Norm's Tools Genesis

Why?

As I've been going through each episode (particularly the earlier years), now for at least the fourth time, I've begun to think that it may be of interest to memorialize how I got started on this project. Unfortunately, I don't keep a journal, so many of the things I'll relate here are estimates and the chronology will be approximate. I have a good memory, but it's not infallible.

The Beginning

The earliest date on my hard drive for any Norm's Tools imagery is 21 November 1999. That probably reflects an initial build date, but the project began earlier than that. From earlier files on my hard drive, I can chart my web presence to an initial email from my first service provider of 2 November 1996. From that time, I found and then spent a lot of time on woodworking fora on the internet—rec.woodworking, Badger Pond, The Oak Factory are all examples—my current homes are the wreck (still), WoodCentral, and occasionally, SawMill Creek (until they went downhill). On occasion at those sites I encountered discussions of The New Yankee Workshop (as described in my opening Norm page) which raised questions about Norm's tools.

An Innocent Start

I've long been a fan of TNYW and had probably already seen every episode, even taping some off my local PBS channel in 1998—six of them in the middle of the season. I sort of forgot about those tapes although I continued taping when the '99 season started—collecting the full complement of that season's episodes. I don't recall when HGTV started airing episodes—clearly it was prior to '98—but they bought three batches (Seasons 1-5, Seasons 6-8, Seasons 9 & 10), and I can't recall when I started taping them (probably '97), but somewhere along the line I came to the realization that I had tapes of a lot of episodes. It struck me that thus armed, I might be able to produce some content regarding Norm's tool complement.

Learning Curve

We relocated from Illinois to Florida in late '99, and the '98/99 tapes notwithstanding, I'm pretty sure I've done all of my Norm's Tools work in Florida. That doesn't mean I was web ignorant until then. I had dabbled in some HTML coding prior to that during early '97 and probably had my first personal website up sometime in that year. The earliest site associated files on my hard drive, dated October '97, confirm that.

Collecting the Data

So, it was probably while comfortably ensconced in our South Florida condo (late '99) that the Norm's Tools website began. But first I had to gather data from my nascent archive. I developed a check sheet—the basic form of which I still use today—and set about chronicling the tools in each show that I had on tape. Naturally, the '98 PBS episodes were among the first, followed by whatever HGTV episodes I already had. Of course I also had to develop a form and style for how I was going to present the information. Interestingly, the way the site looks now is not markedly different from that early effort—enhancements associated with CSS (cascading style sheets) capabilities I later implemented and some expansion of existing data are, for the most part, the sole differences.

Organizing the Data

Early on I recognized that it would be useful (to me) to encode the information I extracted from the programs into some sort of database. Fortunately I had dabble experience dating back to VisiCalc days on my old Apple II+ and even more experience with dBaseIII, so that prospect wasn't intimidating. I started playing with the native M$ Works spreadsheet, which sort of combined the best of the spread sheet and data base models I'd had experience with. I eventually worked up a simple system with a file for each separate year, templated with six columns for the first six episodes, a column of each tool used that year, and then seven columns for the final seven episodes.

I've since refined that (and converted from Works to M$ Excel) to include a column before the tools column which contains the filename and extension (+ the HTML tag “>”—handy for doing completely new episodes). I've also added a column at the end which does a count for each instance of “*” which is the indicator of tool use in each episode's column where applicable. I use that in my master tool list which tracks by year instead of episode, and in which I also have a column that gives me a total usage number for each tool. That aids in Hall of Fame tracking and eligibility.

I also added a row at the bottom that does a total tool count for each episode. So far, that's for my own interest—however, I may incorporate that information as a feature somewhere along the line. It's that sort of thinking, however, which has enabled me to devolop the differences and enhancements that I have implemented over the years, despite the overall look and feel being quite similar to the early effort.

A Picture Is Worth A Lot Of Words

Of course collecting data and writing descriptions isn't enough. You have to have pictures. So, you have to spend some time on the 'net particularly when you don't know what some of the things are. I was lucky, though. Because of my involvement with wood working, the number of tool store mailing lists I was on, and access to a couple of the most magnificent tool stores to be found (both in Chicagoland and South Florida), I had a pretty good handle on the tool market of the late '90s/early aughts. I had pretty good luck, for the most part, not only in the identifications but in acquiring pictures. I started out with not many pictures and today I'm probably only missing two or three out of >350 tools.

Going Public

Initially I used the free webspace available from my ISP—a local (South Florida) ISP. And of course it was a clunky URL—member.dialisdn.net /br549 (or something like that)—the sure sign of an amateur. According to my FTP update log it was 2 November 1999 when my site was first seen. Also according to my log (and less accurately, my memory), I permanently changed ISPs to AT&T (which I had been carrying as an Illinois vehicle for the previous year or two as we hopscotched back and forth between there and Florida) just two weeks later, implementing the URL http://worldnet.att.net/~woodbutcher (or thereabouts), and marking the first appearance of woodbutcher in a name associated with my site. I had been using Master Woodbutcher as a nom de web for a while by then, so it was natural that Woodbutcher be part of the site's identity.

It didn't take too many verbal attempts at guiding someone to my site before I realized that having my own domain name would be a great idea if I wanted people to see what I had created. It was not so much the Norm's Tools part at that point as it was sharing essays, pictures, family stories and my shop tour with friends.

Surveying My Domain

woodbutcher.com—probably the first logical choice in those days—wasn't available (I don't know why), and it's for sale now, owned by some domain name broker in the UK. A .org domain made no sense at all, and obviously .edu, .mil, and .gov weren't possible either. .net seemed the best bet, so I got it (7 May 2000). The update log reveals the first upload was on 7 June 2000 to my new host (PowWeb.com—nice folks—mention the woodbutcher, save me some money) and my new domain name. It's turned out to be a good choice, I think. It's easy to say and easy to remember. One of the woodworking fora I was active in had a strict no-personal-website-addys in the messages policy, so I devised a workaround that let me keep everyone apprised of it. I signed all my posts with “think woodbutcher and you'll net the site.” I couldn't have done that with woodbutcher.com, even if it had been available. Frankly, I'm surprised the moderator let me get away with it because it was a flagrant and fairly easy to solve abuse of the rule. But he never gigged me.

Making It Better

Getting my own domain name originally wasn't the only thing that moved me forward. Periodically I'd come across a background that I liked (such as the ruled notebook on the Episode pages) or an email graphic that I felt I should incorporate, and as my inventory of episodes crept past the half century mark (and the tool pages exponentially greater) it became apparent that I needed some way to make changes globally in my files without having to edit every one of the now hundreds of pages. Enter CSS.

Doing It With Style

I had a fair amount of experience with WordPerfect, particularly with style sheets when I did a newsletter for a local special interest club I belonged to. I was aware of the power of a single configuration file over dozens (or hundreds) of subordinate files. Somehow I ran across the cascading style sheets feature of web development. I bought a book. I started coding. At first it was hard, because unlike plain vanilla HTML, in which you almost always see the results, good and bad, as you display your code, CSS often displays anomalies that aren't directly tracable to what would seem to be the logical code. I kept plugging away at it, though, and eventually got good enough to develop three master CSS files for my site (one for general site files, one for the episode files, and one for the Norm's Tools files). Then it was time to implement. I did a massive rewrite, editing every single file on site (now numbering over 700) sometime in 2001, I believe.

Fool me once…

I thought that would be it for a while, but I kept thinking of improvements I wanted to implement, and then there were all those hand saw and framing square appearances that I hadn't chronicled. All in all, eventual enhancements ran the gamut from implementing CSS to adding a tag in each episode file indicating whether the episode I was working from was a full 24 minute, 20 second PBS broadcast, or an HGTV version which may have had as much as two minutes of content excised.

I'd also had a hankering to copy all of my video tapes over to DVDs for easier access to specific episodes. I had already transferred everything from the master tapes (four episodes per tape at SP speeds) to archive tapes (EP in order to get all thirteen episodes on a single tape), which led to another run-through—probably 2002 or '03— I can't recall all the things I was looking for then—probably C-clamps and block planes. However, transferring to DVD gave me the opportunity to finally get all of those minor, secondary or even tertiary tools I'd been wanting to chronicle for some time. That led me to my April/May 2007 run through

What I've Learned About My Efforts

I was pretty selective in the first couple of dozen shows I chronicled, mainly picking out big iron and never considering drills or sanding drums, but it didn't take too many viewings to realize there might be some interest in those things. That prompted me to view the episodes I had again and expand on the collection. Curiously, one never considers a handsaw until one has seen a handsaw two or three times—and it might be over two or three seasons before you see it that third time. That's what happened to me and why I've actually seen most episodes at least three times (and the early ones at least four)—I didn't know I needed them until well after the first time I saw them.

Another phenomenon which developed was understanding what a particular tool was from knowledge gained from seeing 50 or 100 episodes. When I first ran through the seasons one black corded drill looked much like another and it wasn't until five years into the project that I realized that somewhere along the way, the Elu black corded drill had become the Porter-Cable black corded drill. And when it finally dawned on me that what I was marking down as a Drill-n-Drive in later seasons what turned out to be (after some research) the JackRabbit driver tool—and that it had been for some time—I knew I was due another run-through.

I learned in my most recent run-through that I had generally done a fairly decent job of identifying tools on the first time through, and particularly in the early efforts. My aforementioned understanding of the tool market in the '90s and that I'm sort of anal about details in movies and TV shows certainly contributed. Most importantly, however, I learned the value of the knowledge and context gained from having seen all 247 (so far) programs several times before. And seeing them in order (doing the transfer from VHS to DVD was the perfect opportunity to do it this way) really helped in the context department.

The upshot of all that is that it was relatively easy to concentrate on the dado blade, the dead blow hammer, chisels, and squares, knowing that all the big stuff had all been taken care of. That didn't exclude the opportunity to correct some errors along the way. For instance, I discovered a Delta 13" planer that I didn't realize he had for three seasons (I thought it was the 15" DC380 from the beginning—they look a lot alike). And I found out that there have been three different Delta hollow chisel mortisers in inventory, as well as three different Delta band saws, and three different Delta tenoning jigs. And, he's on his second large, variable speed drill press—oh, and he's had two of those DC380 planers.

So Much Space, So Little Material

I can't stop tinkering. I've been with PowWeb for >seven years now (and a couple of ownership changes) and there have been improvements and free upgrades along the way, many of which I had been unaware. I discovered in 2007 that rather than getting near the capacity of my server space with all of my files and graphics, I actully was entitled to several gigabytes of space and that I was only using a couple % of it. I also found out that I could have more than one domain name pointing to it, which initially opened my thinking to a web development service.

Recently I thought, “why not separate out the Norm's Tools section of the personal site with a more descriptive domain name?” A quick check revealed the availability of normstools.com (norm's tools is one of the most used search strings sending people to my site), which I immediately purchased, and had the files ported over within hours (1 December 2007).

It Just Never Stops

During a run through of episodes in April 2007 I began taking note of the field trips associated with each project. In December, not content with that bit of extra information, I went through all of the episodes and collated the location of each field trip, wrote a little page for each including a link to its own website, and wrote a master page which includes all of the 75+ field trip location pages. It was interesting to learn that he's been to Old Sturbridge Village a dozen times (not surprising—he's on the Board of Trustees) and Hancock Shaker Village ten times. No place else has more than half that, I don't believe. (completed 9 December 2007)

What Makes It Worthwhile

In addition to personal development benefits of the project, it's also been fun when outside influences drive the development of the site. I've had several friends write to me with information I didn't have on tools, corrections to information I did have, and to point out missing tools or descriptions. I really appreciate the correspondences I've had with visitors. If I ever had wondered, as I was pecking away at 3 a.m, why I'm doing this, it's the thought that someone may actually find the data I've collected and collated interesting, if not useful. Getting actual feedback confirming that it has been is the most gratifying part of the project.

Coda?

Now that the series has ceased production, there are at least a couple of questions which come to mind.

Thanks for the memories, Norm and Russ. Thanks for the many late night hours tracking down pictures, re-watching episodes, tinkering and editing, and, well, everything…




Last updated: 04 November 2009