The Art of Manual Mode

Photo @elevatedwild

By Shawn Swearingen

Talking to my Dad on the phone before I returned home with my family to visit my parents over the week of Thanksgiving, he mentioned he had cleaned up a few things in the shop, including the wood lathe. Knowing him, this was a subtle indication that he was looking forward to working on projects together. Despite the TSA doing their best to stop me by confiscating a drill bit, some key tools from my own shop made the journey west. 

My Grandfather was a carpenter when he retired from farming and logging. My Dad, a welder and machinist by trade, dabbled in woodworking as well. Growing up with my cousins, surrounded by sawdust, I suppose it was only natural I take a saw and chisel in hand. Once I finished making end tables as wedding gifts, I thought of trying to make baseball bats. An uncle felled a large ash tree on his farm in the foothills of the Cascade mountains. Knowing I was venturing into woodworking, he said I could have it if I got it out. My father and I limbed the tree, cut logs in sections, and loaded them on a borrowed flatbed trailer on a hot July afternoon. My grandparents’ neighbor had a sawmill and was nice enough to mill the logs into boards we hauled to my grandfather’s wood shop. The remainder, milled to 4”x4”, we took home as bat material. My Dad suggested turning something smaller to get used to the lathe and tools. I thought of early mornings, following him to watch for the orange feet of mallards ready to land out of gray rainy skies and thought, “Why not make duck calls for friends we hunt with?” 

Fifteen years later I’ve yet to make a baseball bat.

The vast majority of calls you see at sporting goods stores or online are made from plastic acrylic material coming off an automated computer numerical control (CNC) machine. While acrylic calls offer durability and crisp quacks, the character that a caller can achieve from a wood call is unmatched. These differences are where the art and the soul of waterfowling begin. Even when made from the same tree, no two calls are ever identical. It’s not just the rasp and whine of a lonesome hen that differs from call to call, but the character within the wood itself. The simple act of lightly wetting the barrel after sanding it to a high grit brings a hidden beauty to the surface. The ‘eyes’ in a burl are that much brighter. The waves from maple become a hologram. The sound coaxed from the tone board as a callmaker offers a sense of accomplishment wrapped in the wavy dark iridescence of wood grain. Discussing duck calls and varying sounds as part of the acrylic vs. wood debate, a friend remarked, “It’s like comparing vinyl records to digital music.”

All good craftsmen and women are influenced by their experiences afield, where they live, and birds that they have heard through the winds. As a hobby call maker, you are afforded time to really find the sound of your own tone boards; where the music is made within a call. Hobbyists and full-time makers alike pour hours of sweat and effort into developing their own sound. It took me the best part of three seasons to design, test, get input from professional goose guides, adjust, and finally settle on my short-reed goose call.

Differing woods offer differing sounds. It takes years to understand which grains and hardness give the desired traits you look for as a call maker. The smallest of measurements and variables can influence the final sound. The creator of the Eastern Shoreman, a three-time World Goose Calling Champion and the first World Goose Calling Champion of Champions, Sean Mann, commented to me once that he thought maple was the best sounding material for goose calls. Hand making calls under his own label plus being the owner of RNT calls, John Stephens is a three-time World Duck Calling Champion and a Champion of Champions. John said he dips the call he’ll use that day in the waters he is hunting; adding moisture to the cork holding the reed, and maybe a bit of baptism for good luck at the same time.

In addition to the unique sound and design that each callmaker brings by hand making calls, there is another level of connection that comes with working wood that cannot be replicated in mass produced acrylic. A friend took fence posts from his family farm, cut them down and sent them to me. The posts were locust wood, not the most visually characteristic of grains, but its density is perfect for calls. Now he has a set of duck and goose calls with a deeper tie to the land and his family history. That kind of significant connection cannot come from a CNC machine and a hunk of plastic. 

A good friend asked me to make a duck call for his father’s birthday. Having shared a duck blind with both of them, I was honored he asked. His father, and his father’s father, showed him the ways of waterfowling throughout the Chesapeake Bay when he was just a young boy. Working late into the night, I pulled a stick of black walnut from a tree I cut, dried and milled with my own Dad shortly after I began making calls. While turning it on the lathe, I had to glue and set small knots in the wood, providing even more character to the call. There was a pressure on my shoulders. I wanted to make not just a pretty call, but a call for a hunter cut from a cloth no longer made. 

I don’t know if his Dad ever took the call from his pocket. But as he fought dementia in the final chapter of his life, I know my friend’s father recounted memories of  bird dogs and hunts gone by in the good days that remained. And I know that call sat among his old Ward brothers decoys and honored waterfowling treasures on a shelf next to them as they reminisced. 

Over the Thanksgiving week my Dad and I spent plenty of time in his shop, the fireplace providing outward warmth as hot buttered rums warmed our insides. We sorted through the last of the black walnut blocks, making cuts for future calls. My nine year old son joined us, listening, and then plucking the mallard and teal from the afternoon hunts in the same place, with the same man from whom I learned. An excited springer spaniel watched over him, awaiting the heart as a tender reward. I hope he’ll look back on his own early days as fondly as I do. Knowing each sunrise from a duck blind with a wet dog at your feet is a blessing. With the calls I’ve made for him, or even calls he’ll make on his own, on the lanyard, he will be ready to persuade the next flock of greenheads with the whine of a lonesome hen.

About the Author

Born and raised throughout the forests and farms of Oregon. The 9-5 work life led Shawn to the D.C. area in 2008, a few short years after college at Oregon State. Writing about the outdoors is one of the ways he is able to cope with living in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. Shawn is also into call making, wing shooting, gardening, fishing, and introducing his two young sons with his wife to the great outdoors in hopes to do as well as his parents were able. You can find Shawn on Instagram @shawn_swearingen.