It was an ordinary log from a paulownia tree, a seasoned slice of timber that, in another life, might have gone up in smoke in the fireplace of the Carson home in Havre de Grace. But Dan Carson had other plans for the 20-inch slab in his backyard.
A mallard, it would be.
Carving ducks is old hat for Carson, one of a handful of waterfowl artisans in the Harford County town, the self-proclaimed “Decoy Capital of the World” and home of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. Carson, 52, has fashioned more than 25,000 birds, prompting the question: How quickly can one turn a stove-sized log into a duck’s body?
“Two hours,” he said. Then he proved it, baring that log to a battery of screaming saws, lathes and razor-sharp carving knives in his workshop and crafting the unpainted mallard, head included, with 20 minutes to spare.
“You questioned me, huh? Well, I questioned myself,” said Carson, brushing sawdust off his clothes and hair. “I cut my thumb slicing a baked potato last night.”
The carving, however, went smoothly. When painted and weighted on the bottom, for buoyancy, Carson said the mallard could be floated nearby on the Susquehanna Flats to lure its like in hunting season, which runs, off and on, from October to January.
“I’ve seen ducks swim right with [the decoys] and talk to them,” he said. “Nothing amorous; they keep it clean.”
Do the real teals, coots and wigeons seem to appreciate his work?
“I don’t think they care if another decoy was ever made again,” he said.
While there’s “a good sense of satisfaction” in bagging birds baited by one’s decoys, Carson said, he’s a better craftsman than hunter: “Many times we didn’t get our limit [six ducks per day], and were thankful there was a grocery store nearby.”
Nowadays, his work, and that of others, is more apt to land on fireplace mantels than in the drink. Of late, hunters favor cheaper plastic and Styrofoam ducks.
Decorative decoys have claimed the upscale market; folk art sells. Carson’s ducks go for several hundred dollars a pair; the graceful long-necked swans, his favorites, bring as much as $3,000 apiece at auctions and are a hit as wedding gifts.
The first decoys were carved by Native Americans. Ducks made of tule (bulrush) nearly 2,000 years ago were discovered in a cave in Nevada in 1924. By the mid-1800s, many residents of Havre de Grace whittled their own ducks, then set out to bag their dinner in the shallow delta at the head of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the largest overwintering sites for waterfowl on the East Coast.
Craftsmen gravitated to the area and, in 1981, the town held its first Havre de Grace Decoy and Wildlife Art Festival (May 4-5 this year). The museum opened in 1986 and includes works by Carson and other celebrated local artisans, whose numbers have shrunk from about 32 in the 1950s to perhaps 12 today, said C. John Sullivan of Bel Air, author of a dozen books on the history of waterfowling.
“Carving is 90 percent decorative now,” said Jim Pierce, 84, the patriarch of Havre de Grace decoy carvers who gave Carson his start nearly 40 years ago. His protege’s work is “very collectible,” Pierce said. “He makes a nice-looking bird; I’m very proud of that boy.”
Carson is “one of the most talented carvers around,” said James W. Carroll Jr., editor of the Canvasback, a quarterly journal published by the museum. “He typifies the way you get good at carving, through a chain of apprenticeships that goes back decades, if not centuries.”
Some years back, Carson quit carving full-time, his work impinged by the broken neck he suffered when he fell from a tree as a child.
“I was pretty grouchy when I had to give it up; I had hundreds of orders on the books,” he said. His ducks appear on eBay and have migrated worldwide, as far off as Australia.
A Realtor now, Carson still sculpts waterfowl, mostly for fundraisers like those that combat Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive disease that afflicts his son, Mark, 17. Those carvings are a labor of love.
“There’s a satisfaction in being an artist, in taking the history of the area and showing people the ways of the past — and then enhancing it,” Carson said.
Easy work, it is not.
“This is not something you can learn in a one-month crash course,” he said. “I carved six years before I ever made a whole duck, and 10 years before I mastered the painting. You’re tentative at first, afraid to cut off too much [wood] for fear of destroying your duck. But if you err too much on the side of caution, you get a square-looking head.”
Painting the birds is a rewarding, if often frustrating, job. Imagine depicting the subtle markings and nuances of 25 different ducks, as he has done.
“A lot of the early ones that I painted, I’d like to have back — or burned,” Carson said. “You realize who your friends are when they buy your early ducks.”
His heads are made of basswood, the soft, sap-free trunk of the linden tree. While Carson shapes the bodies largely with machine tools, the heads are mostly handmade.
“This is what I’m scared of, the worst of all tools,” he said, reaching for a carving knife to sculpt the mallard’s cheeks. Once, while working, the knife slipped and plunged into his hand.
“My hand went black, and I had to knock off carving until the deep puncture healed,” he said.
Finally, having run the gantlet of band saws, wood rasps and belt sanders, the mallard is done. Head greets body with a band of epoxy glue. Carson steps back, inspecting his work. At what point can he imagine the duck quacking?
“Usually when I’ve been drinking too much,” he said. “Really, when I look at this, I feel good, like I’ve not only carried on a tradition but refined it. It’s not all about the money; I want to put beautiful pieces out there that represent the area.”
He paused, caressing the smooth, newborn mallard.
“Maybe, in four or five years, I’ll get back into this.”