Against the Grain is a series spotlighting people who are underrepresented in the woodworking, carpentry, and construction space. We’ll speak with people working on projects from whole-home renos 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.
Even through a screen, Melanie Abrantes exudes warmth. It greets you on her website, MelanieAbrantes.com, where she showcases her collection of handcrafted, heirloom-style goods. It catches your attention on her thriving Instagram feed, where—with the other 24,000-and-counting followers—you can see what's new in the world of her namesake Melanie Abrantes Designs, which makes and sells sustainable home goods and offers workshops for aspiring carvers. And it keeps you calm and confident during Carve Alongs as part of Mel's Carving Club Subscription, a monthly service that can help anyone start their own woodworking journey.
When it comes to carving out an informational niche online (pun extremely intended), no one does it like the woodworking and DIY building community, as Abrantes proves. She joined us virtually from Oakland, California, to share her insight and words of woodworking wisdom.
[Woodworking] was something that I loved immediately.
Abrantes first fell in love with woodworking while attending Otis College of Art and Design for product design. “It was a super hands-on program,” she says, listing metalworking, ceramics, and glassblowing as courses she took along with woodworking. “I really responded to woodworking. It was something that I loved immediately. The act of making with your hands and seeing a material change was very enticing to me. And I was specifically very drawn to the woodturning lathe [a machine that spins while she carves the wood], which is what I mostly use for my work."
After working briefly in graphic design upon graduation, it didn’t take long for Abrantes to realize that she was better suited for working with her hands than sitting at a computer all day. “I felt really drained and I just knew it wasn't for me," she says. "And so I started working at a woodshop in LA, and people kept encouraging me to sell the pieces I was making."
At this point in our conversation, Abrantes grins. "It was just for fun, it was just for me. But eventually, I was able to start my business. It was a really organic process, but with no real intention of starting a business.”
Carving is an incredibly soothing and meditative practice.
Now, Abrantes has a line of cork and wood housewares she sells through her online shop, and she’s honed her passion for woodworking and carving into a skill she wants to encourage others to try, too. “I started doing carving classes because it was something I was doing in LA, and I ended up eventually moving to the Bay Area," she says. "[Then], that turned into a kit. And now, we have a subscription-based carving club.”
Born in 2021, Mel’s Carving Club is a monthly subscription program with projects ideal for woodcarvers of all levels. “Carving is an incredibly soothing and meditative practice,” says Abrantes. “We have twelve different projects that are up on the site, and every month we send out a new one.”
With more than a hundred subscribers nearly six months into the club’s launch, Abrantes is learning just how eager people are to work with their hands, learn a new skill, and join a welcoming community. “Honestly, I thought when I was going to do this, we would have, like, 30 people," she says. "It just really made me realize how many people are interested in wanting to learn.”
We asked Abrantes a few questions to get to the heart of her process, her inspirations, and more—read on for her answers.
What project are you proudest of at the moment?
Melanie Abrantes: I created a series of vases called the MARAIS Vase, and I pushed myself to think outside the box. They're all originally designed [and] made from scraps from my shop, so they're kind of pieced together and the bottoms are glass. [I used] these super renewable, recyclable materials that I was able to work with—[like] cork and scraps. [Then, I named] them after prominent women around the world. I was able to learn so much about different women and just trying to figure out different names for each base, which is really fun for me.
The vases' names include Maya, Ruth, Frida, and Michelle, but Abrantes says that one of her favorite vases is named after Patsy Mink—the first woman of color and the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress, as well as the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Hawaii.
Name a major fail that became a valuable lesson.
MA: When I first started my business, I had this really big order for 100 pieces, which is very, very ambitious. But I made all the pieces ... and I packaged each one so perfectly because it was my first project. And then I didn't get insurance, and the package got lost.
I remember finding that out and just like I was like, I'm gonna take a break today and go drink. Like, I don't want to do this anymore. I just need to go to a bar, grab one drink, and then cry a little bit. [Laughs.] [I had] to remake [everything] because they were all gone. But what I'm really hoping is that there's a man that has, like, a hundred vases in his house. Just like, "These are amazing. I needed these!" But I've never not used insurance again.
What's the first piece that you ever built?
MA: [In college], I actually made a table, and that was my first project and my first furniture piece. I had this idea in my mind where I wanted to make the table look like it was walking. I had never carved before, but in my mind, it made a lot of sense. I remember we had a critique because it was a semester-long course, and the critique was that the legs I created literally looked like chicken legs. They were so ugly.
Multiple teachers kept trying to tell me, "Melanie, we understand this is what you want, but it’s a little bit advanced for you.” But I just kept chugging along, and I ended up making this table. It's actually right in front of me, and it's one of my favorite pieces, and I ended up making the legs and casting them in bronze. And then I carved the walnut and I was just so proud of myself because it was something that I know that they were like, I don't know if you can do this. And I was like, watch me.
I was just so proud of myself because it was something that I know that they were like, I don't know if you can do this. And I was like, watch me.
If budget and time were no constraint, what would be your absolute dream project to tackle?
MA: Ultimately, I think my goal is to make a really crazy abstract sculpture for a public art installation. I don't know how, I don't know if that's possible … but that would be something. Scale, in general, is something I'm very interested in, but it's such a bigger monster to tackle.
What's the biggest piece that you've built where you have had to really practice with scale?
MA: I did a show for the Vancouver design fair. And I made a stool that was like, two feet by two feet, something like that. Which isn't crazy, but that was probably the largest I've made because with a lathe, you can't really go that much larger than the actual machine.
What is one thing that you wish people who don't know anything about woodworking understood?
MA: I would say, if you’re wanting to start, it's not that hard. It's just a matter of trying and practicing. It's a very simple craft, and it's really satisfying. On the other hand, I would [also] say that everything is handmade, and it takes time. That's the one thing I think people don't understand. [Especially in this] Amazon world, where we think things take only a couple of days, but everything takes a lot of time.
I touch every product that comes out of my studio, and I want to make sure that what you get is perfect.
What has been the most rewarding part of learning to build?
MA: Honestly, teaching others. I miss in-person classes. I haven't done it in a long time. We have one coming up for the first time since the pandemic and I'm just so excited to see when it clicks in people's faces. [That moment when] they're learning and they get it. I think that part of it is being able to teach people these techniques and then, for them to go off on their own and make more pieces. It’s really exciting to me.
Favorite wood? Walnut.
Favorite tool? My spoon gouge
Favorite piece of equipment? My bandsaw
Biggest goal? To give my employees health insurance.
Favorite accessory? AirPods
Music on or off while working? On, but audiobook or podcast.
Podcast of choice? My Favorite Murder, but right now I go in between that and Ali Wong’s book Dear Girls, which is hilarious.
Favorite step of the process? Sanding, because that's the last step before it becomes what it is—before the product is revealed.
Favorite assistant to have in the shop with you? My dog, Rover. I love all my assistants, but he's my number one.