Woodworking Spotlight: Roe Terry

When you look in the dictionary for the word decoy, you will find that it’s something used to fool people or things.

Roe TerryHowever, on the island of Chincoteague, Virginia, you will find the genuine article – the Virginia Duc Man.

I had the opportunity to meet Roe Terry by accident at the National  Hurricane Conference last year in Orlando, Florida. We quickly hit it off, exchanging war stories about storms, but soon I discovered that Roe has a very poorly kept secret – he has been making exquisite duck and other waterfowl decoys for the past 40 years.

His journey to decoy carving success had a pretty tough start. “My dad had Lou Gehrig’s Disease and couldn’t walk, and I was a kid looking to do what the other kids in the area were doing for fun – duck hunting.  An old timer in Chincoteague took me under my wing and started to teach me the skills of gunning and decoy carving.  It turns out that the man was Doug Jester, Jr., the son of the most famous decoy carver Chincoteague ever produced.”

From those humble beginnings, Roe’s talent – and passion – for carving decoys  took off.  His work is full of detail in both the carving and the painting. “The process starts off with a block of wood which I band saw to rough shape.  From there, I chop out the body with a hatchet and use a draw knife and carving knife to sweeten up the form.”

A rack of decoysRoe builds both decorative (known as shelf decoys) and working decoys.  Surprisingly, there is very little difference between the two. “The carving is the same for both.  The main difference is in balancing it up so the decoy will float properly. I normally hollow out the working decoy and sometimes the keel so I can add melted lead to make it float level when it hits the water. It takes some time to get it right, but it’s something that makes the decoys a pleasure to use.”  Roe was eager to point out that when you throw a decoy into the water in the early morning darkness, it’s comforting to know it will float properly and not require any nocturnal maneuvers to right it.

The painting on his decoys is vibrantly detailed, requiring intense focus and patience.  He’ll do a great deal of research in reference books and with the animals themselves to get the coloring and feather shapes just right.  Since Roe carves decoys of many different species, he can’t rely on repetition to get things right. “I make all different kinds of species of ducks, geese, swans and shorebirds – sorry, I don’t do birds of prey or other animals.  The variety is pretty spectacular.”

Close up on decoysJust how many decoys does Roe make annually?  “I average nearly 300 birds a year.  I do most of the band saw work in the winter when it’s cooler in my saw room.  Then, it takes a few months to chop out the bodies and then another month or so carving out the heads.  Finally, it’s sanding, undercoating and paint, paint, paint.”   When I spoke with Roe over the phone, he was busy painting about a dozen of his decoys.

Looking at shots from Roe’s shop, it’s easy to see just how busy he is.  Racks and racks of decoys fill the rooms in his workshop – some needing a little carving, others needing paint.  The variety of shapes in his decoys is pretty dramatic.

Remember, also, that he’s doing all of this decoy carving part time. When groups visit Chincoteague, he’ll often hold seminars where he tells about and demonstrates the skills practiced by carvers for more than a century.  His seminars last about an hour and a half, and leave the visitors with a much better understanding of the history of the craft in this beautiful corner of the country.

And, if this wasn’t enough, Roe is also the Public Information Officer for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (where he is involved in the annual round up of the wild ponies that call the island home) and tracks weather satellites for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  “I do work hard, but I try to take off a couple of months in the summer to fish and a couple of months in the winter to gun for ducks. Building decoys gets old after 40 years, but the money ain’t bad.”

And, what’s it like working near the quiet, unspoiled Virginia shoreline near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay?  “I really love it in the winter, when we have only 3,000 people out here.  The summers are starting to get a little like Florida – we may have 10,000 people a day come to the island.  But, the highs and the lows do offset each other.  Besides, I just love living here.”

16 thoughts on “Woodworking Spotlight: Roe Terry”

  1. Neat article!!

    That is from my neck of the woods. Making decoys is an old trade on the Chesapeake Bay (OK, Chincoteague isn’t really on the Bay . . . but). My uncle is a collector of some of the finer decoys over the years. Every time you turn a corner in his house there is another row of decoys sitting around.

  2. Tom……water fowl carving and duck decoys are my woodworking spectator sport. When the term “gunner” came up, I knew we you had the genuine article. Chesepeake, South jersey and Bellport Bay, Long island….loaded with carving talent. Recently was asked an finished a video on the history of a local club, the Pattersquash Gunners Club. Went through the history of the Duck decoy and how decoys from the Chesepeake show up on Long Island and vise-versa. How each carver identified his decoys. Very interetsing history.

    Nice read.

  3. Fantastic article on a fantastic man and carver…..Currently have over 100 of Duc-Mans decoys in my collection and can’t wait to get back down on the island to add a few more to the bunch….It’s great to see Roe get the recognition he deserves….

  4. I attended one of Mr. Terry’s seminars at an Elderhostel I attended several years ago. Not only is he a delightful speaker and presenter, his work is beautiful. As his was the last seminar, we rushed to his little studio/workshop at his home after being given directions. The beautiful tern I bought sits in our front window. Talented man in every way.

  5. Janet –

    I have forwarded your contact info to Mr. Terry… He should be back in touch shortly…

  6. I have been collecting Duc Man’s decoys for several years. He is a mentor and an excellant carver.

  7. Indeed. Roe is a treasure and just a plain funny guy. There’s a lot to be said about him, and he has expressed interest in doing a follow up, step by step carving tutorial.

  8. How do I get in touch with Mr. Terry? Phone number? Address? can anyone give me dierections as i plan on being there duck hunting soon,Thanks

  9. Could you tell me how to get intouch with Mr Terry? I would love to purchase some decoys from him!

  10. Roe was my roommate in the Navy. We were stationed at CINCLANTFLT in Norfolk. Many a night I would sit there in pure astonishment watching this man transform a simple piece of wood into a gorgeous decoy. On occassion I would help him by hand sanding some part of the decoy body. Roe is truly an American Craftsman. The various types of deecoys he makes are breathtaking. I especially liked it whe he carved the smaller decoys and mounted them on driftwood.

    Roe and his wife are two of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Its been some 38 years since I’ve senn Roe & Monty but look forward to seeing them soon.

  11. undoubtably a fantastic carver,and a gentleman..if your into collecting decoys buy this mans work..his birds are awsome..started colleting his birds over 0 yeas ag and still to the day cant stop buying them…just bought a few shore birds this month…what a down to earth guy.no hidden strings with this man-hes a master.if you ever get a chance to get down on the island make an appearance to his shop.wished i were his neighbor man what a techer hed be…as a carver myself theres alot to be learned.from roe.thank you roe

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