LEXINGTON, MASS. — CRISS-CROSSING office memos seldom yield results you can put your feet up on. Cross-cut saws do. Hence the renaissance, it appears, in woodworking. Alumni from school shop classes - homeowners, now, with basements and spare time - are rediscovering the rewards of building humble heirlooms. They flock to woodworking shows and hardware stores. They swell the mailing lists of specialty magazines and tool catalogs, of which there are growing numbers.
They also look for, long for, direction and friendly advice.
Enter Norm Abram. The resident carpenter of the long-running public-TV series ``This Old House'' is host of a new how-to PBS show called ``The New Yankee Workshop.'' In each of the 13 half-hour installments, Mr. Abram guides viewers through the construction of a project, from a workbench this coming week (check local listings) to a corner cupboard as the finale.
Most pieces are in the Shaker style, which ties the segments together and avoids the design hopscotch that amateur woodworkers often fall into. A companion book and videotapes will be available soon.
The whole project - from Abram's inspiration to write a book, to the completion of the TV series - took a year and a half. Abram discussed this venture and his thoughts on woodworking at his momentarily dust-free studio/shop in Boston suburb of Lexington.
The ``new'' in ``New Yankee Workshop'' refers to his extensive use of power tools, he explains, for the real workhorse in his fully-equipped shop is a table saw. He uses it extensively in virtually every project.
SOME sharp-eyed viewers may spot familiar products on the shows, but he doesn't endorse brands. He does recommend buying tools from a manufacturer's mid-quality contractor's line. These are between home grade, ``which work OK but don't have a great lifespan,'' and professional models.
Abram uses a router, bandsaw, drill press, jointer, and more on the show. He recognizes the temptation novices might have to quickly stock their own workshops. He strongly advises against compromising on quality: Long-lasting (and more expensive) carbide-tipped blades and bits are an especially worthwhile investment.
``You can automatically gain more skill by having sharp tools,'' he says. ``You save a lot of time, and it's safer.''
Abram is safety-conscious, but not a safety freak. He stresses the uncompromising nature of the machinery he works with, but doesn't take a lot of obvious precautions beyond wearing shatterproof lenses in his glasses.
His two greatest safety aids are less visible: technique and patience.
When making a potentially dangerous cut on the table saw, he positions his hands just so to keep them out of harm's way. This is a skill he hopes viewers will learn through observation.
Patience, too, is a virtue, though it doesn't appear so on the TV series: Furniture is completed in a swift 30 minutes via the wonder of time-lapse filming.
Each program actually took about two days of shooting and three or four days of preparation, but Abram declines to give viewers or readers estimates on a project's length. That varies widely with skill level, and Abram doesn't want anybody hurrying.
``You have to be patient,'' he says, ``and if you are patient you sort of automatically become persistent, and those are really the keys to success.''
Finishing is the least interesting aspect to Abram. It's not only tedious - ``sanding, sanding, and more sanding'' - but a bit unsettling. ``You never really know how good a job you've done until you start putting the finish on.''
He uses various woods on the show, but cherry is his favorite. ``It's the nicest to work,'' he volunteers. ``It's hard and machines so well.'' He is less fond of maple, which chips easily, and pine (``easy to work but tremendously hard to finish because the grain varies so much'').
Technique cannot be mastered overnight, he warns. Practice on scrap before you rip-saw into your prime stock.
The collection of scrap, of course, has a downside that even an Abram confronts. ``There comes a time when you move a piece of scrap so many times that it becomes firewood. You have to learn that the hard way. It's a shame to even think about it.''
Spoken like a true woodworker.
THE NEW YANKEE WORKSHOP PROJECT LIST Shows will air on public-TV stations on the day indicated or sometime during the week following. Please check local listings.
Jan. 28 - Workbench Feb. 4 - Drop-leaf table Feb. 11 - Blanket chest Feb. 18 - Bedside table Feb. 25 - Bathroom vanity March 4 - Trestle table March 11 - Bookcase March 18 - Chest of drawers March 25 - Candle stand April 1 - Hutch April 8 - Writing desk April 15 - Corner cupboard