“The New Yankee Workshop,” the beloved home renovation series that captivated audiences for over two decades, had humble beginnings. The concept for the show was first proposed in the late 1980’s by television producer Russell Morash, who had previously helmed the wildly successful “This Old House.” Morash envisioned a new program that would focus on the skills and techniques of a single carpenter, rather than the team approach of the former series.
The search for the perfect host led Russell to Norm Abram – a master carpenter and contractor based in Massachusetts. Abram was a natural fit for the role with his expertise and easygoing demeanor, having already worked as a consultant for “This Old House” since 1979.
The pilot episode of “The New Yankee Workshop” was filmed in 1989, and featured Abram building a replica of a 17th-century Massachusetts saltbox house. The episode was well-received, and the proposed series was soon picked up by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for a full season.
The show quickly became a hit, with audiences captivated by Abram’s affable personality and laidback manner which endeared him to viewers, as well as step-by-step instructions and explanations of various carpentry techniques. He showcased the art of woodworking through a variety of projects, from functional workshop accessories to intricate reproductions of antique furniture.
Spanning 21 seasons, the program featured a total of 235 different builds. Alongside indoor furniture and cabinetry, the show also delved into outdoor constructions, including a picturesque gazebo, a functional shed, a verdant greenhouse, a sleek sailing boat, a stately flagpole, a charming mailbox, a decorative cupola, and sturdy fences. In addition, the host often toured locations of great significance to woodworking, bringing the very essence of the craft closer than ever to the average household.
One of the hallmarks of the series was its use of state-of-the-art technology and tools. Abram and his team utilized cutting-edge equipment, such as computer-aided design software and high-tech saws to create precise and accurate projects.
Although to most viewers it appeared that the series’ regular shop was situated in Norm’s garden, it was actually a space owned by Norm Morash and situated on his private land, spanning 936 square feet (87 square meters).
The back bench and drill press were located next to the west wall, which also housed the shop’s renowned sliding barn door. The radial arm saw, the miter bench and storage unit, as well as a computer, television, and a small office space, were all located against the south wall. A stairway leading to a loft area, jig storage, a horizontal edge sander, and a dust collector were all located on the east wall.
The Timesaver broad belt sander, router table, bar clamps, band saw, jointer and numerous mobile tools were all kept along the north wall, while the table saw and related outfeed tables, as well as a sizable assembly table, were located in the center of the shop. The building’s northeast corner also included a separate finishing room.
The series ran from 1989 to 2009, becoming one of the most successful home renovation programs in television history. Abram’s expert guidance coupled with his humble and relaxed behavior helped demystify the world of carpentry for millions of viewers, inspiring many to take on their own home improvement projects.
It not only entertained but also educated its audience, with Abram’s detailed instructions making even the most complex projects seem manageable. “The New Yankee Workshop” was a true pioneer in the home renovation genre, setting the standard for all the shows that followed, and cementing Abram’s status as a beloved figure in the world of carpentry.
CLOSE UP: Norm AbramNorm has a favorite spot in his house – the house that he built himself. It’s a large vaulted…
The show’s eventual expiration and true message
After 20 years of rather enviable success, the series came to a halt on 16 October 2009, when the decision that no more episodes would be produced was finalized, leading many to wonder what had gone wrong. However, no trouble seemed to be the case, as Norm himself later revealed to the relieved audience.
He stated that Russell’s wifehad said ‘Ah, no one’s ever gonna watch a show like that,’ but she was obviously mistaken. He continued with ‘and then 15 years went by, and 20 years went by, and we kept getting underwriting every year, so we were fully funded for the whole twenty-plus years, and we could’ve kept it going.’
However, he also explained that ‘it starts to get a little crazy’ trying to reach the newer and higher goals that the crew kept setting for themselves. It eventually had to end, and the number 21 was a good one on which to leave the season count.
Abram made a point of clarifying what the true intent of the series really was from the get-go as well, stating that ‘Our job was to inspire people to pick up the tools, we didn’t expect them necessarily to do the projects. Morash’s whole philosophy about renovating houses and doing the woodworking and doing gardening was to get people interested until they found their own way.’
Speaking at Festool Connect 2013 in Providence, Rhode Island, Abram recalled an anecdote from work, detailing how someone once told him ‘You know, you guys are amazing, I can’t believe what you do. A lumber truck pulls up and dumps a whole bunch of lumber there, and the first thing you know, you guys are cutting and nailing, and then, all of a sudden, a house just comes into place.’
Abram replied with ‘It’s not that hard, you know, and especially if you love it.’ He then turned to the audience and said ‘So, I just hope that all of you here love what you do as much as I do. I mean, I love still working, I have an older house that I’m working on, I built the house that I live in. It’s still not done, but, you know….’ He then explained that it’s only his office that’s unfinished, meaning that his family doesn’t suffer any discomfort due to the state of the house.
An interesting fact to point out is that when the series started back in 1989, hyperproduction and unrealistic construction times were still an age away from television, meaning that each build actually took as long as the producers portrayed it lasting.
To that end, Abram commented ‘Well, the first 10 years of the show, I was on the site all day long, every day. It was like a regular job. My guys would be working there, and the homeowners would be given jobs to do on weekends.’
However, the genre changed significantly since then, as Norm further elaborated: ‘We haven’t had as many homeowners in the last several years who have had hands-on, and I miss that as part of the show, I think it’s better for our viewing audience to see people actually doing the work – homeowners themselves.’
‘But, you know, it’s expensive to do renovations and construction now, so usually both people are working, and they’re willing to pay for people to do it. I will also say something about that. When we first started doing this whole house, I had a lot of guys come up to me when I go down to the builder’s show or something like that.’
Everyone expected Abram to quote some sort of complimentary speech, but it was in fact the opposite. In his words, people would tell him ‘What are you doing? You’re giving away all the secrets. You’re telling everybody how to do the work.’
To that, he said ‘Not really, there’s always gonna be do-it-yourselfers, they’re gonna be amongst us. Isn’t it better that homeowners are more informed about what we do and how difficult it can be at times, and be up-to- date with technology, and understand the terminology of the whole process of construction and renovation?’
It turned out that he was right in assuming the benefits of the show’s airing, as even companies approached him frequently, and asked where to get the equipment shown in one of the recent episodes, the best way to employ it in their projects, and how to service it.
With this in mind, it’s no stretch to say that “The New Yankee Workshop” birthed its own little silent revolution in the homebuilding market, leading many businesses to adopt the superior techniques and technologies shown in the series, and numerous DIY enthusiasts to take up the craft, gifting the US many more homes with far greater quality.
The man behind the title
Norman L. Abram was born on 3 October 1949, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island USA, later moving with his family to Milford, Massachusetts where he grew up. He was introduced to the craft by his father, a carpenter himself, who taught him many of the relevant practical skills of the time.
At the age of nine, Norm worked on his first client site, aiding his father with the installation of hardwood floors, and continued to work with him throughout the summer breaks in both high school and college.
He initially studied mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass), where he became a brother of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, but found theoretical engineering courses uninteresting, and so switched to business administration. However, he soon realized that he preferred practical, hands-on work, and left UMass just short of his degree.
Abram then embarked on a career in the construction industry, spending three years working for a prominent construction company in New England, quickly climbing the ranks thanks to his obvious talent, and was soon promoted to a supervisory role.
Norm established his own business in 1976 – Integrated Structures Inc. – and successfully managed it for 13 years. One of his initial independent endeavors was the construction of a retail store on Nantucket island in Massachusetts.
It was only three years later that Abram was hired to construct a backyard workshop for Russell Morash. As the project neared completion, the producer became greatly impressed with the carpenter’s expertise and efficient work ethic, which led to an invitation for Abram to assist in the renovation of a dilapidated Victorian home in Dorchester, which was being filmed for a Russell reality TV series brainchild entitled “This Old House.”
It didn’t take long before the audience caught wind of his talent, which allowed him to secure a permanent position among the series’ cast, and eventually be selected as the face of “The New Yankee Workshop” in 1989. As his reputation grew in the business, Abram’s efforts expanded to other areas as well, such as philanthropy, writing and even acting.
The reality TV star has released eight books so far, all of which provide significant guidance to enthusiastic would-be carpenters all around the world. These are “Norm Abram’s New House,” “Ask Norm,” and “Measure Twice, Cut Once,” as well as five books related to the 20-year-long series that made him truly famous, including “The New Yankee Workshop” and “The New Yankee Workshop Kids’ Stuff.”
After over four decades, #ThisOldHouse’s Master Carpenter & pioneer of home improvement, Norm Abram is hanging up his toolbelt. Help us celebrate Norm & his career by tuning into a tribute special, The House That Norm Built, on 10/3 on @PBS & @TheRokuChannel❤🧰
📸1:Bob O'Connor pic.twitter.com/tVqKqoa0jJ
— This Old House (@ThisOldHouse) May 19, 2022
Norm continued with his presence in “This Old House” throughout the filming of “The New Yankee Workshop,” and resumed it full-time after 2009, up until May 2022, when Abram retired from the former series after 43 years of uninterrupted presence in it, wanting to focus more on his family, and enjoy a well-deserved retirement.
To honor one of the greatest names in woodworking, PBS released a one-hour special program entitled “The House that Norm Built” on 3 October 2022, which detailed many of his achievements in the business, and summarized the star’s truly impressive career.
Away from the limelight, hes served on the trustee board of Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, and was additionally awarded the honor of giving the 2001 commencement speech as a celebrity admired by both the staff and students of Boston’s North Bennet Street School.
Norm and his wife reside in his childhood state, in the aforementioned house built in colonial style, where they engage in a variety of fun pastimes, such as kayaking, fishing and boating. As far as the media is aware, this is what the celebrity is mostly occupied with in 2023, while he also engages in personal woodworking projects from time to time, even at the age of 73.