Heart of Louisiana: Duck Decoys

Heart of Louisiana: Duck Decoys
Published: Aug. 19, 2015 at 12:20 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 19, 2015 at 2:04 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Hand-carved duck decoys can be works of art and collector's items. But for a couple of New Orleans men, it's more about a passion for carving the lifelike decoys and seeing them work their magic in the marsh.

"I like hunting with wooden decoys," said carver Cal Kingsmill. "In the early 70s, we found out that the old decoys I was hunting  with were really valuable. And that's when I started making them.

Carving wooden duck decoys has been a lifelong passion for Kingsmill and his friend, Eric Hutchison.

"I was born into a family of decoy carvers and duck hunters," Hutchison said.

While the handmade creations are popular with collectors, their real purpose is for hunting.

"A wooden decoy really moves better with the wind and it also attracts, I find it attracts the ducks better. It looks real. This is an art form that's over 1,000 years old," Hutchison said.

Both men learned traditional duck carving from some of the old masters in New Orleans

"I used to love to see them carve and talk to them and sit down and spend the time with them, learning how they did things a long time ago," Hutchison said.

"What I'm doing, I'm getting a basic shape, knocking off the edges on here," Kingsmill said.

"They were made to be hunted over," Hutchison said. "For a while I did the carving for a living, for a while but later on I made them a little fancier, a little smoother, and they were to attract people, not ducks."

It all starts with a block of wood like this that comes from trees that grow naturally here in Louisiana.

"Probably about 90 percent of the wood we use is tupelo gum," Kingsmill said. "But in the old days, the old carvers use this - now this is a piece of cypress root."

It's a two-day process, shaping the duck's body, fitting it with the right size neck and head. Carving in the details of the face, the beak and wings.  And then adding multiple coats of sealer and paint.

"And we do a technique of scratch painting that the old-time carvers did," Kingsmill said.

There are also much larger pieces, life-size swans created for decoration. Between the two of them, Kingsmill and Hutchison have carved thousands of pieces.

"If you look at all of these little shavings, every one of those little shavings is a stroke of the knife, and I've been doing it for 35 years," Kingsmill said. "You can imagine how many times Ii've pulled this arm like that."

"If you can work on the one you feel like working on, and the one you have in mind that you have the inspiration for, it goes fine," Hutchison said. "But when you have to work on the one you're getting paid for, and that's not the one you want to work on right now, then it's work."

But the real payoff comes when the wooden decoys are out on the water, bobbing and shifting in the breeze - and then they bring in the real ducks.

If you'd like to see more of these antique and traditional decoys, many will be on display this Saturday in Baton Rouge at the Antique Decoy Show at the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center.