by Katherine Hafner
Ian McNair brings the hatchet down swiftly on a curved block of wood resting on a tree stump, sending chips flying. But at no point is he out of control. Each move is carefully planned and executed, because once the wood comes off, there is no putting it back on.
The scene plays out in a bucolic setting on what used to be a farm, so one could be forgiven for thinking McNair is simply preparing firewood to be burned in the 18th century house that sits nearby.
But this is not a chore. This is art. And like a sculptor, McNair is in the early stages of uncovering the figure trapped inside the block of wood. And that figure is a bird.
Welcome to the McNair home on the Eastern Shore. Here, two generations of wooden decoy makers continue a craft that has evolved from a practical way to hunt fowl into a form of folk art with an ardent group of collectors and a relatively high price tag.
From a practical standpoint, the tradition dates 2,000 years to early Native Americans who used reeds to construct decoys. But 20th century carvers became interested in the decorative aspects of the craft and started creating birds destined not for the lake or river, but for mantles and bookcases.
Patriarch Mark McNair, 70, fell in love with creating decoys decades ago and has become one of the industry’s leaders. Sons Ian and Colin McNair have followed him into the trade. They’re contemporary carvers who sell their pieces in a modern market, but they’re loyal to tradition.
“A lot of what we do hasn’t really changed from 100 to 150 years ago,” says Ian McNair, 39. “We pretty much do it the old-fashioned way.”
Decoys are serious business for collectors. The price for contemporary birds can range widely, from about $50 to upwards of $35,000 depending on pedigree. Some, typically a century old or more, have gone for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction; some for more than a million.
Plastic decoys took over after the World War II era, but it wasn’t long before a new generation of carvers yearned for the old ways. “In the 1970s, carvers like my father represented this new generation of people fascinated by the old birds who wanted to continue this tradition,” says Colin, 33.
Colin now lives in Massachusetts and works as a decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions, selling high-end decoys. He has even sold a few of his family’s offerings, usually when they come up through the secondary market. “When we consider the history and the uniquely American qualities of the pieces, they really are significant material culture that deserve all the appreciation they’ve received,” he says.
Mark grew up on Connecticut’s Long Island Sound and came across a duck decoy in his early 20s while staying with friends. He had become interested in various forms of folk art and something about the bird connected with him. “I picked up on the enthusiasm through friends and thought I’d make one,” he says.
Five decades later, he is considered a master of the craft. Inside his home today, dozens of decoys adorn spaces in the kitchen, dining room and beyond. Anthologies about decoys – some even featuring McNair’s – line the bookshelves. “Very few of mine ever end up in the water” he says. “They’re all in people’s houses or museums.” Some have been on display at the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, for example.
Growing up in that environment, it was easy for Ian and Colin to fall in love with the craft, too. Ian says he spent all his days either down at the dock catching crabs or hanging out in his dad’s shop. “I learned how to use the shaver at age 2 or 3,” he says. “At 10 or so, I told Papa I was ready to carve my own fish. To me it all came pretty naturally.”
Ian and his wife recently moved back to the Eastern Shore, not far from his parents’ home in Craddockville. Mark and his wife, Martha, bought the house in the 1980s. It sits on about 28 acres of land along a creek fed by the Chesapeake Bay. Out back is the barnlike workshop full of machinery and carving tools accumulated over decades. You can smell the wood even before you step inside, all of it various stages of becoming a bird.
Ian has his own workshop at his house nearby, but still comes over often. While working in Mark’s shop one afternoon this summer, Ian’s 3-year-old daughter, Esme, wanders in barefoot. “It’s gonna be loud for a minute, all right?” Ian says, and the girl instinctively claps her hands over her ears as he turns on a machine to start shaping.
The McNairs use primarily Atlantic white cedar, which is lightweight and easy to carve. In the Colonial era there was lots of it, and it was prized for boatbuilding. Now it’s hard to get, but the McNair have connections.
Each decoy starts with a large block of wood shaped by power tools. Next, they chop off chunks of wood with a handmade Swedish hatchet. Then comes intricate carving, using hand tools like a draw knife and spokeshave. Ian wields them with the confidence of a maestro and his baton, smoothly running them over the wood to search for tiny indents or bumps, molding them to his liking. Painting, of course, comes last.
The McNairs don’t crank out decoys. They work at their own pace, preferring to take on challenges and try new styles instead of making the same old thing time and again. Ian makes shorebirds that’ll cost customers a few hundred bucks, ducks for up to $700 and swans for $1,000. Mark’s work starts at about $500 and can go up to several thousand dollars. One sold for $10,000.
Though they don’t always take commissions, customers consistently come through word of mouth. Ian says they each make fewer than a hundred birds a year, never worrying about pace. “As soon as you think about it in terms of time, you’re in the wrong business,” he says. “The idea is just to do your best work, and ideally everything will fall into place.”
But the time is worth it. C. John Sullivan, 70, is a prominent waterfowl art collector and historian who over the decades has collected about 1,000 decoys. He owns about 20 McNair originals. They “maintain a special place” in his heart and around his home, he says.
A longtime friend and customer, Sullivan says when Ian and Colin were young, he’d see them playing under Mark’s exhibition table at industry events – not with toy cars but with wooden figures. “It’s certainly in their blood, I would say. When most young boys are given their first pocketknife, the McNair boys were given their first carving knife.”
All three of them “put their heart and soul into their carvings,” he says. “They truly capture the essence of the bird in every way.”