Photo report: a glimpse of the workshop of a decoy sculptor

JP Hand sits at his workbench and places a freshly painted rig of 10 brant lures in a slot bag as we prepare to hunt in the morning. He built each brant from three pieces of Atlantic white cedar with the kind of tools most people have in their woodsheds – a hatchet, knives and some sandpaper. But when you pick one up, it’s light, like a bird is light, and it looks so natural, it’s like it hatched from a wooden egg.

Everything in Hand’s shop feels like a thing of the past. The furniture appears to have been made over a century ago, and there is a noticeable lack of power tools except for a bandsaw, drill and table saw used only as a table. Yet the lures he makes and the techniques he uses to make them are as relevant as ever.

Store-bought plastic decoys with detailed wings and feathers may look like ducks, but Hand’s wooden decoys exude life and attitude. Each of them displays some kind of personality, a mixture of its own and that of the bird. Hand started carving at 17 when he couldn’t afford lures, and now, at 68, he earns a living carving and guiding at his home and small farm near Cape May Court House, New Jersey.

He’s also a historian, tracing his family’s history to 325 years ago, when his first ancestor settled on the south coast of Jersey and eventually started carving lures himself. Today he sells his decoys to hunters and collectors around the world and has taken on several apprentices.

Like any good artist, Hand knows how to look at things. He constantly observes wild birds on his farm and in the salt marshes near his home, and he is always looking for ways to use the natural materials he finds nearby to represent them. Above all, he can see the character of a bird and freeze it into a wooden decoy that somehow seems to have all the movement of the real thing.

Read next: Q&A: Jerry Talton on decoy carving and keeping the tradition alive

The result of his work is best described by Hand’s friend and fellow sculptor, Pete Peterson, who left me this note before I returned home from our hunt: “A hand-carved decoy is poetry in the making and magic on the water – the autograph of a wooden man.”

A teal lure being made on a chair maker’s workbench – an age-old workbench design likely passed down from European settlers. The stepped block gives the carver something to wedge a lure against while carving. Christophe Testani
Hands sculpting a duck decoy head.
Hand puts the finishing touches on a teal decoy head with a carving knife. Christophe Testani
Hammer a duck bait head onto a wooden body.
The hand sticks and nails a decoy head to a body. Once the glue has hardened, he’ll finish sculpting the lure and blending the seams until it looks like it’s made from a single piece of wood. Hand does not use wood filler or glass eyes on its lures. Christophe Testani
The lure carver looks at a half-finished teal wooden lure.
The hand examines a half-finished lure before fixing the head. Southern New Jersey lures like Hand’s are traditionally hollow and made from three pieces of Atlantic white cedar. Market hunters and outfitters in the late 1800s and early 1900s valued hollow-body lures for their lightweight portability. Christophe Testani
carving tools on a wooden surface.
Left: The hand can rough out a decoy with a hatchet faster than most people can split kindling. Middle: After getting the base form, it switches to a mouthpiece for better control. Right: Hand uses carving knives to fashion a decoy head and tail. Christophe Testani
A hand carved mallard duck decoy.
A mallard duck decoy. Christophe Testani
A table full of open paint cans.
Hand paints and brushes with two primed dove decoys. Christophe Testani
Shelves full of shorebird decoys and antiques.
Hand’s home and dining room are full of treasures like his collection of shorebirds and antique branding irons. Christophe Testani
A flying duck decoy made by JP Hand.
One of Hand’s “flying ducks” mergansers. Christophe Testani
Two handmade miniature ducks.
A pair of miniature sneakboxes complete with hand sculpted miniature lures. Christophe Testani
A pile of hand carved teal lures on a carving bench.
Teal Hand’s personal rig. Christophe Testani
The bottom sinker of a duck decoy with a lead sinker.
The ballast of a teal from Hand’s hunting rig. Hand sells most of his lures, but he puts his son’s name on the sinker he wants to keep and pass on. Christophe Testani
A hand carved atlantic brant lure.
An Atlantic goose with Hand’s characteristic snake-like neck shape. Christophe Testani

(This photo story appears in the Home Issue, the latest digital edition of Field and flow.)

Jack C. Nugent