Michael Braun learned to carve decoys from his father, and he carved his first one at the age of nine. Now that creating these one-of-a-kind, functional pieces of art is his full-time career, it’s still the tradition behind the artform that he finds most appealing.
Each decoy he crafts is truly one-of-a kind, which is a stark contrast from the mass-produced plastic ones that are now the industry standard. While many of the decoys he creates will become family heirlooms and will sit on shelves without ever touching water, that’s not why he carves them.
“It’s a floating artform,” he says. “It’s folk art. It’s functional art. I do look at pictures, but a lot of what I try to create comes from experiences in the field. If I see a particular bird doing something, I’ll research that and kind of get an idea of what the bird’s doing, why it’s doing it, and what the anatomy is doing as that happens. And then I’ll try to interpret that into the carving itself. Watching waterfowl in the wild inspires me to push my abilities as an artist.”
In a world dominated by molded plastic decoys, Braun’s been able to offer a beautiful and useful tool for the waterfowl hunter. Hunting over wood decoys brings a connection to a simpler time. This nostalgia enriches the hunt, but Braun believes that hunting over wood decoys is actually a more effective way to hunt.
“Wood decoys float different,” he says. “Wood has more eye appeal to the birds because they’re so used to seeing all the different plastics as they come from Canada all the way down, so they definitely react different. It has a big difference on how the birds react.”
A hand-carved decoy takes Braun anywhere from a few days to three months to complete depending on whether it is a typical gunner or a competition piece. He draws from the knowledge his father passed onto him, observations from the field, an art school background in painting, and research and respect for the carving tradition that’s come before him.
“I hope it doesn’t become a dying art,” he says. “I hope that more people get into carving and start passing the tradition on. To watch someone really get into it and learn the history behind it, especially in their particular region is special. Every region has a specific style of decoy. To keep passing that tradition on to the waterfowling community, I think, is a big deal.”
Braun’s dream project, which he plans to start this year, is to carve every worldwide species of waterfowl—ducks, geese, and swans—including in-depth research to have a full understanding of each one.
“It’s going to be a pretty big process,” he says. “There are a lot of carvers out there that have done a lot of exotics, but nobody has actually tried to do every worldwide species in one body of work. So I feel like this is something that I can leave behind in my community.”