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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Author Robert Rosenberger loads up his canoe with a flock of hand-carved duck decoys. These are mainly mallard and scaup decoys. © Robert Queen
Author Robert Rosenberger loads up his canoe with a flock of hand-carved duck decoys. These are mainly mallard and scaup decoys.

© Robert Queen

October 2002

Fashioning the flock

Handmade decoys are beautiful heirlooms and draw in waterfowl.

Robert Rosenberger


Choose good wood | Work from a pattern
Check references | Tools to get going
Hollow the body | Keeping your decoy afloat
Take your time sealing and painting the carving
Carving tools and supplies

Early fall is a passionate time for birds, birders and hunters who flock to wetlands and waters to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of the season. Many species of ducks, geese and swans are staging to migrate through the state.

The waterfowl migrations are all too short, and both birders and hunters look for ways to extend this time. They build wood duck boxes, attend fundraising banquets, and work to improve wetland habitat. Many also collect bird art and decoys. Waterfowlers who carve their own decoys, whether for hunting or decoration, can extend their autumn passion year-round. Many find that decoy carving and painting also taps into hidden artistic talents.

Years ago, waterfowlers either carved their own dekes, bought them from other carvers or ordered them through decoy factories. In the 1960s, wooden decoys became less popular for hunting as cheaper plastic models became available. Wooden decoys were heavier and required more maintenance. Many hunters discarded their woodies in favor of the "new and improved" durable plastic versions. Old duck hunters tell stories of using their wooden decoys for firewood in their cabins. Talk about costly heating bills! Those decoys might bring hundreds of dollars apiece from today's collectors.

Forty years ago, it was not uncommon to find attractive collectible decoys at rummage sales, country auctions and in antique stores. Now such bargains would be a rare find. Collectors have driven the price of wooden decoys to astounding new heights. Recently, a goose decoy carved by A. Elmer Crowell, renowned Massachusetts carver who died in 1952, sold at auction for $684,500.

I started carving in the traditional way. I was an enthusiastic waterfowl hunter who spent every spare minute in the marshes. I began duck hunting in high school and scheduled my college courses around duck season. As my appreciation for waterfowl grew, I began to carve my own decoys about 15 years ago. With age comes improvement and wisdom. I carve both decorative and hunting decoys, and I sell several a year. The waiting list to purchase a decoy is now about six months.

One advantage of carving your own decoys is the chance to customize a flock for the waters you hunt. For instance, I primarily hunt small ponds of five-15 acres, and back bays of similar size on larger lakes. I hunt mallards, wood ducks, bluebills and geese. Since I know where I'll be hunting and what types of birds I'll pursue, I can customize my decoy spread to match the conditions, and so can you.

You want to create an appealing, peaceful setting where ducks and geese will want to land. I view the artful placement of decoys in the water as similar to the control you have in drawing a painting. The open water is your canvas and the decoys are the paints you choose to use. Your masterpiece is a decoy spread that will attract "buyers;" in this case, waterfowl.

I place decoys in the water to simulate a scene of resting birds. A relaxed flock will naturally do a variety of activities. Some birds will be feeding, some will be preening, others will be sleeping, and some will be swimming. With a couple dozen carved decoys, you can form your own "picture" of a resting flock.

Commercial decoys mass-produced in a factory have the disadvantage of looking like ranks of toy soldiers all in the same position. When you set them into the water, they all swim forward into the wind. In the wild, the only time that you would see a flock of birds that are all swimming forward into the wind is when they are spooked. Birds face into the wind when they are ready to take off. If your decoy spread looks like birds that are spooked, wild ducks will flare away from the area.

The working decoys I carve include ducks that are looking to the right and left. Some have their necks outstretched as if they are feeding. Others are resting with their heads tucked into their chests, just as dozing birds naturally appear. You can carve decoys where the bird's head is tucked under a wing, or where the duck is preening its back feathers. This creates the overall image of a contented flock. To mimic birds feeding and dabbling underwater, I even mix in some dekes where just the back ends of the ducks stick out of the water.

I also vary where I tie the anchor line onto the decoys. About a quarter of the birds I place are anchored on the back half so they will swing and swim in the opposite direction of the other decoys, just as real birds swim in different directions. This mixed scene of hand-carved, painted decoys attracts ducks that are passing by to set their wings, relax and feed among the wooden flock.

Of course, a person could simply go to the sporting goods store and buy a dozen plastic decoys with adjustable heads, but I think it's much more fun and rewarding to hunt over decoys you have carved and painted yourself.

Choose good wood

Carvers look for wood that is soft, strong and lightweight. If you sculpt with hand tools, you'll find out in a hurry that durable, tough hardwoods like oak are much more difficult to shape and chisel with wood carving tools. On the other hand, your carving wood needs to be strong so the bill or tail doesn't break off when several decoys are piled in a bag and are bouncing off the bottom of a moving boat.

Carvers also look for wood that is locally available and affordable. There are several good choices including white cedar, red or white pine, and basswood. I have carved a few decoys out of cedar, but was not pleased with the result because they had a tendency to split. I would definitely not use cedar for carving a decoy head because the thin bill is likely to break.

When I built a log home a few years ago, I had some leftover red pine logs, which I began using for decoys. Pine carved well and had a pronounced, pleasing wood grain, but I'd have to say my favorite carving wood remains basswood. It is light, it dries well, it's strong, and I have a neighbor with a sawmill who cuts all the basswood I need at an affordable price.

For those who are not fortunate enough to have a neighbor with a sawmill, there are several other ways to obtain wood for carving. Many lumberyards have large blocks of wood for sale. Believe it or not, there are carver supply stores that sell wood and even decoy cutouts. For the canvasback and mallard decoys, I use blocks that are about 15 inches long, seven inches wide and about four inches thick. My band saw can only handle wood less than 7 inches thick.

If your wood has not been kiln dried, you will need to let it dry properly. The first step is to paint or seal the ends of the wood to prevent cracking or checking. Wood dries much faster at the ends of planks and blanks. It will crack if not sealed. The wood should be stacked with spacers between the rows and left to dry for at least one year, depending upon humidity until it is about 12 percent moisture and is ready for carving.

Work from a pattern

Just as a good blueprint helps design, plan and build a house, a detailed pattern of the decoy you want to carve is a must. From buffleheads to wood ducks, you can find catalogs with more than 250 patterns of male and female waterfowl in various poses – aggressive, resting, preening or feeding. Patterns give you a side view and a top view to scale. Head patterns are separate from the body patterns.

I often start with a pattern I like, then modify it to suit my needs so my decoys may show different head positions, including preening, sleeping and a few with alert heads. You can adjust the attitude of the bird by changing the shape of its neck and head, or by raising or lowering its body profile.

Ducks have different body shapes, and so should decoys. Diving birds like canvasbacks and bluebills are rounder and more chunky, while dabblers and puddlers like mallards are shaped more like a drop of water, somewhat longer and narrower. I start by drawing center lines on both vertical and horizontal surfaces of the wood blank. Next, I glue the carving patterns to cardboard or stiff paper so they won't curl and tear. Then, I use a thumbtack to attach the pattern to the wood blank and trace it.

The touches you can add to hand-carved decoys are some of the pleasures that drive people to carve their own. By starting with a good pattern, you can carve a decoy that is pleasing to the eye and attractive to waterfowl.

Check references

When you begin carving decoys, you will discover just how little you really know about ducks and geese. The most important part of doing a good carving is to have good reference materials. Before starting a carving, collect pictures of waterfowl taken from as many different angles as you can. These pictures will guide you in shaping and painting the decoy. I maintain a file of photographs for each species of waterfowl I carve, and I refer to these photos regularly.

Tools to get going

Wood carvers can choose to use a wide range of technology to develop their art. Some of the finest decoy carvers use little more than a razor-sharp carving hatchet, a few rasps, chisels and a drawknife. Modern carvers have more options, including small, hand-held, electric rotary grinders; sanders; power chisels and woodburners. As your skills improve, you may slowly add more tools that save time or provide a carving effect that you particularly enjoy.

Most carvers need a band saw to follow the drawn pattern and cut out the decoy outline.

Carving tools and supplies
Many woodcarving supply dealers sell decoy carving equipment and materials. My favorite source, Christian J. Hummul Company, also has a great catalog. Call 1-800-762-0235 for a copy.

Once I've made my rough cuts, I draw a second series of reference lines on the decoy showing the details of how I want the wings set, how round the bird will be, how I'm going to cut down the pattern as I slope toward the tail, and so forth.

Beginner carvers often start slow with simple tools – a drawknife, some wood chisels, rasps, a sharp carving knife and a drill. The drawknife is used to shape the decoy's body. Rasps smooth out the drawknife cut marks and give the decoy its round, curved shape. Chisels can cut finer features like feather layouts, particularly the primary wing feathers. A sharp knife is essential to carve bill features, including the nail and nostrils. Soon you may graduate to a hand-held rotary power carving tool that makes quicker work of shaving and shaping. I use a drill to hollow out the decoy and to drill the holes for attaching the head and bottom board. Always wear eye protection while carving!

Decoys start as designs on wooden blocks. The initial cuts are made with a bandsaw, then details lines are redrawn before rough shaping, sanding and finer carving work.<br><br>© Robert Queen
Decoys start as designs on wooden blocks. The initial cuts are made with a bandsaw, then details lines are redrawn before rough shaping, sanding and finer carving work.

© Robert Queen

The head is carved separately from the body so you can adjust the angle or pose. Though I occasionally carve a body from pine, I like using basswood for the head and bill. Basswood has a tight grain, does not split and it's soft; a great wood for carving the detail in the bill and eye sockets.

In addition to this equipment, you will need some waterproof glue, galvanized deck screws, glass eyes (from a carving supply shop) and wood putty. The size and color of the glass eyes will depend on the species and sex of the duck that you are carving.

Hollow the body

Before I paint, I hollow the decoy so it will be lighter and the wood will be much less likely to split. First, lay the decoy on its side and make a cut with the band saw about an inch from the bottom of the decoy and parallel to the bottom. To hollow the bird, I use a Forstner router bit in an electric hand drill. This bit makes a spade-like cut as it hollows out the wood. I put a piece of duct tape on the drill bit about three inches from the tip and use this as a guide. If I don't go in deeper than the tape, I will leave a nearly uniform layer an inch thick inside the decoy. Some carvers put a few pieces of shot inside their decoys so the buyers or competition judges can rattle the decoy to be assured it is hollow. You may not know that when decorative decoys are judged in competitions, they are all tested to make sure they float and are properly balanced.

Once the bird is hollowed, I permanently screw on the bottom plate and glue it overnight with waterproof glue.

Keeping your decoy afloat

You can spend a lot of time carving and painting a decoy for naught unless you weight the decoy properly so it will float. Like boats, decoys are weighted with keels and ballast so they will ride upright in wind and wave. Carvers choose several different approaches to weighting decoys. Some screw a wooden keel to the bottom of the decoy. Others nail a flat piece of lead to the bottom. Some carve a recessed area into the bottom so they can pour hot lead into the cavity.

I prefer to make a weighted wooden keel for the decoys. I actually make about a half dozen keels at a time and try them out until I find one that properly balances and weights the decoy. To make the keels, I take a piece of wood approximately an inch thick and two inches wide running the length of the bottom. I route out a channel in the middle 3-4 inches of this piece and pour some melted lead into the trough. This piece of wood is then temporarily attached to the bottom of the decoy with big rubber bands. I adjust this keel in the water to ensure it is properly positioned. Then I screw the keel to the bottom and drill a hole through the side of the keel to attach an anchor line.

Some carvers follow the traditional fashion and attach a loop of leather to the bottom of the decoy to attach their anchor line. I anchor mine with a 1/16th- or 1/8th-inch diameter cord that is rot-proof. Sporting goods stores sell anchor line as well as decoy weights. Though I only hunt near areas that are three to five feet deep, I put seven to 10 feet of cord on each decoy so the floating birds will be a bit loose and swing or swim a little as the wind and waves blow them around. Sometimes I drill and tether the anchor line near the back so the decoy will pivot around the back end, swimming off in a different direction. It looks more natural.

Take your time sealing and painting the carving

I seal working decoys with at least two to three coats of marine spar varnish. Decoys that will be strictly decorative may be sealed with a liquid sanding sealer. In addition to waterproofing the decoy, the sealer serves another purpose. It slightly roughens or "fuzzes up" the decoy creating a slightly uneven surface with fine points and craters. This texture gives the final product a more natural look once it is painted. Remember that feathers are a very uneven surface and the colors in live birds are reflected through layers and layers of feathers. You want to build up the layers of paint on your decoy in that same fashion.

I prefer painting with acrylics as they dry faster and the brushes can be cleaned with water, rather than solvents. I paint two thin layers of acrylic paints as a base primer on top of the varnish layer. Some old-time carvers used hot linseed oil as a sealer or brushed on a mix of linseed oil with paint thinner. The thinner penetrated and drew linseed oil deeper into the wood. When you paint over textured wood like that, you take a nearly dry brush and drag it over the surface. The paint adheres to the peaks but not the valleys on the surface, creating a grey speckled dappling that looks more like the barbs on a feather. Some people take thick primer and modeling paste and dab it on with a sponge creating an orange peel surface that fools the eye.

Paint is applied in thin layers to simulate iridescent feathers and other details. © Robert Queen
Paint is applied in thin layers to simulate iridescent feathers and other details.

© Robert Queen

Take your time when painting your decoy. The colors intensify as the thin layers of color build up and light bounces through multiple layers giving the decoy a softer, more natural appearance. Some decorative decoys may have as many as 20 layers of paint. The belly may be painted white, then topped with black shadows that you later cover with thin layers of white paint and top with washes. The surface starts to look like it is contoured rather than a flat surface. The eye perceives layers of gray and white paints interspersed in layers of colors as depth and form.

I have to tell you that this part of the process is time-consuming. I reach a point on every decoy I carve and paint where I'm ready to throw it out and be done with it. That's when I know it's time to set it aside, do something else for a few days and then I can come back refreshed.

By the way, before you are done, always sign your name on the bottom of your decoy because surely 50 years from now, long after your dekes are retired from on-water service, someone will probably be keeping them as keepsakes, and they'll want to know who carved them.

DNR Water Management Specialist Robert Rosenberger crafts decoys at his Marinette home. You can contact him at (715) 854-7143 for locations where his decoys are sold.