Welcome to the New Yankee Workshop!
It was a sea of plaid as Insiders and guests descended on the New Yankee Workshop this past weekend to get to tour the venerable space and meet the men behind it, master carpenter Norm Abram and the show's creator and director, Russ Morash. From hearing behind-the-scenes stories to spotting the original, real-life versions of favorite projects, it was the ultimate New Yankee Workshop fan experience. Keep reading to see all the fun, plus learn some trivia about this beloved woodworking show.
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An Overview, Literally
The day began with Russ Morash, creator of numerous TV shows including This Old House, Ask This Old House, and of course, The New Yankee Workshop, telling everyone a bit about how the show began and his long career in the television industry. "I started out as a multi-camera director, but it was complicated and expensive, and the cameras were huge and heavy. It amazes me that today, the backup camera in my truck provides a better picture than the first cameras I used at WGBH—and it's in color!" Russ said. "A single-camera format helped save money, and it also meant that the camera moved more like your eye. Instead of jumping back and forth from one angle to another, you'd pan, move up and down, or tilt."
The New Yankee Workshop also started out small: Originally, the building was more or less a shed that Norm built so the crew would have a space to shoot a This Old House segment about making screens. Later, the larger workshop was built grafted onto it, along with a second floor (which you'll get to see if you keep reading!). The distinctive sliding barn door was built to showcase the beautiful leaded glass window near its top; Russ's daughters found the antique window at an estate sale, and it became one of the most recognizable decorative features of the workshop.
The Grand Tour
Next, the master carpenter himself, Norm Abram, showed off the different areas of the workshop. "I tried to set it up to have the most efficient layout possible, though the shop was always changing as the different projects were made," he said. The main work table's design was actually based on a table in the scenic shop at WGBH's Boston studio. "It's the same height as the table saw," Norm explained, "So it gave me incoming support—it was like having an extra set of hands."
That was important for a show that was produced quickly and with a small staff. "Most of the episodes were shot in two days, sometimes with an extra day for prep in between," Norm recalled. "We'd start by visiting a museum, a collection, or a shop for inspiration. I never wanted to replicate anything, but we wanted designs that were inspired by the originals. I might grab some measurements, and then we'd go from there."
A New Yankee Original
Though many examples of Norm's craftsmanship are still in and around the workshop, he and Russ chose the Cowboy Sideboard from Season 19 for a bit of show-and-tell. The group watched the episode's opening, in which Norm traveled to Wyoming to see a large private collection of furniture made by Thomas Molesworth.
Norm's take on Molesworth features many distinctive design elements: A leather top, burled wood, handles made from elk antlers, and a recessed accent design that's one long, continuous cut in a non-repeating pattern. Suffice to say this one isn't for beginners, but it's a remarkable piece!
Behind the Scenes
Lee Wallace, a longtime TOH fan who came to the workshop with his friend Calvin Sample, checks out Russ's office on the second floor of the building. It's home to several New Yankee Workshop projects, including the Chestnut Desk from Season 8 and the Shaker Wall Clock from Season 3.
And speaking of projects: Lee brought some of the measured drawings he had purchased back when The New Yankee Workshop was on the air for Norm to sign! He also had an official "New Yankee Workshop Member" sticker that he's carefully preserved behind glass in his router case—it's too special a memento to stick to anything.
Dreams Coming True
"As far back as I can remember, I have always been into carpentry and building things," says Jared Parks of Tangier Island, VA. "On Saturday mornings, instead of cartoons, I would watch This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop. I always admired Norm's skill and attention to detail, and dreamed of having my own workshop like his someday."
Well, Jared's getting closer to his dream—and not just by meeting Norm! A few years back, he purchased a former restaurant space which he’s been converting into a workshop. "It's a far cry from where I want it to be, but it's getting there," he says. He's built several projects from the New Yankee Workshop, including the classic Adirondack chairs.
He and his wife, Anna, started a construction business not long after graduating from high school. But because the island where they live is getting smaller—the population's dropping and it's losing land, due to rising tides—Jared made a career change. He now works as a conservation police officer, helping to oversee the fishing, clamming, and crabbing that have long played important roles in Chesapeake Bay's economy. It's important work, but, Jared says, "my heart still belongs to carpentry."
Coming Full Circle
Insider Randy Dykes of Burke, VA, who came to the New Yankee Workshop with his wife Leslie, brought special souvenirs for Russ and Norm. A retired Captain in the U.S. Navy, Randy gave Russ and Norm each a challenge coin from one of the three ships he commanded over the course of his career in the military.
Before enlisting, one of Randy's first jobs was working as a draftsman in a commercial cabinet shop; now that he's retired from the Navy, he's got much more time to work on carpentry projects. (Including Norm's router table, a version of which he got to see in person in the New Yankee Workshop.) Randy also showed off photos of custom millwork he recently completed for a local restaurant—trust us, it was impressive.
"Leslie and I have been watching TOH since the beginning with Bob Vila, and in fact having access to the entire video library is a key reason why I'm an Insider," Randy says. "I tried to never miss an episode, but it was challenging with deployments. My father-in-law used to record episodes on VHS and send them to me on the ship. I always looked forward to those tapes!" Both Randy and Leslie would love to see the gang from This Old House get involved with the USO.
During the Q&A, Leslie asked Norm what happened to all of the projects from the New Yankee Workshop. After all, there were over 200 different projects, and Norm mentioned that each was made at least twice, if not three times. For each project, he built a finished version that could be shown right from the start of each episode, then a second one was made while each episode was shot. Projects that went into The New Yankee Workshop books were created a third time, so they could be photographed step-by-step.
The answer? Both Norm and Russ kept plenty—spotting them in and around the workshop made for a bit of a scavenger hunt—but many of the pieces were given away over the years.
A Lifetime of Learning
Though Insider Bob Hoyt of Forest Hill, MD, has fond childhood memories of watching his grandfather build furniture, he tells us, "I can honestly say that all of my woodworking skills came from watching Norm for over 20 years! Actually visiting The New Yankee Workshop is the icing on the cake."
Bob also enjoyed chatting with Russ—who he's posing with here—and checking out every inch of the workshop. His own workspace is in a basement, and Bob says he can't imagine having this much room (or the shop's impressive custom dust removal setup; working at basement level, dust getting into the ventilation and up into the house is a constant challenge).
And speaking of houses, though woodworking is his passion, Bob also enjoys This Old House. "Woodworking and home renovation have a lot in common, and like The New Yankee Workshop, TOH has taught me many skills. You could say I earned a college degree simply by watching television."
The only thing Bob doesn't like about This Old House? "I hate it when they finish a house and I have to wait for the next project! To fill that gap, I became a TOH Insider."
Norm is Everywhere
Insider Kurt Vogel and his wife Cindy are up for any challenge—including easily the funniest photo op in the New Yankee Workshop. Yes, there's a life-sized cutout of Norm in the bathroom!
The Martinsville, IN couple started watching a new PBS show called This Old House as newlyweds, and it inspired them to become true Do-It-Yourselfers. During the show's Bob Vila years, Kurt and Cindy renovated a 1920s bungalow—the two remodeled the kitchen and a bath, rewired the whole house, and eventually added a master suite. "We did everything except the excavation, foundation, concrete, and brick," Kurt says.
The New Yankee Workshop provided inspiration, too. Kurt's first woodworking project was a high chair for their daughter, and over the years since, both he and Cindy have gotten into building cabinetry, crown moldings, and more. Though originally DIY was simply what made sense for a young couple on a tight budget, even now they prefer to do the work themselves rather than hire it out.
"We enjoy the challenges and rewards of doing projects together," says Kurt. Like working on their current house, which the two built. "We've been in our home for 20 years, but we never stop improving," he says. "There's always a new project or opportunity, and we're always finding inspiration from This Old House magazine and on Insider."
A Family Affair
Thomas Holman of Solon, OH brought a couple of books for Norm to sign (truth be told, there were at least four different copies of Measure Twice, Cut Once in the building, as well as numerous New Yankee Workshop books!). The proud dad also brought his two adult daughters, Erica and Tara, with him to meet Norm.
Thomas has a signed New Yankee Workshop print that the girls found at an estate sale hanging in his own workshop, so if there was ever a giveaway that they wanted to win, this was it! Erica and Tara are quite handy as well—they built a custom wooden frame for the print. The thoughtful pair also brought custom-made glass tumblers for Russ and Norm, with each name on one side and the New Yankee Workshop logo on the other.
Working with the Best
Insider Jeff Pacheco (right) of Rockland, ME, was elated to visit the New Yankee Workshop, since not only is he a professional carpenter, he’s also just started setting up his own personal workshop. He brought his dad, Jim (left), with him to meet Norm.
As a kid, Jeff remembers always making sure he didn't miss This Old House or The New Yankee Workshop—even if he was away from home, he'd try to find a way to watch. As an Insider, he appreciates being able to go back and watch every episode from every season of the different shows. He's also hoping to find time to dig into the magazine archive.
During the Q&A, Jeff asked Norm how he chose the tools that were used on The New Yankee Workshop. Norm noted that while naturally you would see tools and equipment from the show's underwriters—notably Delta, Bessey, and Porter Cable, back in the day—they would never use anything that they didn't like. "People would send us stuff to try all the time," Norm said, "but if it wasn't good, it wasn't going to be on camera." A Delta saw that Russ already owned was actually one of the workshop's first tools!
Meeting the Mastermind
We were glad Insider Matthew Hunwick—seen here with Russ—and his wife Adrienne were able to make the trip from Dexter, MI to visit the New Yankee Workshop. Special thanks to Adrienne's mother for pitching in so that the parents of two (their older son is six years old, but his brand-new little brother is just six weeks!) could enjoy a quick getaway.
We gifted them with a TOH onesie for their new baby, and we hope that Matt, who says he grew up watching This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop (and has been catching up on old seasons thanks to Insider), shares his love of the shows with the next generation.
Making a Connection
Though Chris Grady, who came up from Denver, NC with his wife Linda, didn't ask a question during the Q&A, he spoke up to say thank you to Norm for his work with the Generation NEXT program. We'd like to take a moment to thank Chris for his service; he served in the U.S. Air Force for 30 years and then was a civilian contractor for more than a decade.
"Being in the military, I didn't have an opportunity to set up a bona fide workshop because of all of the moving around from assignment to assignment," Chris says. "But I took an immediate interest in This Old House and never stopped watching. The New Yankee Workshop added projects that were demonstrated in a way that made them all doable by carpenters of any skill level. Techniques I learned just by watching served me well over the years in establishing and managing deployment sites."
Linda, who worked as a grade school teacher, "did her best to record the shows, box them up, and send them to my deployment locations when possible," says Chris. "Watching shows like This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop gave me, and a lot of other fellow service members, a temporary respite when time allowed, a connection to our lives back home, and a chance to visit with the great TOH personalities we all know on a first name basis—even though they don't know us."
A New Yankee Reunion
Chemical engineer Frank Arieta (right) of Cincinnati, OH joined Insider pretty much as soon as it began! He was thrilled to have the chance to visit the New Yankee Workshop, which also gave him the opportunity to reunite with his friend and former coworker, mechanical engineer John Oravitz (who's on the left—and who, since he lives in eastern Massachusetts, was also able to provide free lodging!).
Both men come from families with strong traditions of craftsmanship—Frank's grandfather started out in plumbing and HVAC, eventually expanding into different areas of the trades and passing an appreciation for working with your hands on to his grandson. John's grandfather taught John's father carpentry, who in turn taught it to him. "From building furniture to finishing basements, I've been able to solve most of my home repair and improvement challenges," John says. "And I've already begun doing my best to pass these skills on to my 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter."
During the Q&A, John asked Norm what he thinks of the increasingly specialized power tools we have today. Norm's answer shouldn't surprise any fan of The New Yankee Workshop (or This Old House!): "People always say, 'I could do that if I had all those tools!' But the tools don't do the job by themselves—you have to know how to use them."
Built to Last
"Currently, I am having my own personal multi-year season of TOH as I remodel my house, doing just about all the work myself," says Insider Mike Stahurski of Broadview Heights, OH, who brought his girlfriend Shelley Nixon to check out the New Yankee Workshop. Mike says his father first introduced him to This Old House, and he's been a lifelong fan.
When it comes to The New Yankee Workshop, Mike says, "I am appreciative, fascinated, and awed by the craftsmanship, quality, attention to detail, and just the thought that these woodworking pieces could last a lifetime. For example, the Adirondack chairs Norm built in Season 2 are still around in Season 14, which I just started watching on Insider."
It was actually the second time that Insider Calvin Sample, Jr. of Chesapeake, VA had the chance to meet Norm, but that didn't make the day any less exciting. Calvin's been watching This Old House since the Bob Vila era, and as a professional machinist who enjoys woodworking in his spare time, he’s also long been a fan of The New Yankee Workshop.
During the Q&A, Calvin asked Norm which tool is his favorite. The master carpenter replied that the saw is his top choice: For carpentry, "It's where it all begins. You can't do anything without one."
There was ample opportunity to explore in and around the workshop, and here Insider Bill Wanke and his wife Debbie check out a 12" thickness planer. As Norm mentioned during the tour, most of the tools and benches are on wheels, allowing them to be moved out of the way as needed to accommodate a camera and get the right angle for a shot. (Almost everyone was surprised to find that yes, the workshop looks much bigger on TV!)
Bill and Debbie share an appreciation for craftsmanship and woodworking. The two did substantial work on their current home in Jeffersonville, IN, just "using subs for plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and drywall," says Debbie. Bill also makes furniture in his workshop behind their house, as well as projects that he works on with their granddaughter. A photo of Norm that his sons gifted him hangs on the wall; now he'll have photos with Norm to add to that!
Debbie grew up around her grandfather's woodshop, and fondly remembers visiting it with her siblings to see what he was building and simply to "smell and feel the wood." So, her question for Norm during the Q&A was no surprise: What's your favorite wood?
Norm said his top choice is longleaf pine, old growth that is often found in river bottoms. He also particularly likes working with cherry and walnut, as well as reclaimed wood. "If you look back at the New Yankee projects, we did a lot with reclaimed wood—pine with nail holes, salvaged wood that we found, and often it was lumber that otherwise would have gone into the fireplace."
It was stiff competition in this group, but still, Insider Steve Lautt (right) says, "There is very likely no person on earth more excited to meet Norm and tour the New Yankee Workshop than me." He and his father, Art (left), do win the prize for traveling the furthest—they flew in from Minot, ND to visit the workshop.
It was a meaningful trip for both, as Steve grew up watching This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop on Saturday mornings with his dad. The two brought several family mementos with them, including the steel square Steve's holding, which goes back five generations.
Though his interest in carpentry dates all the way back to grade school, Insider Randy Williams of Tifton, GA has only found time to set up "pretty much The New Yankee Workshop South" since retiring after more than 36 years as a civil engineer. "Over the years, my shop has grown from 8x16 feet to 20x40 feet," Randy says. "The center of the shop is a Delta left-tilt table saw. It's surrounded by a lathe, jointer, drill press, band saw, a planer, and plenty more. I can pretty much go from a tree to a table!"
Getting to tour the New Yankee Workshop and meet Norm himself was an absolute pleasure for Randy, who also used the trip as an opportunity to catch up with relatives who live up north. Randy spent time with family in Connecticut and brought his cousin Mary Pratt of Woodside, NY, with him for the day (she's the one who snapped this photo—thanks, Mary!).
Now that's some shop wall décor! Norm signed a couple of circular saw blades for Insider David Breunig (right) of Prairie Du Sac, WI, who came to the New Yankee Workshop with his brother Eric (left).
David first offered his plus-one to their father—he and Eric (and their two other brothers!) grew up watching the show with their dad, who David says, "had a particular respect for Norm because of his attention to detail and his ability to clearly explain how he completed his projects." (Their father's also a talented carpenter himself, having built all five houses the family has lived in since their parents married.)
But instead of coming along, he suggested that David give the guest spot to his brother Eric, a woodworker who has his own home construction company. David works in a foundry, but on his off time he tells us he's always doing something—"remodeling, various home improvement projects, working on cars, doing metal fabrication..." or rewatching all of This Old House, thanks to his Insider membership. He's only got three seasons left, and while visiting Massachusetts, David and Eric hoped to catch a glimpse of Season 1's Dorchester House. (Norm and Russ gave the brothers a few tips on where to find it!)
A Parting Shot
He might not sit in the director's chair any more, but the man can still compose a shot! Before everyone bid farewell to the New Yankee Workshop, Russ got everyone arrayed in front of the building for a group photo. If you scroll all the back to the top, you can see the results—smiling faces and a whole lot of plaid.
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