1. Archive

Norm Abram seeks to nail down more free time

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Norm Abram, master carpenter on This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop, is at a crossroads. Or maybe it's a fork in the road. At age 48, he's tackling the vagaries of midlife _ assessing the past, planning for the future, and trying to slow down.

Over the past two decades, Abram has become an unwitting celebrity _ a laid-back television star with a quiet command of his craft. His appearances on House for 20 years and on Workshop for 10 years, plus gigs at home and trade shows, six published books, and a new column called "Ask Norm" for This Old House magazine, have made him a busy man and a household name. But it has meant he has had to neglect his own home.

After spending more than two years building his dream house, the large, elegant Colonial structure sits like an empty monument atop a knoll in a town west of Boston. Although work on the outside is complete and the gardens, patios and lawn beautifully landscaped, the interior rooms remain unfinished. And sparsely furnished. Rather ironic for a guy who makes furniture for a living. And something else is missing. A woman's touch. Abram and his wife divorced in 1996.

"I'm in transition and thinking about setting the stage for the next level or cycle of my life," says Abram, ushering a visitor into what he calls the "all-seasons room" with its two walls of oversize windows and French doors. "I'd like to slow down a bit. I'm too young to give it all up but I value my private time more now. Plus, my daughter is 17 and will be going to college soon, and I want to spend as much time with her as I can. I don't want to be off traveling when I should be visiting colleges with her.

"I need more time for relaxing."

He did "allow" himself to take the summer of 1996 off and vacation with his daughter, Lindsey, on Nantucket. He also took her to Hawaii in February; this spring they'll visit London and Paris.

"I'm taking my time refocusing my life," says Abram, whose daughter lives with him in the house he calls "my soul" and which he got in the divorce settlement. "I know I'll always be busy doing something. I get bored too quickly."

Whatever he chooses, the very methodical and meticulous Abram will have weighed all his options. He says he may become a consultant to the tool business or work within the woodworking industry to help attract more people to the trade. He'd like to build a workshop on his 4\ acres that would be larger than his television shop in Lexington. He might build furniture on commission. Or rent a little storefront somewhere to sell his pieces along with antiques. And he could always teach.

"I feel like I've built my security, and I'm very conservative when it comes to that," says Abram, dressed in one of his trademark plaid flannel shirts. "If the shows ended tomorrow, I would survive. I never looked to be famous or to be a wealthy man. All I want is a moderately comfortable lifestyle."

His immediate priority, he says, is to get his house finished _ an oxymoron for anyone in the building trade. WGBH's Russ Morash, executive producer and director of House, Workshop and The Victory Garden, says he himself comes from a long line of contractors and none of them ever finished their own homes.

"There's always a better piece of wood to be found," Morash says. "Norm wants his house to be a masterpiece. But I know it bothers him that it's unfinished. I'm hoping he'll hire someone else to do the work. Perhaps it won't get done exactly as Norm would have done it but it would relieve some of the pressure on him. And yes, I think Norm's trying to simplify his life."

Abram learned woodworking from his carpenter father. He helped out with projects around the house and remembers going to his first job site.

"It was Christmas Eve, and I was helping my dad with some flooring," says Abram, who grew up in Milford, Mass., and went to parochial schools for 12 years. "I remember him asking me what I wanted for Christmas. I said a bike. And the next day I got my one and only bike."

Abram started working for his father full time during summers and all vacations when he was 15. He liked the work from the beginning because "it's almost mystical _ you start with a pile of wood and end up with a house." He majored in mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst but transferred to the business school when he found engineering too theoretical.

"Perhaps I was attracted to accounting and marketing because I knew in the back of my mind that I'd be running my own business someday," says Abram, who left school just shy of getting his degree in 1972. "It was such a confusing time. I was so torn. I didn't want to go to Vietnam. But my dad had served in World War II, and I knew how he felt about serving his country. I can remember sitting around with the other guys at school _ all of us being terrified of getting a low (draft) number and having to go to war."

He worked as a carpenter for a group of architects and then started a small construction firm with a partner in Western Massachusetts. A job building a country store on Main Street in Nantucket led Abram to This Old House. Through this project he met architectural designer Jock Gifford. It was Gifford who introduced him to Russ Morash, who was then thinking about doing a television show on renovating old houses.

"I hadn't a clue about television, but I sure needed some work," says Abram of the program's renovation of a house in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. "I also thought the TV aspect was intriguing even though I figured I'd be just carrying around ladders in the background."

The show put Abram on camera and proceeded to follow him into the darkest corners of eaves. Ten years later, he became the center of attention on The New Yankee Workshop.

What's his appeal?

"I really don't know what people see in me," says the self-effacing Abram. "I think I'm a good teacher, and I have a laid-back manner. I think people trust me. And I think I inspire people. Sure, I could have someone else make the prototypes (for his furniture pieces) but building them myself gets the creative juices going."

Abram believes there has been a surge of interest in woodworking because people with a little disposable income and time want to work with their hands after sitting in front of a computer day after day. And he discounts the argument that woodworking is expensive.

"It's a recreational activity," says Abram, who outfitted his shop with $11,000 worth of machinery and tools. "Look at the money people spend on snowmobiles, or skiing, or going out to dinner and the theater. I mean, tools do cost money but there are a lot of used tools out there. Plus tools are cheaper these days and can be bought at any home center."

He suggests newcomers take a woodworking class to learn the basics of the craft and then simply practice working with the tools. People may have all the tools in the world but what is most needed is time. People can learn more, Abram says, from their mistakes than by looking through a manual. He also warns that it's a very precise craft and a project must go from A to Z without skipping a step.

"Norm is a perfectionist," Morash says. "He's the kind of guy who can tackle anything mechanical, whether it is assembling a computer or changing a tire. He is not like us mere mortals. I mean, instructions are an impediment to me. I open a box and look at the instructions and throw up my hands. Norm reads the instructions thoroughly and then assembles whatever needs to be put together."

In his leisure time, Abram likes to trailer his boat to a small cottage his father built on a lake in Douglas. He spent summers there as a child and now enjoys taking day trips back to a place filled with family memories. He fishes and water skis on the lake. He'd like more time to read books that are not work-related and likes biking and going to the movies with his daughter. He has also always enjoyed tinkering with cars; he took apart and rebuilt his first car, a 1948 Ford coupe, while in college, and dreams of building a sports car someday.

And he'll continue to protect his privacy.

Which is difficult.

"I was standing in line for one of the rides in Disneyworld," says Abram. "A bunch of teens was behind my daughter and me. I had shorts on, a T-shirt, and sunglasses and couldn't believe they recognized me. I thought kids that age only watched MTV. But they said they'd grown up watching me with their parents and have continued watching the show. I also meet young people who've bought their first homes and they tell me they've been watching me since they were 8.

"So I'm now into second-generation viewers."