Swan Decoys and Thanksgiving
November 27, 2011
The four of us had a great family Thanksgiving here this year. We had to forego our travel plans at the last minute due to work, suffered some disappointment as a result, but the consolation is we are having a quiet, relaxed time together in our snug and cheerful home. Thanksgiving dinner was prepared by all of us in cooperation this year. This was a first, and our children enjoyed participating in the work with my wife and me. Our eight year old son, a budding forager, had picked wild cranberries with an antique-style picker he and I built in the shop earlier in the fall, and so he was more interested than usual in the resulting food.
Our daughter, age 12, is already a fairly accomplished baker, so she was excited to try out a new type of “medieval” apple pie, though none of us are able to discover what exactly is “medieval” about it.
Both children like to eat – must be an inherited trait from Dad – so that added to their enthusiasm.
All in all it has been a lot of fun, and though we are individually busy a good part of the day we have all come together each evening to sit by the wood stove, play word games, read, and practice for our various music lessons. We are enjoying each other’s company and it is very pleasant.
November is the time of year when the hunter’s blood begins to stir. Over the years I have done a fair amount of wood carving, and one thing I’d like to show is the process of building this pair of swan decoys according to a traditional design used by commercial duck hunters early in the 20th century. Historically, these so-called “confidence decoys” were used for hunting ducks, not swans. The idea is that a swan is a comparatively wary bird, so their presence near duck decoys is supposed to give the approaching ducks more confidence.
I made scale drawings based on a few broadside photos of whistling swans I found, and then blew the drawings up to make full sized plans. The finished decoys are each about three feet long. Their basic structure consists of a wood and wire armature with cotton canvas stretched over it. This keeps them very light for their size.
First I cut oval shaped bases out of some wide pine boards I had. Next I cut out the wooden “spine” piece for each, and fastened it to the oval base with waterproof glue and stainless steel screws. Next I cut the profile for each head and neck out of thick blocks of pine I had left over from the legs of an eighteenth century tavern table I built a few years ago. After shaping the heads and necks using a drawknife and chisels followed by coarse sandpaper, I fastened them to the spine piece with waterproof glue. I used a mortise and tenon joint to fasten the neck to the spine – very strong.
Next I marked where the wire hoops would be attached, which involved a lot of estimation and guesswork. I drilled holes around the edge of the base to drive the ends of the wires into, and sawed small notches in the top edge of the spine to hold the center of each wire in place. Then I attached the wires and fastened them in place along the spine using bronze boat nails. Although these particular decoys were constructed as decorative art, I used durable materials designed for functionality. Drawing on my wooden boatbuilding experience, all materials and fasteners are resistant to saltwater corrosion.
After attaching all the wire hoops and adjusting them by eye, I tied strings along the wires lengthwise to keep them from bending out of shape when the canvas is stretched over them. Stretching the canvas was the most difficult part of the construction, and was very time consuming. It took a lot of trial and error and re-stretching time and time again to get the canvas smooth.
After the canvas was tight and stapled around the bottom edge, I sprayed it with water and let it dry to shrink and tighten it further. After several coats of white paint on the neck and body, painted black bill and buttons for eyes, the decoys are finished.
You can also see the finished decoys on the available work page of my web site by clicking here, and scrolling down to “Three Dimensional Work”.