Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 159, November 2018 Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
Middle Fork Duck Calls
By James Raines
Brentwood, TN

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A few years ago I purchased several books at an estate sale about duck calls which featured short articles and photos of a large number of duck call makers and their calls covering the last century. My interest began to become a desire to make my own calls based upon classic call designs with modern techniques.

I have made several calls over the past few years which I have given to family members and friends. I have also donated several calls to local chapters of Ducks Unlimited for use in their annual fundraising banquets and auctions. These have been received well and have brought good prices for their fundraising.

The calls carry the name Middle Fork Duck Calls after the Middle Fork of the Forked Deer River in West Tennessee. The shapes of the calls are patterned after the calls used by duck hunters in the Forked Deer River bottomlands during the 1940 through 1950 era. I had a relative who hunted this area during this period of time. He passed away when I was very young, and I do not have any specific memories of him except for his collection of the duck calls that he used himself. My aunt kept these calls in her home, and she would let me play with them during visits. I remember enough of the size and shape of the calls to have identified several calls in my duck call book collection that resemble those calls. From these memories and the photos in the books, I have been able to reproduce calls similar to those used by the old hunters.

The calls are constructed from select grade walnut and hard maple for a stable call with excellent tonal qualities.

Walnut and maple lumber is obtained from local sources, and I select boards that display the most attractive grain. The boards are then cut into turning squares.

After turning to shape and progressively sanding through 12 grades of abrasive (ending with 2000 grit), the barrels and inserts are placed in a bath of finish. They are then placed under pressure for an extended period of time, pushing the finish deep into the pores of the wood. This produces a call with excellent moisture resistance. It also enhances the resonance of the call by reducing the void spaces in the grain of the wood. After the initial finish is cured, the parts are sanded to bare wood and then given up to eight coats of hand rubbed finish until the desired sheen is achieved.

The exposed end of the insert has a shoulder cut at its intersection with the barrel. This design assures that the insert is always located in the same position. The curve of this exposed end is turned to provide a solid and comfortable grip between the callers thumb and forefinger.

The most critical step in making a duck call is the shaping of the tone board. The tone board is the surface on which the reed rests. It is grooved on the upper face to provide a channel for the air to flow under the reed. The end section of the tone board is cut in a spiral curve. This curve allows the reed to flex downward and strike the surface of the tone board. Once the reed is curved downward its stiffness causes it to move back to its original flat shape. Then it is again pulled downward and the cycle repeats itself at a very high frequency that produces the raspy quack sound. In order to guide a bandsaw blade to cut the curve in the tone board to the correct shape and to cut the mortise for the cork, I built a jig out of oak that is shaped to guide the bandsaw blade.

Although hard maple makes a good tone board, a special process is used to further harden the tone board thus giving the call a crisp sound. After installing the mylar reed, which is held in place by a piece of cork that fits snuggly into the mortise cut into the call insert, the call is tuned. The tuning process is accomplished by trimming the reed to produce a moderately pitched sound. A higher pitch which is preferred by some duck hunters can be obtained by carefully trimming the front of the reed. This trimming is done by the removal of just a few thousands of an inch at a time. The call is then tested and further trimmed until the desired tone is developed. Very sharp scissors are used for this trimming since dull blades can distort the tip of the reed and adversely affect its performance.

One of the main causes of failure of a wooden duck call occurs when a tapered insert is pushed too hard into the barrel. This can cause the barrel to crack thus ruining the call. Also, a wet insert can expand and crack the barrel. To avoid this problem I have designed the call with neoprene o-rings. Instead of a wood-to-wood friction fit between the insert and the barrel, two neoprene o-rings are installed in shallow grooves cut into the insert. These o-rings seal the call and keep the insert in place. This allows the insert to be turned to a slightly smaller diameter than the hole in the barrel so that if the insert swells due to moisture build up the expansion will be absorbed by the o-rings and not crack the barrel.

Middle Fork Calls are available on a custom basis. The calls can be ordered in several different barrel shapes and with either walnut or hard maple barrels and inserts and tone boards. The calls are boxed up and include tuning instructions and a spare reed, cork and o-rings. To find out more information about my Middle Fork Wooden Duck Calls, please call 615-830-3796.

You can email James at rainesjc@msn.com.

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