Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Carving with Mary May

Mary May demonstrating the convex Newport shell
 Just recently, I returned from a five-day class in wood carving with celebrated carver Mary May.  I was joined by six other aspiring carvers, including three whom I already knew and three others who soon became new friends.  The class was conducted in Mary's light and airy workshop in Charleston, SC.  I drove down from Virginia with Jeff Fleisher, with whom I've taken classes before, first as his student and later as his classmate.  The class was organized by Charles Neil, who wanted to learn more about carving the details on the John Townsend Tall Clock he is currently building on his web-based Mastering Woodworking  classes.

In case you don't know about Mary, she too has a regular on-line class series on carving furniture details, in addition to a line of DVDs and other products.  And of course, she teaches in both her own shop and at various locations around the country.
Some of Mary's many chisels

During our week with Mary, we worked on four projects.  The first was a Philadelphia-style ball and claw foot.   That was followed by a finial that will be used by some of the class participants on the John Townsend Tall Clock they are building with Charles Neil, the Newport convex shell, which will also be used on the clock, and a cabriole leg with acanthus leaves.  All our work was done with basswood blanks, as it is easiest for beginners to carve.

Jeff Fleisher gave us a demonstration of chip carving

I learned a lot during the week.  Here are some of my take-aways, in no particular order of importance:

  • A mallet gives you better control of the chisel, especially when cutting on curves
  • For stability of action, keep your opposite hand (the one not holding the chisel) in contact with the board at all times, even when working with a mallet
  • Learn to hold the chisel in either hand and to work with your non-dominant hand; it will help especially in awkward situations and avoids the need to keep reversing the position of your work
  • Use your body motion with the chisel action and not just arm movement; this reduces fatigue and increases control
    Carving the convex Newport shell
  • Cutting a curve with a V-chisel can cause you to be cutting against the grain on one side of the V-cut; to avoid this, lean the chisel so you are always cutting with the grain; otherwise you will get tearout on the off-side
  • Carve the ball on the ball and claw foot with a flat chisel, such as a #2 chisel or a paring chisel
  • Good lighting--especially side lighting--is essential when you are carving; Mary bought LED panels inexpensively at Lowes and mounted them on adjustable arms
  • Pfeil chisels come with secondary bevels cut at the factory so they are sharp right out of the box; but when they dull, you have to grind off that secondary bevel in order to re-hone them; also, the secondary bevel affects the angle of cut somewhat so they may not be ideal choices
  • If you darken the end of the chisel blade with a black marking pen, you can see your progress when sharpening it

Mary also sells various things, and while there I purchased some of her wares: a couple of Dastra gouges, which she is beginning to sell (if they aren't on her web site yet, they soon will be); a brass-headed mallet with cocobolo handle; plaster castings of four of her carvings to use as models; and a couple of Mary's DVDs.  I already subscribe to her on-line program for the low fee of $10 a month.

Carving acanthus leaves on a cabriole leg
Charles Neil brought along his Koch Thermal Reactive Carving Tool system, which has four wheels for honing carving chisels and gouges .  It's thermal-reactive, which means that the honing paste becomes active when it reaches a certain temperature.  He convinced nearly everyone in the class to buy one, and we ordered them from Woodcraft.  In the process, we bought out all Woodcraft's remaining stock, so it may be a while before this German machine is back in supply.  I set mine up the other day and it works wonderfully to quickly hone chisels to a razor-sharp edge.  It will be a joy to use and it will make the carving so much better.

Jeff and I brought our wives with us to Charleston and they had a great time touring, shopping, eating  and generally kicking around that historic city.  In all, a fun time and wonderful learning experience.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Norm, Nice blog and nice article. As one of your class mates to Mary's shop, you really captured the spirit of the week. It was great to meet you and share the experience with all the guys.... and Mary. I've been practicing at home now and all I can say is, Wow, she is really good.
    Bill Wayland