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Mary May’s Online Woodcarving School

Here we go again, I’m thrilled to announce yet another online woodworking membership site. Mary May, woodcarver extraordinaire has been teasing about this venture on her blog for some time. Like many of us, the web site voodoo that goes into creating a membership site and dealing with video codecs and HTML 5 players is a vicious learning curve. Mary was smart and enlisted the help of an actual programmer and woodworker, Bob Easton, to get her off the ground. (Make sure you check out Bob’s review of the Donut video)

So last month her new site went live and I jumped on the chance to learn from a true expert. In case you don’t know Mary May, Mary is a classically trained carver who has studied under several European masters and traveled the world carving and learning from other master carvers. She produces some of the cleanest carvings I have ever seen and I don’t think she even owns a piece of sandpaper. Mary has long been a member of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM) and her DVDs and plaster casts of carved period elements have been available to those members from the Society web site. I own her Ball and Claw DVD as well as the Acanthus leaf carving DVD so I was familiar with her teaching style and clear, step by step explanations. (both of these DVDs are published online as part of the school too) I mention all this because I entered into my membership at Mary’s online school with high expectations based on my previous exposure to her.

The Good

Mary May Acanthus Carving

Mary's Acanthus Leaf Lesson

I can honestly say that in the last month of watching her videos and following her exercises that she has not only reached those expectations but exceeded them. This is a talented woodcarver but also a gifted teacher. These two do not always mix so it is exciting to find them together. Her videos run from 10-30 minutes in length with plenty of in close action and a relevant running commentary to make sure the watcher knows what is happening. Mary is religious about flashing the size and sweep of each tool she uses on the screen as well as including a PDF of the tools used and a pattern. Moreover, she is eagerly seeking feedback from her users on what to cover and how. In fact within the first week of the site launch, she had gathered feedback and created a beginners “curriculum” detailing which videos to watch and a logical order to follow for a beginning course of study. Mary recorded several introductory project videos and even put together a simple starter tool list that is actually a starting list instead of those “starter” lists you find that comprise 15 tools.  It is refreshing to see someone get off the fence and finally recommend a starting point that won’t cost you $400 dollars.

What impresses me is that even though you hear from many expert carvers that “you don’t need a lot of tools to start”, I have yet to see someone explain how to make 4-5 tools do the work of many. Mary hits this time and again and demonstrates how you “can make a tool do what it is not supposed to do”. She tells stories of getting started herself with just a couple gouges and having to make those work for a long time.

The Bad

So nothing is perfect right? Here is where I think some things can get better. The video quality isn’t HD and the lighting is usually not the best causing some weird colors and grainy picture. I think the site itself is a little rough around the edges and navigation could be a little more intuitive. With only about 25 videos published so far anyone can find their way around, but once she has double that number it will get confusing fast. As an iPhone user I keeping my fingers crossed for HTML 5 video shortly so I can watch the videos anywhere. I understand this is in the works and believe me I understand how difficult this can be having only just gotten all of the Hand Tool School videos playing on all mobile devices.

Really these are minor issues as the content is king. I will overlook a lot of things when the information being shared is well thought out and valuable. As a video producer myself, I tend to be hypercritical of the technical aspects and will notice little things more than most so take my words above as worth a grain of salt. If you want to improve your wood carving these videos will go a long way to making that happen. In fact some of her videos are actually recorded live during her classes at brick and mortar woodworking schools so it is actually like reproducing that experience. I think this makes the entire video just that much more realistic and useful.

Mary May Woodcarving SchoolHow Does it Compare?

You may remember that earlier this year I reviewed Chris Pye’s Woodcarving Workshop, another online woodcarving school. Yes I am still a member there and still really enjoy Chris’ videos. The production quality is much higher with high resolution videos, outstanding lighting and great sound. The differences are subtle but there. Chris’ offering treats carving as a standalone hobby while Mary seems focused on carving as an outgrowth of furniture making. Both are classically trained and both are true artists that do nothing but carve. In my mind there is no question that either is capable of carving art pieces or relief embellishment on a table leg, but possibly because of Mary’s involvement with SAPFM she is more in tune with the furniture maker than Chris. Again, it isn’t as if Chris ignores furniture makers, but he is more focused on complete projects like a box with a carved lid, or a wall hanging. Mary’s projects are meant to be part of something else, like an acanthus leaf on the knee of a leg, or egg and dart mouldings. Even the stand along projects Mary demonstrates are pitched in the frame of reference that it would be included on a furniture project.  Chris does present his videos in such a way that there appears to be an order to follow, but now after a year the projects are so numerous that the path is a little hazy.

The only parallel I can think of is wood turning. Some people are only turners and others turn pieces for furniture. There are videos on turning small boxes or vessels, then there are videos on how to turn spindles for Sheraton tables. They appeal to different audiences. So the tough answer is that each site produces excellent content but they are targeting different audiences. Only you can determine which is best for you based upon what is on your bucket list. I think one could learn to carve just as easily from either site though I would tend to lean towards Mary since she has developed a beginning course list one can follow.

The Details

  • Mary’s School can be found at, there are also some free videos to check out.
  • It is $10 a month with automatic recurring billing that can be cancelled at any time
  • There is a free, 3 day trial to allow you to get a feel for what is happening. BE ADVISED that you will be charged $10 automatically after the 3 days unless you specifically cancel the membership.

For me, I’m going to maintain my membership in both sites, because I enjoy them both differently and I want to do everything I can to support my fellow premium online woodworking sites. After all, woodworking instruction online, anytime is a principle I based The Hand Tool School on.  It is so exciting to see another option popping up and I look forward to more people taking the leap and making woodworking accessible to everyone.

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