The Norm of woodworking

 There’s been a lot of talk lately about Norm Abram shutting down The New Yankee Workshop. All this hoopla really got me to thinking about woodworking in general.

I watched Norm on This Old House from fairly early on. I missed the early years of The New Yankee Workshop but jumped in and caught more than a few episodes once I’d heard about it. You see, I was really more of a Woodwright’s Shop kind of guy. What I liked most about Roy’s approach to woodworking is that he kept things simple and uncomplicated.

By the time I had started watching Norm in the workshop, he already had more nail guns that I even knew existed. Don’t get me wrong, machines are great but I always approached making furniture from the stand point of “do it by machine until the only way to do it better is by hand.” I mean, the only way to really make a cabriole leg properly is by hand but I’m not going to toss out my bandsaw because I have to rough out the shape by hand. Let’s face it machines help us do certain less skilled tasks a whole lot quicker with more accuracy than we can muster by hand.

So, you’re wondering where I’m headed with this post? I mean, look at it…I’m praising Norm while bashing him? I’m saying I relate to Roy’s style while advocating the use of power tools?!?

So here’s the impetus for all this introspection. I just wrapped up a two day finishing class here at the school. It was a great time and I think the students actually learned something. Granted, it was a fundamentals of finishing class and I approached it from the concept of teaching simple, repeatable finishing techniques. We talked for a few hours the first day about everything from surface preparation to sprayed conversion varnishes. We touched on the concept of French Polishing and discussed some more advanced techniques but then something happened. We started actually finishing stuff.

We began by mixing up a few basic dyes and stains. You know, just a couple of basic, flexible, all purpose colors that, when used in combination, can give an extremely wide variety of colors. Prior to this class I discussed the preparations with my wife. She is after all the one who has done the bulk of the finishing in my shop for the last 10 years. Last year, the class even had the benefit of her knowledge as she helped teach the class with me. Sure, I got stuck with all the technical information and the task of presenting it in a lecture but she is the one the students ran to when they wanted that perfect color for their project. And why not, she’s got a great eye for color. In the pre-class discussion for this year’s class, we decided it was more than a bit hectic creating all those custom colors for each and every student. Her suggestion “keep it simple and do what we always did in the shop.” It was brilliant!

For years we finished pieces and, like most professional furniture makers, we had a handful of standard stains we used to create a wide variety of colors and a couple of simple, repeatable finishes that gave great results. Our customers like the colors and finishes, so why reinvent the wheel? Keep it simple.

As those who’ve taken classes with me know, my teaching style is more about jumping in and doing rather than analyzingthe process to death. You can read a million ways to do something but until you give it a try, it’s merely theory. Learn by doing. For some folks that approach works well while others would rather intellectualize the process before proceeding. During my career I’ve been more of the latter but I teach a different approach.

During the class we discussed many things outside the realm of finishing. I told some of the stories from my experiences of the last couple of years being out on the show circuit teaching seminars. One of the things that bugs me the most about the state of woodworking today is all the “experts” out there that are “teaching” people how to work wood. There’s a million guys and girls out there teaching some of the most ridiculous methods I’ve ever heard. The woodworkers I’ve always admired most (and known personally or by extension), Werner Duerr (my teacher), Frank Klausz, Glen Huey, Sam Maloof, George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick all have one thing in common…the principal that woodworking should be kept simple. When you complicate a process, it becomes something outside the realm of pragmatism. It becomes a self-aggrandizing effort rather than pure woodworking. It becomes more about you than the work. It also become something less than profitable…it becomes time consuming.

Now you’re still wondering ‘where is he going with this?’

Well, I can tell you. Having spent a couple of days with folks of varying backgrounds and varying experiences in woodworking (in addition to the two years I’ve been teaching folks here at the school) all this talk of Norm retiring The New Yankee Workshop has got me feeling a bit sad. Sure, Norm was the Delta poster child and not everything he taught on the show was proper woodworking technique but he got more people in the pool than anyone else I’ve ever met. When it comes down to it he got people to jump in and do it rather than analyze the process to death. He showed us that the projects were not beyond our reach. In much the way that Roy Underhill does, he took the mystery out of  the art of woodworking and allowed folks to truly believe they could do it.

I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve talked to about their projects and the progress stumping problems they’ve encountered. At every single show I’ve ever done, I’ve had at least a dozen people ask for advice on how to overcome an obstacle in a project they have going. Eleven out of twelve, at every show, know the answer to their own question. They’ve just “thought” about the problem so much they’ve become paralyzed by fear. They “think” they might get it wrong because the answer to the problem seems too simple and they started reading all the opinions out there to find out if it really is that simple. They’re confused by the mountain of (mis)information available. When you find yourself in that position just think “Roy, Werner, Frank, Glen, Sam, George, Wharton and, yes, even Norm would try to find the simplest, fastest and most repeatable method of doing this. That’s what I should do.” Yes, woodworking is generally that simple.

Because of my many students, and all the folks who I’ve met at the shows, I’ve gained a new respect for Norm. He’s a simple guy who teaches straight forward woodworking. Sure he’s got gadgets galore but I’ve never once seen him complicate the process of getting from the beginning of a project to the end. C’mon, he’s only got 23 minutes after all! There isn’t time to complicate things.

While I’m not going to run out to the shop and add a duplicator to my lathe or use a drum sander to “flatten” two boards so I can face glue them together, I view Norm now as someone I can admire in woodworking. And what I admire most is the same thing I admire in all the other woodworkers I mentioned in this post, his simple approach to woodworking.

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5 thoughts on “The Norm of woodworking

  1. Hi Chuck,

    This was an interesting read…yeah, I was wondering a couple of times where you were going. But, I stuck it out and I’m glad I did!

    You struck on something there with the discussion on “over-complicating” and/or “over-analyzing” woodworking. I would agree that a lot of the info being “taught” out there does just that. I would also agree that it’s not necessary nor correct in most instances.

    In this vein, one of the things that I’ve recently written about is the never ending quest for that new tool that will solve the world’s woodworking problems. It seems that a lot of woodworkers won’t try things or they get paralyzed to inaction because they don’t have the latest tool or jig to do it. I, like you, would propose that we all just jump in a try things with what we’ve got or with simple jigs that we build ourselves. I think back to they guys who did woodworking hundreds of years a go with only basic tools and lots of skill. It’s amazing what you can do – and the skills that can be developed – in the shop with a little ingenuity and the will to try.

    By the way, I started out watching both Norm and Roy. I enjoyed them both for their relative merits. I’m sure Norm will still be woodworking, just not on TV.

    –Mark
    The Craftsman’s Path

  2. Chuck,

    Well said! This is the one thing I learned in your classes: just get out there and do it. We are blessed by all of this content to show us differing ways to do things, but this abundance can also suck us in and eat into the precious few hours of shop time on our schedules. Once we get rolling and forget about over analyzing everything and just start working wood it is amazing just how much fun can be had!

  3. Chuck,

    Here here! K.I.S.S.! I’ve always said, if I can do this, anyone can. I think that one of the biggest problems is that information and opinions are too easy to come by in this internet age. If one has a problem, all they have to do is pop onto one of the messageboards and get 100 different solutions most of which will contradict each other in some way, shape or form. This in turn leads to the infamous paralysis by analysis you mention. It keeps people from taking a step back and trying to solve the problem themselves.

    One topic that fits this to a tee is sharpening hand saws. There has been so much (mis)information about it that most folks are scared to death of even thinking about sharpening their hand saws. If they would just take a step back, then jump in and try it, they would see it’s really not as complicated as they have hyped it up to be in their own minds. I think we have this tendency to psyche ouselves out before we even try.

    So I’m with you. Just jump in and do it. If you make a mistake, so what. Fix it and you’ve learned what not to do the next time. You can’t learn if you don’t even try.

  4. Thanks for the comments. The more encounter the amateur woodworker, the more I realize that as human beings we’re just generally too hard on ourselves. That need to strive for perfection often gives us a lack of tolerance for making mistakes. Not so much in other people but in ourselves. I can tell you honestly, I make mistakes every single day. If I told you otherwise, I’d be lying. The difference between me and your average amateur woodworker is, I have had a LOT more practice at fixing those mistakes and the ones I make today are a whole lot smaller than the ones I made 20 years ago. For someone who’s just starting out, the mistakes are usually a lot larger and, without any idea how to begin fixing something you weren’t sure how to do in the first place, they’re just more daunting. Never forget, I didn’t get where I am without making all the same mistakes as everyone else. If I can do it, you can too.

  5. The important thing is that you can always learn from someone if you are open to the possibility. What you may learn is a technique that you’ll never use or a revelation that can change your work. As we advance in skill and maturity we are on a continuum in which we may start out as a machine tool woodworker and then gradually acquire the skills to do more and more hand tool work. Realistically, we need the mix – especially if we are trying to make a living at this or get the project done for Christmas! One of the things I have been pleased to learn from Norm is the calmness and courtesy with which approaches others and his tasks. Bob Vila, on the other hand, should be careful for dropping hammers on any job site he may visit because he certainly has not learned that lesson!!!

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