GRANITE FALLS - Back in the 1980s, Curt Soine wanted to get his wife, Paula, a present.
"My wife saw a swan in a catalog that she really liked," Soine said.
But the swan was $400 and at the time, the couple didn't have that kind of money to spend.
Photo by Cindy Votruba
Curt Soine shows a couple of unfinished duck decoys in his basement shop. He said he hollows out the bodies of his bird decoys so they float easier.
"I didn't think it looked so tough," Soine said. "I said, 'I can make you one.'"
It turned out it was harder than he thought. Soine said he missed his wife's birthday by a few months finishing the swan.
"I only used wood rasp and sandpaper," Soine said. And Paula still has that original swan more than 25 years later.
Since then, Soine has created countless duck, fish and other decoys and decorative items, all fashioned in his basement shop. His work is featured during the annual Meander, Upper Minnesota River Valley Art Crawl and was also in a book on duck decoys.
Since he wanted to get better at the craft, Soine got a few books, power tools and a good source wood. He switched from pine to basswood.
"That made a lot of difference," he said.
He started out with bigger decoys, geese and swans. Soine eventually moved onto ducks, using cork for the bodies.
"It makes really life-like decoys," he said, adding that they float better.
Soine uses a dermal for the detailing with a flexible shaft, which does the roughing out of the decoy, he said. Then he uses an angle-grinder with a 40-grit sandpaper.
"That's for the roughing out of the bigger decoys," Soine said about the tool. "It makes a lot of sawdust fast." He hollows out the birds' bodies to make them easier to float. He makes patterns through photographs of actual birds to make the decoys.
For the shore birds he creates, Soine uses wire for the bill because it's more durable. For the birds he makes from wood, he'll soak the bills in Superglue to make them strong.
Once he finishes a decoy, Soine tests them out in his hot tub.
"I make sure the fish swim right and the ducks float at level," Soine said.
A working duck decoy can take up to 30 hours from start to finish, Soine said. A swan can take 10 to 12 hours.
It doesn't take that long to make a fish decoy for competition, he said. Soine cuts the fins out of metal, using mainly copper and weighing them down with lead.
"I probably got 15 hours for a competition fish," Soine said.
Soine said he works on two to three fish decoys at a time, and he picks out the best swimming one for competition.
Through friends, Soine learned about the National Fish Decoy Association show in Perham. It is an annual show every April, and he's competed every year since 2005.
"So I went up there not really knowing how to carve fish," Soine said. "Everyone taught me how to make them, they shared a lot of stuff."
He's won several ribbons, mostly for his birds and some of his fish.
"I was the 'bird guy' at the fish show," Soine said.
Carving the decoys is the easy part, Soine said. It's the painting that still presents a challenge at times.
"I think I'm getting a little better," Soine said.
He tries to get five birds and five fish ready for competition. Right after the Arts Meander, Soine starts carving for the Perham competition.
"I like the working style decoy than the decorative," Soine said.
Last year, Soine was featured in Doug Lodermeier's book "Minnesota Duck Decoys: Yesterday's and Today's Folk Artists." He's on the very last page. He's also a member of several decoy and carving clubs, such as the Minnesota Decoy and Wildfowl Carving Club and the Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association.
"It's been a really good thing for me," Soine said.