JODE HILLMAN - Veteran New Jersey Decoy Carver

Posted by WildlifeShowroom.com on Jul 31st 2020

Jode Hillman is a veteran New Jersey carver. Buzzing with energy, he’s taken a break from his workshop to chat with me about carving duck decoys. Less than five minutes into our call, it’s clear Hillman’s love for nature is profound. The outdoorsman-turned-full time carver instills that reverence in his work: a vast homage to the outdoors in all its splendor, from pastoral paintings of lakes and fields, to miniature carvings of swans, shovelers, and canvasbacks, to stunning full-sized decoys of Mallards, Green-wing Teals, and Pintail drakes.

When Hillman carves, it’s with keen attunement to his heritage. His father, who taught him woodworking and the value of instilling quality in everything you do, passed away in 2007, and just like the outdoors, is ever-present in his work. So is Hillman’s gratitude for his workshop, recently built after he lost his previous space and everything in it to a fire in 2013. Tragedy can be debilitating, but Hillman has a special kind of resilience and a mind that is always moving, turning over innovative ways to represent nature’s glory through his Jode Hillman decoys.

Jode Hillman at work in his shop

Jode Hillman at work in his shop

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

What drew you to carving decoys?

JODE HILLMAN

I’m an outdoorsman. I’ve always been a fisherman, and in my senior year of high school I got into hunting: rabbits, deer, things like that. One Thanksgiving my mom’s cousin—I’m Italian so we called him “uncle”; we call everyone uncle—wanted to take me duck hunting. I was a year or two out of college, and I didn’t have much money. But I did have a pair of old waders and a shotgun. So, my uncle told me to meet him at 3:30 and I didn’t believe him. AM? I said. He wasn’t kidding. So, we loaded up the boat, got our plastic decoys, and took a ride to a little town near Atlantic City.

The boat ride out was freezing cold. All around me, I could hear the rushing wings of birds cutting through the air in the darkness. I can still hear them to this day. I couldn’t see anything, but the sound was unbelievable. We reached our hunting location and my uncle told me to get out and set the decoys. So, I jump out and immediately this pair of waders that I’d had for years leak. It was bitter cold, and the water just filled up my waders. I just had to suck it up.

That day, we saw Atlantic Brant, Pintails, Mallards, Black ducks, bufflehead, mergansers, and snow geese. If there’s a bird that flies in the Eastern skies, we pretty much saw it. Then it started to snow. I was freezing but I loved every minute of it. I’ve been a duck hunter ever since.

Now to the decoys. The decoys that we used were the name brand, commercially available decoys back in the late 80s to early 90s. They did the job, but they weren’t lifelike—didn’t have good paint jobs and they were clunky looking. As I started going out hunting on my own, I started paying more attention to how they looked; invariably, I’d get to thinking that I could have done a little better; maybe I would have shot that Mallard if my decoys were pulling enough weight. Especially with Black ducks; they’re very, very wary; probably one of the hardest birds to kill anywhere. A lot of guys would buy Mallards and paint them black since they have a similar physiological structure.

At the time, I was woodworking in a cabinet shop, in and out of school. I’d ordered a couple Black duck decoys at fifty bucks a pop. When they came in, they were nothing more than a piece of black refrigeration cork with what looked like a piece of sawed-off 2x4 for a head. They were terrible. So, I thought, “you know, I have all the tools and I can do better than this.”

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

So, you built a better mousetrap.

JODE HILLMAN

Exactly. I decided to stay late after work and got the boss’s permission to use the tools. I made some Black Duck and some Teal. I look back on them now and they were worse than what came from the store! But I had that pride that I’d made them, and I really thought they were something special. That’s what started my decoy making.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

Were you aware of the New Jersey traditions of duck decoy carving at that time?

JODE HILLMAN

Not quite yet. New Jersey is the cradle of decoys, and I was pretty much in the epicenter of it. The history was just waiting for me to stumble into. I met a duck hunter soon after that and I showed him my decoys. He said, “oh, those look like shit.” I didn’t know whether to be offended or what, but he opened my eyes. He said, “why don’t you take a look at what was made here for the past 100 years and then assess your own birds.”

I did, and it blew me away. Historical makers like Harry Shourds, Dan English, John English from the Delaware River, John Blair. This is a tradition of making that started in the 1860s and has never really ended. It petered out a little bit when commercial decoys became widely available in the 50s and 60s, but the tradition of decoy making never died; a couple guys kept it going and passed it along to their sons, their friends, their hunting partners. There’s an unbroken line up to the present day.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

The history is important to you.

JODE HILLMAN

Absolutely. In college, I was a history major. So, to find out all this historical information directly connected to something I was becoming passionate about lit a fire in me like you wouldn’t believe. It combined three things: duck hunting, the history, and the actual woodworking. Three things I love melded together. A day hasn’t gone by, other than maybe the birth of my kids, that I haven’t thought about decoys, researched decoys, or carved decoys. In the end, I’m a duck nerd.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

Is your craft informed by historical techniques?

JODE HILLMAN

Oh, most definitely. Hand tools; painting by brush rather than an airbrush. The traditional and historical manner is how I do things. When I adopted these methods after learning about the famous carvers and their approach to woodworking was when things broke for me. Collectors started noticing that I was turning out birds that could have been carved in the 1930s. It opened a lot of eyes. I’ve been working on a book about decoy history. Now it’s just about finding the time to finish it.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

Will you walk us through your process?

JODE HILLMAN

For any decoy you have to have an idea first. I’ll tell you a story that demonstrates how I approach decoys.

One of my most well-known carvings is a preening hen Pintail. I carved this bird in 2005. The idea came when I was out in the marsh hunting. I’d reached my limit hunting Pintails for the day, but I had several more come in and land near my decoys. The hen Pintail is rather drab looking. It has very warm tones. Well, this hen landed near me, and as she did, she craned her head back behind her feathers.

Hillman’s prize-winning Preening hen Pintail

Hillman’s prize-winning Preening hen Pintail

The hen Pintail has an oil gland there. They get oil on their bill and then stroke it through their feathers. She was reaching really far back between her wings to oil her bill. As she did, the sun hit her exposed wing; the brightly colored feathers on a duck’s wings are the secondary feathers, or speculum (the terms are used interchangeably). In a hen Pintail these speculum feathers are varied hues of red, green, and copper.The way the light hit her, mixed with her pose, cemented itself in my mind and I thought, “when I get home, I have to draw this pattern.”

I got home at 7:30, but I stayed in the barn (my old workshop) until past midnight trying to draw this side-profile of the hen pintail stretching her neck way out in the back. I had to get it right and lifelike. I am so proud of that bird. I couldn’t stop until I got it exactly how it was in my mind.

So, that takes us through the inspiration and drawing the pattern. Once you have your pattern drawn you transfer it over to your carving wood. I use several woods depending on what I want to do. Then, you make your cut-out with a bandsaw. The head is a third piece. You want the grain to run longwise. After the bandsaw, you’re ready to start carving the bird down. I use a draw knife—a tool you’d use to take bark off logs or to make wagon wheels. It’s very simple. Rough carving is done with the draw knife.

Hillman’s Drawknife

Hillman’s Drawknife

Then, I use a spokeshave. The spokeshave is used to round the body out and get it fairly smooth and take away the large divot marks by the draw knife. At that point, I unscrew the two parts of the body and hollow it out. Then I make the head with a carving knife. I’ll do a little wood burning on the head to delineate the bill and nostrils. Then the head gets glued and screwed onto the body.

Depending on the style, I’ll work closely on detail, especially for fancier birds. It sounds fast but the process takes about five or six hours to this point. Then you sand it. I give the bird two coats of a marine varnish. The varnish penetrates the raw wood and waterproofs it. Then you sand the varnish and paint.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

What kind of paint do you use?

JODE HILLMAN

Oil paints, hand applied by a bristle brush. Most of the time, I use a technique called “wet on wet.” You lay down your base coat, and when the base coat is wet, you put all your feathers in. As the paint dries, the feathers actually melt into your base coat and that adds a very subtle shading that’s difficult to do any other way. In the decoy world, we jokingly refer to this as the “midnight blender,” as in, “the midnight blender comes in and works on the bird.” You have to over-accentuate details for this reason, otherwise they disappear. It’s the opposite of acrylic painting which is done with many, thin layers and washes. Acrylic has its advantages—it dries quickly for example. But oil and water don’t mix, so oil tends to be more durable. One huge advantage is that collectors prefer a bird that’s painted with oil because the wood and oil interact for generations. When birds I painted twenty years ago come back to me now, you can really see the mellowing patina of age. It’s beautiful. Just like the paintings from the Dutch masters with that wonderful softness.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

What are your other sources of inspiration?

JODE HILLMAN

It’s hard to explain what makes you want to pick up a knife and paintbrush and make your living with it. I try to synthesize the feelings I get and the things I see when I’m out in nature. I love Monet and the Impressionists; how you can get the effect, the spirit of the thing, with a strategic use of detail. And that doesn’t mean it has to be over-detailed. The way I like to judge a bird now isn’t by what it looks like when I’m holding it in my hand. I set it on my workbench and walk to the other side of the shop about twenty feet away. Then I’ll turn around quick. The first impression the decoy gives me without thinking about it—the emotional connection that I feel as I take it in—that’s how I judge a bird.

I personally try to not look at a lot of contemporary work. I want my work to stand on its own and not be influenced by what others are trying to do. I don’t want my work to be homogenized. All the people that I admire—the Ward brothers, John English, John Blair, Harry Shourds—they didn’t have the internet to look at pictures of ducks. They didn’t see a lot of others’ work. They had nature, and that gave them their unique style. That’s what I want to do.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

It’s about taking this shared source of inspiration—nature, birds—and putting your own spin on it.

JODE HILLMAN

That’s it. Somebody once asked Bill Cranmer, a famous New Jersey carver from the 50s, about why he used a certain shade of green in a Mallard. Cranmer said, look, everyone knows what a Mallard looks like; I want people to know what I think a mallard should look like. He wasn’t constrained by rigid rules; he basically told Mother Nature to take a hike! His artistic perspective was awesome. Shourds makes similar comments. He carves what he thinks birds should look like. I love that. You don’t have to be constrained. What’s most important to me is that people connect with my birds.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

I wonder if you have a favorite tool?

JODE HILLMAN

I do—my spokeshave! It was made by a fellow in Kansas City who made tools for Windsor chairmakers. It’s the Ferrari of spokeshaves. It’s sleek and made of rosewood with brass inserts. It’s light and you can shave a decoy body down so finely you almost don’t need sandpaper. Using a sharp spokeshave is as good as it gets. When I have to spend a day spokeshaving, I’m in my glory.

The Ferrari of Spokeshaves – Fourth from Left

The Ferrari of Spokeshaves – Fourth from Left

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

If you’re working at the pace you do, you got to have somewhere you love being. Tell us more about your shop.

JODE HILLMAN

I used to have an old horse barn, but in 2013 I had a fire. I lost everything: tools, machines, wood, decoys. Everything. It was a major setback, but over the following year I was able to build a studio in the same area. It’s different from the old barn in that it has modern heating and air conditioning. And it has a lot of great amenities like good lighting and lumber storage. It’s filled with my tools and artifacts and decoys I’ve collected. It’s about the size of a two-car garage and suits my needs.

restored rail bird hunting skiff in Hillman’s workshop

A restored rail bird hunting skiff in Hillman’s workshop

You can find me out there most days. I listen to a lot of sports radio and old country music and classic rock while I carve. I pick up recipes from a podcast called “Hunt, Gather, Cook.” I love to cook, especially wild game, Snakehead, and crab. We used to have gatherings in the old barn with a bunch of decoy makers, and we still do sometimes.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

How has the decoy carving community changed over the decades you’ve been involved?

JODE HILLMAN

Going back twenty years ago there used to be five or eight guys in a shop on the weekend talking decoys, looking at each other’s work. But as families grow and life goes on and you see each other’s work on Facebook, that’s all changed a bit. The original group of carvers don’t get together much anymore, but I do have a few younger carvers that come by from time to time. Either to carve or just hangout.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

Do you have any rituals or superstitions in your workshop?

JODE HILLMAN

Make sure you don’t burn your shop down! I have a wood stove, and every time I’m working in the winter and I have to go back and check and make sure it’s out. Also, I have a black lab named Brooke; she’s my right-hand girl. I have to have her with me all the time. For the short time I was in between dogs it was like I lost my left arm.

Hillman’s beloved Brooke in the field

Hillman’s beloved Brooke in the field

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

What’s on your workbench now? What’s next for your carvings?

JODE HILLMAN

I just finished painting an Eastern shore-style Black duck and an Eastern shore-style Mallard. They don’t have any carved detail except for the bill. These two are based off of the work in the 1930s and 40s from the Maryland shore. I’ve distilled the birds down to their essence with simple elegant paint jobs that carry the whole decoy. Not a lot of fancy stuff. I’ve fallen in love with that Eastern shore style. I haven’t copied it, but I’ve adapted certain parts.

The Eastern shore-style Black Duck and Eastern shore-style Mallard

The Eastern shore-style Black Duck and Eastern shore-style Mallard

Also, I have a project coming up that’s been on my back burner for three years: a full-sized pair of Northern shovelers in a landing position with their wings fully exposed and painted to the nines. I drew my patterns; got my profiles right. They’re going to be different. They’ll be coming off the wall like a taxidermy mount. It’ll be a challenge to mount, but I love problem solving.

WILDLIFE SHOWROOM

What’s an attribute of yours that’s benefitted you in your career as a decoy carver?

JODE HILLMAN

I am stubborn. I never give up. Older guys were happy to see a younger carver come in and keep the time-honored methods alive. I work in a tradition, carrying on history mixed with my own ideas, and I’ll never stop. 

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