Studio furniture maker Laura Mays hails from Ireland, has a background in architecture and design, and is a highly accomplished maker of wood furniture. She studied at the Glasgow School of Art, holds a Bachelor of Architecture from University College Dublin, a National Certificate in Furniture Design and Manufacture, and a Master of Arts in Furniture Design.
Laura spent this past academic year as the new lead instructor of the Fine Furniture Program at College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, California.
CR’s Fine Furniture Program is best known for its founder, master cabinetmaker James Krenov (A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, etc.). Students came from and are spread all over the world, as is still the case since Krenov’s retirement in 2002. Laura was also a CR student for two years, under Krenov in 2001 and under Michael Burns in 2003, receiving two more intensely focused years of training in fine woodworking. We can tell this woodworker is serious, not to mention accomplished!
In the following e-interview, Laura Mays shares insights about the craft of and instruction in making furniture out of wood:
Linda: College of the Redwoods is typically known as a traditional school for fine woodworking. James Krenov‘s aesthetics dominated student outcomes for 30 years. Your profile on LinkedIn says that you are “guided by the writings and teaching of James Krenov, but not shackled by them.” What does that mean?
Laura: The challenge is to separate the abstract qualities of Krenov’s writings and teaching from the specifics of his personality, to separate the essentials from the incidentals, such as Krenov’s eschewing of certain tools, such as the biscuit joiner, because they post-date his coming-of-age as a woodworker.
However, the essentials are much more compelling: sensitivity and respect for material, wood; integrating the whole person into the work, all the dualities, eye and hand, mind and body, head and heart, simultaneous involvement and reflection while working; the importance of doing and making as a form of thinking; the possibility and indeed importance of failure; satisfying work as a way to find meaning in the world; the interconnectedness of things; the importance of attentive perception; skill and technique as tools rather than an end in their own right; integrity, in short a kind of morality.
If this pursuit of craft is conservative and traditional, then so be it.
Linda: What do you see yourself bringing to the College of the Redwoods Fine Furniture program that will define it?
Laura: Actually, I am one member of an experienced and professional staff at CR. My fellow instructors include Jim Budlong, Ejler Hjorth-Westh, Greg Smith, Todd Sorenson, and David Welter. Each of us will continue to teach students the very highest level of craft skill.
I believe that one of the most precious gifts we give to the students is that of time. You need time to be attentive and reflective, you need time to fail and fail again, or as Samuel Beckett said, ‘fail again, fail better’. You need time to learn to make pieces that are highly crafted, pieces that you can be proud of and give you the confidence to go on and make more pieces.
Richard Sennett in The Craftsman suggests that a person needs 10,000 hours to master a skill. The CR program provides protected time, time free of other distractions, time to be immersed and in the flow of work. With time you come to discover your own way of working and eventually your own aesthetic sensibility.
Although I come partly from a design background, CR’s woodworking program is unapologetically not a design program. Students learn about some basic principles of proportion, balance and composition, but fairly briefly. It is, after all, for most of them a 9-month stint, for some 18 months, focusing on craftsmanship and woodworking. Design programs are typically four academic years.
We shouldn’t denigrate either craft or design by attempting to squeeze it all into a short time-frame. It is not possible to concentrate on design also without jettisoning part of the craft element. Which is not to say that I don’t encourage students to develop their own designs if they wish, I do, and am delighted when they choose to do so. Ultimately the most successful pieces integrate design and craftsmanship seamlessly, both inform each other and bolster the ‘meaning’ of the other.
Linda: What do you believe needs to be teased out of student woodworkers that develops them most?
Laura: To learn how to see, to really look, observe; in other words to learn what you’re looking at and what you’re looking for.
The students learn through lectures and demonstrations on particular topics, and one-to-one talking at their bench. The lectures vary in length, from a few minutes to an hour or so. The first year students gather at one end of the benchroom around the instructors’ bench and the blackboard.
Occasionally there will be a slideshow, more often actual samples or examples of work. Students are encouraged to take notes but not enforced. I find in practice that few people remember much if anything they hear in a lecture, particularly if the information is new to them. They generally remember enough and long enough to get over to their bench and start making mistakes. Then if they get information after that it makes more sense. For me it’s a clear example of the fact that making is thinking, that, as Kant wrote, the hands are windows to the mind.
Linda: When it comes to handtools, what is the first thing you explain to your students?
Laura: When I was a student, Michael Burns used to say: ‘a tool is a kit. You need to tune it up to make it work really well.’ I say the same thing. The advantage is that when you’ve taken apart the tool and tuned it up and put it back together, you understand it, you have ownership of it, you are part way to mastering it, to making it do what you want.
Linda: What is a good wood to practice hand planing on and how would you describe that experience. One of your 2012 graduates, Dave Dalzell, waxed poetic in a previous issue of Sharp & to the Point about the wooden hand-planes you taught him to build. Is that a typical response?
Laura: Students practice planing on maple and complete the first exercise – ‘The Perfect Board’ – from maple. It is a good wood to practice on because it’s hard but not temperamental. It can be planed to a mirror-like surface.
Learning to plane opens up the world of fine woodworking. Planed surfaces have a clarity that is almost impossible to achieve any other way. But you must be attentive and responsive to the wood, you can’t just beat it into submission with electrical power. You listen to the sound of the plane moving over the surface and you start to become alert to changes in the sound. You start to note when you get that sweet ‘swish’ and the surface that results. You become aware of the direction of the grain, the smell of the shavings. Your whole body and senses come into play.
Linda: What is your favorite go-to hand-plane? Did you make it, and if so, when was that?
Laura: A small Lie-Nielsen low angle block plane, it’s usually on the bench somewhere.
Learning to make and plane with wooden planes and Hock blades was transformative, it took planing to new heights, or should that be new flatness! But, I became frustrated with the humidity of Ireland and the distortion it induced in my wooden planes and started to use metal planes in my shop there. I’ve come to rely on my little block plane.
I use my wooden coopering plane, with a Hock blade, frequently. For example in working the chair I completed a couple of months ago, Wholeness, almost the entire surface was worked with my wooden coopering plane. The tighter radii, where the back curves into the sides, I worked with other wooden planes, with blades made from scrap steel.
One of the great things about making your own planes is the freedom it allows. Need a shorter/longer/wider/narrower plane? Make one! Need a different radius on your coopering plane? Grind in the new radius and match the sole to it.
A good wooden plane has certain characteristics: heft or weight, stability, a flat sole, a narrow mouth, but perhaps most importantly, an excellent blade that is capable of attaining and holding a sharp edge (though it’s always a balance between those two!). A plane is after all, at its most basic, a jig for holding a blade at a given angle to a reference surface.
Linda: When it comes to sharpening, what is the first thing you explain to your students?
Laura: If you can sharpen, you can be a woodworker. A sharp edge is where two smooth, and in the case of chisels and plane blades, flat, surfaces meet. It’s not imaginary or magical, it’s just mostly invisible because it’s at a scale that requires magnification. But it’s real. And it depends on the back of the blade as much as the bevel.
If in doubt, sharpen. Sharpening makes most things better. If you feel like a hack woodworker one day and everything seems to be getting worse, sharpen.
***End of Part One***
The first question in Part Two:
Linda: Which designers and/or makers throughout history in wood do you admire most and why is that?
I hope you learned and enjoyed as much as I listening to Laura Mays. Once you see a finely produced piece of furniture, it is easy to take it for granted. That’s probably true about the process of instruction followed by a fine outcome. Among other things, Laura reminded me of the beauty and joy in effort; the reward of purpose and application. I so appreciate the deep consideration of context located in any one piece of furniture or object, and her refusal to stint when it comes to history and visual meaning, detail by detail. Thanks, Laura Mays, CR Fine Furniture Program students are truly fortunate! – Linda at Hock Tools
Note: For more on what Laura Mays has to say about her work at CR please read The Fine Art of Keeping Going: the challenges of maintaining and evolving the educational model of James Krenov, a PDF of her talk to The Furniture Society during its conference held at Maine College of Art in June.