'Old House' carpenter says nailing down details is important


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Norm Abram has been master carpenter on the TV show "This Old House" since it began 35 years ago. Counting his other show, "The New Yankee Workshop," he has worked on hundreds of projects.

So if you see him at the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show today, you might want to ask him about them. Anything's better than the question he gets most often at shows: How do I get my house on "This Old House"?

Mr. Abram, who will be in the GMC area on the second floor of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center from 2 to 3 p.m. today, can tell those questioners about site visits that cast members sometimes make for "Ask This Old House" segments. But the show's producers only take on two house renovations per season, and they're nearly always within easy driving distance of the show's Boston headquarters.

Mr. Abram, a Rhode Island native and second-generation carpenter, was doing renovation and construction in Massachusetts when he was discovered in 1979 by Russell Morash, creator of "This Old House." On the now-discontinued "The New Yankee Workshop," he showed viewers how to make furniture and continues to work closely with contractor Tom Silva on "This Old House."

This season, the crew has been renovating an 1872 Italianate-style house in Arlington, Mass. On a recent episode, they built a whimsical period railing for the front porch. Its keyhole design was one of four submitted by architect David Whitney, who based them upon railings on other houses in the neighborhood and pattern books. Mr. Abram and Mr. Silva chose this one because it was neither too simple nor overly ornate, he said in a phone interview.

"We said, 'That's simple. This house needs a little bit more. That's a little too much.'"

The balustrade project allowed the carpenter and contractor to show TV viewers how to make templates and techniques using a router and hole saw. And he got to remind viewers of the importance of priming all sides of outdoor woodwork.

"You have to treat the ends before nailing it together. That's the first place you'll have problems," he said.

Mr. Abram said he had received many favorable comments about the balustrade. "To me, it's all about the details."

Although he grew up in a 1950s ranch-style house that his father built, Mr. Abram said he has always gravitated toward the Colonial style. For himself and his wife, he built a two-story Colonial with lots of period details and one thoroughly modern feature -- skylights.

"Upstairs hallways in Colonials are generally very dark. So I created a vaulted ceiling with two 4 by 4 [foot] skylights. It makes it so much brighter," he said, adding that the skylights are not visible from the front.

Still stumped on what to ask him? Try the other railing project for the Arlington house. Homeowner Heather Faulds was concerned that her house's low second-floor railing was a danger to her two children.

"We found a clever way of raising the rail 6 or 7 inches" while keeping the original balustrade intact, Mr. Abram said proudly.

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.


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