Issue: May 2003
A Working Purpose

The decoys that Jimmy Pierce and his son Charlie carve can sit on the mantle, but they’d rather bring down the birds.

 

    Wick, wick, wick. The sound of the draw-knife against soft cedar is gentle and smooth, as peels of wood curl off and flutter to the dusty floor, and the head of a canvasback slowly takes shape. The rugged hands of 68-year-old James “Jimmy” Pierce will carve a few dozen delicate heads of the gorgeous Bay waterfowl, the shavings drifting around his feet like sweet-smelling snow, before he sands them down and then takes a much smaller knife and whittles in the details - the curve of the cheek just so, the bridge of the beak a sharp, upside-down V. He has been doing this, over and over, for 53 years. And he never tires of it. Maybe that’s because in each pull of the knife over the wood he knows he is paying a sort of tribute. The wick, wick, wick is like the quiet background music thrumming the air around his home in Havre de Grace, Md., a place where the carving of decoys runs as deep and long as the mighty Susquehanna River beside it.

    Pierce grew up here. “All I had to do was climb over the fence and I was on the river,” he says. “I’ve hunted and fished all my life.” When he was younger, the watermen would trap-net for perch in the spring and pound-net out on the Susquehanna Flats for shad and herring, then haul seine for rockfish in the summer. And come autumn, it would be time to head out on the river to gun for geese and ducks - and so a man would need some decoys to lure the waterfowl close. “Everybody who was a waterman was a boatbuilder and a decoy carver,” he says. “If you wanted a boat you built it yourself and if you wanted to hunt, you made decoys.”

    The birds were, in other words, handmade tools. And Pierce remains true to that original intent; nearly all of his birds are life-size, all are made with a lead or wooden keel under the belly and a ring to tie it to the rest of the “rig” - a hunter’s name for the group of decoys he uses to lure waterfowl within shooting range. The birds are artful but simple, elegant but durable. “Even the decoys I make for collectors, they could throw ‘em overboard and shoot over ‘em,” he says.

    It’s not that he dislikes the refined, decorative decoys that have become fine art. But what he makes represents something else, something far more important to him. “Years ago, it was a way of life, and it was a way to put food on the table,” he says. The work and art of carving working decoys is in his hands and his heart - it is who he is. “The best in a working decoy is probably one that’s been worked for fifty years,” he says. “It’s got shot in it, the head’s been replaced four times, it’s got cracks in it. That’s history there. The one that sat on a mantle all those years never saw the water.”

    To listen to Pierce is to learn about a lot more than decoys. Leaning back in a dusty chair, his ample belly comfortably front and center, he ends most sentences with, “You know what I’m sayin’?” He reveals himself to be as much a philosopher as a carver, ruminating freely on topics from sedimentation in the Susquehanna watershed to what defines “art.” Through it all, history and tradition trickle like a steady stream. 

    Beside him, a chocolate Labrador named Casey lies quietly on the floor, happily gnawing a chunk of wood into splinters. The shop where Pierce and his 33-year-old son Charlie work together, annually turning out about 800 decoys (representing some 40 species), is as comfortable and purposeful as a pair of old hip waders. Wood dust dominates the decor. It drifts in corners and beneath sanders; it sifts like fine flour from the hanging fluorescent lights. Things are slightly less dusty upstairs, where a few mounted racks of deer antlers hang over a long workbench covered in tools, and patterns of the heads of hen mallards and mergansers, bluebills and buffleheads hang from the rafters. Back in the paint room, shelves are stacked top to bottom with decoys in various stages of painting. On a low table in the room’s center, silver cans of paint congregate, and small rafts of brushes, each for a specific task, are stacked here and there. Paint is spattered everywhere, and on the one clean wall by the phone, names, numbers and even a few orders are scribbled in pencil wherever the scribbler could squeeze them in. Dusty posters for various decoy shows and waterfowl festivals are tacked up here and there, and in one corner a framed watercolor shows a bunch of deer whooping it up at a backwoods camp, the hunters hanging upside down with toe tags on them.

 

    Jimmy Pierce was just 14 when he began working part-time at the shop of the late R. Madison Mitchell, Havre de Grace’s undertaker and also its most renowned decoy maker. The town was full of notable carvers - Bob McGaw, Charles “Speed” Joiner Jr., Jim Holly - but Mitchell was dean of the school. He knew how to carve birds that attracted waterfowl, birds that could ride any weather and were elegant and beautiful. He also knew how to make a lot of them - after all, a hunter needed dozens of birds to fill out his rig, not just one or two. Mitchell turned out something like 100,000 decoys in his lifetime, and more importantly, he gave freely of his talent and skills, passing his knowledge along to apprentices and youngsters who would carry the tradition forward. One of them was Jimmy Pierce.

    Even while he worked full-time as a cable splicer for Bell Telephone, Pierce always worked on birds, whittling heads in his spare time or when he was on the road. In 1989 he retired from Bell Telephone and started making decoys full-time, eventually teaching his son Charlie the craft as well. (Full-time is relative, of course. “There’s only twelve months in a year and we play for two months. After Christmas my son and I go hunting for three or four weeks, maybe whittle some heads,” Pierce says. “And now it’s spring and we want to go fishing.”)

    To this day, the Pierces use the same methods Jimmy learned in Mitchell’s shop. The birds begin out back as piles of half-sawn tree trunks that are cut to manageable blocks on a well used 36-inch band saw (Pierce uses white pine or paulownia for the birds’ bodies, basswood or cedar for their heads). From there, the chunks of wood are attached to a reciprocating lathe - a machine that uses a rough template, called a pattern, of the bird’s body to cut a matching form out of the shapeless block. From there, Pierce sands the rough bodies on a belt sander, then “breasts and tails” them - shapes the breast and tail on a drum sander. The bodies are examined for any imperfections - cracks or knots in the wood - and patched if need be.

    Pierce makes the head in a similar way, roughing out the shape first, then slowly refining it using a router, sander, drawknife and spokeshave - a purpose-built tool that has a small curved blade wedged firmly in the center of a spindle of wood. The delicate work of whittling the face and, if it’s a collector’s bird, perhaps some of the feathers, is done last. He attaches the heads to the bodies with epoxy, then does a final sanding before painting them. Pierce paints in oils and uses a technique Mitchell developed called wet-on-wet - applying wet coats on top of one another to create a graceful, feathery result.

    Pierce reckons it would take about eight hours to make a bird by itself, start to finish, but that’s not how he learned and it’s not how he has taught Charlie. They will make dozens of a certain type at a time, finishing each stage of the process for each group of birds before moving on to the next. “This is the same way they’ve been doing it for a hundred years,” he says. “They were doing it for hunters who needed two dozen birds. It’s the same process for miniatures or a full-size bird.”

    Pierce’s decoys go to collectors all over the world, and his is a refreshingly simple system: “I’ll mail a bird and if you don’t like ‘im, don’t keep ‘im. If you do, send me a check.” Meeting people - ”from multimillionaires to people who don’t have nothing, know what I’m sayin’?” - has been one of the unexpected perks of this career. So has been the chance to teach his son all he has learned, and to work and hunt side by side with him. But fundamentally, it’s the love of the craft and all that it represents that brings him into the dusty shop nearly every day, where the wick, wick, wick of a drawknife will resonate for as long as Jimmy Pierce has two good hands to pull it. And even when this is no longer possible, he’s made sure that soft, steady music will play on.

 

    This story is adapted from Wendy Mitman Clarke’s book Window on the Chesapeake: The Bay, Its People and Places, published by the Mariners’ Museum in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.