Welcome New Yankee Workshop Fans!  
Welcome New Yankee Workshop Fans!Welcome New Yankee Workshop Fans! Welcome New Yankee Workshop Fans!Welcome New Yankee Workshop Fans!
Welcome New Yankee Workshop Fans!

 June 24, 2013
The Furture Of Norm Abram

David: Norm Abram, 62, is a master carpenter who has appeared regularly on TV's "This Old House" since 1979 and for 21 seasons was host of PBS's "The New Yankee Workshop." He is the author of eight books. He spoke with reporter Marc Myers.

I live in a relatively new house?which may surprise those who know me from "This Old House." I started building it in 1992, when I lived in Hudson, Mass., and my family needed more space and privacy. Fixing up old houses was my day job, so building one from scratch that looked traditional but was energy-efficient, level and straight made more sense.

My Yankee, do-it-yourselfer side is a family trait. I grew up in a brick ranch house in Massachusetts that my father had built in the early '50s. The first house I owned was a garrison colonial from the 1970s, and I loved it. A colonial is very New England?simple and functional, with perfect symmetry. I had been a contractor and wanted to build my own, like my dad did. But first I needed the land.

I found a wooded lot just over 4 acres about a half-hour away, in Carlisle. The house I had in mind was a 4,500-square-foot, four-bedroom classic colonial. I wanted three connecting segments?a two-story front with a center entrance, a one-story addition in the back for a family room and kitchen, and a two-story wing with a garage and storage area below and an office and exercise room on the upper level.

I also wanted the family room and kitchen area to have a rustic feel. So after planning the house with a designer, I hired a framer?someone trained in the post-and-beam technique that leaves supporting timber inside exposed. When the frame was up and the house was weather-tight, I worked on the exterior trim and cedar clapboard siding with my dad, who was a carpenter and remodeler. That was especially rewarding, since he passed away in 1995.

My dad was a quiet guy who had nurtured me along. He had a way of letting me progress at my own pace and never pushed me too far, starting me out with basic carpentry tasks. He was never critical but never overpraised, either. He taught me to be patient. He'd say, "Don't rush and you'll get the rewards in the end."

At the time my dad helped out with the house, he had bad knees, so I'd set him up with materials and tools. One day, instead of taking the lead, he came to me and asked what I wanted to do next. Our roles had flipped. He was saying, "You're in charge now." That was a great feeling.

In the 22-by-36-foot family room, I built a classic Rumford fireplace with local stone that's 16 feet tall and has a 44-by-44-inch opening and shallow hearth. I also put in floor-to-ceiling windows facing the southwest?to catch morning-to-evening light.

The coolest feature in the house is the hydronic radiant-heating system. Under all the floors is tubing embedded in light concrete that circulates warm water, resulting in comfortable, efficient heat without dusty radiators or heat-blowing ducts. In the summer we use high-velocity air that comes through 2-inch-diameter ducts in the ceiling.

Originally I planned a 30-by-40-foot workshop out back. But it didn't make sense since I already had a pretty spacious one at the "New Yankee Workshop" nearby where we taped our PBS show. Instead, I set up a temporary workshop at home.

When the house was completed in 1994, my family moved in almost immediately. I've since remarried, and my wife, Elise, and I have been updating and decorating to suit our lifestyle. But like many empty-nesters, we're planning to downsize in about five years.

To transition, we recently bought a second house?a 2,800-square-foot mid-1800s farmhouse in Rhode Island on 3? acres adjacent to a tidal basin with access to the ocean. The winters inland have become a bit much for us, and there's less snow down there.

I must admit I'm not as big a do-it-yourselfer at home as I used to be. I know which projects I want to take on?and those I don't. For example, we have to put a new wood-shingle roof on our Carlisle house this year. Ten years ago I would have done it myself. Not now.

I really have to work on allowing myself more free time when I take on projects. I used to start and not let go until projects were done. I'm learning to pace projects now and take breaks. There's always tomorrow to jump back in.

Our powerboat has helped. "Serenity" is a classic 42-foot Sabreline built in the Maine tradition for ocean boating. My wife and I like to cruise along the New England coastline. Just the two of us sitting on the bridge, watching the open sea. It's my therapy?and beats sitting in someone's wood-paneled office.

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Hand Made: Norm Abram at his home in Carlisle, Mass., that his father helped him build. (Bryce Vickmark for The Wall Street Journal)

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A photo of Norm Abram and his father building Mr. Abram's home in Carlisle, Mass. (Bryce Vickmark for The Wall Street Journal)