Meet the Architect-Turned-Woodworker Who Discovered Her Passion By Chance

Against the Grain: Laura Mays

Photo: Laura Mays / Illustration: The Spruce

Against the Grain is a series spotlighting those who are underrepresented in the woodworking, carpentry, and construction industry. We speak with people working on projects—from whole-home renovations to intricate wood sculptures—to learn what inspires them, how they’ve carved their own space (pun intended), and what they’re working on next. 

When we first spotted Laura Mays on Instagram, we were instantly intrigued by her profile. As a self-proclaimed ‘xylophile,’ or lover of all things wood, she’s also a ‘woodworker + woodplayer.’ Inspired by her obvious passion for the craft, we were thrilled to connect over Zoom.

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Mays is now based in Northern California, where she continues to create custom projects while also teaching at The Krenov School in Mendocino.

We chatted about Mays’ long and winding road into woodworking—which all began with a long and winding bike ride along the Irish coast.

How did you first get interested in woodworking?

Laura Mays: I studied architecture, trained as an architect, and even started to work as one—but I really didn't like it. I went to University College, Dublin, and it was a fantastic education. I really liked it, but when it came to working, I would go out on-site and tell these guys—and it's all guys—what to do. I didn't actually know what I was doing myself, and I felt like a fraud. I felt very distanced from the actual process of making anything.

Then, I came across this woodworking school in the west of Ireland. I was actually on a cycling holiday in Connemara and thought it seemed interesting. Funnily enough, I wound up going there for two years.

Laura Mays headshot.

Laura Mays

Was it on a whim that you decided to apply?

LM: I guess it wasn't. I was working as a graphic designer in Dublin when I went on this cycling holiday and found it, then I moved to New York and was there for a year, and I just knew that my life was not working out. I needed to make a change.

What was the program like in Connemara?

LM: I stayed there for two years and did that course. It was GMIT: the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology in Letterfrack, and the name has recently changed to the Atlantic Technical University (ATU Connemara). It's a technical, third-level institution, and it's changed from being a technical college to a university.

What did you work on while you were there?

LM: It was very hands-on, and it was all based in the bench room. Given that I didn't really know what I was getting into, it ended up being a really good program. It was set in one of these old boys' reformatories. It was a notorious school in this Victorian building that had an incredibly sad history and was decommissioned in the mid-late 80s. Then, a local community group put these woodworking classes there, but they were getting their teachers from England in these two-week blocks. A lot of the teachers have been trained at Parnham College by John Makepeace, a renowned studio maker in England.

We were getting these fantastic teachers trained in this English tradition. It was based in the bench room, but it also had a design and small business aspect. The idea was that we would all set up our own small businesses one day.

Was setting up your small business your next step after leaving the program?

LM: As soon as I left I went to live with my parents on their farm in County Wicklow, south of Dublin. They planted trees on most of the land just in the decade before, and they had buildings that weren’t being used as farm buildings anymore. So, I set up in an old garage. I quickly realized that I didn't know very much and that I still had a lot to learn. But, I was back living with my parents, so it was easier to continue my woodworking education at that time.

I soon after read a book by James Krenov. There was something about the way he wrote about woodworking that struck me and really appealed to me. He was teaching at a school in California, and I knew I had to go. In 2001, I came to California and went to that school for two years, then went back to Ireland and taught at GMIT, and then came back here to California as a teacher here.

Now that you’re back at the Krenov School, what do you focus on with your students?

LM: We really focus on the highest level of craftsmanship that a person can achieve without taking too much notice of how long it takes to get there. We don't focus on speed or efficiency—we focus on quality, paying attention to the material, and doing the very best that you can. We teach that if you achieve something once, then you know what you're capable of. Then, you can speed up, or decide what to do with it yourself.

We don't focus on speed or efficiency—we focus on quality, paying attention to the material, and doing the very best that you can.

Laura teaching in the shop with her students.

Penland School of Craft, courtesy of Laura Mays

What's one project that you’re most proud of, personally?

LM: The one that I've most recently completed—it’s a large chair. I've made a number of large chairs along the way, wing chairs that come around you. I got sick of making them because they're big and awkward. I wanted to make a chair that was more of a loose fit, one you could sit on a number of ways. It's wide enough that you could sit on it cross-legged, and I like the way it's made.

It was made as a commission for someone who had bought one of my other big chairs. They wanted a companion, but one that was not necessarily the same. We had our first meeting in June or July 2020, and I finished it a month or two ago. It took a while.

Small scale model of Laura's project chair.

Laura Mays

What is the biggest fail you've had with a project, and what came of it?

LM: In a way, it's not my fail, but it is a fail. I made this other big chair that took months to make, and it went to a gallery in San Francisco. It was also made in this technique, with solid wood staves, and they left it out overnight. It was basically destroyed. It ended up on the streets—this guy walked past it, pulled it out of the dumpster, and kept it for a bit. Then, he moved up to Washington State and decided to investigate. He eventually rebuilt the chair, found me on the internet, and sent me pictures.

I tried to put it out of my mind—I spent five months of my life creating that chair, and there it was in pieces. It wasn't a failure on my part, but it was total destruction.

What was the first thing that you ever built?

LW: Prior to my woodworking training, I needed to have a portfolio to get into the Ireland school. I was coming from New York and was dumpster diving—getting stuff out of dumpsters and putting it together. I lived in a closet—it was one of those New York apartments that has a front room, a closet, and a bathroom space. I built myself a big bed up high so that I could have more space down below out of all this trash wood that I found in dumpsters. It even still had graffiti on it. I didn't know what I was doing at all, but I somehow managed to sleep up there for a year. I had very few tools, just a couple of chisels, a hammer, and a drill.

What's the first thing that you built and sold to someone? 

LM: It was the first project that I'd built as a student here in California. I forced my parents to buy it so that I could afford to do a second year. I shipped it back, and I see it every time I go back there. It’s a cabinet with a whole bunch of drawers and doors. It's like a patchwork front with all different woods, about ten drawers and three doors.

Patchwork cabinet that Laura made for her parents.

Laura Mays

When did you realize woodworking was going to be your career?

LM: In Connemara, I did not think of it as a career move. I hated everything about being an architect, I tried to be a graphic designer, and I remember getting to GMIT and the first thing we had to do was flatten the soles of our planes. I realized that I loved being in a bench room. It was a little bit like an architecture studio in a college setting, unlike a work setting where you're in your own world. You're in your own space, but you're also in a communal space.

If budget and time were no constraint, what would be your dream project?

LM: I have two strands going in my head: all the cabinets and boxes, and then all chairs and things you sit on. I go back and forth between them. Cabinets and boxes are so fun because you open them up; you interact with them. Then, on the other hand, chairs engage with one's body in a completely different way. You sit on them, they have to support you, and they have all these physical constraints. But, they also have a more social role, too.

What is one thing you wish people outside of woodworking understood about the industry and the craft?

LM: It takes a lot of time and education. It's the same as everything that has been debased by capitalism—fast food, fast furniture. People don't really understand where it comes from, and I would like people to appreciate that. I have a lot of respect for IKEA in some ways, but it has, for sure, pulled prices down. I don't think people really understand.

What has been the most rewarding part of woodworking for you?

LM: I consider it my mental health exercise, as it’s very engaging. There’s problem-solving, as nothing ever goes exactly according to plan and you're always negotiating with the material. I try to make sure that I do it every day, even if it's just for ten minutes. At the very least, I have to walk into the workshop. 

From a larger perspective, I've been involved in spreading the message of the under-representation of women and other demographics in the woodshop. I worked on a project with a friend, and we curated a show on women in woodworking that was at The Center for Art In Wood in 2019. There will never be an end to that project, per se, but I’m always trying to make the woodshop more welcoming to a wider variety of people.

I’m always trying to make the woodshop more welcoming to a wider variety of people.

Bowen chair that Laura crafted.

Laura Mays

Rapid-Fire Questions

Favorite wood? It's always the one I'm working on. Right now, I'm working with California walnut. If you asked me a year ago, it would have been elm, as I was working with elm—and if you asked me before that, it was oak.
Favorite tool or piece of equipment? Probably a plane that I've made myself, with a big chunky blade in it. That's for flattening wood, smoothing, and giving it a good finish. We use machines to kind of break it down and get the first surface, but the handplane surface is just a nicer surface by far. It's like having a really good pair of scissors to cut your hair.
Favorite piece that you've made? This chair that I'm sitting on.
Biggest goal? Keep on going.
Favorite accessory when you're working? It may not be my favorite, but it's very necessary: I wear magnifiers quite a lot. My eyesight is not what it used to be.
Favorite step of the process? Planning. This smell comes out, it's always at its most beautiful, and it is freshly cleaned. 
Favorite assistant? My dog, Sid. He came from Ireland.
Music on or off? Half the time, I don't listen to anything, and half the time, I listen to podcasts. I listened to a Canadian podcast recently called Ideas. There was an episode about Middlemarch, a novel by George Eliot, and I just loved it. There's also Material Matters by Grant Gibson—he talks to makers in their studios.