When it’s just too darn cold, this wood working barn in Cambridge, NY is a warm refuge for a man with a hobby. This is my decoy barn, it’s what we call the grainery, one of my outbuildings here, and as you can see, it’s almost entirely consumed with duck decoys. Steve Sanford hunts all kinds of ducks during the hunting season, but it’s in the off-season that his passion is displayed in the form of beautiful decoys which he hand-carves from raw lumber. In nearly 30 years of carving, Steve has tried his hand at almost every species of duck from the colorful drake widgeon, to an entire rig of Canada geese. Some of his fancier decoys serve merely as mantelpiece accents. Most are actual gunning decoys which Steve uses for hunting. No matter what their ultimate purpose, all of them are stunning. One of the things I’ve found when you hunt ducks is that what you do more than anything else is you sit there and you look at your decoys. So you could look at ugly decoys, or you could look at decoys that give you some satisfaction, so that’s what I’ve done.
To better appreciate this workmanship, consider the starting point. In the course of one afternoon, Steve will transform a crude piece of white pine into a beautiful drake pintail duck. One of the most difficult and time-consuming pieces to carve is the head. The first ones, when you’re learning, take hours and hours because you’re always afraid to take off too much and you don’t really know and if you are cursed with an artistic sensibility, you know, the wrong 64th of an inch can drive you crazy but that’s one of the reasons you do it too. Mostly now I’m just checking for symmetry to see if I’m on the right track here. Big fat-cheeked bird. As with most artistic endeavors, decoy carving demands 100% concentration and skill. Still, during the carving process, there’s time to ponder the philosophies of hunting, art and life. Like anything where you’re working with your hands I’ve found a lot of people, who like myself, work by and large in an office environment where the fruits of your labor are not always easy to identify at the end of the day When you see something actually coming to shape in your hands, I think it meets a need that a lot of people have to know that the investment they’ve made in something is paying off.
One of the reasons why I go to all the trouble to make my own decoys rather than just buying them from a factory somewhere, is twofold one is that it gives you an opportunity to be creative with your hands and with your mind and produce essentially a work of art. I think everybody likes to do that to a certain extent and then the other is that I think a lot of the hunting psychology, it stems from self-reliance, and the more that you can have a hand in everything that goes on in the hunt, whether it’s picking the spot you hunt, or using a duck call, or building a boat, or making your own decoys, that all just enhances the whole experience. The pintail doesn’t really have a pure white tail, but I’m going to start out making it white. When the paint goes on, Steve finds out if his endeavor has been successful. He has carved many birds in the past, thinking he was on the right track, only to see the whole decoy fall flat when the paint goes on. Final bit here is just to put the pale blue racing stripes down the bill that really make it look like a pintail.