Popular Woodworking in America: Interview with Mary May

Mary May

Mary May has been a professional woodcarver for more than 25 years. She studied with a variety of European master carvers to learn the traditional techniques that have been used for centuries. Mary now works with architects, designers and furniture makers, helping to add ornate details to their work. She teaches at various woodworking schools throughout the U.S. and has been a guest on “The Woodwright’s Shop” several times. Four years ago, Mary started her Online School of Traditional Woodcarving which currently has more than 200 instructional videos, with a new video added each week. Her desire is to keep this ancient art alive and well. Mary took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.


PW: How did you become interested in carving? I’ve heard a summer squash was involved.

MM: Shapes have fascinated me from an early age. One of my first experiences with carving was with an over-grown zucchini squash from our garden that was too far gone to eat. I was 10 years old, it was summer vacation and I was bored. I found a small pocket knife, picked a 4-inch diameter zucchini (they grow BIG in Wisconsin) and proceeded to carve a realistic human head on one end. As I thinned the area at the neck, I didn’t take into account that the seed area of the zucchini was much weaker and softer than the outer edge. I discovered that I created a “bobble head” with the head bobbing right and left, forward and backward and flexing at the neck. I was so excited with this bouncing head that I guess I got a little aggressive with it. Eventually the head snapped off at the neck and rolled across the floor. We all have to start somewhere, right?

You’ve taught a number of respected woodworkers to carve. Why is carving an important skill for woodworkers to learn?

First of all, it’s just FUN! Whether you are a professional furniture maker, hobbyist, sculptor or just someone who loves to play with wood, woodcarving is an amazing addition to the world of woodworking. It teaches so much about grain direction, tool control, precision, discipline and above all … patience!

One of the presentations you’re giving is on carving an acanthus leaf, which has its roots in ancient Greece but still remains hugely popular in architecture and furniture today. You studied in Greece – what is it about this botanical element that gives it such staying power?

There is no real explanation as to why this leaf has stayed so popular – just its pure beauty and versatility. The real leaf has been an inspiration to designers and architects for over 2500 years, and the carved leaf has evolved greatly through the years – so much so that many of the carved leaves barely resemble the real leaf. The acanthus leaf is unique in that a series of leaf segments flow out from a center stem, which is quite different from other carved leaves where the leaf segments radiate from the center – such as the grape leaf, the palm, maple and ivy. The long, flowing acanthus leaf allows such a flexibility in design and, starting with the Corinthian Capital, has ebbed and flowed and evolved through the various art periods. Oh yeah – and I’m writing a book on carving the acanthus leaf. So yeah – I love this leaf!

I’ve seen your long, blue-jean roll of chisels and gouges – that could be pretty intimidating to the beginning carver. Does one need all that to get started?

The more tools, the better – right?? I confess, I could probably do most carving with 10 to 20 different carving gouges, with the occasional one that is such a specialty gouge that I can’t do a particular cut without it (such as a spoon bend gouge in carving deep shells). When I do a video lesson, I usually don’t use more than 10 in a lesson, and, depending on the complexity, I average six to eight gouges. I like to try and make as many cuts as possible while I have that particular gouge in my hand – whether it fits exactly or not. Maybe it’s laziness, but I like to think of it as “efficient use of tools.” So the 200+ gouges that I have are just because … they’re so pretty and shiny!

Your Internet video-based woodcarving school helps keep alive a tradition you’ve said at one point you feared was lost to antiquity. Having gained so much knowledge from masters around the globe, is it a responsibility to your craft that led you to teaching?

When I tried to find a teacher, it was very difficult to find someone who specialized in the “old world” style of carving. I was fortunate to find a European master carver, but there are not many who teach anymore – especially in the United States. So, yes, I love this art and I feel an obligation to share it as much as possible. If I can do my part to contribute to this art staying alive through the next generation, then I’ll do whatever I can to make this happen.

What’s the difference between carving and whittling?

I suppose the best way to describe the difference is the tools used. Whittling uses carving knives, small palm gouges and generally the wood is held in your hand while carving (which always causes me to bleed). The type of carving I do uses long-handled gouges, and the carving is clamped securely to a bench (much less blood shed). Both can get the same results – just different techniques.

What are you currently working on?

I’m putting the finishing touches on a book called “The Acanthus Leaf: A Rite of Passage for the Classical Carver”. It is going to have step-by-step carving techniques (with photos and illustrations) of 14 different traditional acanthus leaves. Lost Art Press will be publishing it. Other than that, I’ve been putting a lot of commissions off until the book is finished. I never realized how much work there is in writing a book!

What are you looking forward to at this year’s WIA?

It’s like a family reunion, and I’m looking forward to seeing all my amazing woodworking friends! I just hope they don’t put me in the room next to Roy Underhill. There is so much thumping and pounding and laughing and cheering next door that I see everyone in my room wondering, “How can I secretly sneak out and see what all the excitement is next door?”

Rodney Wilson

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