Bob Brophy, Decoy Artist

The geese came in over the tree line, heads moving back and forth, looking for a place to land in the recently cut corn field. They were unusually quiet. No honking or calling, just floating down through the blue late-October sky toward their morning breakfast spot. The 200 or so wings slicing the air made a soft whooshing sound as they flared over our decoys and reached for the ground. Bob slid back the cover to our bale blind, smoothly and unhurriedly stretched his 12-gauge Remington 1100 out past the edge and fired.

An angry swarm of #4 shot caught up to the first goose and he fell to the ground. With practiced ease Bob picked up on another target and let fly again. The second goose buckled under the load and dropped to the field as well. My Browning Citori barked twice and Nate was busy at the other end of the blind with his 1100. It only took about 10 seconds, but before it was over Bob, Nate and I had five more geese to clean. The decoys and calling had worked. We would have roast goose for Sunday dinner.

Later that evening I sat in the living room in Bob’s house in Essex, Ma. It was like being in a waterman’s museum. Surrounding us were a multitude of decoys in all stages of completion. The hallway to his shop is lined with shelves of finished decoys and pieces in progress. The cluttered work area itself is filled with the deer heads of past hunts, beaver pelts being stretched, birds he has preserved by taxidermy himself, a gun cabinet filled with worn favorites, beautiful decoys that he just can’t bear to sell, and the garage below cluttered with 17 different antique sneak boats and hunting gear.

Bob caressed the soft basswood mallard he held in his hands as he settled into his favorite chair. Rolling it over two or three times, he studied the lines already burned, picked up the electric pencil and started to draw the short dark grooves that made the feathers stand out. His strong left hand gently held the incomplete work as he slowly applied firm but delicate strokes with his burning tool. The feather lines started to appear.

“How long will it take you to burn the whole decoy?” I asked.

“About two football games,” came the reply.

“When did you first start carving decoys?”

“When I was 15.”

“That is some 70 years ago, right?”

“Yep. I started with just some simple working blocks out of cork and then gradually got into carving decoratives as well. I am not sure why, but I began numbering them right from the beginning. To date I have completed 3,147 decoys plus countless other projects. I grew up in a family of nine kids…three girls and six boys. Shot my first deer at 15 and duck-hunted on the Taunton River. We couldn’t afford decoys, so I started carving my own.”

Bob has been a clever inventor his whole life. After graduating as a machine designer from Wentworth Technical College, he went to work at United Shoe in Beverly, Massachusetts. where they made machines to make shoes. He got recruited into the research end of the business and was part of the team that invented things like the flip-top can and pop rivets.

“The pop rivet was a real puzzler. The shaft kept breaking in the wrong place. I had the bright idea of nicking the metal where we wanted it to break. Suddenly it worked every time. We had a similar problem with the flip top can. The tab kept breaking off or the top of the can would leak. We found out that the aluminum ALCOA was sending us was not of uniform thickness. Once we refined our specs, we figured out how to make the right indentations to make it all work. Because we were working for them, they got to keep all the patents!”

“I notice that you do not carve in your shop,” I said.

“One night, just after we got married, I was working in the cellar carving a decoy,” he replied. “My wife came down and asked me what I was doing. I explained to her the process. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I didn’t get married to set alone in the evening. Why don’t you bring that work upstairs? Just clean up after yourself when you are done.’ Been carving in the living room ever since.”

Brophy is a consummate artist with his work coveted by serious collectors all over the world. Once you have seen one of his birds you will immediately under- stand why he will never have to seek out another order for the rest of his life. What sets his decoys apart is the attitude they project. From solid wood they seem to come alive with a head set at just the right angle or the wings looking as if they are about to unfold for flight. They are never geometrically square. They look like they are in movement while they are sitting still. It is hard to describe until you see them: the genius of art rather than mechanics.

“Of all of the decoys you have carved, what are two or three of the ones you think you have done the best?” I asked.

“A preening black duck and a drumming ruffed grouse on a log,” came the reply. “It is not that they were the most difficult to cut, they just seemed to be the two that looked the most natural—the most alive.”

The preening black duck has his beak into the feathers as a real bird would do and, if you cock your head just right, you can almost hear the sound of the drumming ruffed grouse as he calls to a mate from a log.

Brophy uses basswood for the decoratives and cedar for the working blocks. Basswood has a tight grain, does not split and it’s soft; a great wood for carving the detail in the bill and eye sockets. He gets that wood from the tree surgeons in the area and takes the logs to a local sawmill that will mill them into two-inch and four-inch thick planks. They then have to dry for at least a year. The cedar planks come from logs he got out of Maine. Again he has the mill cut them to the right size. The cedar is naturally resistant to rot and works really well in the salt water environ- ment. It too is fairly easy to carve.

It takes two four-inch planks to make a goose and two 2” planks to make a duck. He cuts the boards to the right length. Then he drills holes into the planks and uses dowels to hold them together while he shapes the decoy. First he uses a band saw for the rough outline and then shapes that further with a small sculptor’s adze. From there he works the wood with Surform files until he gets pretty close to the finished form.

Once the rough work is completed, he takes the two planks apart by removing the dowels and then hollows out, the inside of the bird. This is done for two reasons. The first and foremost is that it prevents the wood from splitting as it ages and dries out. The second is that it makes the decoys much lighter. Once hollowed out the two parts are glued together for a permanent bond. However, just before he glues them together, he puts a few shot into the cavity so that any handler can hear that the decoy is hollow. For decoratives he uses Elmer’s glue. but on working decoys that are going to be in the water, he applies two-part epoxy. The heads are carved separately and attached to the body with dowels and glue.

Now comes the fine work that really defines this artist.

“I use a 3-inch blade with a 4-inch round handle,” he said. “The knife I really like is an old United Shoe leather knife. You can’t find them anymore, so the ones I have have been ground down a bit. I take the straight back and grind a curve into it so it is easy to use around the decoy. Then I sharpen the tip so I have a really good point. I suppose other knives would work just as well, but I am used to these.”

Using that knife and sandpaper he works the wood until subtle shapes appear. From there he applies the burning tool to define the feathers.

“I love to carve and burn, I hate to paint. I often will accumulate several decoys before I am forced to do it. But when I am in the mood, I paint everything in sight and tell Fran, my wife, not to sit still or she’ll get painted too!” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “It is a time-consuming and precise process. I guess I do not like it because man-made paint can never dupli- cate the beautiful natural colors of a wild bird. I can carve them so they look like they are ready to fly, but the paint is always a little less than the perfection I would love to see.”

He starts with Bullseye 1/2/3 primer sealer. This closes the grain and seals the wood. Then he uses acrylics to make the bird come alive. On working decoys he will apply oil paints, as they stand up better to wear and tear of everyday use. It is a layering process that takes days to complete but gives the decoy beautiful depth.

Once complete, these birds look as though they are ready to just fly right off the table. Only someone who has spent a lifetime in blinds or sneak floats could capture that realism.

“What are you carving next?” I asked.

“I have a customer that is collect- ing a decoy for every known species of duck in North America and has contracted for a new bird every month. He has 19 already, only 24 more to go!”

Dr. David and Mary Gayle Sartwell are an award-winning writing and photography team who have published thousands of articles in both newspapers and magazines. They are outdoor people specializing in adventure travel. Both love travel, bridge, good food and wine, fly fishing and outdoor adventure of any kind.

Dr. David and Mary Gayle Sartwell are an award-winning writing and photography team who have published thousands of articles in both newspapers and magazines. They are outdoor people specializing in adventure travel. Both love travel, bridge, good food and wine, fly fishing and outdoor adventure of any kind.