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Boozer's hand-carved decoys are working pieces of art

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Boozer's hand-carved decoys are working pieces of art

Carver Tom Boozer of Meggett shows how the eyes are inserted into his hand-carved hollow body decoys.

File/Staff

Tom Boozer's workshop looks pretty much like you would expect of someone who makes working hollow body wood decoys. Boozer's decoys are not only pieces of art; they also are made and expected to be used in the harsh environment of duck hunting.

The secret to carving a wooden duck decoy is to remove everything form the block of wood that doesn't look like a duck, and that means lots of wood shavings on the floor. Blocks of wood waiting to be turned into decoys are stacked inside. There's a wooden bench Boozer straddles while he shapes the blocks of wood, using a draw knife that belonged to his mentor, Olin Ballentine. He thinks the knife may be as much as 150 years old.

In the corner is a 1965-era bandsaw that he sometimes turns off at 5 a.m. and doesn't quit sawing until dark. There's a modern planer that looks out of place, something Boozer uses when he creates furniture, and lots of other miscellaneous pieces of wood that may come in handy.

Outside, around the corner, is a large stack of Atlantic white cedar that is carefully stacked and being allowed to dry for two years before it is used. Boozer makes annual trips to the Midlands, where he grew up and learned to carve, to cut a fresh supply of wood for his decoys.

Boozer carves and paints everything from shorebirds to wild turkeys, but mostly duck decoys. He also creates detailed wooden boat models and dioramas depicting Lowcountry life from a bygone era. He and wife Dee headed the restoration of the two buildings that comprise downtown Meggett. His work has been featured in several national publications

"I consider decoys folk art," Boozer said. "Typically folk art is functional or utilitarian, so I like to make sure that it's artistic from a folk art standpoint.

"If you're a good hunter, you spend a lot of time watching your game, seeing the subtle differences."

Boozer, 65, learned his craft from Olin Ballentine while growing up in the Columbia area. He began working in Ballentine's shop, sharpening tools, at the age of 9. They built wooden work boats and decoys for the hunting season.

When he begins construction of a decoy, Boozer first selects an appropriate thickness of the dried wood for the species he will begin carving. He draws an outline on the wood and uses the bandsaw to cut the rough shape. Next, he affixes the block to his old-fashioned shaving horse and begins removing what is not a duck, using his mentor's draw knife, a rasp and hand saw. The heads are cut out separately and shaved down with an old Buck pocketknife. The bodies are split, allowing them to be hollowed, then glued back together and the heads attached. Finally, there comes painting and rigging the ballasts so the decoys will self-right.

"There are two reasons for making them hollow body," Boozer said. "One is to reduce weight, because these are gunning birds. You can imagine (the weight) is you have a hundred of these in a dory. The hollow body also allows you to put the head on from the inside with a screw and shock washer. That makes them more durable."

Boozer, who graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in architectural history, is well versed in the history of waterfowl hunting. He has recreated and has made replicas of the oldest-known decoys made by Native American Indians more than 2,000 years ago. The decoys, made from rushes bound with twine with feathers inserted into the twine, were discovered in Nevada's Lovelock Cave in 1929.

Boozer's works don't come cheap, starting at $400, but they are a bargain when you consider the workmanship and quality. And best of all, in the hunter's mind, is that they don't have to be left at home on the mantle when you head out to the duck blind.

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