The Art of Decoy Carving

No two decoy carvers work exactly the same way, as a brief chat with five carvers at a Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Md., clearly demonstrates.

Decoy carving is an art, and as with all arts, no two people work exactly the same way or turn out exactly the same kind of art. Even the best type of carving material is up for debate, as a brief chat with five carvers at Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Md., clearly demonstrates.

Mike Smyser
In the artist's workshop, Mike Smyser of Mt. Wolf, Penn.,, explains that he likes to fashion his decoys out of cedar, balsa or cork. His favorite material, the one he uses for the vast majority of his decoys, is cork (with white cedar heads and tails). "It rides better in the water," says Smyser, "and because it springs back when you bang it—like on the side of a boat—it's more durable, more resilient to abuse."

Smyser's patterns have evolved along with his carving. Early on, he purchased patterns, carving more lifelike decoys. "Over time," says Smyser, "I've developed my own pattern with a wider base for stability in the water and narrowed toward the front—sort of a triangular shape."

Ed Stough
A stone's throw away, Ed Stough of Snow Hill, Md., a part-time carver and full-time schoolteacher, takes another approach—no power tools whatsoever. Working with white cedar and what he calls "a more basic kind of carving," Stough starts with a drawknife to rough out the shape, smoothes it with a spoke shaver and finishes the bird with a hand knife. It takes him about 30 to 35 hours to complete a single bird.

Stough started carving for his own pleasure 25 years ago. Once people saw his decoys, however, they wanted to buy them, and Stough obliged.

In a bow to more modern technology, Stough's knives are cryogenically treated to harden the blades, enabling them to hold their edge for a longer time than their earlier, heat-treated counterparts.

Otherwise, he does everything the old-fashioned way. "It's what I like doing," says Stough. "This technique gives the bird nice marks. It highlights the bird, and," he adds with a twinkle in his eye, "it keeps me out of trouble."

Bill Schauber
Near Stough, among the decoys, books and papers on display at Bill Schauber's stall, is a 1974 Festival booklet with his name and picture. He's been coming to the festival for 37 of its 39 years, a long time, indeed. "Well, I've been married 53 years, so 37 doesn't seem that long," he says, laughing.

Schauber, of nearby Chestertown, Md., admits he could sell more at home than at the Festival. "But I keep coming," he says. It seems Schauber enjoys socializing with other carvers and those who are as interested in carving as much as he is in creating prize-winning decoys in his favorite wood, white cedar.

The carver is well known in the duck collecting community, having produced a quantity and quality of work that is considered highly collectible. In his book, Collecting Decoys on a Shoestring, author Kenneth Margolis, M.D., specifically references Schauber as one of the talented contemporary carvers "whose decoys can be reasonably purchased."

Warren Saunders
Warren Saunders of Hurlock, Md.,, uses an axe to shape a white cedar canvasback decoy as two young boys watch in open-mouthed admiration.

Like Schauber, the nationally acclaimed Saunders is an old hand at his art. "I've been carving for 50 years," he says.

Saunders draws and carves his own patterns, "sort of in the style of the Ward brothers," he explains. "They were the ones who really got this started on the lower Eastern shore."

In other words, Saunders designs slightly oversized, flat-bottomed decoys with heads bearing somewhat exaggerated features. The birds look life-like and ride the water well—like a duck.

Saunders also teaches classes in power carving and decoy carving and painting. He judges some contests and enters others, and exhibits at shows, including the Rappahannock River Wildlife Show in Whitestone, Va.

Patrick Godin
Although most decoy carvers maintain that working decoys need not be as detailed as the decorative ones, others—like Canadian Patrick Godin,, whose work is displayed in another building—takes a different tack. Because some collectors of his detailed, decorative works hunt over his decoys, says Godin, "I have constructed them to function very well as hunting decoys and also be very durable."

In fact, over 13 successive years, Godin—who favors tupelo wood for his decoys—has had six top-three placements in the World Class Shootin' Rig category at the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition. In 2001, he took home the World title for a pair of black ducks with a drake mallard/black duck hybrid carved in a gunning decoy style.

It would seem, then, that decoy carving is whatever floats your boat, er, duck.

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