Restoring a house restores psyche, says TV carpenter

October 19, 1994|By Lucinda Fleeson | Lucinda Fleeson,Knight-Ridder News Service

He's been called the most famous carpenter since Joseph and the guru of home improvement.

Norm Abram, the amiable carpenter star of public television's "This Old House," has for 15 years made a dovetailed joint look so easy that any average Joe or Jane could pick up a tool and do it, too.

It is a talent that has helped propel "This Old House" into position as the most popular half-hour program on public television, with 7 million people tuning in each week. Seven years ago, Mr. Abram launched another show on his own, "New Yankee Workshop," in which he turns out copies of classic furniture in his workshop.

As most people know by watching "This Old House," the format of the show is to visit a house and document over 18 weeks the progress of a massive home-improvement project -- through its trials, tribulations and cost overruns.

In a telephone interview recently from his home outside Boston, Mr. Abram attributed the popularity of "This Old House" to the fact that inside almost every red-blooded American lies the dream of owning a home and the desire to fix it up.

Especially now, when fewer and fewer people work with their hands, home improvement, he says, has become almost recreational.

"If you look at new homeowners today, most are in a high-tech industry," he said. "With the computer age, their jobs are such that they're sitting more and more in front of computer, or they're on the phone. There's not that much direct physical contact with the job. Doing home improvement and fixing up their homes is a way of doing something very satisfying, even if doesn't come out perfectly . . .

"Same with woodworking. It used to be that woodworkers were people who were carpenters during the day, or were very technically oriented." Now, said Mr. Abram, it's just as likely for doctors, lawyers, accountants and airline pilots to try their hands at a woodworking project.

"It's as much a stress reliever to go into the workshop as it is going into the gym," he said. "It's no longer just a hobby, it's an activity."

Mr. Abram's current project under way for "This Old House" is an addition on a 1710 Colonial house in Acton, Mass. It's the oldest house the show has ever taken on, and was chosen in part because of the family's strictly imposed $150,000 budget, which had to stretch to include a new kitchen, a master bedroom suite, family room and two brand new bathrooms.

In the past, viewers have complained that the show often chose houses where money seemed limitless and cost overruns usual.

"No matter what you do when you add onto an old house, you have to make a connection somewhere, and have to uncover old construction," said Mr. Abram. "As you get into it, you realize that there are some problems with the house that you have to get into. We don't believe in covering up problems once you discover them."

One of the problems turns out to be old lead paint on the windows, which the family opted to replace, which led to further uncovering of the old house, and some tough choices on how to save money in other areas.

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