NEW VIENNA — Steve Kerper’s passions for waterfowl and trees find expression in hand-carved wooden ducks that he calls decoys but which are actually objects of art.
“I’m a duck nut and a tree nut,” said Kerper, 61, who has hand-carved more than 2,300 ducks — from more than 100 different tree species — since he began teaching himself how to do it in 1986.
“I accidentally got pretty good at it,” said Kerper, whose artistry has been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and by collectors in 48 states and 32 foreign countries.
While in Washington in 1996, representing Iowa at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folk Life, Kerper delivered a duck to the White House and received a thank-you note from then President Bill Clinton, a collector of carved wooden decoys.
Each decoy is dated, signed and numbered, and no two are alike.
Kerper started out painting his decoys to enhance their realism but soon found his works appealed only to duck hunters and other types of duck nuts.
Although, as he says, “paint covers a multitude of carving sins,” he stopped painting them when he realized that “everybody loves the grain of wood.”
Unlike some duck decoy artists, Kerper does not carve intricate feather patterns. “I like to let the grain of the wood speak for itself,” he said.
That predilection at least partially explains why he prefers the unique coloration and grain patterns of wood distressed by such afflictions as spalting, which occurs when a fungus colonizes the wood.
It also explains why he does not mind working with hard-to-carve woods like red cedar and sumac.
Much of the wood comes from his own timber, in which Kerper has planted 65 species of trees since 1974. He also collects wood during hunting trips to many other Clayton County woodlands.
With a glove on his left hand and tape protecting the fingers of his right hand, Kerper grinds away on his projects while awaiting customers at Kerper’s Country Store, a business founded by his ancestors in 1862.
After cutting out the basic shape with a band or coping saw, he refines the shape with a hatchet, then “cuts away everything that doesn’t look like a duck” with an Exacto knife.
“A half hour with the hatchet saves 15 hours with the knife,” he said.
After hand-sanding them to a satin finish, he rubs in as many as 50 coats of tung oil to preserve and enhance the wood’s luster.
“How long does each one take? That’s my most frequently asked question, and I don’t keep track,” he said.Kerper often donates ducks for auctions that benefit such worthy causes as conservation, education and religion.