Wooden decoys have an inherent magic on the water.
They float front-heavy, riding the waves, dipping and turning like their live counterparts; movements plastic decoys can’t match. Investing in a spread of wooden decoys can be costly so consider carving some yourself. It’s well worth the effort and a great way to spend time in the off-season.
Decoy carving does not require formal arts training, but the principles for mastering the craft are the same. Observation is elemental in building carving skills.
The next time you bag a duck, take a long hard look at what you are really seeing – how fat are the cheeks, how high are the eyes?
The next time you bag a duck, take a long hard look at what you are really seeing – how fat are the cheeks, how high are the eyes? Take time to practise sketching ducks and do not get hung up on achieving high realism. Focus on the curves of the wing pockets, the topline, the angles of the bill and forehead.
Learn the basic outline and practise different forms and poses – preening, sleeping, alert – before investing time, energy, and money into a block of wood. Do this for each species you are considering carving. Starting with a block can feel daunting, so observing and drawing first is key. It will help you envision the duck’s shape within the block.
For your first carvings, you can copy someone else’s forms and patterns, which can be found online or in
reference books. Keep in mind that the nuances of your own hand, and eventually your own style, are what makes decoys so collectible and intriguing to begin with, and all the more charming to hunt over.
Search photos online or visit a wildlife carving show to get a feel for what style of decoy you like. See how different carvers simplify various parts of the duck’s form.
One of my favourite modern carvers, the late Tim Brooks of Hamilton, had a knack for capturing the liveliness required to fool ducks. He used a limited number of cuts on his bandsaw and finished his decoys with a rasp and a knife. Painstakingly carved decorative decoys may catch your eye in a gallery, but are not practical for working decoys.
Realism, from a field perspective, isn’t achieved by carving each feather, but by capturing liveliness through form and movement. Realism is achieved through the decoy’s balance in the water. To learn the physics of balance, test your decoy in the water, and add a weighted keel or change the rigging to achieve realistic movement. Copying existing designs can be helpful instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.
Depending on your workspace, a bandsaw makes quick work of larger cuts, but you can also work with hand tools and a vise. You’ll need a coping saw, a pull-cut saw, a small variety of chisels and gouges, rasps, and a comfortable short-bladed knife. Sandpaper and a quality dust mask are also essential.
Pine and cedar work well for decoy carving at a fraction of the cost of tupelo or basswood, which decorative carvers favour for their ability to hold fine detail.
For cost effectiveness, use whatever straight-grained wood is available locally. Pine and cedar work well for decoy carving at a fraction of the cost of tupelo or basswood, which decorative carvers favour for their ability to hold fine detail.
To finish your decoys, you need a quality primer and a set of paints that will seal the wood. Acrylics are great for beginners with fast drying times and easy clean up, though oil paints tend to have a richer finish. Order clear (known as “flint”) glass eyes which can be easily painted to mimic to the species being carved.
For working decoys, don’t hesitate to use modern materials such as Apoxie Sculpt for building up areas. A modest amount can strengthen the bill, permanently affix the eyes, or smooth the neckline.
Ontario has a rich history of carving – from the wetlands of Lake Erie and St. Claire, to the rice-filled northern lakes and bays, to the Thousand Islands of eastern Ontario. The ingenious designs of those early carvers created a cultural legacy.
Like duck hunting, carving decoys is more than a set of procedures with an attractive end product. Supporting ontario carvers, becoming a carver yourself, or getting your children involved, may help you make your own magic on the water.