Havre de Grace's Jobes carving out a living with decoys

The Baltimore Sun

Joey Jobes' workshop is a small, two-story building in Havre de Grace, minutes from the Susquehanna Flats at the top of the Chesapeake Bay. The space is dominated by saws, knives, paints and hundreds of blocks in various stages of transforming into ducks, geese and other birds.

Most horizontal surfaces are covered in tools and supplies, but Jobes seems to know where everything is.

"My life is business," Jobes said. A second-generation decoy carver in the self-proclaimed decoy capital of the world, he has been in his business for most of his 48 years and goes about it with practiced ease.

Jobes started learning to carve wooden hunting decoys of ducks and other waterfowl when he was 5, helping his father, Captain Harry Jobes. Joey's two older brothers, Bobby and Charles, also carve decoys, but Joey said he's "the best out of all of 'em. I am, and ask anybody."

"They're all best, except me," Harry Jobes said. "I taught 'em all, you know. ... [Joey is] liable to tell you anything."

The decoy industry has changed since Harry Jobes, who lives in Aberdeen, started working for legendary carver R. Madison Mitchell in 1949. With cheaper, lighter plastic models and restrictive regulations that prohibit hunting on a commercial scale, wooden decoys aren't as common as they used to be. But increased interest in decoy collecting has made up for some of the lost business, with some models fetching tens of thousands of dollars.

Joey Jobes sells his products at more modest prices — about $80 for ducks, more for geese. He said one-fifth of his customers are buying to build up rigs of decoys for hunting; the rest are collectors.

"When I started, my theory was, 'I'm going to make decoys and whatever I got, I'm going to sell,'" Jobes said. "If you're in the decoy business, that's out the window.

"When somebody calls on the telephone and they say, 'I want a keeled pintail by May the 17th,' you say, 'OK,' and then you work on that pintail, plus you'll probably make six more. ... Like my old man always said, 'The first one's hell. After that one, you're clear sailing' 'cause you've got your brushes out, you've got your tools out, whatever you're working on at the time. But when people call, you have to cater to them."

The upper floor of his workshop is packed with cans of paint and racks of brushes and ringed with shelves of decoys. Most of the ducks are built for use in the water, with four layers of paint and nails to keep the heads on tight, though some are "antique-finish" collectors' models.

"A lot of people like an old-looking decoy without the old price because they've got an antique house," Jobes said. "They don't want nice fancy-looking shiny ducks, they want old!"

Jobes has a design pattern for each of 21 waterfowl species — "every one in North America, we make," he said. He uses canvasback and baldpate patterns from Mitchell, but the rest are his own. Customers visit his shop throughout the year to look for a decoy to add to a rig or one for the mantel.

"Everybody's asking you all the time, 'Have you made anything different?'" Jobes said. "Well, if you don't have any decoys for the general public to buy, you're always making your regular decoys, your canvasbacks, your blackheads, redheads, goldeneyes, buffleheads, pintails, oldsquaws [long-tailed ducks]. ... If I go to the show and they can't pick from 15 kinds of decoys, there's something wrong with 'em."

Each decoy starts as a block of Pennsylvania white pine. Jobes wouldn't reveal the exact source of his lumber — a closely guarded secret among carvers — but he said it's important that the wood be harvested in winter, when the sap has run out of it.

First, he mounts the block on a pattern lathe. The lathe, descended from World War I-era gunstock lathes adopted by decoy carvers, cuts the block into a rough column. Jobes takes the cutout to the main workshop and shaves off the edges with a handheld spokeshave blade.

"When we were 7 and we could use a spokeshave ... [our father would] stand us up on a wooden stool and we'd use it," he said. "If you see it done 10,000 times, you're more than likely going to be able to do it."

Then it's over to the band saw to cut the outline of the breast and tail. After a thorough smoothing on the tube sander, the body is ready for a head, which Jobes carves separately with electric saws and homemade carving knives and razors.

"My dad always says, if you know what a duck looks like, you ought to be able to carve it," Jobes said.

Jobes goes duck hunting when he can, though work usually keeps him busy. He shoots birds on the Susquehanna Flats, either from a boat or by body booting — standing in waist-deep water in a rubber suit, surrounded by his rig. Jobes has a rig of 100 canvasback decoys that he drops in the water from a boat before climbing out himself and taking position with a shotgun behind a bird silhouette.

"The way you place the decoys makes a difference, the number of decoys makes a difference, how you put 'em out makes a difference," said Jeff Lewatowski, a customer and sometime hunting partner of Jobes'. When the real birds approach, "it's a very unnerving feeling, but it's a very cool feeling to have 'em come in on you like that."

Early in the morning in the chilly water, "you and God [are] the only ones there," Jobes said.

Jobes and Lewatowski eat what they kill, or give downed birds to friends who like the taste but don't hunt.

"There are people that don't eat nothing but deer, fish and waterfowl," Jobes said. "Who wants to buy a hamburger in the store for $5.50 a pound? ... If you ate waterfowl, deer and fish, you'd live to be 150 years old."

The Jobeses are working to keep the art of the wooden decoy alive, too.

"The computer and plastic decoys have near put the wood decoy out of business," Harry Jobes said. "But they're not wooden bay decoys — they're not made for the bay and open water, they're made for ponds and creeks and bayous and all that stuff. ... The wooden decoy is made for open water."

"The problem is, a lot of people think it's fun," Joey Jobes said, holding a newly sanded decoy body. "But sit here and do this for eight hours and you won't think it's fun anymore. But you get a certain sense of accomplishment when you take a hundred of these you spokeshave, cut 'em off, get 'em over here, get 'em to that, and you say, 'Wow,' you know, 'That's done — I accomplished this today.'"



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