by Carrie Frye | Photography by Carl Tremlay & Sarah Violette
Thirty-eight years later, viewers are still tuning in to PBS and “This Old House,” deemed “TV’s original home-improvement show,” to watch the remarkable transformations of homes with the craftsmanship of the show’s master carpenter, Norm Abram.
An author, columnist and former television host of “The New Yankee Workshop,” Abram is most at home when he is alongside his fellow “This Old House” home improvement professionals Tom Silva, Richard Trethewey, Roger Cook and host Kevin O’Connor, showcasing the how-to know-how of their current project. Born in Rhode Island and the son of a carpenter, Abram may have been destined to take on the trade, but he still finds joy in a job well done and happy homeowners.
At his home in Massachusetts, Abram, 67, discusses the show’s longevity, the importance of patience and taking your time with home projects, and the show’s new initiative, Generation NEXT, which is working with its partners to “close the skills gap by encouraging young people to master the vocational trades.”
ONC: How did your love for carpentry develop?
NA: Well. I grew up in a family that did a lot of things on their own. My father was a carpenter. I think I got my first little tool kit, the Handy Andy Tool Set, and it was really meant for children (laughs), although I must say, today, they probably would not allow it, because it had some sharp tools. Somewhere along the way, I lost track of it, but then someone remembered and sent me one. I was probably 7 or 8 years year old. It was a Christmas gift. So being around my father who built a summer cottage that we spent our summers at and in the house I grew up in, I was always around carpentry. The first time my father took me to a site he was working at was when I was 9 years old. That day, he was installing hardwood flooring, and back then, we didn’t have all of those pneumatic nailers, so it was all hand nailing, and that was the beginning.
As I got older, my father never had his own company, but he always worked for a remodeling contractor and then eventually a home builder. When I was 15, I started working all of my summer vacations and school vacations for the same company my father worked. And he was more of a lead person, so I was under him. I started from the very beginning, learning all of the basics, and worked my way up. It is definitely a process, but 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 cutting it up and start building a house, and at the end of the day, look at it and say, “We made some great progress today. Look, we got all the walls up.” So it is a very rewarding process, and I was hooked on it right from the very beginning.
Since starting in 1979 with “This Old House,” did you think about it resonating with an audience so much that it would still be airing nearly 40 years later?
I had no idea what I was getting into at all (laughs). I had my own business going. I was introduced to Russell Morash, the executive producer and creator of the show, and he just took things he enjoyed and wanted to celebrate craftsmanship and show people how to do all of these things. When he approached me, I didn’t know what his job was, since I didn’t come from that world. So he just said, “Come and look at this project with me and see what you think.” He had seen some work I had done, and I was actually working on his property at the time. I was building a small structure, a small garage with a garden shed. Part of it was for a little woodworking shop. And ultimately, that building became part of “The New Yankee Workshop” show. We added on to it for the show, but the birth of it really started back then.
The first project was a local show in Boston, 13 episodes. It was quite different from where we are now, because we have a general contractor and work it all out. Basically, he pulled together people he knew, and we did the job, and eventually, they auctioned it on the public television auction. Russell said, “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.” Four or five months later, he called me and asked me to come look at another project. The rest is history.
We are all blown away by the fact that we are still here 38 years later, and this show just keeps going. I think it is to Russell’s credit, because he really wanted to celebrate craftsmanship. He wanted it to be real, real people doing real work that showcases their skills. I think he has been successful. People watch the show for inspiration. We’ve influenced people to get into a building business and gotten people to appreciate the value of the trade. I think the mission is accomplished.
What’s the most enjoyable part of doing the show?
For one thing, I work with the most wonderful group of people you could ever want to work with. We are all family, and I think viewers can see that in the show. They see that we are friends, and we have each other’s backs. We all believe in good, quality work and giving proper information. There will be days when you are on set shooting a show and something will come up, and the producer may say we are going to talk about this, and we get to say we have to make sure and cover this point, because this is important in the process, and we don’t want to skip any steps. We have carried that through all of these years, and that’s what gives the show the credibility. Sometimes, you’re tired and show up on the set, but when you get in there and start doing your job, seeing the process, seeing happy homeowners, getting good public reaction to the show, you couldn’t ask for any more than that.
My daughter was born during the second “This Old House” project. I remember the day clearly, so we all have seen our kids grow up. My daughter just got married last fall, and she’ll be 37 this year. Time goes by so quickly, but the bonds of friendship have always been very solid on the show.
Are there any fun behind-the-scenes moments you can share?
Tom Silva is probably one of the best jokesters I have ever met. He always comes back with a line very quickly, and it is all in fun. It really takes the pressure off things when we are really pushing hard to get something done. Whenever things get edgy, Tommy makes some funny remark, everyone laughs and then we get back at it again. There are some fun scenes, a lot of joking around, this year in particular, Tommy has been picking on Kevin. It is always good fun.
Can you tell us about the Arlington Arts & Crafts project (one of the latest home addition projects covered on several episodes)?
That project turned out great. If you saw the last show, Tom and I walked around back and looked at that addition, which was huge, and compared it to what was there. You could look at it, and say, “This looks like it has always been here.” It was well designed. Tommy, as always, is very detailed, and it came out perfect. It is one of our best projects I think.
How do you balance keeping the homeowners happy with your work, the show and your family life?
It’s not easy. As I get older and look back, I say, “Wow, how did I do that?” I was doing “This Old House” and “The New Yankee Workshop” at the same time.
I think one advantage we have as a team is that all of us are pretty disciplined in terms of getting things done in a timely way. We don’t waste any time, so that makes things easier. The travel, at times, can be tough, especially with a daughter and stepkids as well, when you have to leave for a week and work on a project and do personal appearances. That was hard, but it was also good to help build the recognition of the show. My family understood what we were trying to do, and in the long run, it turned out fine. It is never easy to balance all of those things.
Do you still have plenty of projects at home, too?
Oh yeah. One of the reasons I wanted to do less travel is to catch up on the things that I haven’t finished at home. Builders love it when they know I have my own projects I didn’t finish yet. It is not out of a lack of not wanting to do it; it is really finding the time to do it. Since stopping “The New Yankee Workshop” in 2008, now I’ve been picking away at little things that I never totally finished. I think for any homeowner, there is always a list. Now, I can’t help myself to be active and do things, so since I love carpentry, I have plenty of things to keep me in that realm. We are doing a little conversion in our kitchen. When I built the house, I put in an electric cooktop, and I was never really happy with the performance, but on the other hand, we didn’t have natural gas in the area. So a few years ago, I added a generator to our house, and with that I put in a propane tank, so now, I can put in a gas cooktop, so that’s my current project. I have to modify a couple things with the kitchen cabinets, but I don’t have to change the countertop.
Is cooking one of your other hobbies?
My wife and I love to cook together and make our favorite recipes on the weekend. During the week, it is a little bit harder. Cooking is fun, and I love good food, so I can’t help it.
What’s your best advice for attempting DIY projects?
There are a couple things to think about when you look at a project. I always tell people not to dive into something you feel overly uncomfortable doing. Start simple and move your way up through the process. The other thing people joke around with me about “The New Yankee Workshop” is that you can build anything. Don’t go out and buy all of these tools, because they won’t do the job for you if you don’t know how to use them. It all takes time, so start small. If you have a few tools, look at what you have and search for a project you can do with those tools. That’s what great about the Internet now. There is a lot of information out there, and you can look things up or find an idea in a magazine.
You will learn from your mistakes. I have learned more from my mistakes than anything else, why did I do that or skip this step. If you rush and get out of sequence, you compromise the work. Just be patient. Don’t take on more than you can handle.
Since you are known for your famous flannel shirts, what’s your favorite color shirt?
It seems like anything with red, the Christmas-y look. I have been breaking the rules a little bit the past couple years and not wearing as many. I did wear a plaid shirt for the final show of the Arlington house, but most of my shirts are red or blue.
Can you tell us about the Generation NEXT initiative?
It is really a nationwide issue, and the response has been amazing. When you tell people that there are 3 million skilled jobs in the construction industry alone that are empty because people haven’t been trained, and we don’t have the workers, people are shocked. There will be more, if we don’t fix the problem. What we are trying to do is use Generation NEXT to empower and encourage young people to consider the trades. Not everyone needs a four-year degree, and not everyone is meant to go to college, so it’s important to change the perception of the trades as lower level or unskilled. People often don’t appreciate the value of those that really know how to build or a good plumber or a good electrician. This country was built by people like that, so how do we maintain our houses moving forward, if we don’t have the people do it? Generation NEXT will feature stories with young people who went through the college process and are now getting into building trades.
What we are doing this year with “This Old House” is buying a house. We will be the homeowners, and we are going to fix and modify it. We started a nationwide search for three apprentice positions through Generation NEXT to be featured on the show. (Go to www.thisoldhouse.com , and click Generation NEXT for more information.)
Are there any projects you want to accomplish in your Second 50?
I am way into my Second 50. I am into my three quarters (laughs). For me, I think that the success of the Second 50 and beyond is keeping your mind active, keeping your hands active and doing things. Mentor young people and move forward, and use what you know and pass it on. You can never stop learning. Keeping the brain and the body moving, for me, that’s the most important thing.