Carving a labor of love - Necessary skills

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Comparing wood with stone is like night and day, and she actually prefers stone because it doesn’t present grain issues. She enjoys gently chipping away at the stone and seeing shapes slowly emerge without having to force the material. If she didn’t have to rely on clients for income, more of her own designs would be stone, but usually the stone pieces are more sculptural.

Nearly all of her stone sculptures are created by what is called “direct stone carving” where she starts carving into a piece of stone without having created a clay model or even a drawing.

“I have an idea, and start chipping. It is very exciting to see what emerges — it surprises me most times.”

One of her more significant works in stone was an 8’ tall dolphin done in Indiana Limestone that took her a year-and-a-half to design and finish. It was part of an outdoor fountain made to match a dolphin-themed home. And those are the custom jobs that keep her in business. It’s not practical for May to focus on small, mundane stone decorative ornaments for the lawn because she’s unable to compete with less expensive stone cast versions, often made overseas.

“You can find a marble carved angel for $300,” she says. “I can’t even get the stone for that.”

Necessary skills
When working with either wood or stone, May uses carbon paper when transferring a design onto her material. But the original outline quickly gets chipped away.

“If it’s very deep carving, you do have to redraw on the design as you go. Really, drawing is a necessary skill for carving. A lot of times you end up using your carving tools almost as if they were a pencil.”

Sometimes she’ll rely on other tools, such as calipers, as she did to transfer the dimensions of the dolphin from its 15” tall model. But the skill comes with managing the depths of the design on her material.

“It’s all about seeing three-dimensionally. That is probably the most important, training the eye to see 3-D. From a very young age, I’ve always liked shaping things in 3-D, like clay. When I used to draw, I’d do a lot of shading so you could see that drawing in 3-D.”

Since she boldly puts her time and energy into high-end custom products, it’s interesting to learn she manages not to fret about making a wrong move on a design. She says her religious faith gives her confidence to work her way through a piece. But delivery day is another story.

“Carving the dolphin took me nine months. The only part that really gave me nightmares was moving it. I didn’t sleep for a week after that because I was so wound up. We had the right machinery — just thinking about it makes me nervous — but there were four pieces, stacked one atop the other, and each piece had to be moved separately.”

May’s latest venture is teaching at a Woodcraft Supply store in Charleston. She likes the idea of passing on the skills of a dying art and hopes to take on an apprentice in the near future.