Thanks to a Father’s Day gift from our daughter Faith, I got to see one of my heroes live. Faith contributed to the Saw Mill Restoration project at Old Sturbridge Village in nearby Sturbridge, MA, and she gave enough to get invited to a presentation by Norm Abram on the day the saw mill was to be dedicated. Norm, for the very few who don’t know, has been a staple of DIY shows since the very first episode of This Old House aired in 1979 when Russell Morash basically invented “How-To” television. Actually, in the beginning, Norm was behind the scenes, but he eventually came out to join Bob Villa. One of the first times I saw Norm, I felt really bad for him.
The project was a small kitchen renovation and Bob and Norm had built or rebuilt (not sure) some cabinets and had faced them with Formica. Norm had explained the process of installing and trimming plastic laminate and the cabinets looked pretty good. Bob then explained that he wanted Norm to use a router to cut through the laminate surface, revealing the particleboard substrate in an ‘X’ pattern on each door. Norm looked sad. It seemed like such a dumb idea, but one-by-one the X’s were cut.
At that point, I grew closer to Norm than Bob.
Of course, the highlight of Norm’s career from my point of view was his own show, The New Yankee Workshop. This was another on of Russell Morash’s ideas and it was a good one. While This Old House had evolved into something closer to This Old McMansion, with projects whose scope, scale and cost exceeded the reach of most do-it-yourselfers, The New Yankee Workshop featured woodworking projects that anyone could build. Sure sponsors decked Norm’s shop out with every new-fangled tool available, but Norm kept the focus on the craftsmanship, the techniques and the materials. Norm reinforced within me, three critical concepts for do-it-yourselfers:
You can do/learn this – Norm made small projects, large projects, simple projects and complicated projects. Showing no disrespect, he would study a piece of furniture and conclude: “I think I can make this back at the shop.” The cool thing about Norm’s show was the number of times that he brought an expert in to teach him how to do something new, like upholstery. The idea that you can continually expand your skill set by learning from others is essential for anyone involved with almost any hobby.
You can make tools work better – Norm would often make jigs and fixtures to help him complete a project or to insure the accuracy of a process. I remember his taper jig and his crosscut sled as two great examples. The crosscut sled was used on a regular basis, and most woodworkers have built something similar in their own shops. The taper jig was critical to one project, but it was still worth building in order to get four legs that look like they belong to the same table.
Learn from history – So many projects in the New Yankee Workshop were inspired by historic pieces, many of them located at Old Sturbridge Village. Norm would marvel at the material, the joinery, the design, the craftsmanship and he would explain why things had been built a certain way. He also explained why things failed – the boards were too wide, the joints were too weak, they didn’t allow for movement as buildings became heated and cooled or the bearing surfaces would wear out over time. Then, he would incorporate subtle changes to improve the design or to help make a 200 year old design serve a new purpose in a modern home.
Faith and I spent the perfect fall day at Old Sturbridge Village, and I was impressed with Norm as a speaker, Norm as a volunteer to OSV and the stewardship of the management and staff of OSV. Norm is included in that last bit, as he serves on the Operations Board at OSV. I was even impressed with a politician! Senator Stephen M. Brewer from Barre, MA spoke, but not about himself. He talked about OSV, about the need to support special projects like the Sawmill Restoration as well as the normal maintenance at OCV. The CEO of Old Sturbridge Village regaled us with some facts and figures to put the enormity of maintenance at OSV in perspective. He spoke of over 70 buildings, 67 masonry fireplaces and chimneys, roofs, walls and windows and over 5,000 square feet of wood flooring – and to think that I dread having to rebuild the floor of our kitchen.
Old Sturbridge Village is a significant New England asset. We have visited this place many times. We were members for a while, but I think we suffered what may be a common affliction – we thought we had seen it. I didn’t realize or appreciate how often things change at OSV, how often they evolve and how much work goes into making sure some things, like the sawmill don’t evolve. As Norm said, “think of the world without sawmills” it’s unfathomable and not just for weekend woodworkers.
Wood remains a critical building material, and at OSV we can see the myriad ways it provides shelter, utility, comfort and heat. Norm’s presentation was at 10:00 am. We stayed on site for a while, but we left before the dedication at 3:00 pm; I think Norm would understand why. Faith has been working on a coffee table for a long time, and yesterday she applied the first coat of finish. Since she borrows my workshop, she truly only has the weekends for woodworking.
I think that I am going to renew our membership at OSV, and perhaps join Norm in funding the backlog of repair and restoration projects on the sprawling campus. Listening to Norm and the other speakers, and then spending a few hours walking around helped me understand why Old Sturbridge Village is worthy of my support. If you follow me from New England (or even if you don’t) consider visiting and supporting Old Sturbridge Village.