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Shorebird Decoy Patterns: How to Make Folk Art Decoys

Updated on October 11, 2017
Anthony Altorenna profile image

I like spending time in the garden, around the house, in the workshop, and fishing. Many of the projects in my articles are originals.

Egret Shorebird Decoy
Egret Shorebird Decoy | Source

Contemporary Folk Art Inspired by Vintage Flattie Decoys

Back in the day of market hunters, simple silhouette decoys made from flat pieces of wood were used to hunt shorebirds, crows, pigeons, waterfowl and just about anything that flew. Often referred to as "flatties", the silhouette style of decoys were lightweight, easy to store and to transport - and they were very effective at attracting birds within range of the gunners lying in wait.

Most of the shorebird silhouette patterns and flattie decoys were primitive, constructed simply from pieces of cedar and pine, and then hand painted to mimic the many different types of shorebirds in the area. Surviving examples of these original "gunner" decoys are highly prized by collectors today, and they can be quite valuable.

Flat silhouette decoys are Americana Folk Art, and they are still very popular as decorative display pieces in the home and out in the garden. Flatties are also easy to make, requiring just a little time and a few basic tools. Simply trace a shorebird silhouette pattern on to a flat piece of wood, cut it out with a jigsaw, sand the edges smooth and then use acrylics to paint the decoy in rustic, folk art style.

Shorebird Silhouette Patterns: Making Folk Art Decoys

Decoy Carving Kit
Decoy Carving Kit | Source

Flat Shorebird Silhouette Patterns: The Little Sandpiper

Trace the decoy silhouette pattern (shown below) on to a piece of pine. Choose a piece of stock that is straight-grained and free of knots. Cut out the silhouette using a jigsaw or band saw, then shape and round over the edges with a wood rasp or file, and sand it smooth. Use a small (but sharp) pocketknife or carver's knife to add details such as around the eyes and the beak area, the wing outlines and to give the appearance of feathers.

Cut sections of a wooden dowel to make the bill and the leg. Most of the smaller sandpipers use 1/4" diameter dowels, though some of the larger birds need a thicker dowel for a properly proportioned leg or bill. Shape the bill to a rounded point using a rasp and sandpaper.

Mark the locations on the blank for the leg and bill, and then drill 1/4" holes into the body of the decoy. Take care to center the holes in the edge of the blank, and drill straight into the wood. If the hole is off-center or angled, the decoy will not sit upright properly on its stand. Glue the bill and leg into body, and you're ready for paint.

Prime the wooden blank with a water-based primer, and then paint the entire decoy in a warm white using acrylic paint. After the white base coat dries and using a photo or pattern as a guide, lightly pencil in the wing areas, the beak and eye areas and other sections to apply darker colors of acrylic paints. Thin the paints slightly with a little water, and brush on the pigments in light coats.

Experiment with layering different colors to represent the bird's feather patterns around the head and shoulders, on the wings, and along the back down towards the tail. Water-based acrylics make it easy to build up color layer by layer, or to blend the colors to create highlights and feathering effects. Don't worry about making a mistake; simply wipe off the wet paint and start again. Or allow the paint dry and then sand the blank lightly before applying another base coat and trying again.

Cut the stand from another piece of wood or better yet, collect a few pieces of weathered driftwood. The stands in the photos are cut from driftwood branches that are approximately 2 1/2 to 3" in diameter, and sliced into 1 1/2" in thick sections. Drill a hole in the center for the dowel leg.

Sandpiper Folk Art Silhouette Patterns: Scale = 1 Inch Squares

Sandpiper Carving Patterns
Sandpiper Carving Patterns | Source
Three little sandpipers
Three little sandpipers | Source

Three Sandpiper Shorebird Decoys

This decorative grouping of three small sandpiper shorebird decoys is handcrafted in a rustic Folk Art style using the process outlined above. The three different positions represent sandpipers in the running, standing and feeding positions and mounted on a piece of cedar driftwood.

Each sandpiper is approximately 5 "tall, 6" long and " thick, and has a bill shaped from a hardwood dowel. The dowel "legs" are not glued into the base, so you can position the sandpipers in any of the three pre-drilled holes in the driftwood stand.

Use the following templates to create your own patterns. The running and feeding sandpipers use the same template for the body, but the holes for the bill and the leg are drilled in different locations to give the birds a different stance. The little wing template makes it easier to outline and paint matching wings on either side of the body.

These little sandpipers are made from cherry, oak, teak and ash.
These little sandpipers are made from cherry, oak, teak and ash. | Source

Egret Shorebird Silhouette Patterns

Egret Flattie Silhouette Decoy
Egret Flattie Silhouette Decoy | Source

With its arching back and its neck out-stretched, this little egret stalks its prey. Another version of the Flattie decoy, the body of the little egret is cut from a 3/4" thick piece of white pine. The wings are cut from another piece of pine, sliced lengthwise to create two thin and mirror-image wings, and the attached to both side of the body. The result is a flattie silhouette decoy, but the raised wings create shadow lines that add depth to the piece.

This little egret measures approximately 14 1/2" long, nearly 1 3/4" wide and almost 6 1/2" high (including the stand).

Egret Flattie Shorebird Silhouette Patterns: Scale = 1 Inch Squares

Egret Decoy Pattern
Egret Decoy Pattern | Source

An Egret Decoy Guards Our Pond

An Egret Decoy Guards Our Pond
An Egret Decoy Guards Our Pond | Source

White Heron Shorebird Silhouette Patterns

Make this pair of herons
Make this pair of herons | Source

This pair of decorative white heron shorebird decoys still represents the flattie style of decoy, but adding a wing section to each side of the body gives the decoy a sense of depth. The simple silhouette design is retained, with the wings creating shadow lines and accentuating the curves of the neckline, back and tail sections.

Trace the heron body on to a piece of 3/4" thick straight-grained pine, carefully orienting the neck along the length of the grain to provide the most strength to the finished piece. Cut the wings from a piece of thinner wood, or cut one wing from another piece of " pine, then carefully rip the wing down the middle to create two thin wing sections.

Line up the wing sections along the back of the body and glue into place, using small clamps to hold the wing sections in place until the glue dries. Then round over the edges with a rasp or file, sand smooth and you're ready for paint.

Heron #1 Flattie Shorebird Silhouette Patterns: Scale = 1 Inch Squares

Heron Decoy Pattern #1
Heron Decoy Pattern #1 | Source

Heron #2 Flattie Shorebird Silhouette Patterns: Scale Each Square = 1 Inch

Heron Decoy Pattern #2
Heron Decoy Pattern #2 | Source

Black Crow Folk Art Silhouette Patterns

Crow Folk Art Decoy
Crow Folk Art Decoy | Source

Set up in small flocks, crow silhouette decoys were very effective at bringing crows and ravens in close and within firing range of the hunters' guns.

Our crow decoy measures almost 8 " high (including the driftwood base), nearly 2" wide just over 11" long from the tip of the beak to the end of the tail. Follow the process outlined above to cutout and assemble the crow decoy. The wing sections add depth to the piece, but can be eliminated to create a flat decoy. Experiment with the location of the hole for the leg in the underside of the body to create different standing positions for your flock of crows.

Crow Flattie Silhouette Patterns: Scale: Each Square = 1 Inch

Crow Decoy Pattern
Crow Decoy Pattern | Source

Country Chicken Folk Art Patterns: Hen & Chicks

Hen and Chicks
Hen and Chicks | Source

Country Chicken Folk Art: Hen & Chicks

This mother hen with her three little chicks are original folk are pieces made using the same steps outlined for making the other bird decoys. The mother hen measures nearly 9 " high (including the wooden base), almost 10" long from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail, and 1 " wide.

The chicks measure 5" high (including the wooden base), nearly 5 " long from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail, and " wide.

Mother Hen and Chicks Silhouette Pattern: Scale = 1 Inch Squares

Hen and Chicks Patterns
Hen and Chicks Patterns | Source

Decoys, Shorebirds and Decorative Carvings

A short video featuring the Antiques and the Arts Weekly's cover photos.

Do You Have Any Decoys?

Do You Have Any Decoys?

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© 2011 Anthony Altorenna

Share Your Tips for Carving and Collecting Decoys

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    • Redneck Lady Luck profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

      Each of your articles is filled with something new and exciting. I love your folk art decoys. There is no limit to your wood working craft abilities it seems.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      Excellent tutorial for creating folk art decoys. I have a few vintage decoys and decorative shorebird carvings. I'm thinking I need to learn to carve shorebirds, as they seem to be my favorites. Love your pond with the egret guardian. Very nicely done!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      You are exemplary with your DIY projects. Wish I was half as skilled!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Stopping back to enjoy your folk art do it just right and then show it so well. I love how your egret silhouette decoy is so naturally displayed guarding your pond.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      These decoys are wonderful in the cottage.

    • Tonto Murray profile image

      Tonto Murray 6 years ago

      Awesome lens, really cool stuff.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 6 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      beautiful 'making decoys' lens. really enjoyed my visit. ~blessed~

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 6 years ago

      I have sold a number of decoys over the years. Your designs are neat. Hopefully your creations will be tomorrow's collectibles or antiques.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Once again, great and easy to follow directions, you give such good guidance. I love the flattie silhouette egret, thank you for carrying on folk art traditions!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      I love wooden decoys. These are great designs. My favorite is the white heron pair. Thanks for sharing the instructions. I would enjoy making a few for my home.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Wow, these decoys are really cool!