Decoy carver gradually found a distinctive style of coaxing fowl from wood He's a machinist, painter, carver

November 29, 1992|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,Contributing Writer

Wood shavings cling to his sweater, and sawdust coats his skin. Old scars from carving knives and a recent cut from a drum sander mar his hands.

For 12 years, Dan Carson has been perfecting the age-old craft he learned from the masters -- turning chunks of white pine logs into graceful wooden decoys.

Today, he works out of the bottom of a restored barn in the Steppingstone Farm Museum at Susquehanna State Park, in RTC exchange for which he demonstrates the craft during the summer.

But he prefers the winter months, when he's watched only by flocks of decoys on the floor-to-ceiling shelves lining the stone walls, and there's no need to clean up the sawdust settling under the lathe.

Mr. Carson discovered his solitary occupation in 1980, while working on a horse farm near Jimmy Pierce, a well-known decoy carver from Havre de Grace.

"I just sort of stumbled into it," Mr. Carson says, recalling that as a teen-ager he found the job's flexible hours appealing. Even though he found himself putting in 70 hours at Christmastime, he enjoyed being able to do so in the middle of the night if he felt like it.

The Havre de Grace 26-year-old continued working on decoys while completing a degree in general studies at Harford Community College.

"And I kept doing it, and sales started to pick up," he says.

He never considered himself artistic but learned his craft watching older carvers.

"Jimmy Pierce, he taught me a lot. You had to study him -- watch him paint," Mr. Carson says. "People didn't like to give their secrets out, so you just kind of watched them."

Along with painting the ducks, one of the hardest things was simply learning to sharpen his tools properly, he says.

He often uses a spoke shaver made by the Amish and delicate carving tools he makes from old straight razors.

When he works on the bodies of the birds, he sits on an old German wood vise that allows him to brace the duck with his feet while pulling a draw knife toward himself in long, smooth strokes.

But the body begins much earlier, when a log is placed on a modern lathe that works like a key machine.

A finished body is attached to one part of the machine and the log to another, and the lathe follows the contours of the first body to carve the second.

In addition to learning to hand-sharpen old tools with stone, Mr. Carson also had to become a proficient machinist to properly balance the lathe. Other technological advances include the use of a drum sander, which puts an air bag behind the sanding belt, and an electronic belt sander that allows him to smooth the delicate curves of the heads.

"You have to be a machinist and carve and paint and hope you keep all your fingers," he says, recalling that in the beginning he had many bloody fingers.

Painting the delicate colors and feathers of the birds proved equally difficult.

"You could have a beautiful carving and put on a clown paint job," Mr. Carson says.

But the hardest part of his craft was developing his own style.

Working decoys are made from patterns -- silhouettes of heads and bodies of waterfowl on thin slices of wood. R. Madison Mitchell, the renowned Havre de Grace carver whose decoys command more than $200 each, created many of the patterns.

"Everybody had Mitchell's patterns," Mr. Carson says. "I had to ,, break away enough that I had my own style. You have to do something different or you're going to be owning a lot of decoys."

Mr. Carson is noted for his swans and the distinctive twisted necks of his birds.

"The swans really got my name out there," he says.

One fan of Mr. Carson's work is Daniel W. Lee, who owns MacGregor's Restaurant and Tavern in Havre de Grace.

Mr. Lee displays 30 or 40 decoys in his seafood restaurant,

including many of Mr. Carson's. He stopped at Mr. Carson's workshop to pick up a swan to replace one a customer had stolen and a lamp with a swan that he had commissioned.

"For as young as Dan is, his body styles are great, and his painting is incredible," Mr. Lee says.

The birds, some 25 species of waterfowl -- from blue wing teals to common mergansers to Canada geese -- cost around $45 for && a duck up to $550 for a large swan.

Many of Mr. Carson's customers are collectors, he says, and "a lot of people are buying them thinking they'll be worth more down the road."

The decoys also have become popular Christmas gifts.

"My wife, Tina, is patient," Mr. Carson says. "She knows at Christmastime, she's not going to see me and I'm going to be grumpy."

Mr. Carson makes up for the long Christmas hours in the summer. Because it's too humid then to apply his blend of several different types of paint, he concentrates only on carving. If it's a slow summer, he says, his wife's work as a nurse supports them.

Mr. Carson estimates he grosses $25,000 to $30,000 a year. He expects that to increase with his recent purchase of about $25,000 worth of tools and machinery. An assistant, Bob Mech, primes and sands for him.

Each bird takes a few hours to make, and Mr. Carson creates some 60 birds a month. He journeys to lumber mills in Pennsylvania to find the white pine and bass wood he prefers, but the location of those mills is a closely guarded secret.

He also studies birds in books and magazines, and, of course, the real thing.

Mr. Carson loves hunting and canoeing and wandering the fields along the Susquehanna.

And he plans to attempt carving some animals "just for myself" and just bought some land where he hopes to help build his own house, though he's not sure he'll be much help.

"People think because I do this, I'm handy," he says, laughing. "I'm not. I'm no carpenter. I can't deal with exact measurements."

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