Carving a labor of love - Locals come calling

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“I was the typical starving artist, but I wanted to put up with what I had to,” May says. “It was a real passion just to carve and to learn everything I possibly could from the masters. I basically fell in love with the carving.”

May moved back to the U.S. in 1999 in hopes of establishing a small custom carving business, and decided on the Charleston area for a couple reasons: historic preservations are ongoing, and there’s a high-end residential market that includes Hilton Head and Kiawah Island.

“I got a little workshop going, started a clientele, and basically just knocked on people’s doors with my portfolio and said, ‘This is what I do,’ to woodworkers and furniture makers. I made a lot of phone calls,” says May.

Locals come calling
In only six months, May succeeded in finding enough work to keep busy. Now, about 90 percent of her business comes from about a dozen other woodworking, millwork and cabinetry shops, mainly in Charleston and Savannah, Ga., who in turn introduce unique carving ideas to their clients, which boosts their business as well. Sometimes she works very closely with other furniture makers to come up with a design, as she did before carving the shell forms and finials on a reproduction of a Goddard Townsend Newport secretary for Guenther Wood Group in Savannah.

“I don’t rely on advertising except for the Yellow Pages and my Web site. I don’t do shows or anything like that. I tried doing shows before, but nothing ever came of it.

“I try not to make my prices outlandish; I want to make it available for everybody. I usually price my work by the time put in, but usually end up underestimating. I think that’s the problem with any woodworking company. We usually end up underestimating rather than overestimating.”

Most clients have very specific ideas about what they want. One client wanted a wooden fireplace mantle decorated with a Bible verse. Generally, May’s customers are within a 50-mile radius of her shop.

May has noticed a slight decline in orders over the last several months in conjunction with a downturn in the economy. “It’s affecting people not wanting to step out and spend that extra money on the decorations I add,” she says.

Tools and materials
May has about 150 hand tools in her charming 100-sq.-ft. studio. Going for at least $25 a pop, she’s got more than $4,000 invested in chisels, gouges and other necessities.

May concedes that the investment is quite expensive and recommends anyone serious about carving start with at least 20 hand tools and a solid workbench that allows for the heavy use of a mallet and clamping device. Sharp tools are essential.

“That’s probably most important. If you can’t get your tools sharp, you can’t carve.”

May has a scroll saw, but stays clear of electric carving tools — she can carve faster with hand tools — and finishing. Mahogany is her favorite wood because it’s easy to carve and produces a nice finish. She’s also partial to walnut and Spanish cedar, and even red oak, white oak and rosewood, though the latter three are much harder. She says basswood is suitable for non-structural pieces, but not for furniture and moldings because it’s white and doesn’t lend to quite as nice a finish. For stone, she uses mainly granite, marble, sandstone, slate, alabaster and clay.