The Maine Way

How to make a classic Monhegan Island-style eider decoy

By: Keith Mueller
Updated September 17, 2019

 Traditional Maine decoys were practical in design and built for a hard life on the sea. Most of the decoy makers in Maine were lobstermen, boatbuilders, and maritime craftsman, and they designed their decoys simply but made them highly functional. They were tools of the trade, just like lobster traps, clam baskets, and rowing dories. Maine decoy makers carved their decoys from solid white pine or northern white cedar and usually made them wide and oversized so they remained visible on the waves.

Painting was simple, with basic colors of black, white, and brown, utilizing deck or boat paint with no blending or fancy brushwork. The eider drakes were black and white with the green cheek colors often omitted. Hen eiders were solid brown with two small white slashes signifying the white borders of the secondaries. When the decoys had tails, they were thick and strong. Anatomical features were kept to a minimum or left out. The bills on most Maine decoys had very little if any detailing. Eyes, if indicated at all, were either carved or painted. Glass eyes on Maine decoys are rare. Only a few Maine decoy makers incorporated the suggestion of carved wings.

One defining characteristic of Maine decoys is the classic inletted head, a mortise-and-tenon head-to-body attachment. The “mortise” is the large notch chiseled out from the decoy’s top chest. This notch accepts the “tenon,” which is the base section of the head and neck component. When put together well, the head attachment is strong and secure.

Augustus Aaron “Gus” Wilson (1864–1950) was a lighthouse keeper, boatbuilder, waterfowler, fisherman, and Maine’s most notable decoy maker. He hunted the ledges and islets of Monhegan Island, which is about ten miles offshore. Wilson became known for incorporating many animated and lifelike poses into his decoys, which included preening, sleeping, open wings, open bills holding mussels or fish, resting poses, and many others. Wilson was not only gifted with technical boat-building and decoy-carving skills, he also had a very keen artistic eye. He could look beyond a decoy’s form and function and fuse his artistic creativity and technical skills. The results were some of the most artistically rendered decoy sculptures known today. They are truly floating art sculptures.

The decoys Wilson made for hunting off Monhegan Island are considered his best and most recognizable. The Monhegan design features a very fluid profile with a high lifted chest, unusual neck preening pose, and uplifted tail. By pulling the head back high onto the neck, Wilson had the bill join the neck surface, which protected and strengthened the bill.
In this two-part demonstration, I will carve and paint a traditional Gus Wilson Monhegan-style hen eider decoy from northern white cedar using classic methods. Features include the mortise-and-tenon head attachment, carved eyes, and carved wings. The body size is 4" high x 8" wide x 16 1⁄2" long.

I will not paint the decoy with the solid deck brown you commonly see on the originals. Instead, I will use a little artistic interpretation and highlight the plumage with my interpretation of the actual plumage of a hen eider. The features I will incorporate are feather barring, curved tertials, and white wing bars. I will not reproduce them perfectly, but will just indicate them. A simply sculpted decoy should have a similarly simple paint pattern.

I used a Gus Wilson eider decoy as inspiration.

  1. This drake by Wilson shows the classic features of his decoys—an inletted head with the bill down on the body, thick tail, simple paint job, and great artistry. 

  2. My decoy is a hen with a bit more detail in the paint. 

  3. This is what a real hen eider looks like on the water.

Getting Started

The head on this decoy comes from a single block of wood that includes the neck and tenon block. Usually I would carve the head and neck as one piece before setting the tenon block into the mortise notch and continuing the carving. However, because of the way the head pulls down onto the neck, it is much easier to carve if it is separated from the complete blank first. Once I’ve removed the head from the overall blank, I can cut and properly size the top profile of the head and bill on the band saw before starting to carve it. When I permanently attach the head to the block with epoxy and a wood screw, it becomes much stronger overall. That’s an important feature if you use the pulled-back head to pick up the decoy from the water.

  1. Trace the side profile of the head, neck, and tenon block. Make sure that you have located the head on the block with the grain angled slightly downwards as shown on the head pattern/template. When you trace the pattern on the wood, add the neck seam separation line, making sure it is parallel to the bottom surface of the tenon block.

  2. I’ve cut out the tenon block and separated the head.

  3. After drawing the top view of the head and bill on the top surface of the head blank, I cut it out on the band saw.

  4. I’ve cut out the body blank on the band saw. I now need to establish the end of the side profile of the chest. The side profile of the tenon block must line up with the end of the body’s side profile. I use a thin piece of wood as a gauge, placing it perpendicular to the edge of the body blank. Now I can properly align the tenon block to the body.

  5. I trace around the bottom edge of the tenon block to establish the mortise slot area.

  6. The tenon block should fit snugly into the mortise slot. Before I begin chiseling out the wood in the slot, I place the tenon block back onto the marked mortise slot area and determine exactly where to make the initial cuts to get a tight fit. Many chisels will work here. You can use a standard carpenter’s chisel, a hand-made custom chisel, or a hand-made fishtail skew such as the one here. Because northern white cedar is soft with fairly straight grain, I choose a #15 fishtail skew from Knotts Knives. With the sharpened side of the chisel (or skew) facing inward, I begin making a shallow stop cut along the inside edge of the pencil line, using a wooden mallet and minimal striking pressure. The skew is so sharp I do not need much pressure to push into the grain of the wood. The stop cut is a cut along the edge of the mortise line that prevents wood from chipping out beyond the edge. I make several passes along the mortise edge line, going gradually deeper with each pass. When I am confident my stop cut edging is at least 3⁄4 of an inch deep, I slowly begin back-chipping cuts along the entire edge of the mortise slot with my skew and mallet.

  7. With the stop cuts completed around the three sides of the mortise slot, I begin carving out the inside. I take my mallet and skew to the front of the slot and begin back-chipping out the wood. Do this gradually and don’t go deeper than the established depth of the stop cuts. I prefer to make 1⁄4-inch back-cuts and make three passes. Go too deeply and you could end up popping out a piece of wood that extends deeper than your stop cuts and into the body of the decoy. Be careful to maintain shallower back-cuts in the slot.

  8. On the third pass with the mallet and skew I reach the bottom of the initial 3⁄4-inch-deep stop cuts. I now use the skew free-handed to clean up the surface of the slot and get it flat and level. When I am satisfied, I draw a line across the chest below the slot to indicate the slot’s final depth of an inch (the thickness of the tenon block’s tab) and repeat the stop-cut process. It is important to get the slot’s surface smooth and true. The tenon block will not fit smoothly if there are bumps or imperfections.

  9. The tenon block should fit snugly and be easily removed. You should not have to force it into place. In this case the tenon block fit too tightly, so I used my sharp skew and carefully shaved very thin chips along the edge walls of the mortise slot until the block fit perfectly.

  10. For the initial steps of shaping the body, I remove the head block and freehand the carving on my band saw. You can also use hand tools or a Foredom—whatever works best for you. Leave the area along the edges of the mortise slot untouched during the initial body shaping, as you can see here. Then I remove the head/tenon block and round over my carved band saw cuts with my large pneumatic sanding drum. The body is now rounded and generally shaped.

  11. I replace the tenon block into the mortise. Before I remove the head, I trace around the edges where it attaches to the neck seam. Then I use a long wood screw to secure the tenon block into the mortise. Because I will be carving and blending around the edges of the mortise slot, the tenon block needs to be solidly secured.

  12. The neck area of the tenon block needs to blend to the body in a flanged, tapered hourglass shape on the sides of the block. It will retain the original shape as it blends into the body in the front and back. The hourglass shape of the sides must blend gradually into the profile shape. The shape begins at the base of the head, as you can see in the front view. I use my Foredom tool with a large tapered Typhoon cutter in medium grit. How much I carve the edges of the mortise slot is determined by how the neck/tenon block blends into the body. A high, broad chest requires less taper; a shallow chest needs more. I chose a high chest.

  13. With the hourglass taper completed, I remove the wood screw and reverse it to secure the head to the tenon block from the bottom of the block. Now I carve the sides of the head (jowls, cheeks, and nuchal areas) to the neck, continuing the hourglass shape from the sides of the neck. Because the head is snuggled down onto the neck, it is not easy to carve the chin and throat areas until I unscrew and remove the head.

  14. With the rough-shaped head removed from the tenon block, I draw a circle on the rounded neck on the bottom of the head and on the neck seat. This shows me how much wood I need to remove under the chin and throat areas. It also gives me the opportunity to finish sizing and shaping the bill’s lower surface.

  15. Classic decoys like this were open to personal interpretation, and head shapes, bill sizes, and other features varied from decoy to decoy. I will follow Wilson’s example of individualization by giving the head of my decoy a more traditional egg-shape. To start, I draw the width of the top of the head and culmen of the bill on the top surface of the head blank.

  16. Using the pencil lines along the top surface of the head blank as a guide, I begin carving the ovoid convex shape on the sides of the head. The carving terminates at the pencil lines at this point of the head carving.

  17. Now I carve the bill to the accurate size and finish carving under the chin and throat. I re-screw the head to the neck/tenon block and place it back into the mortise slot. I do this to protect the edges of the mortise slot from chipping while I continue carving on the body.

  18. The wings on Monhegan-style decoys are just basic outlines that include the shapes of the wing tips and half the overall shape of the wing chord as if it were half exposed from the side pocket. Once satisfied with the layout, I carve along the outside of my pencil lines with the tip of my large Typhoon cutter, making a shallow trough. It should be no deeper than 3⁄8 of an inch. The front ends (on the top and bottom) of this trough cut should blend into the surface of the body.

  19. I carve the wood from the back between the wings down to the bottom of the trough cut depths to make a slightly crowned surface. This makes the wings slightly raised and elevated. I repeat the carving process along the bottom of the wings to the bottom of the trough cuts. I blend this wood out onto the side pockets, completing the elevation of the wings.

  20. Time to carve the tail. I want it to have a pleasing upward sweep while keeping it thick. I carve the top surface of the tail with a crowned convex surface, with the tip pointing slightly upward. The convex surface tapers to the sides. I leave the tail 3⁄8 of an inch thick.

  21. With the body carving completed, I go back to finish the head. I establish the width of the bill at this point.

  22. Next, I cut the bill width down to the correct width and size (which is open to interpretation), and round the top of the head over to complete the head’s ovoid shape.

  23. Once again, I attach the head to the neck and tenon block with the wood screw. I sand the entire head and neck block with 80- and 120-grit sandpapers. Then I mark the bill and eyes with pencil, making sure they appear even when viewed from the front.

  24. Here you can see the completed head and bill and carved eyes. 

  25. Now it’s time to attach the head/tenon block. First, I attach the head with marine epoxy on the neck seams, and secure it with the wood screw from the bottom of the tenon block. I then apply generous portions of the marine epoxy to all the surfaces of the mortise slot, including the side walls. I add the same epoxy to the bottom and side edges of the tenon block and slowly insert it into the mortise slot. Finally, I wipe off any epoxy that pushes out around the edges of the mortise and tenon.

    There are many methods to “pin” the tenon block into place. I prefer to use common finish nails. These are long, thin nails with small heads, making them easy to countersink with a nail set. The small holes they leave behind half fill over when water causes the wood to swell before priming and painting. For this eider, I use five finish nails: four larger ones to secure the tenon block to the body, and a smaller one through the tip of the bill into the neck. This strengthens the bill and adds extra support to the head along the neck seam. After driving in and countersinking the nails, I put a little water on the end of my finger and dampen each hole to swell the wood. After a few minutes I lightly sand over the holes. For the hole in the bill, I add a little wood filler and sand it smooth once it cures.

  26. The decoy is carved, sanded, and ready for priming and painting.

Monhegan-style Hen Eider

Wood: traditional northern white cedar, Eastern white pine, or any pine or cedar local to your area.
Body dimension: 4" high x 8" wide x 16 1⁄2" long.
Head and neck block size: 4 1⁄2" high x 3 1⁄2" thick x 6" long

Keith Mueller has been a professional bird carver for nearly 40 years. He is a seven-time World Champion and has been named the Living Legend Folk Artist by the state of Connecticut Endowment for the Arts three times. The author of several books, and a carving and art instructor, Keith lives in Killingworth, Connecticut. He has written several articles on color theory, composition, and design for Wildfowl Carving Magazine.


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