut or plane. It’s the same height as my table saw, and functions as an outfeed table.

I’ve added some modifications to my bench to make it even more useful. After using a real, professional woodworking bench with a tail vise, I longed for a better way to clamp projects to my bench top to face plane them. I bought a matched pair of Veritas Bench Pups and Wonder Pups, and drilled a series of ¾” holes through the top. Now, I can plug in the pup, clamp it in place and face plane until my heart’s content.bench4

Another awesome upgrade was adding an old Wilton vise to the front of the bench. It’s right there on the left corner. I experimented with several different configurations of where to site the vise, but the classic position for right-handed woodworkers suits me just fine. Edge planing boards is now a snap.

By the way, the vise itself is just as ugly at the bench is rides on. It was plucked from a dumpster behind a school that was doing away with its wood shop program. It must have been built in the 1960’s, coated in a light layer of oxidation and surface rust and has a handle made of a length of metal electrical conduit. I cleaned it up, put some southern yellow pine faces on it and it works like the day it was built.bench3

Do I ever want to replace that ugly bench with something new and pretty? Sure I do. I get bench envy from time to time. I was at the American Sycamore Woodworker’s Retreat in Cloverdale, Indiana and saw a beautiful maple workbench with purpleheart inlays. Heavy mortise and tenon joinery. Dual screw tail vise. The thing looks more like an altar for some woodworking religion than a bench.

But, it didn’t have the character of mine.

Will I eventually replace my bench? Well, I have to confess that I have researched a number of plans from books, magazines and the Internet. But, every time I draw up a shopping list for wood and hardware – I find myself sitting at my old, ugly friend that has seen me through so many projects…

You know, I discovered I really am a loyal, sensitive guy.

Size Does Matter: The Other Side of the Coin

Can I brag for a moment?

I have really good eyesight. I mean, REALLY good eyesight. As long as I can remember, I have been able to read license plates across a parking lot. This is quite a feat, considering the rest of my family has awful vision. Both of my brothers, my mom and my dad all wear glasses or contacts. To be fair, my dad’s glasses are reading glasses (that must be where I got the good eyesight from). But they are all amazed at just how much more detail I can see than they can.

Why, then, was I having trouble seeing what I was doing? Could it be that I was tackling my first really small project?

It was a simple one. Someone asked me to build a postage stamp holder – something funny, creative and made out of wood to hold a roll of stamps. I had the idea of building a very small band-sawn box that could do the job nicely. The lid was going to be held on by rare-earth magnets and a slot that would meter out a stamp at a time from the roll. There was even going to be an appropriate decoration paying tribute to the speed at which stamped letters travel compared to e-mail.

To make this vision a reality, I grabbed a chunk of maple, headed to the band saw, and immediately realized just how different the scale of the project was compared to others. This piece was small. I mean REALLY small. Three inches across and an inch and a half thick. And, once I cut the body of the box to size, I had to cut it into even smaller pieces to create a base and a lid.

As I cut the box from the chunk of maple, the tiny size of the project forced me to rethink nearly all of my construction practices. Well, it wasn’t actually the size of the project, but the close calls I kept having that caused me to sweat the details and count my fingers.

My band saw, normally a very well-behaved machine that gave me very few troubles in the past, provided me several frights. I will often scribe a line and freehand larger pieces through the saw, but those methods didn’t work on the small pieces. They had a nasty habit of slipping from my fingers and shooting across the shop.

Fairing the piece on my benchtop belt sander was another adventure in aerodynamics. Simply running the small piece against the belt – while preventing a nasty 120 grit manicure – allowed me to skip my cardio workout as I chased it all over the shop after it went flying.

Fortunately, before I had to run to the hospital, I realized I was going to need some shop jigs that would help me stay a perfect ten – on my hands, at least. Cutting jigs, sanding jigs and even drilling jigs helped me build the piece without a visit to a hand surgeon.

Sure, building jigs can seem like a pain in the butt. While you are in the flow of a project, you can get lost in the work you are creating. Taking time out to build something out of MDF that will never see the light of day can seem like an unnecessary waste of time, especially if you only have to make one more cut. You are indeed tempting fate.

When you feel like this, think for a minute just how long it will take you to get back into the swing of things after you finally get the all-clear from the medical folks.

Benjamin Franklin was right on the money when he said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Remember, if the little voice in your head is screaming, “Hey, dummy, that looks pretty scary,” you have got to listen. Hopefully, you’ll see how safe you can truly be! That’s so obvious, I’m surprised I didn’t see it earlier in the project.

I guess hindsight really is 20/20.

Size Does Matter

You know you are getting in way over your head when you are building projects so big, you can stand inside them. No, I’m not talking about carpenters building a house. Of course, those folks have to build projects big enough to stand in. Or at least crawl into – you know, something like a doghouse. (I’ve been there a few times after tracking sawdust in across the clean carpet).

And, no, I’m not talking about building a coffin – although, technically, you aren’t supposed to STAND in a coffin. It’s more of a reclining position.

I’m talking about woodworking and furniture projects that make your home complete. That’s exactly what happened to me late last year when I built an entertainment center for my family room. I had this grand vision of an entertainment center that would house a big screen TV (OK, it’s only 36″, but, the way my wife reacted, you’d think we had bought a movie theater screen and could charge admission), books, toys for my two sons, a whole host of electronics, DVDs, CDs, LCDs, VCRs and other ingredients in my alphabet soup.

My plan was pretty straightforward – build one central ‘box’ that would house the TV and storage, and two flanking ‘boxes’ that would serve as bookshelves. I would mount them to the wall up on a frame that I would level right on the concrete slab. This, I told my wife confidently, “was going to be so easy, a child could do it.”

I quickly realized, however, that I was probably going to have to turn to illegal child labor just to put the project together.

First of all, working by yourself on a large project can be the pits. Just imagine trying to square up a seven foot tall, two foot deep, four foot wide center box unit while assembling it on a 36″ by 80″ workbench. I pushed the piece off the edge at least a half dozen times trying to get it lined up.

Then, once I finally managed to get the sucker together and square, where the heck was I going to store it? I mean, I have a pretty decent sized shop – a 20′ x 26′ two-car garage, but that piece loomed larger than one of those monoliths they showed in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then, getting those three huge boxes inside. Without punching a hole in the walls. And knocking the nick-knacks off the shelves in our dining room … well, that was an adventure.

What got me through the project, ultimately, was the fact that I had VERY generous neighbors. One neighbor came by and offered me a second set of hands while I was assembling the monster case. Other neighbors offered to help me store the pieces in their garages while I assembled the job. And, when the time came to move and install, another neighbor came to my aid and kept me from putting the corner of the box through a window!

The moral of the story – get in friendly with your neighbors. If they are interested, they may be able to offer another set of hands when the big projects get tricky. Unfortunately, most will then ask you to build a huge project for their homes.

But, hey, at least you’ll have practice.

The Wood-a-holic

Yes, it’s true. I’m Tom Iovino, known as Tampa Tom far and wide, and I am a wood-a-holic. I have to admit this as part of my twelve step program. I knew I was in trouble when I started exhibiting the following symptoms (yes, it’s OK for you to admit that you too might be a wood-a-holic after reading this list):

  • You race home from a hard day at work to put in a few hours in the shop.
  • You start arranging your vacations and family schedule around woodworking expos.
  • You can spend hours in a home improvement center turning every hand wheel, flipping every switch and checking the fit and finish of every power tool you see.
  • You walk into a furniture store, drop to your knees and inspect the underside of every piece of furniture to see how it was built.
  • You find yourself proclaiming, “I could build that,” when someone describes the need for a piece of furniture.

It’s not really a bad affliction when you think about it. Woodworking is the kind of addiction where you can actually accomplish something useful. A piece of furniture that can fill a need – and maybe even look good in the process. That’s always a good thing. Sometimes, I’ll use reverse psychology to get where I need to. For instance, a few years ago, we ran out of cabinet space in our kitchen. We couldn’t squeeze another box, pot or pan in there. So, I sketched out a design for a free-standing pantry that would fit into a perfect corner of the kitchen. I priced out the materials, and then looked for a pantry at a furniture store. The pre-made one cost considerably more than the materials, but I wasn’t convinced she would go for the deal. So, when I showed her the plans, I greased the skids a little – “That was a great idea you had for me to build a new pantry.”

She was sold.

My wife will get annoyed that I’ll spend the better part of a Saturday in the shop building something. But, once that piece gets into the house, everything seems to work itself out. She’ll even call the neighbors over to take a look at the finished piece. That’s when I have to strike while the iron’s hot – “Hey, honey, since I did a good job on that piece, what do you think about me building a (fill in the blank)?” If I say this in front of the neighbors while they are admiring the work, they’ll start asking about when the new project will be completed.

I call them my enablers.