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Carving a Cardinal video added to online video school

April 10, 2014 MaryMay Wood Carving Tips


A new project has been added to my online video school. It is a fully 3-dimensional carving of a cardinal in basswood. This is not the typical type of carving I have on the school. Most of the styles I do are classical decorative carving that go on either furniture or architecture.

I go through the process of how to get the general shape cut out with a band-saw. I also show how to keep strategic pieces of wood attached so that I can clamp it in my bench vice without having to hold it in my hands. These carvings are often held in your hands and carved with a whittling knife or palm gouges. I am MUCH more comfortable using my long-handled European gouges and clamp the work to my bench. Much less blood… all body parts away from the gouge…


Every Thursday (actually Wednesday evening) I add another video episode. Sometimes the lessons only have one episode – usually when they are less than 1/2 hour long. This project of carving the cardinal will be 3 episodes (approx. 1-1/2 hours total) and so far 2 episodes have been added to the school. The final episode will be added next week (can you handle the suspense?) The plot is pretty predictable.

I added a blog post previously describing this carving process in photographs.

If you haven’t seen my online school, I currently have 122 video episodes and more every week. 12 beginning video lessons are available for FREE!


Attaching fragile carving to backer board

April 9, 2014 MaryMay Period Furniture Carving

This is a great example of how to care for a very fragile carving. This delicate leaf design is for the detail on the top of a Philadelphia Highboy (this project is actually going on a Philadelphia Chest-on-Chest, but since the highboys are so much more common, I’m just going to refer to it as a highboy from now on).


Example of the top of a highboy I carved several years ago – similar to what I will be carving.

I am NOT going to carve this after it is glued to the final furniture surface for several reasons -

1. The rest of the piece of furniture is in NC
2. If my gouges decide to gouge into the background (which they like to do on occasion) I won’t damage this beautiful flat surface.

So, I am going to attach this to a temporary backer board where I can gouge away as I please. This also allows me to clamp the backer board and as a result any clamps or bench dogs will be far away from my carving or gouges.

There are several ways I could do this.

1. Glue it to the backer board with newspaper or paper bag between the carving and backer board (great for more solid and less delicate carvings)
2. Use double sided tape (excellent for fragile carvings)
3. Use hot-melt glue (this is becoming more and more NOT the best choice in my book)

I decided to use the double sided tape method for this delicate carving. When Charles Neil and his gang hung out in my shop for a week last year, they introduced me to an amazing double-sided tape that you can get from Lowes – it is a type of double-sided duct tape called “Suretape”. It  is truly impressive in how it holds. Then when you are finished with the carving, brush along the edge of your carving with lacquer thinner (use in ventilated space) and the tape will soak up the lacquer thinner and will gently release from the backer board.

So here we go…

Cut out your design on a scroll saw – use as small of a blade as you can to get a clean cut, but don’t let it get so small that the blade bends and distorts. For this particular design I used a scroll saw blade with 15 teeth per inch. For the inside sections, I drilled a 1/4″ hole to insert the blade into.

Lay your carving on a backer board that is at least 1 inches larger than your carving on all sides. Draw a rough outline around your design as a guideline for where to lay your tape.

Draw a rough outline around the carving design to know where to lay the double sided tape.

Draw a rough outline around the carving design to know where to lay the double sided tape.

Lay the double sided tape on your backer board in the general shape of the outline you drew. Pull off the covering of the double-sided tape.

Removing double sided tape covering.

Removing double sided tape covering.

Lay your carving on the tape.

Carving set on double sided tape.

Carving set on double sided tape.

Clamp another board over your carving to ensure that the entire carving is tight against the backer board. Clamp it tightly and then release. There is no need to clamp it for any period of time.

Clamp tightly so that the entire carving is pressed into the double sided tape.

Clamp tightly so that the entire carving is pressed into the double sided tape.

With a small knife that can fit into tiny areas, cut the tape around the outside edge of your design. One of the most irritating things is to carve and have your wood shavings stick to any exposed double sided tape. It’s a tedious job to remove this, but very important.

Cut along edge of carving to remove excess double sided tape.

Cut along edge of carving to remove excess double sided tape.


After cutting around edge, remove excess double sided tape.

After cutting around edge, remove excess double sided tape.

And now we’re ready to carve!

Ready to carve and it's not going anywhere!







Carving a Philadelphia Chest on Chest

April 7, 2014 MaryMay Antique furniture reproduction

I recently received a great new commission – to carve the top details for 4 reproduction Philadelphia Chippendale chest-on-chests. These ornate tops are usually seen on highboys from around 1760 to 1780, but occasionally are added as decorative tops (or bonnets) of chest-on-chests. Quite often the chest-on-chests have a simple flat top.

The following is a photo that my carving will be roughly based on.

Top of a Philadelphia Highboy from around 1760.

Top of a Philadelphia Highboy from around 1760.


Philadelphia Highboy that I carved details for.

Very similar style Philadelphia Highboy that I carved details for about 8 years ago.



Details of Philadelphia Highboy that I carved.

The first step is – how to get the design to the wood in the most accurate and efficient way possible. Since I am carving 4 of these, it would be best to get a clear, durable and accurate template made of each detail that I can use for all pieces of furniture.

Ideally, I would get a thick piece of flexible plastic. I often use a disposable cutting board or chopping mat that I purchase at a flea market (those booths where there are boxes filled with really inexpensive Chinese made things that you can never imagine needing – except for now). You can also use plastic page dividers at office supply stores. What you want to look for is something clear enough to see the design through, thick enough so you can run your pencil along the edge as a template, and textured enough so you can draw on at least one side of it.

chopping matt

Stiff plastic for template material.

However… I did not use this process because when I started, I did not have any of this thick plastic to use. So I used the next best thing I had in my shop and settled on velum or tracing paper. Great for tracing a design, but not great for use as a template because it is so flimsy and you can’t run your pencil along the edge easily. So the process I went through was a little more laborious because I really do want the template to be on a stiffer material that I can trace around.

After enlarging the photo of the original to full-size, I traced over the leaf design onto velum paper. This is definitely not a real accurate process because of the fuzziness of the photograph as it is enlarged. I got it as close as I was comfortable with for this first step. More detailed drawings were done after this.

Tracing design onto velum paper.

Tracing design onto velum paper.

Next, I cut out the design in the velum paper, taped it to my wood (about 5/8″ thick mahogany) and gently traced it around the outside.

Tracing around template onto wood.

Tracing around template onto wood.

Next I drew the design details accurately on the wood as it should be carved, fixed any parts where the tracing process was a little vague, and did any adjusting with the design. Why didn’t I do this while it was on the velum paper? Good question. And I really had to think about this. There is something about drawing it onto the material that it will actually be carved in where I can visualize it easier and more accurate. If you wanted to, I guess you could do this final detailing on the velum drawing before it was cut out. But if you do that, then the following steps will make no sense… so let’s not confuse things…

Draw accurate design on wood.

Draw accurate design on wood.

Next, I scanned the wood with the drawing on my computer scanner. I had to do some real funky adjusting with the color to make the drawing show up. But it worked! Now I have a file on my computer where there is an accurate, full-size drawing of my design.

Scanned image of design on wood.

Scanned image of design on wood.

Next I printed this design out, and glued it onto a manilla file folder (or any other thicker cardboard or plastic material) with a light coat of spray glue or you could use glue stick (don’t use glue that will soak into the paper and distort the design). Next, I cut out the outline of the design as accurately as possible.

Design after glued on manilla folder and cut out.

Design after glued on manilla folder and cut out.

manilla folder side

Other side of template

Now this template can be used for all 8 of these cut-outs (2 for each piece of furniture – used in reverse). And since it is in a thicker material, the accuracy of running a pencil along the outside edge makes it all worth the effort!

Like I said, this process was a bit long-winded, and it could have been accomplished much easier if I simply had that thick plastic where I could just trace the design from the photo, and cut out the design. That’ll teach me to make sure I have my shop stocked! I went to the market last weekend and bought 6 packages of the plastic “chopping mats”.

I could also have shortened the process by making the final accurate drawing on the velum paper, gluing that to the manilla folder and cutting it out. But that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun! I’m sure there are some engineers out there that are just cringing at my “meandering” approach.

The moral of the story is… be prepared! Also, if you can’t do it one way (because of lack of organization), there are ALWAYS other ways.

I think I’ll do it differently next time…





Inspirations at Brookgreen Gardens

April 5, 2014 MaryMay Brookgreen Gardens

My husband, Stephen, and I took the last 2 days to explore an area of SC that is truly amazing. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Brookgreen Gardens, just south of Myrtle Beach, SC, it is an amazing experience.

Archer Huntington and Anna Hyatt Huntington purchased 4 rice plantations along the SC coast in the 1920s that were no longer in working order. They employed many local people to help fix the buildings and gardens, and since this was in the middle of the depression, they made a huge impact on the local economy by simply giving people work.

The reason Brookgreen Gardens was so interesting to me is that Anna Hyatt Huntington was a sculptor (sculptress?). She mostly did large bronze sculptures of realistic animals in action. She also collected many sculptures from other, mostly American sculptors – in bronze, stone, and wood. The gardens have hundreds of sculptures and two days was definitely NOT enough time to enjoy all that was there.

Amazingly intricate woodcarving by Grainger McCoy
Bronze egrets
Husband, Stephen, standing next to huge cypress log - what carvings you could do with this!
Another amazing bronze.
Beautiful bronze eagle
Tennessee marble sculpture.
Stunning bronze
Graceful sculpture in bronze

There is also Huntington Beach State Park nearby that has the home they lived in and her sculpture studio that used to be army barracks.

Courtyard of Archer and Anna Huntington's home.

Courtyard of Archer and Anna Huntington’s home.

Anna Hyatt Huntingtons's indoor sculpture studio.

Anna Hyatt Huntingtons’s indoor sculpture studio.

Real bird - not a carving!

Real bird – not a carving!

They decided to move to warmer climate because she had TB so they moved to SC from New York. I thought that was interesting because you mostly hear about people with TB moving to drier climates out west – not humid SC! But I guess the move was good for her because she lived to be 97 – and was making sculptures most of her life.

They didn’t really need to worry about “making a living” because Archer Huntington was from a rail-road family, and Anna was quite a famous and wealthy artist in her own right. Ahhh… the freedom to create without the concern about actually paying bills! What an odd concept…

Sometimes I am asked what I would do if I did not have to carve to make a living. It’s a difficult question to answer, because I truly love to carve! I’m not sure I would change a thing.

Maybe one thing that I might try is that I would do more sculptural pieces of my own design – both in wood and stone. I don’t get much opportunity to do this. In fact, I really only have had one stone carving commission – the 8 foot tall limestone dolphin fountain. All the other stone carving sculptures have simply been pieces I have done for myself as “practice”.

Occasionally I get a commission to carve a sculpture in wood, but not often. When I do, I really do enjoy it because it becomes a completely different challenge than decorative carving. Sometimes it’s easy to settle into what you know and what you are comfortable with (ball and claw feet, acanthus leaves, etc) and that’s when it’s good to stretch your skills into something that brings you into those areas where you feel like you have to turn your brain inside out. That’s not a bad thing!

I have just added the first episode of a sculptural carving - carving a cardinal in full 3-d to my online video school.



I have 2 more episodes to add before the full lesson is on the site. I’ll be adding a lesson each week. This was a challenging project because it was a small carving and I didn’t want to hold it in my hand while carving (I don’t like to bleed). I needed to figure out a way to leave strategic pieces of wood attached so I could clamp it to the workbench. It was a challenge, but I really enjoyed the process.

I have a blog post on carving this – Carving a cardinal

Happy carving!


Is it possible to carve TOO many ball and claw feet?

April 2, 2014 MaryMay Ball and claw foot


Carving a customized “Mary May” style of ball and claw foot for a table for a local furniture maker, Boyd Boggs.

More Ball and Claw feet - in Cherry!

More Ball and Claw feet – in Cherry!

How many ball and claw feet do you have to carve to say “enough is enough”? I never thought I would say this, but… enough is enough!

If I admit that these historic eagle talon feet grasping the “pearl of wisdom” have gotten the best of me, will I be kicked out of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers? Will I ever be able to look at a period furniture maker in the eyes again without feeling the shame of defeat (de-feet)?

OK, I’ll be back next week ready to tackle more, but for now… just a wee little break is all I ask. Then I’ll be on my game again and happy to carve more.

When you go to sleep at night and have visions and nightmares of gnarly and twisted talons creeping around every corner, I think it’s time to take a break.

A ball and claw "gourd".

A ball and claw “gourd” – I’ve seen these in my nightmares!

But I shall return! They will not get the best of me! There are more feet that are struggling to escape – and I’ll be there for them…

Now :) if you want to learn how to carve these wonderful feet, here are the instructions: Ball and Claw Instructions

Happy Carving!



Weekend Festival of Woodworking Fun

March 31, 2014 MaryMay American College of the Building Arts

Deneb Puchalski demonstrating with Thomas Lie-Nielsen in the background.

We had a great weekend demonstrating at the American College of the Building Arts and Lie-Nielsen’s Tool Event. I got to set up my little workbench and carve to my heart’s delight for 2 days! What more could I ask for?

It was a great turn-out and after all the weathermen said that Saturday was going to be constant thunderstorms, it turned out to be a great day with no rain. It was fun to work with all the Lie-Nielsen “gang” again and it’s always good to see Christopher Schwarz. There was a new woodworker in the mix, Caleb James, who is a chairmaker out of Greenville, SC.

I am working with Lie-Nielsen and Auriou tools (the French company that makes the hand-made rasps) to make a set of my favorite shaped fishtail carving gouges. I can’t wait! I have 4 of the prototypes that I have been testing for a few weeks, and I LOVE them! Hoping to have some available for sale within 3 to 6 months. I’ll keep you updated.

Caleb James demonstrating the beauty of his hand-made planes.

Caleb James demonstrating the beauty of his hand-made planes.

Christopher Schwartz overseeing Roger Benton's work.

Christopher Schwartz overseeing Roger Benton’s work.

Deneb Puchalski demonstrating with Thomas Lie-Nielsen in the background.

Deneb Puchalski demonstrating with Thomas Lie-Nielsen in the background.

I also got to see some stone carving friends from the upstate, SC. Clint Button, who carves amazing marble and granite sculptures, and David Gillespie, who carves beautiful traditional slate grave stones. It was wonderful to see them and their families while in town.

Clint Button working on a beautiful granite sculpture.

Clint Button working on a beautiful granite sculpture.

One of David Gillespie's slate grave markers.

One of David Gillespie’s slate grave markers.

I wanted to show the true southern hospitality thing and attempted to host a bon-fire while everyone was in town – with a combination of steamed oysters, marshmallows and beer (sounds like a wicked chemical combination). But alas, the rain on Friday night washed that idea out. Maybe try again next year??


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