- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

HOPEWELL, Va. Kinny Rice is a world champion carver.Mr. Rice, a carpenter by trade, uses dental tools, magnifiers and touch-up brushes for his hobby of carving duck decoys.

He works 10 hours every day sawing boards and pounding nails on his job. Then he heads to his trailer home about 10 miles south of here and typically spends five hours carving wooden blocks into exquisite duck decoys.

For more than 100 years, decoys have been floated in lakes, ponds and rivers by hunters to entice live waterfowl out of the sky to come into shotgun-shooting range.

In recent decades, the decoys have become more realistic and more of them like fine paintings are bought for display rather than for hunting. Ornithologists select the best decoys at shows.

"Sooner or later, I'd like to make a living at it," says Mr. Rice, 46, who began carving wild fowl five years ago. He would now like to teach the art as well as continuing to carve.

In 2001, Mr. Rice was rated a novice and won best in show and best in world. In 2002, he was in the intermediate class and won best in show and best in world.

Those contests were in the annual Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition in Ocean City, which Mr. Rice classifies as "the Super Bowl."

Sometimes, Mr. Rice's entries compete against waterfowl carvings from Japan, Canada and England. "These people come from all over," he says.

His next target is to be chosen "Carver of the Year" in 2004 by the International Waterfowl Carving Association.

"So far this year, I haven't lost," says Mr. Rice, who hopes he is on the route to success.

The art is a work he loves. As time nears to enter a contest, Mr. Rice says he often works around the clock.

"I've gone two or three days without sleep," he says.

With the help of an Illinois friend and taxidermist, Mr. Rice carves ducks in various poses. He or the friend have taken the best carvings to contests in Maryland, Virginia, California, Minnesota, Ohio and Michigan.

The ducks are carved out of blocks of tupelo trees from swamps in Louisiana. Mr. Rice says he wants to try trunk wood from tupelos in marshes near Hopewell and Disputanta, Va.

Tupelo is soft and moist, he said, which eases the sawing, chipping, carving and sanding.

"The Cajuns wrap tupelo in moist towels, which they keep in refrigeration before carving," Mr. Rice says.

With a stuffed duck from the taxidermist as a model, Mr. Rice first uses a power band saw to cut the rough posture of a duck into four blocks of wood. Then, he uses a hatchetlike device and chisels to make a realistic form of a duck's body.

Next come knifelike carving tools and sandpaper to smooth to greater realism. The knives and dental drills and grit bits cut in to precisely form wings and feathers. Even distinctive ripples under the bill are carved.

Mr. Rice sometimes carves the head separately. Then it must be glued precisely onto the neck and sanded so the judges will be unable to find the seam. Glass eyes, the only nonwooden pieces allowed, are installed.

A pencil-like tool with a hot tip scorches feather patterns on the duck. The final touch is paint, which Mr. Rice applies in colors and designs identical to those on the stuffed model.

The woodwork is done in a room built on the side of his trailer house, cooled by a window air conditioner. He works there while a stereo plays country music. Then, he moves his models into another room for painting.

Finally, winning results are placed in a third room, decorated with colored photographs, and blue and purple first-place and grand champion ribbons.

Winning entries must be as perfect as possible. As an example of precise carving, Mr. Rice has cut out a single mallard feather, as thin and curved as the real thing.

"[The decoys] actually float like a duck," says Mr. Rice, explaining that live mallards tilt forward while diving ducks float level.

The most perfect of the four blocks is entered in competitions. The other three are sold or given to friends. Mr. Rice also has carved a falcon and songbirds, such as the chickadee, which a friend sells for him.

The sales and contest winnings just about pay for the cost of supplies and travel to competitions.

"I've been offered $3,000 to $5,000" for the two ducks that are now out to shows, Mr. Rice says.

Auctions at Robert Morris Inn in Oxford, Md., include carved waterfowl decoys that have brought in from $80 to $10,000.

Mr. Rice never expected that carving would be his addiction. He showed an interest in an art class at Hopewell High School, but the teacher refused to admit him to the class for a second term.

He rode a Yamaha in motor-cross races for awhile. He fished for bass in tournaments. For awhile, he installed insulation. But his Labrador retriever, Gin, may have influenced Mr. Rice most.

With Gin, Mr. Rice worked as a duck hunter guide for Chesapeake Corp. in West Virginia. Gin was 8 years old when she died of cancer.

"It really hurt me when she passed away," Mr. Rice says.

"There hasn't been a whole lot of art inclination in our family," he says, adding that his parents are delighted with his hobby.

His father, Charlie, 65, is occupied as a tree-trimmer and cutter. His mother, Nancy, is a longtime employee of Wal-Mart. His daughter, Tiffany Richardson, is a volunteer emergency crew member in Lake Aston, N.C., with her husband, a full-time emergency crewman.

About five years ago, Mr. Rice attended a carving show, and got hooked. He bought a couple of books and a video about carving. Encouraged by Mac McClure, 84, a Hopewell carver, Mr. Rice went to Canada for a weeklong carving course.

Perfection comes with practice, says Mr. Rice, who now rates his first duck decoy as "pretty crude."

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