Years ago, so the story goes, a German firm manufactured a strand of wire of the finest diameter ever made. Proud of the accomplishment and eager to boast about their talent, the Germans sent the strand to a rival wire company in Switzerland. The Swiss returned the strand and suggested that the Germans look at the wire under a microscope. They did and discovered that the Swiss had drilled holes through it.
Attention to such minuscule detail has not yet gone that far among carvers of decorative duck decoys and birds, but it is getting there, as inspection of the birds shown here, all winners last March at the U.S. National Decoy Show in Babylon, N.Y., will attest. By way of example, take the long-eared owl (page 60) by John Scheeler of Mays Landing, N.J., who may well be the best bird carver in the world. He fashioned the head, body and legs from a single block of bass wood, while the wing and tail feathers were rendered individually and then slotted into place. The mussel shells with the clapper rail on the opposite page were also carved from wood. But despite the beauty of his work, Scheeler is never satisfied. He is constantly driven to better it. Although he won with the owl at Babylon, he went home and made a mouse from wood and inserted it in the owl's beak. The owl and mouse then qualified for the two-part piece, life-size decorative class at the big decoy show in Salisbury, Md., and there the combination won the best-in-the-world ribbon and a cash prize of $3,500.
Decoy carving is a native American art that dates back to the mid-19th century. Masters such as Nathan Cobb, Harry Shourds, A. Elmer Crowell, Albert Laing, Ben Holmes and Shang Wheeler carved classic birds. Most all their birds were "smoothies" because they were made to be shot over; individual feathering would have been impractical. Purely decorative carving, which has been around for some years, got a boost in 1969 when George Walker of Chesterfield, N.J., who supplies many decoy makers with materials and equipment, began selling them the Foredom Power Tool originally used by dental technicians and jewelry hobbyists. Until then decoys had been made by hand carving or whittling, but the power tool, which operates at 14,000 rpm, dispensed with most of the knife work. "With the power tool your work just flows," says Walker. "It improves the work of the average carver by 30% to 40%. In the right hands it can do an absolutely terrific job."
John Scheeler obviously has the right hands. Like a number of the top decorative carvers, he is a relative newcomer. He was an industrial painter in 1970 when he met a man who was making models of horses with a power tool. He was intrigued and started turning out some animal models of his own. "I wasn't even doing decoys, but a friend asked me to come on down with him to the decoy show in Salisbury," Scheeler says. "That's when I really got interested. It's got to be that 98% of the carvers use the power tool now. With the knife blade, you have to go with the grain, but with the tool you can go with the grain, against the grain and across the grain. Foredom isn't the only power tool. There's a Dumore and a Dremmel, but the Foredom's the most popular. I form the whole bird with the power tool and then cut all the feathers with a knife. I burn all the barbs in each feather with a burning pen, and then I paint with artist's oils. I go over a bird two or three times because you've got to use very thin paint." By his own reckoning, Scheeler spent 450 hours making the clapper rail and 600 hours on the owl and mouse.
Curiously, Scheeler's early work went unappreciated. In 1971 he entered a very realistic broadbill decoy in the Salisbury show. The judges threw it out. "They weren't ready for it," says Ken Gleason of Darien, Conn., a carver who bought it. "I'm one of probably four people in the world who own a Scheeler." It is next to impossible now to buy a Scheeler because of a plastic products millionaire named Douglas E. Miller, who lives in suburban Denver. Miller has Scheeler, William Schultz of Milwaukee and Ron Tepley of Racine under exclusive contract, and he gets six birds a year from each of them. A number of well-to-do collectors have since gotten interested in contemporary decoratives—the price for a bird can be as high as $10,000—but Miller got the jump in 1972 when he visited a decoy show in Davenport, Iowa that "blew my mind. I wanted to rush out and buy everything in sight."
Since then Miller has bought more than 1,500 birds, and he has many of them on exhibit at the Denver Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Birmingham Museum of Art. Like a Renaissance patron, Miller credits his own patronage with the creation of great birds. "Quality has surged because a collector came along willing to pay the price," he says.
Nowadays there are about 30 top carvers who compete on the decoy-show circuit. The circuit extends from Babylon (the oldest show) to Salisbury and other hot spots in Maryland, out to California and up into Canada. The old racetrack adage of horses for courses applies to carvers and different species of birds. Hans Bolte of Troy, Mich. is becoming known for his Canada geese, and Jay Polite of New Castle, Del. won best of show with a black duck at Babylon. His winner is contrasted with a working decoy on page 61. Ken Gleason favors naturally drab-looking ducks such as the hen scoter on page 62. "I'm after a very soft bird with no sheen," he says.
When not carving for a show, the best carvers find it difficult to keep up with collectors' commissions. "People like a carved bird, and they go for the decorative bird," says Gleason, who gets $450 for a duck. "Everybody likes to have a decoy on the mantle, even a clunker. It's very American." Any number of collectors or just plain drop-ins at a decoy show get interested in making birds themselves. "People who start it, they can't get away from it," says Gleason. "You can get into it for $250, $350. So many people are starting to carve that I just can't see it peaking."
No one is happier to have started a carving career than John Scheeler. As he says with a smile, "For me now, every day is Saturday."