If it looks and floats like a duck, it's a Deagle decoy


March 25, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Sun Staff Corespondent

TALL TIMBERS -- Sometimes as early as 4 in the morning or as late as 10 at night, Tommy Deagle slips out the back door of the tiny frame house on a cove off St. George Creek and ambles the few yards to his workshop to carve.

And sometimes he just spends all day in the duck blind in the marsh only a few yards from his front door in St. Mary's County, watching the birds to get a better feel for their coloring, the shapes of their heads or the way they arch their necks and preen their feathers.

Mr. Deagle, a former waterman, makes wooden decoys that are incredibly accurate reproductions of the waterfowl of Chesapeake Bay. Turn the body of one of his finisheddecoys back and forth and watch the shades of green on the head and blues on the wings change as they do on live ducks. Slip one into the water and see other ducks swim to meet it.

"I take a picture in my mind," he says. "Then I come back and draw it and carve it."

The carvings become wood ducks and swans, blue-winged teal, canvasbacks, loons and marsh wrens -- "whatever you see in the bay," he explains.

They've become so popular that he says he could work for a year andnever catch up on the back orders.

Mr. Deagle even has customers in Arkansas, Louisiana and Prince Edward Island, Canada. "People I never even heard of," he says. "But usually, they went hunting with somebody who has one of my decoys and they wanted some too."

Mr. Deagle, whose ancestors were shipwrights in England and whose father and grandfather built workboats in a shed near their house, started carving out of necessitywhen he was 10 years old. He had broken the head off an uncle's decoy and had to replace it.

When that turned out well, he tried carving duck's bodies. And over the next 20 years, he continued honing his skills, mostly for relaxation, while he worked as a waterman.

"I'd come in from working the tongs all day long and just go out in the workshop and carve," he recounts. "It was relaxing to me."

His work became so popular among hunters in Southern Maryland that he quit crabbing about five years ago just to catch up on the back orders.

"I sold my crab pots and bought 1,000 feet of lumber," he recalls. "I figured I could carve in the summer and go oystering in the winter."

But the oysters died off from pollution and disease, and the orders for more decoys piled up. Now he carves full time in a narrow workshop with wood shavings ankle-deep on the floor and shelves lined with books on waterfowl, old decoys from his earliest carving days and pieces he has just finished, waiting for customers to pick them up.

A large white swan, its neck gracefully curved and feathers delicately shaded, sits on one workbench among others that are nearly finished. It's a wedding present for a cousin.

On another shelf, a tiny Baltimore Oriole is mounted on a piece of driftwood plucked from the marsh, as are quail and other smaller birds.

"I make them from the scraps from bigger pieces," he says.

Mr. Deagle makes decoys much as they were made 100 years ago. He uses a band saw to cut the rough shape of a body from a large block of soft sugar pine, then refines it a little further with a hatchet. He clamps the body into a vise for more detailed carving with a two-handled knife that he draws toward him as he works, then sands the wood smooth and sets it aside.

"I make the bodies all at once, then I make the heads all at once," he explains, pointing to a cardboardbox loaded with wooden duck bodies.

After the heads are attached and the glue dries, he begins the painstaking process of painting the ducks, first the primer coat, then the detailed finish, mixing paints in large clam shells dredged from the Southern Bay.

For one wood duck, he uses 17 different brushes, one for each color, and a fan to blend the colors just so.

When all that is finished, he floats the decoy in a tub of water to check the balance -- "Sometimes . . . they might go off to one side," he says -- and then uses lead weights along the bottom to make the decoy float properly.

Mr. Deagle says he knows of a man in Havre de Grace who uses a machine and can turn out decoys a lot faster than he can. And maybe he could do that, he says, "but I like doing it this way."

From the window of his workshop, he can see the pier where his father and brothers, uncles and cousins tie up their workboats. He watches them leave in the morning and come back in the afternoon. And sometimes, he says, he misses crabbing and oystering.

"The biggest reason I enjoy this is people get my decoys and they enjoy them," he says. "Most of them wind up on mantels. A few people hunt with them. But it makes me feel good that they like my work. And it makes me feel better that they come back and buy more, and I can keep working."

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