Decoys that tell a story
MUNCY – Wood carver Jeff Keiffer has little use for modern technology, molded plastics, assembly-line painting processes and mass-production manufacturing.
He prefers the hands-on processes and old-fashioned tools that, in the 1800s, produced hollowed-out wooden decoys that were used to lure in birds during hunts. Those antique decoys now are considered treasures and are collected by many people, sportsmen and non alike.
Keiffer calls his hobby Golden Feather Decoys. He has been carving for more than 25 yeas and his creations are styled after the golden era of decoys – from 1890 to the 1930s.
“I was involved in Ducks Unlimited and used to buy true antique decoys and then I just started carving. I got into doing the antique style,” he said.
His business cards read “Decoys that can tell a story,” and the meaning behind that phrase is simple.
“I figured that every old and used decoy could tell all kind of hunting stories. Those decoys were used as a tool for the ‘market hunters’ to make a living and they hunted all the time to provide money for their families,” he said. “Yes, they probably overkilled the waterfowl but they were not aware of that until it was too late. They say the skies used to become darkened from the amount of birds on the Chesapeake (Bay). Those decoys could tell a lot of stories “
When people comment that his decoys look genuinely antique, Keiffer is pleased, because the decoys often are only a few months old.
Today, carving hasn’t become a lost art. It just takes very talented and devoted artists to learn it.
“There are a lot of people carving and there are some really, truly, talented carvers (today). They do everything they can do to try to encourage youth at the competitions and it seems to be on a upswing (with them), hoping they will continue it,” he said.
Tools of the trade
Keiffer’s workshop contains a shaving horse, spoke shaves, carving and draw knives, along with chisels and a variety of other tools. Almost all of them are items that carvers would have used more than 100 years ago.
“The only mechanical tools I use are a band saw and sometimes a power sander,” he said.
Keiffer draws inspiration from reference materials he has collected over the years. Some of his books feature artists of the past such as Elmer Crowell; Joe Lincoln, a New England carver; Gus Wilson and the Ward Brothers.
“I like to study their work and then I like to try to come up with my own patterns based on what they may do,” he said.
Visits to “a lot of museums” across the East Coast also allow him to study the old carving styles, which he works into a style of his own.
Keiffer said he sometimes will look at the contemporary style of today and draw from that, too.
His wood of choice is cedar or white pine. The white pine, Keiffer said, is used most often because it is cheaper and has a heavier grain.
“I do like to use cedar, because that is a lot of what the old time carvers would use,” he said. “It is much more expensive and harder to get ahold of.”
Decoy styles, also called classes, can vary from a piece of mantle art to a functional decoy.
“When I carve a bird, if I am carving for a competition, I take longer, maybe five to 10 hours longer. I go through a lot more detail and try to make it so it is like an old working bird. I will put an anchor on it and sometimes a weight, so it looks like a real rig,” Keiffer said.
He can spend up to 15 hours on a carving, depending on the species. Waterfowl decoys can take the longest, but shorebirds might take around five to eight hours, from start to finish.
Most of his waterfowl decoys are hollow, like the ones made by older carvers, for good reason.
“They would hollow them for two reasons. One, it would make them float better and, two, sometimes it helps if the wood isn’t 100 percent dried out. It will help keep the decoy from cracking. It’s not a guarantee but it helps,” he said.
When hollowing a working piece of his art, he uses two separate pieces of wood. After he carves them, he cuts them with a band saw. Then he’ll gouge out the pieces by hand to make a decoy in the authentic style.
Pick up any decoy and if it’s hollow, then you know there is a little bit more workmanship that went into it, he said.
To finish a bird, he uses almost 100-percent oil-based paints to get the antique look that is evident on his pieces. He said oil-based is what carvers of old used hundreds of years ago.
“I put them through a process depending on how I want to finish them,” Keiffer said.
Some he wears off the paint to give a decoy a very old, vintage look, while he may finish others with a natural stain.
Keiffer competes every year in carving competition across the U.S. He has won a number of awards on a national level for his antiqued bird carvings.
“I have taken best of shows at the Havre de Grace show, blue ribbons or best of shows at (the) Ward Museum (of Wildfowl Art) competition,” he said. He also took another best of show from the Ward Museum in 2009, “which was my biggest accomplishment.”
Blue ribbons also have come from competitions in New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia.
More than decoys
During a recent open house, Keiffer had his artwork on display – and up for sale – at Hill Country Gallery, 4094 Muncy Exchange Road, which is owned by his friend and fellow wildlife artist Ken Hunter.
There were more than decoys on the shelves.
“You get kind of bored when you are doing these (decoys) all the time and lately I have been on an owl kick,” Keiffer said, pointing to a little saw-whet owl.
“I made one for Kristi, my daughter, and I liked it and made another. It sold, then I sold another. This past fall, seems like the saw-whet owl was one of my biggest sellers,” he added.
Among the carvings were festively painted fish, green frogs, delicate hummingbirds and colorful antiqued trout.
“This swan, I made that from slats,” he said, pointing to the feathers on the bird’s back. “I made my own. Cut those out and used a different process of mixed medias to get that carving look, and that piece was naturally aged to make it look that way.”
He said the trout were inspired from making two replicas he started for his sons, Benjamin and Ethan.
“I thought I would make practice ones, paint them, antique them first. I was afraid to start painting (theirs) because I wanted to paint them to be more actual. Well, theirs are now sitting unfinished because I got into these,” Keiffer said.
In the last six or seven months, Keiffer has moved away from doing decoys and more into the variety of other wildlife carvings. But, as the new year begins, he will go back to spending hours perfecting the antiqued decoys to take to competitions.