Carving life out of wood and birds

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2004

MINNEAPOLIS Pat Meneely is in his element, whether hunting over a spread of decoys on a half-frozen slough or hunkered in his dusty garage workshop transforming a block of cedar into a handsome canvasback.

He grew up hunting, fishing and watching his dad build things with wood.

''I've been swimming in sawdust since I was 5,'' he said. ''I've always been around birds and woodworking. The two just came together.''

Meneely, 48, of Minneapolis, is one of Minnesota's top carvers of working wooden duck decoys works of art, really, that are equally at home on a fireplace mantle or bobbing in an icy slough. He meticulously hand carves them using razor-sharp antique drawknives, spokeshaves and chisels just the way they were made decades ago. Then he brings them to life with paint.

It's an art form that harkens back to a simpler era an era of wool hunting coats, wooden duck boats and Labs that wore leather collars, not electronic ones.

It was an era in which hunters either hewed their own decoys or bought them from decoy carvers for 50 cents each.

These days, collectors have made those old decoys and sometimes the ones hand-carved by modern carvers like Meneely worth big bucks.

Meneely was among the carvers whose work was on display and for sale last spring at the Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association show in Bloomington, one of the biggest decoy shows in the Midwest. Collectors and decoys from around the nation were at the show.

Visitors saw decoys ranging in value from $50 to $30,000 or more, though most sell for less than $1,200.

Minnesota was well-represented. Carvers such as Men-eely, Marty Hanson of Prior Lake, Marv Meyer of Richfield, Marv Bernet of Cottage Grove and Dick Schiebel of Hutchinson are considered among the state's top carvers of working decoys, said Dick Tyrrell, president of the Decoy Collectors Association.

''Our crop of carvers right now are probably the best we've ever had,'' he said. ''They each have their own style.''

Meneely has combined his passion for hunting with his passion for carving. He is a carpenter by trade; he does custom woodwork for a company that renovates historic homes in the Twin Cities.

Nights and weekends, he carves and paints decoys that sell for $200 to $400 apiece. His are made to be used, not just admired. Each one is an original, distinctly different from the next.

''A lot of people look at them and say they could never put them in the water,'' Meneely said. ''But easily 50 percent of the people I sell to hunt over them.''

He carves the bodies out of red cedar and the heads out of basswood. He uses a bandsaw to cut out the general shape of the bird, then carves the bird by hand without any power tools. He fits them with weighted, walnut keels. The birds are treated with linseed oil and oil-based paints, so they can withstand the elements.

Of course, there can be drawbacks to hunting over valuable works of art rather than plastic decoys.

''I lost a gorgeous hen ringneck on Lake Osakis that floated away before dawn,'' Meneely said. ''It was a $500 bird. I cringed, like everyone else would.

''When you put out two dozen (hand-carved) decoys, you want to count exactly how many you pick up.''

Still, he wouldn't hunt over anything else.

''They're made to be used. It's part of our history. You look at the old decoys that are 80 or 100 years old; those guys didn't baby them,'' he said.

Some of his customers insist that Meneely hunt with his decoys before they buy them. A handful of the two dozen decoys he hunts with are ones he made, but the rest he has collected from other carvers.

Carved wooden decoys made for waterfowling vary in style. Some are very basic, sparsely painted and shaped like soup bowls. ''A lot of guys didn't put eyes on them, or they used carpet tacks for eyes,'' Meneely said.

Other carvers like to add more intricate details. Meneely is in that group. Those details, he acknowledges, probably are more important to his decoy buyers than ducks.

''I probably add more details than I need to,'' he said.

But that's his style. Other carvers have their own style.

''One thing about art, everyone is an equal critic,'' he said.

His garage workshop, strewn with wood shavings and sawdust, is steeped in outdoor memories. His dad's old fishing rod is on the wall, along with assorted tackle, duck feathers, newspaper clippings, photos and, of course, decoys, some completed, some in various stages of carving.

There's plenty of time to think while peeling layers of cedar off a block of wood. It's a time to be alone with his thoughts to recall days afield with shotgun and decoys.

''You sit out here surrounded by hunting and fishing stuff,'' Meneely said. ''It's nice.''

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