June 2005

A Different Type of 'Studio' Furniture

When well-known woodworker and television personality Norm Abram does a project, the term 'studio furniture' takes on a new meaning.

By Lorie Long
The installed project has the custom-built look Abram wanted.

When you are talking about studio furniture and the furniture-maker involved is Norm Abram, host of PBS' popular New Yankee Workshop television series, the word "studio" takes on a different twist.

For years, Abram has been sharing projects built in his television studio shop with viewers, who include many professional woodworkers as well as the "weekend warriors" to whom the show is primarily aimed. Recently, CWB was invited to profile one of Abram's more elaborate projects, giving a new definition to its usual "Studio Works" column this month.

The project is a library storage system that Abram constructed in his television studio shop to look like a custom-built piece after it is installed. The TV show segment, entitled "The Library System" (Item #0513), aired in April and will be broadcast again in the winter of 2005-06. (Information and plans for this project are available at www.newyankee.com).

The project consists of three vertical bookshelf units with adjustable shelves, built around a window. Abram included a window seat and a cabinet with raised panel doors under the window.

"It seems clear to us that people are always looking for a place to store things like books, or to display art, and they want to know how to build a bookcase or a built-in wall system," says Abram. "What we tried to do was not just build a bunch of bookcases and put them together. We wanted it to look like a unified piece that was custom-built.

"The project is a guide for people to follow," he adds. "If the site conditions are slightly different, they will have to alter the project. But, the process is the interesting part, because you have to think through a way to build something in a workshop, which you can almost totally assemble in the shop, but obviously would not be able to move in one piece. So you have to break [the process] down and construct the piece in [a unique] way."

Abram's program shows viewers how to do that. In his shop, he built and permanently fastened the boxes, consisting of two vertical pieces, a top, a lower shelf set into dados and "a good back."

"I think a lot of times, cabinetmakers make the backs of cabinets too thin," adds Abram. "So we went with 3?4-inch plywood on the sides and bottom and top of the carcass and 1?2-inch plywood on the back of the carcass."

Abram points to a few techniques in the construction process that contribute to its success. "A real trick in this whole project is to figure out a way to do a face frame to cover the edges of the veneer plywood, but build it in such a way that, instead of having two stiles where two cabinets come together, and end up showing a joint, you glue and nail a stile to one cabinet but not to the other one. They later overlap and cover the grain."

Abram fits a piece into one of the bookcase units while a cameraman captures the moment for the television


Abram uses pocket screws as his preferred method of fastening in the project. "It's great for assembly because you can pull all of the pieces tightly together and you don't need to use any glue, which allows you to break [the piece] down. And then, when you do the final assembly, you can apply a little glue and use that same screw to pull the pieces together.

"It's very difficult to fit loose pieces and hope that, when you finally put the nail in, it's actually going to go together," Abram continues, "Whereas, with these fasteners, you can put it together, you know it fits, you can break it apart and, as long as you keep track of all your parts, it will go back together."

Accounting for the fact that no wall is perfectly plumb or straight, Abram oversized the face frame during construction to allow for scribing and fitting on-site.

The New Yankee Workshop always remains on the lookout for new products that improve the construction process without sacrificing craftsmanship, as reflected in the quality of the finished piece. For example, for the library system, Abram used pre-primed plywood from Columbia Forest Products for the first time. "It was new for us," says Abram. "We're totally open to new ideas. We explore [new products] if we think they're worthwhile. We think about it, see if it really does work, and it did."

The pre-finished plywood helps maintain the adhesion of paint to the substrate and masks any defects. It also minimizes grain raise for a smooth final product. Abram lightly sanded the plywood and brush painted it with a low luster, oil-based enamel for a durable finish.

Abram emphasizes to his viewers the importance of taking careful measurements of the site conditions when building a floor to ceiling unit. Then, the woodworker can leave room in the wood to fit it to a floor that's not level, for example. Also, calculations should include how much room to allow for final vertical installation.

"There always is a little bit of a gap between the top of the box, or the carcass, and the ceiling. Otherwise, you wouldn't be able to stand it up in the room," he says. "In this instance, we had to make the boxes an inch or so shorter than the ceiling in order to stand them up in the room. And then the crown moulding fills the gap."

"It isn't like I built three boxes and hoped they went together. I built them and screwed them all together in the shop. The only thing that I did not fit in the shop was the crown moulding," explains Abram. "Then everything else came apart and went back together on the site. The only thing I had to do was scribe the left side [of the box] to the wall, because it was in a corner, and I had to make sure it was level. If the floor was off a little bit there was enough material at the bottom so I could trim it slightly if I had to."

"It's almost like building a kit, in a way," Abram notes. "Sometimes kits still leave a lot to be done [by the woodworker]. And, often, kits don't look custom. [The kit provider] may not provide things such as making the stiles wider so they can be scribed to a wall that isn't plumb. I looked at the project thinking about how it can be put back together, but also filling all the needs of how you would build it if you were doing it the old way, which would be to bring a bunch of sheets of plywood into a room and build a set of bookcases."

Abram's Thoughts

What enhancements to the professional woodworking business are on their way in the future? Abram suggests that the large manufacturers of cabinetry, doors, windows and furniture provide the impetus of bringing new technologies to the industry. Later, scaled-down versions of factory floor machinery, and new or improved products, become available to custom millwork shops.

This overview shows Abram's "studio" furniture workshop, complete with woodworking tools and cameraman.

"They will see better adhesives, abrasives and the development of better cutting tools, like router bits and saw blades," explains Abram. "When I first started doing carpentry with my father when I was just a kid, I never saw a carbide tip blade on any tool. Also, saw blades now cut cleaner and stay sharper."

The focus on environmentally responsible products and practices, like creating formaldehyde-free adhesives, offers a challenge for the industry in the future, according to Abram. "I was in a manufacturing facility and, for the workers, there have been tremendous advances in dust collection, for example. That's filtering down to us now in the [home] workshops.

"In finishes, the regulations are going to force us into using more environmentally friendly [products]," he adds. "The problem is, from my point of view, that the old tried-and-true methods worked so well, but environmentally they are not very friendly. And, sometimes the weakness is that the new stuff just isn't as good as the old stuff. Finishes are certainly a lot more durable today, but to get the look you want, that's going to be a challenge."

Abram's library system project offers a real-world example of why "you don't have to have a library system that's doesn't look custom built if you think through the process. You can build a unified piece." Real world? Well, Abram actually installed this project in his home.

In an upcoming season, Abram will return to that room to build and install plantation shutters as the window treatments. "Someone is not going to build the same size shutters that I will," concludes Norm, "But the trick again is how do I put it together, and what are the [tools] I will need."


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