Bird Calling

Wood carver Laurel Dabbs continues an American folk art tradition with her beautiful duck decoys.

The Atlantic white cedar shavings are scattered on the floor surrounding bird carver Laurel Dabbs while she straddles her carving bench. They fall quickly, the result of her swift hatchet and spokeshave, a tool that acts like a potato peeler for wood. Guests in Dabbs’ workshop covet the shavings for their pleasing aroma.

“I used to bag and sell the cedar shavings and that took some time. Then I thought, Am I a seller of shavings or am I a carver? I had to choose,” says Dabbs, who lives in Westfield Center in Medina County. Dabbs picked carving authentic working duck decoys, songbirds and shorebirds over filling plastic bags.

Twenty-five years later, Dabbs’ workshop is filled with 8-foot planks of the lightweight swamp cedar (a traditional decoy wood), duck bodies stacked on top of each other and baskets of duck heads ready to be finished and assembled.

A hooded merganser duck, a mallard hen and a gaggle of eyeless black and white sandpipers waiting to be completed inhabit the workshop. A godwit, a long-billed wading bird, has a traditional pitchfork tine as its beak. The tine is for strength and also because early carvers recycled what they could.

One of Dabbs’ most prized possessions in her workshop, however, is a carving bench given to her by legendary decoy carver Harry V. Shourds. Dabbs says Shourds, who was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, “took a liking” to her. (Dabbs won the Harry V. Shourds Memorial Master Carver Award in 2002). She also learned from well-known carver J. P. “Jamie” Hand, whom she calls her mentor.

“Jamie made me go out with him on a boat once, but not with a gun,” says Dabbs, one of the few nationally known female decoy carvers. “He wanted me to see and hear the ducks landing on the water near the decoys. He said I wouldn’t have any credibility if I didn’t have that experience.”

The art of carving wooden duck decoys is considered by some to be America’s only true original folk art. Other folk art originated in Europe and other areas of the world before it came here. About 2,000 years before the colonists arrived, America’s indigenous inhabitants fashioned duck decoys from grasses and reeds to attract ducks to be hunted.

“The Indians taught the colonists how to use decoys,” Dabbs explains. “Then the colonists used their woodworking skills to make ducks that were sturdier.” Even today, decoys are regional. In Maine they must survive ice on lakes. In Virginia, decoys are lighter so a sack of them can be carried to the marshes.

Dabbs carves decoys in the New Jersey style with clean lines. That’s not surprising because her father was a Navy captain, and she lived by many beaches, including Cape May, N.J., a renowned birding area. She never intended to become a bird carver, but early signs pointed in that direction.

Dabbs’ mother placed a bird mobile over her crib when she was an infant. (“It’s all my mother’s fault,” jokes Dabbs.) She was the only girl in her middle school to take a woodworking class the first year it was offered to females. And she attended her first adult carving class because she wanted a duck decoy to complement the vintage furnishings in her house.

About 2,000 carved birds later (shorebirds make up the majority, but she makes birds as small as chickadees and as large as great blue herons), Dabbs has received recognition as a museum-quality carver. She loves the history, the tradition, the skills and the tools needed to create her artwork.

“I taught a Japanese girl how to carve and she said it was very Zen-like. It is very relaxing and like a meditation to me,” says Dabbs, who sometimes listens to classical music or Top 40 tunes while carving in her workshop.

“I spend a lot of time observing birds, watching how they move their heads or necks,” she adds. “And I have about 50 bird books for reference.”

To make a decoy, Dabbs first uses a band saw to cut a basic shape using one of her duck patterns. The profile of the duck is formed and excess wood removed with a hatchet. The two sides are hollowed out using a curved gouge and mallet, causing the unwanted wood to stand up like rigid fingers, later to be removed.

The top and bottom pieces are glued together, smoothed, and glued and nailed to a carved head with a dowel inside for strength. The bird is painted with exterior house paints (also traditional) and branded with Dabbs’ identifying mark on the bottom.

She doesn’t know which of her decoys will be used in hunting or which will live on someone’s living room mantel. But a dollop of molten lead is poured inside a small bottom cavity to ensure each decoy will right itself in water.

“I want my decoys to be authentic, no matter how they are used,” says Dabbs.

Collectors of vintage duck decoys have paid thousands of dollars for the folk art and one decoy by a master carver sold for $1.1 million in a private sale, says Dabbs. She also tells the story of how one man was driving by a bonfire in someone’s front yard and saw a number of carved swans in the flames. He rescued what he could and they are now in museums.

But don’t look for today’s plastic, mass-produced duck decoys to be on “Antiques Roadshow.” Dabbs is also not a big fan of the “feathered-look” decoys that are being made today.

“It’s very tedious work, but it’s not traditional,” she says. “The decoys look so real you can’t see the personality of the carver. If you know someone’s work, you can look at a traditional duck decoy and know who the carver was.”


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