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How to Carve a Hunting Decoy
By Willy McDonald

The Hunting Decoy - Part 4

In the past three articles on making a "true" hunting decoy, the underlying theme for construction has been one of simplicity and durability in design. The same theme will continue in the final assembly and painting of the decoy. We must keep in mind that our ultimate goal is to produce a spread of decoys that portrays a safe haven for food and rest as incoming birds search for their own species from their aerial vantage point. The crucial decision to land or not land is most often determined by the recognition of the color scheme of their own species. The exaggeration of the color oftentimes makes a decoy more attractive, and probably explains why some birds will decoy to floating painted milk bottles or white rags in a field. The natural response to color by various species of waterfowl lends itself to decoy painting that is simple in detail and uncomplicated in coloration.

Final assembly of the various parts of the decoy is done with an eye to future. Damage will occur through the normal rigors of hunting, and I find it useful to be able to replace parts if need be. To this end, I very seldom use glue; I attach the head, keel and anchorline attachment ring with screws only. This method is a personal choice based on heavy use. Each carver/hunter should examine his or her personal needs. Occasionally, I will use hot glue to attach a head. Mostly the glue is used to fill a void between the head and body. A word of caution: over-engineering of a decoy can lead to frustration should repair be needed.

Another personal decision is choice of paint, and every carver/hunter has an opinion on what works best. I opted for the simplest method since decoy repair and paint touch-up prior to each season is a fact of life. Although this sounds like a chore, it's a great way to extend the waterfowling experience throughout the year. My choice for painting decoys is latex house paint because it is easy to apply and durable. I reason that my decoys are faced with the same basic elements as my house and, therefore, the house paint should hold up reasonably well. 

Additionally, I find it easy to adjust colors or paint detail using my regular artist acrylics. However, the same arguments can be made for using oil-based paints. The criterion that both kinds of paints must meet is that they should be flat in sheen. Put shiny decoys and water together and you have a formula for flaring waterfowl away from your decoy spread.

A smooth surface on a decoy can also create a shiny condition that will flare incoming birds. The remedy is easy. Create a rough surface. Cork has a natural roughness that lends itself to a dull surface and, in most instances, needs no surface adjustment. Painting the decoy with a watered down carpenter's glue and then coating with cork dust or sawdust can accomplish surface correction on both cork and wood. Excess coating can be removed after the glue has dried. I know of one carver who uses beach sand instead of sawdust to create a bumpy surface.

Another popular method used by carvers today is to combine gesso and modeling paste in a 50:50 mixture and put it on with an open cell sponge. A more modern approach is to spray the decoy with Rocker Panel Spray or chip guard. This process creates a bumpy plastic-like surface prior to painting. Regardless of the method you choose, the irregular surface aids in handling the decoy, especially when it's wet and cold.

In this photo, I am attaching a leather loop to the bottom of the decoy to be used for anchorline connection. The leather loop is an old-fashioned, but effective, system for fastening. Notice that the galvanized deck screw used is long enough to secure the head to the decoy body. I use the screw for security even if I glue on the head.
I continue by centering and attaching the keel to the bottom of the decoy. Please note the hole at the rear of the keel that provides for anchorline connection and allows the decoy to float backward. It's also a good idea to countersink the holes for the deck screws.
For this demonstration, I'm presenting three different methods of sealing and texturing the decoy in preparation for painting. The first method utilizes a 50:50 mixture of Jo Sonja's Gesso and Texture Paste. This combination is applied with an open cell sponge. By changing gesso colors in the mixture, I can locate the various color changes on the decoy. This method base coats and textures the surface of the decoy.
A view of the texturing from the back.
This close-up of the head demonstrates the "bumping up" technique of creating texture with a sponge. 
The second method of texturing is to spray the entire decoy with 3M Rocker Panel Spray. This literally covers the decoy with a plastic-like coating and creates texture. Stand back three or four feet when spraying to get the maximum texture effect. Use caution and follow all instructions on the can, and spray in a well-ventilated area or outdoors, if possible. I normally apply two coats. I get the best results when applying a straight gesso as a primer after coating, and then painting the decoy. I might add that this is a fairly expensive way to seal and texture your decoys, but they will be durable.
The third technique for texturing is to paint the entire decoy with a water-based carpenter's glue and cover with sawdust or cork dust. I mix water with Titebond II to make a paintable mixture. For best results, paint glue on the entire decoy and work fast so that the glue is wet when you cover with the dust.
When the glue is dry, shake or blow off the excess dust. Prime and/or paint in the normal fashion with any kind of paint. This surface holds paint well and is very durable.
I base-coated a hen canvasback head to show the soft appearance you get from this technique.

Assuming that the texturing and priming are finished, it's time to paint. The type of paint you use is your choice. I find acrylic latex house paint very durable, and it is easy to change color values using my artist acrylics. I like to block in the colors with a big brush, especially when I have a lot of decoys to paint. The colors used for the drake canvasback are: Black, Burnt Sienna and Off-white. I keep the color patterns uncomplicated.
After the base color on the head is dry, I drag a flat brush with black paint over the top of the textured surface. Make sure to load the brush with a small amount of paint for best results. This photo shows the results of the partially finished black area on the head. You can make this area as dark or as light as you choose.

Last, I soften the edges of the white-to-black areas with the same dry brushing techniques used above. Also, I softly highlight the side pocket by dry brushing a little black around the top side.
Having stressed the simplistic qualities of the "true" working decoy, I should note that adding detail will not hamper the ability of a decoy to do its job. As a matter of fact, detail will lure many humans to your decoy rig. This fact has been the basis for all the decoy shows today. Remember, like a real duck, the true working decoy's home is in the water, and the real decoy contest starts with the opening of hunting season.

Fall 1999 Wildfowl Carving Magazine

Part One | Part TwoPart Three

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