Behind the scenes with TV's own Mr. Fix-It

If American homeowners could tackle a remodeling project with one other person, Norm Abram might be the choice of millions.

Through years of sharing his knowledge with viewers of public television, he has become America's best-known carpenter and woodworker, and a hero to many do-it-yourselfers.

In his travels, he often encounters fans of "This Old House," a remodeling show he joined 21 years ago, and "The New Yankee Workshop," the woodworking series he's hosted for the past 13 years.

"I run into people now who say, 'I've been watching "This Old House" since I was 10 years old, and I've just bought my first house,' " he says.

To a certain extent, the program must cover the same ground over and over because, as Abram explains, "you're always obtaining new audience."

Just the other day, in flying back to Boston, a girl of about 12 in the seat in front of him turned around and said, "I watch your [workshop] show all the time. I love it."

Part of the appeal, he believes, is the welcome window these shows provide of a three-dimensional, hands-on world far removed from modern computer-keyboard culture.

Abram shared this and other home-improvement insights during a recent interview, abridged below:

What have you learned about do-it-yourselfers during the past 20 years?

They are challenging themselves more and more. Shows like "This Old House" and "The New Yankee Workshop," plus classes offered by home centers, have inspired them to jump in and take a chance that they can do a project. The numbers have gotten bigger and bigger.

Are there certain types of projects you've learned not to encourage do-it-yourselfers to tackle?

We try to tell people not to get involved where safety is an issue or they are uncomfortable. Roofing, for example. It can be tricky. One thing I've learned from personal experience is that a roof leak never seems to be where you think it is. I would recommend that most people leave electrical work, at least making the actual connections, to the pros.

The same goes for plumbing. You can do some electrical work, like installing outlet boxes, providing they meet the building code requirements.

What kind of projects can you encourage just about anybody to tackle?

Any kind of maintenance issues, from touch-up exterior painting to keeping trees and shrubs away from the house and cleaning the gutters. A lot of people paint and paper inside. With some experience, you could install new kitchen cabinets. The key is not going about anything blindly. Do a little research. Don't jump in without getting some idea of what to expect.

Is the danger in programs like "This Old House" that they don't show the frustrations that homeowners can encounter?

That's kind of hard to do when you're presenting most of the program from a professional point of view. If you look at the older "This Old House" shows, when we had homeowners providing more sweat equity, some of that frustration came through.

But if there are too many negatives, you can never inspire anyone to go forward. Russ Morash, who created these shows, wants to give people a you-can-do-it attitude.

Is part of the appeal of "This Old House" that it helps people speak intelligently with contractors?

Yes, because there's a whole language for a plumber, a carpenter, or anyone else in the trades. We try to get viewers to understand the terms and the concerns of the craftsman.

A lot of viewers say, "I can't do anything with my hands, but the show helps me know how to talk to my contractor. I can come home at night and look at the work and feel that I know what's going on." Crafts people appreciate someone taking an interest in their trade, and because of that I think you get a better job.

Do you expect a revolution in building materials in the next 10 years?

The building industry tends to move pretty slowly. But because of recycling and efforts to lessen waste, you're seeing wood used more efficiently. On the exterior side of the house, lots of products are being made from recycled materials.

Last year, we used roofing shingles for our Billerica (Mass.) project made of a plastic sort of rubber product, a material partly recycled from diaper production. These shingles look just like slate. They have a 50-year warranty and for the cost versus the life, it's a deal. We've got better adhesives, better insulation, better materials generally.

And how have building techniques changed?

We've learned a lot about making a house last. During the energy crunch we built a lot of incredibly tight houses that self-destructed from rot because they weren't properly vented. We've learned about venting buildings so you don't get interior air pollution and moisture buildup. We've learned a lot about construction techniques and acquired a lot of new materials. I think the trend will continue.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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