Laura Mays – Professor, Architect and Fine Woodworker

How do I describe a lady so inspiring? Laura is a leader, a teacher, a maker and mentor. She is the definition of AWESOME. 

It’s such an honor to introduce this fabulous fierce female – she’s come a very long way and has achieved so much!

Check out my interview with her below. 

Tamara: Tell me a little bit about yourself

Laura: My day job is as a professor – Director and Lead instructor at The Krenov School (up until about two years ago the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program), part of Mendocino College. It’s kind of the best job in the world – I and my colleagues guide a group of 23 students on a 9-month journey into the world of woodworking with an intensity and depth that is rare nowadays. It is endlessly interesting and various, the students are enthusiastic and talented.

When I’m not at the school, I’m either with my six-year-old daughter or in my small shop, making my own work.

Tamara: Tell me about your woodworking journey

Laura: When I left high school I earned a degree in architecture at University College Dublin (I was born, grew up and spent the first 4 and half decades of my life there, I only moved to the USA in 2011). It was a great education and I loved it but I didn’t want to go straight into working in an office. And I found the distance between architects’ drawings and the material reality of building hard to comprehend. So I traveled for a couple of years, working at this and that, to Japan and New York, thinking I would return to architecture at some point, until I stumbled into attending a woodworking program in Letterfrack, in Connemara, a remote western part of Ireland. It was a two-year program and from the first day, I was smitten. It brought things together in a way that made sense to me – material, craft, design, real-world feedback. After that program I went to work for a six-month period at a cabinet makers in England, then returned to Ireland to setup my own shop in an old garage on my parents’ property near Dublin. It was hard and I had a lot to learn. I started to read James Krenov’s books and appreciated his approach. When I found out he was teaching in California, I applied to the school and ended up studying two years there – this is the school I’m now the Director of! I guess that was truly transformative.

Tamara: I love Japan, I actually stayed there for 2.5 years and managed to score myself a Japanese master carpenter mentor. Why did you choose Japan and New York as part of your discovery?

Laura: When I was there I didn’t know my future life would be centered on woodworking, so I was looking at EVERYTHING! Japan seemed as far from Ireland as I could conceivably get. And it felt like both stepping through the looking glass and into the future. I loved the fact that it was so entirely different from everything I had ever known before. I couldn’t read or speak, but I looked a lot and walked a lot, exploring Tokyo. And of course New York was also fabulously exciting, it felt like the center of the world.

Tamara: Why did you pursue woodworking?

Laura: For a while, I thought I was taking a break from architecture and would go back to it – the greater hands-on experience would make me a better designer – but I have never gone back. I love making things and I can’t bear to give up that pleasure.

Tamara: Is this where you thought you would end up?

Laura: Absolutely definitely not. Insofar as I saw a future for myself it was as an architect, or perhaps a children’s book illustrator!

Tamara: What inspired you to start your own business?

Laura: It was the inevitable next step…

Tamara: What were your greatest challenges getting to where you are now?

Laura: Self-doubt, daily.

Tamara: How do you overcome self-doubt? Are there any processes you like to go through to make yourself feel more comfortable?

Laura: I try the usual things – meditation, yoga – but I’m not very disciplined about doing them. I go to the gym a lot and love the endorphins that come from that. Mostly I try to get to the shop and work, work begets work, and it sidesteps ruminating.

Tamara: What characteristics/ skills/ attitude do you think you need to be a successful woodworker, business owner, carpenter etc. ?

Laura: Sticking-to-it-ness.

Also a ton of different skills because it’s such a wide range of activities, and it’s unlikely that any one person can have it all. So knowing when to ask for help is another.

Tamara: Is there somebody you look up to?

Laura: I admire so many people, it’s hard to list them out. I admire the women of the 1980s who broke into woodworking – Rosanne Somerson, Wendy Maruyama and others. I admire James Krenov for his writing. I admire my teacher Michael Burns for the way he lives his life and continues to make fantastic work. I admire the talented and ferocious younger generation, some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to teach. I admire people who get up each day and work hard in whatever field they’re in, to make the world a little better, more compassionate. I especially admire people who manage to combine woodworking with some kind of social justice, for example, Sarah Marriage and WOO in Baltimore, and Rebecca Lee and WouldWorks in LA.

Tamara: What advice can you offer other ladies interested in woodworking?

Laura: Don’t be afraid. Though there isn’t a long history of women in woodworking, there is NOTHING intrinsic about woodworking that makes it difficult for women.

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Previous fierce female: WOOD ART BY JENNIFER KELLNER

If you’re feeling generous and want to thank me BUY ME A COFFEE. 

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