WHAT Julia Child is to the culinary crowd, Norm Abram is to the hammering masses. During a decade as resident carpenter on ``This Old House,'' the most-watched 30-minute show on public television, his bearded face has become nearly as familiar as Abe Lincoln's. He projects the same common-man image as Honest Abe, too, which makes him a very approachable celebrity. Whether spotted by a waiter in a New York restaurant, vacationers at Disney World, or fellow customers at the hardware store, fans feel comfortable asking him for advice.
``When I travel and meet people it's like they've known me all their lives,'' he says, seated on a blanket chest crafted for his just-launched PBS woodworking series, ``The New Yankee Workshop.''
He spends about 30 days each year as a featured attraction at home shows and home centers across the country, and unless he needs to catch a plane, he sticks around to answer every last question.
``I do not like to walk away from a group of people who have gone out of their way to see me personally,'' he says. ``I feel it's my duty to talk to them and be pleasant.''
During one of his first personal appearances, before a historical society in Connecticut, he learned how much viewers identify with his trademark attire of a plaid flannel shirt and jeans. Thinking he should dress up a little, he arrived wearing a sport jacket and tie only to address an audience wearing mostly ... flannel shirts and jeans.
``Any carpenter who has been at the job 20 or 30 years knows the same tricks,'' says David Sloan, executive editor of American Woodworker magazine and a former homebuilder. ``But Norm has an ability to communicate these things very clearly and simply, which is why he comes across so well to the do-it-yourselfer.''
``I'm grateful that I was at the right place at the right time,'' says Abram, the son of a carpenter, who dreamed of someday owning a construction company. In 1978 he built a barn for Boston public TV producer Russell Morash, who later invited him to tackle an eaves and gutter problem on the original ``This Old House'' series. From there, he was gradually given more and more time on camera.
He was majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts when he threw a monkey wrench into his degree work by switching to business courses. After five years and no diploma, he hired out as a carpenter, eventually forming his own general contracting firm in Hudson, Mass. Today he lives there with his wife and two of their four children, and limits himself to consulting.
Abram's new TV series doesn't mean the end of his ``This Old House'' presence. By design, the current ``Old House'' remodeling site is practically around the corner from the workshop.