Made in the South

The Call Master

A North Carolina woodworker crafts one-of-a-kind birdcalls

Photo: Brownie Harris

Ralph Jensen puts the finishing touches on his mallard call made from salvaged wood from England, and ivory and ebony from an old piano

It all began as a fluke, when Ralph Jensen bought an old duck call at a flea market for $2.50.

“I got it home and it didn’t have a reed, so I went to a music store and bought a clarinet reed, but it was too thick. So I kept shaving it down till I got it the right size and it started vibrating.” Jensen knows wood. Armed with the knowledge from a lifetime of creating fine reproduction furniture in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, his creative wheels started spinning. “I figured the reed would get wet and wouldn’t sound, given the conditions that usually come with duck hunting,” he explains.

Jensen knew of an outfit that salvaged heart pine from the bottom of the Cape Fear River. “That wood sat in water for centuries, from the days when timber was floated down the river, and I knew it was impermeable.” Some of the wood had the king’s stamp, so it dated back to the colonial era. He shaved it down to gossamer thinness, and it worked like a charm. “I ended up making furniture out of some of it, but I also made wood duck calls out of some of it,” he says. “One of the first ones I carved showed a wood duck in flight, and it’s one of my favorites. It still hangs on my lanyard.”

Photo: Brownie Harris

Jensen carves birdcalls in the likeness of wild game and, upon request, pets

Since those early efforts, Jensen has been putting a little bit of history in many of his duck, goose, and turkey calls. He got his hands on some wood from a chapel door at a library in Bath, England, that dated back to the thirteenth century. Put together with mortises, it left pieces of wood too small for anyone else to do much with, but perfect for making tops for turkey calls. Then, the family of Navy Admiral Edwin Alexander Anderson, a Medal of Honor recipient from Jensen’s neck of the woods, commissioned him to carve calls from the busted stock of Anderson’s nineteenth-century Parker shotgun. After that, Jensen was contacted by a family who had a nineteenth-century piano that couldn’t be restored and sat in the family’s plantation house. Now it’s making music of a different sort: Jensen, the persistent scavenger, used pieces from all of it — the case and sounding board, and ivory and ebony from the keys. “I made them a Hepplewhite sideboard from part of it, but the rest I used for calls.” In an ultimate act of creative recycling, he even made several calls that incorporated inlaid ivory from the piano, wood from the chapel door, and heart pine timber from the bottom of the Cape Fear River. “I’ve even made duck calls carved as a duck, and made the bill out of tusks from a wild boar,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Jensen’s calls are collector’s items. He was blown away when one of his calls made from the old piano went for $1,200 at a Ducks Unlimited auction a couple of years back. Artist Bob Timberlake, a close friend, recently asked him if he could make a call from his drawing of a duck with its bill open. Then he had a decoy carver drive all the way from Minnesota to ask him to carve him a duck call featuring the head of his hunting lab. “He’s in his eighties and he still spends many days hunting canvasbacks in the icy cold,” says Jensen with admiration. “We did a swap: I gave him his call and he gave me one of his decoys.” One of his most challenging commissions, though, was when a young couple approached him about carving a duck call in the form of Hoyt, their beloved bloodhound who had just died. “Carving all the deep wrinkles was challenging,” he says, “but when they got it, they both burst into tears, so I’d say it was a success.”