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How to Carve a Hunting Decoy
By Willy McDonald

The Hunting Decoy - Part Two

Before starting a "true" hunting decoy project, it is necessary to, if you will excuse the pun, get your ducks in a row. Not only do you have to decide on what species you plan to carve, but you must also develop a decoy pattern that combines the durability and flotation requirements of a hunting decoy with the likeness of the species. The pattern should also allow for portrayal of different attitudes with minimal changes. For instance, a higher head position shows an active bird and a lower head demonstrates a quiet posture. Both attitudes can be achieved utilizing the same body shape. Developing decoy patterns from photos and other reference material is a relatively easy task for the experienced carver, but many novices need a place to begin.

There are a host of patterns commercially available to the carver today. Most are designed for the realistic decoy carver, and a wide variety of attitudes are portrayed. These patterns provide a great starting point for the beginner carver, requiring only minor changes to convert the design from fragile to durable without sacrificing realism. The design changes usually involve the elimination of fragile wing tips and/or skinny necks, and the addition of more wood to the tail for durability. Widening the body to assist proper hunting decoy flotation may be necessary with some patterns. In my estimation, working with existing patterns is the best way for the inexperienced carver to achieve the skills needed to develop his or her own patterns from various reference sources.

The next step in the process is to decide on the carving materials suitable for a real, true hunting decoy-a decoy that can stand up to the trauma of everyday hunting, float naturally, and still portray realism simply. The challenge of building durability and good flotation into a hunting decoy is achieved with the selection of carving materials that match those needs. Needless to say, any wood floats, but may not be conducive to the design because of weight or stability in water and weather. In the case of weight, many decoys are hollowed, but they are then subject to sinking if they crack, or are accidentally shot. I prefer the security of a solid body block, and carve my decoys out of cork or balsa wood.

Cork is my first choice because it takes simple detail, holds paint well, and floats naturally. Density is a factor that must be considered when choosing cork. The density is represented by a number that specifies the number of pounds of cork per cubic foot. The higher the number, the denser the cork. Lower numbers (below 10) have a tendency to crumble and are hard to seal. I prefer the 12 to 15 pound range for ease of carving and durability. Weight can be a problem with cork if you are carving a big spread of decoys. When weight is a concern, I turn to balsa wood. Like cork, balsa is available in different densities, and, contrary to popular belief, is very durable, especially in the denser blocks. Cedar and basswood are my choices of woods for heads. For this demonstration, I will be carving a canvasback out of cork and basswood, and will follow a fairly rudimentary carving format in order to accommodate both the novice and experienced carver.


Transfer a body pattern that has matching top and profile views to a square block of cork. Make sure both views start from a squared off line at the end of the block, and match up the centerlines on the top view. Make sure the cork block is slightly wider than the pattern top view.
2 Using a band saw, cut out the top view of the body block, making a continuous cut from one end of the block to the other. With a couple of drops of hot glue, the body block can be reassembled to make for easy cutting of the side view.
3 Cut out the side view and break away the excess from the sides. The body block is now ready for guidelines, and hen carving.
4 Transfer matching views of the head pattern using the end of the bill as a starting point from the squared off line, and lining up the eye lines of both views. Notice that the profile view has several cutoff points on the neck for portraying different attitudes. At this point, I drill the eye hole with a drill press prior to bandsawing.
5 Bandsaw the top view of the head using a continuous cut from the bill to the back of the head. Reassemble the block back to square with a couple of drops of hot glue for side view cutting.
6 Bandsaw the side view after choosing which neck line to cut for a high, medium or low head. Break away the excess from the sides. The head is now ready for guidelines.
7 Transfer the carving guidelines from the pattern to the body blank:
A. Centerline
B. Top of wing
C. Waterline
D. Upper rump
E. Head platform
F. Tail
8 Hand tools for carving cork include: large and small rasps, regular and push-pull knife, and 80- to 100-grit sandpaper. If you prefer power carving, a variety of rotary rasps and sanding drums work well in a flexible shaft grinder.
9 Cut out the head platform (E) so that the head can sit flat and turn.

10 Cut in the tail and rump area using a right angle cut and remove the checkered section shown in the photo. I normally use a knife for this process, but a cylindrically shaped rotary rasp will work as well. This will leave the tail quite thick and sturdy.
11 Round the body from the top of the wing guideline (B) to the waterline (C). I start with a push-pull knife to remove large areas, and finish with a large rasp and then sandpaper.
12 Rounding from the waterline to the bottom of the decoy is optional, and is usually done for cosmetic reasons more than functional ones. A squared bottom tends to keep the decoy from unnaturally rolling from side to side in choppy water. The extra width built into the decoy body will help accomplish the same thing.
13 Round the top of the tail, leaving it thick and stable. Remember, incoming birds will be approaching your decoys from above, and will not be concerned with tail thickness. However, you will be happy with the stability of the tails after your dog jumps on your decoys a few times.
14 Draw in the side pockets using your pattern as reference.
15 Cut in the side pockets and indentation in the middle of the back using a small round rasp or rotary tool.
16 Finalize the rounding process by rounding from point A to B, B to C, and C to D, as shown in the photo. A hand or power rasp and sandpaper are the tools of choice for this process.
17 The decoy body is now ready for head installation and painting. Careful attention in planning and construction, combined with a little common sense, will yield a decoy body that is durable, multi-functional for various attitude presentations, floats properly, and is still faithful to species shape. It is amazing how much realism can be built into a true hunting decoy without sacrificing durability in design and simplicity in paint. In the next issue, I will demonstrate head carving, keel design, and anchor line attachment.

Willy McDonald has been decoy carving for years. At the 1998 ODCCA Show, he won first best of show in the Wildfowler's Shootin' Stool Contest. He is the owner and operator, with his wife Diane, of The Duck Blind, a woodcarving supply store. In Part Three of "The Hunting Decoy," McDonald will demonstrate head carving, keel design and weighting.

Spring 2000 Wildfowl Carving Magazine.

Part OnePart Three  | Part Four

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