Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The New Yankee Workshop

The world of professional woodworking doesn't have rock stars. "I want to sand and plane all night....and turn some wood on the lathe" isn't a lyric that drips with excitement. But if building a coffee table inspired by a Parisian sheep-shearing table did pull 75,000 screaming fans into stadiums across the country the man most likely to be the featured act would be Norm Abram, the Oak Zeppelin of furniture builders. He makes other master carpenters look like awkward, pimply-faced teenagers, and the "wood guys" that work at Home Depot like crippled, three-toed marmosets.

Norm got started in television as the head carpenter on This Old House, opposite Bob Vila. In 1989 the producer of that show, interested in expanding into new programming created a spin-off show with Norm as the host, The New Yankee Workshop, which is where I first discovered him.

The show's not exciting. Not at all. In fact it often lapses into boring and mildly repetitive. But it's old school PBS programming, so glitz and flash is not what you watch for. But it is fascinating television. What Norm can do with wood never ceases to amaze me. The formula is pat. Most episodes start with him visiting some historic location and examining a piece of vintage, antique wood furniture. Then he goes back to his shop and builds a similar piece from scratch. Imagine that...being so familiar with the physical language of woodworking that you can easily translate objects without needing to disassemble them. He simply looks at a piece of furniture and quickly decodes the necessary construction steps, steps that generally aren't simple or intuitive (at least not to novices like me.)

I've written previous entries on my desire to give real woodworking a try. Norm Abram is the reason and the inspiration. I love watching him work. He makes it all seem so easy even when it's clearly not. And his collection of woodworking tools is enough to give John Holmes penis envy. At the end of each episode, when he's showing off his finished piece I'm always left wishing I could have the same experience, creating something useful and beautiful completely from scratch, using just my hands (and power tools, of course.)

Norm Abram, Wood Star Extraordinaire.

Note: As I filled in the labels for this post I found that both Norm Abram and The New Yankee Workshop had already been used before. I went back and, sure enough I'd already written an entry on the show. A much better entry than this one, in fact. Here's a link. But it didn't feature the rock star metaphor, and since I can't throw away an entry I spent 20 minutes writing in good faith that it was the first time I'd focused on the topic, I'm letting the new entry stay. Norm, you're only person that's not family that's been written about twice in this blog. Please have me as a guest on your show to return the favor. Thanks.*

* That's apparently impossible now. I just read that, as of earlier this month Norm has elected to cease taping The New Yankee Workshop. Such a bummer.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said, except I find The New Yankee Workshop very exciting & anything but boring, but I know what you are trying to say. Unfortunately all great things come to an end.
    David R.