Va. factory largestof its kind in world


September 13, 1990|By Pat Emory | Pat Emory,Special to The Sun

OAK HALL, Va. -- Anywhere else these lathes might be cutting baseball bats, but on Virginia's Eastern Shore, where another sport struck out America's favorite pastime, a factory has adapted the lathes to cut life-sized wooden ducks, geese and shore birds.

Each year, about 75,000 decoys take flight from Stoney PoinDecoys Ltd. in Oak Hall to nest in homes all over the country.

These are the kits that make up three-quarters of Stoney PoinDecoys' $1.5 million business. The kits range in price from $16 for rough-cut ducks and geese to $195 for a ready-to-sand and ready-to-paint "swan in repose." Finished birds can be purchased for about twice the cost of a kit.

Though kits are generally considered to be for beginners, sales to advanced amateurs and craftspeople, who use the kits to create decorative decoys for resale, have helped make Stoney Point the world's largest decoy factory.

"When some of these people get done with these pieces, they don't look like our birds," said sales manager Monty Lightfoot. Many of the company's buyers are good enough to whittle such a bird from a piece of wood, but by buying a "blank," as a basic wooden duck pattern is known in the business, they save themselves hours of carving, he said.

Some craftspeople who buy Stoney Point kits in bulk may be just one step below the professional carvers who start from a block of wood to create decoys that command thousands of dollars each.

Inside the factory's retail store are examples of what craftspeople have done with the company's kits. Stoney Point buys back a few decoys with intricately carved feathers to sell in its showroom.

These birds are far more intricately carved than Stoney Point'own "finished" products. They serve to show would-be kit buyers who come in and browse through the store what they can do as they learn to carve and whittle blanks into replicas of ducks, geese, swans or shore birds.

A piece starts as a block of wood, usually Eastern white pine, that is rough-cut on a machine. A lathe cuts a more finished bird. Smaller pieces can be cut on a 24-piece duplicator that uses a pattern made of bronze or hardwood.

Some pieces require a little hand carving to finish them, and they are sanded by craftspeople using rotary or belt sanders. The company has three painters, working out of their homes, who paint, sign, date and number the finished birds, just as professional wood carvers do.

Each year, thousands of vacationers on the Eastern Shore heading south to Chincoteague or Assateague Island, or north to Ocean City and Rehoboth stop in the factory's showroom, on Route 13 just south of the Maryland border, to look over the thousands of finished and unfinished waterfowl and shore birds and to peek through the picture windows at craftspeople putting the finishing touches on about 300 decoys a day.

This walk-in trade generates $2,000 to $3,000 daily in sales during the tourist season and undoubtedly has turned more than a few spur-of-the-moment buyers into lifelong hobbyists or professional wood carvers.

This year, visitors have more than usual to choose from. For the first time, the company has expanded outside the bird kingdom to include fish, Santas and other wooden folk-art pieces. However, birds remain its mainstay, accounting for 95 percent of its market.

The company offers 15 species of ducks, 12 shore birds, several swans and numerous other patterns, but its most popular bird over its 17 years in business has always been the mallard.

"The mallard is the most-recognized species, and it has a lot ocolor," said Mr. Lightfoot, who noted that Stoney Point has made hundreds of thousands of mallards.

Its most unusual model is undoubtedly the life-sized swan, which Mr. Lightfoot said is not available from any other source. The swan decoy is so big the company had to build its own lathe to cut each bird from a block of wood.

Every year, the company adds about a dozen pieces to its line of wooden decoys and folk art. The changes are usually dictated by wholesale customers, who know the needs of their buyers and ask the company to produce what they want.

One example is the roadrunner that Stoney Point created for a wholesale customer in Arizona. Recently, the company added a line of wooden fish to accompany an artist's book on how to paint them.

Though many of its patterns were made by Raymond anLeonard Hornick, who founded Stoney Point, nationally known Chincoteague carver "Cigar" Daisy, who has been featured in National Geographic magazine, created the "pattern," or prototype, for several of the waterfowl, including the magnum loon.

Mr. Lightfoot attributes the business' success to the fact that "we got into the decoy business very early and worked out the kinks."

The Hornick brothers, who moved their decoy-carving business out of the family garage and into the Oak Hall factory in 1973, may have helped spur the nation's fascination with the art form.

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