By ANGYE MORRISON
Wayne Williams has always loved old waterfowl decoys, and had always wanted to carve one.
Originally from Metter, Williams grew up on a farm with three brothers. He had an aunt that worked at a funeral home, and he eventually began helping there part-time. He completed an apprenticeship after high school, and then went to embalming college, where he earned a funeral director’s degree.
But in 1972, Williams decided he wanted to do something different.
“I probably made the wrong decision. I could have been retired instead of tired,” he said, laughing.
Williams, who now calls Statesboro home, went into the painting business with a friend, and has worked in that career ever since. He married his wife, Pam, in 1980. He carved his first decoy in 1981.
Always an avid hunter and fisherman, Williams says “time has gotten me out of that, with bad bones and age. I still love it, I just don’t do it.” He’s kept his love of the outdoors alive and well with his love of antique decoys and the craftsmanship he brings to creating his own.
Williams says he got into decorative carving for a while, which includes all the feathers and colors, and the effort to make the bird look as realistic as possible. But he got burned out on that quickly, and went back to the old style of decoys, which was what he originally loved.
He also used to attend shows, but says that wasn’t his cup of tea — he just didn’t enjoy sitting around and talking about his craft. He’d rather just pick up a knife and get to it.
Williams not only carves the decoys, he also collects them. Old wooden waterfowl decoys are considered to be American folk art. Decoys were the product of hardworking men during what was known as the market gunning era, during which geese and ducks were hunted and sold for table fare. During the off-season, hunters would carve, paint and repair decoy rigs.
In the early 1900s, new legislation and restrictive hunting laws led to the destruction of many of these types of carvings, particularly shorebird decoys. Wooden decoys were soon replaced by factory-made cork birds, and then plastic decoys.
Today, wooden decoys from that era are a rarity, and are for the most part in the hands of collectors. Their value is dependent upon scarcity, condition and desire for ownership. Collections can cost thousands of dollars.
Some of Williams’ own work has fetched a pretty penny at auction, and he says his work has fooled some antique dealers. But he has never represented his work as antique. He does, however, take pride in making his decoys look like the antique decoys of days gone by.
“Since I collect the antique ones, I enjoy being able to make something that resembles that type of bird,” he said.
Williams doesn’t consider himself an artist, although he did so some line drawing when he was growing up, and he’s done some oil and acrylic painting.
“I call myself a whittler, not an artist. I am my own worst critic,” he said.
Williams uses white pine or tupelo gum for his decoys. He has several patterns that he’s drawn out, and when he is beginning a new carving, he sketches it out and then roughs it out with a band saw, before settling down to do the finer hand work.
Williams says his biggest seller is the wood duck, because “there are lots of hunters around they know what the mallards look like.” He occasionally gets special requests, and some of the ducks he carves are used for hunting. But he says the majority of them are for mantles or desks.
He doesn’t really have a favorite to carve.
“I enjoy doing all of them,” he said. “The wood duck is the most colorful, and it takes me longer, of course, because of the paint on the wood duck. But I enjoy doing all of them.”
He’s given up counting how many ducks he’s made, but Williams estimates the number has to be in the thousands, since he started in 1981.
Williams has a daughter from his first marriage, who is a nurse at East Georgia Regional Medical Center. He has two stepchildren as well, that he considers his own. His wife works at Candler County Hospital, and the couple enjoys spending time with their many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Williams has tried to get some of those grandchildren interested in carving. He says when they were younger, they were somewhat interested, but as they entered the teen years, they just couldn’t sit still long enough. So he doesn’t have anyone to pass his skills on to.
He does, however, share his collection with his family. It’s housed in the “little red barn,” just down the hill from his home. The barn was originally used to house equipment, but he enclosed part of the building during a rebuild to make himself a shop. The shop has since become a gathering place for his family, and his collection is on display there, in addition to whatever he’s currently working on.
The barn sits in a quiet wooded area, with a white, 5-gallon bucket out front. That’s where Williams sits and quietly works on his decoys. He says the whole process is like therapy.
“It helps relax me, if I’ve had a hard day or something,” he said.
Williams says he gets asked a lot how he creates his decoys. He grins as he says it’s really very simple.
“You pick up a block of wood and shake it ‘til the duck falls out.”