EAST BEND — Visitors to the Yadkin County Public Library in November were treated to some of the finest wood carving around.
John Nicholson of East Bend had many of his wood-carved duck decoys on display in the library’s entrance exhibit. The decoys represent hours of hard work and awards Nicholson has won during his hobby career.
Nicholson began carving blocks of wood into birds 40 years ago. Originally he carved smooth songbird pieces, moving up to owls and ducks later on.
Nicholson stopped carving for 10 to 15 years, then picked up the hobby again six years ago. It was then that he “got serious about it,” but his early work was by no means shabby or amateur.
When people use the phrase “labor of love,” oftentimes they focus on the love rather than the labor. For Nicholson, the love comes with a high amount of labor.
Nicholson estimated that he spends somewhere between 75 and 100 hours per duck. Each one sells for about $300.
He refuses to keep track of how many hours each one takes exactly to avoid discouragement, but when one of the beautiful ducks sits finished in his hands, it reminds him why he loves carving so much.
He created three decoys this year.
“I enjoy it. I don’t make much money out of them because the time you spend in them — my goodness! I don’t even try to keep up with the hours because I know I’m making $3 an hour,” Nicholson joked.
A duck starts with a block of wood for the body. Nicholson uses tupelo wood for the decoys and acrylic paint for the coloring.
“It’s a real light wood. It carves good; it textures good as far as your burning.”
Sometimes bass wood is used, but Nicholson said the wood tends to get “fuzzy” and is only carved occasionally.
“Your best wood comes out of Louisiana, and it grows in the swamps,” Nicholson said. “Basically the bottom three feet of the tree is all that’s, what you’d say, carving wood.”
Harvesters go in during the drier months and cut the trees, then split it into slabs and sell to customers like Nicholson.
Sometimes Nicholson will carve the head out of the same block of wood, but more often than not he chooses a second piece of wood and blends the two together.
The separate head allows him to work under the duck’s chin, creating the bill and head before gluing the piece onto the body.
Glass eyes are inserted instead of painting them in.
A tool similar to a heated razor blade is used to add texture to the “feathers.” Nicholson controls the amount of heat that works through the blade and makes line after line all across the body.
Painting is the largest part of the process.
“I’ve got to the point that I’m fairly well satisfied with the carving. The painting is still where I struggle,” Nicholson said. “I struggle dearly on painting.”
Nicholson agonizes over the details of each feather, making sure the colors blend just right from the beak to the head, to the neck and beyond.
He brings the decoys home and works on them after shows — even after a duck wins an award. Perfection is all he will accept.
He said he has spent hours repainting a section of feathers roughly the size of a 50-cent coin.
But at some point one has to know when to start and when to stop, Nicholson said.
That level of self-criticism means some ducks never make it past the carving stage.
Nicholson has several ducks and two geese that, when he realized they would not measure up to the picture in his mind, were sat aside. His unfinished works are better than many winning pieces by other carvers, despite Nicholson’s modesty.
Ducks are his preference for carving, especially hens.
Hens are female birds and drakes are males.
He uses pictures, ducks killed while hunting, and templates to get started. After that he said one has to have the image in his or her mind to make it appear in the wood.
The carving competitions he enters are divided into three categories.
Puddle ducks — mallards, wood ducks, teal, etc. — are common among competitors. Also called dabblers, these ducks feed in shallow water on plants and animals.
Divers include species like buffleheads, mergansers and eiders. These ducks get their name from diving into deeper water for fish.
The third category includes larger waterfowl. Geese and swans are cut from larger blocks of wood to closely resemble the real animals.
There are novice, intermediate and open classes.
The decoy carving contests are judged on their ability to act as an actual hunting decoy. Judges critique each bird by the realism of the feathers’ texture, the paint, and the way the bird floats in the water.
“They’ll put them in the water and they have to float like the actual duck,” Nicholson said.
Smaller birds are whole blocks of wood, while larger ducks and geese are hollowed out to maintain that level of flotation. The lightness of the wood used also plays into the hollowing.
Nicholson prefers to use light pieces of wood over hollowing. Over the years he’s learned to pick out the right pieces to avoid doing extra work and trouble that no one sees inside the decoy.
Through the years he has won several contests for the “best species” category. His mallard, for example, competes against other mallards for the most realistic.
After each species is judged, the winners go against each other regardless of species for the “best of show” prize.
Last weekend, Nicholson won his first best of show at Harkers Island with a hen green-winged teal decoy — his favorite he has ever created. He was competing in the intermediate class.
Most of his decoys already are sold, though he chooses not to work on commission.
He will begin and create a decoy and then if someone takes a liking to it, it goes to the customer. The arrangement keeps the additional pressure of pleasing a customer off of Nicholson and lets him focus on the tedious work alone.
He usually sells his pieces one at a time, but when some of his ducks were on display in the Lewisville library several years ago, a man from the area took an interest in Nicholson.
Since then he has become a regular customer. As he kills ducks he brings orders to Nicholson, hoping to have a matching decoy for every bird he collects.
Nicholson has created some of his most unusual species for the man, including a harlequin — a duck that lives and is hunted in regions like Alaska and the high Northeast United States.
While he doesn’t have a favorite, a drake pintail and a drake wood duck rank high.
But it’s the hen green-winged teal that’s the apple of his eye.
“I may keep that one, since it’s the first best in show that I’d won,” Nicholson said.
Reach Taylor Pardue at 835-1513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.