The wood of choice and tradition for making the hollow Barnegat Bay New Jersy duck,Brant, goose, and shorebird decoy is Atlantic White Cedar. Also called Southern White Cedar, it has been used for decoys in New Jersey for well over 150 years. A tree that grows in freshwater wetlands, White Cedar requires extensive drying time,and must be cut during the winter months when the sap is dormant. New Jersey's cedar forests have all been cut 3 times since the colonists first starting logging, so the availability of knot - free, "clear" cedar has diminished drastically through the decades. I hand-pick my cedar at the few mills left in southern NJ, and air dry it for several years before it meets my standard of readiness. Many times I've been asked if I log my own cedar, but this would require far too much time to be able to carve full time as I have done for the last 35 years. When I started carving in the early 1970's cedar was sixty-five cents a board foot and less. Today it is over $3.00 a board foot and rising. I remember the late Hurley Conklin, one of New Jersey's premier decoy makers, complaining about the price when it hit a whopping .85 cents a board foot....Clear boards are difficult to find,and working around knots fortunatly is not a problem on most birds that are between 10" for Teal and Buffleheads,and 21" for a Canada Goose. Today most White Cedar is used for exterior siding,(not to be confused with Western Red Cedar,far more abundant commercially),shingles, and boatbuilding material. The classic New Jersey duck hunting boat,the Barnegat Bay Sneakbox, was almost always made from Atlantic White cedar. My brother Joe still makes scale 1": 1' Sneakbox models from thin white cedar today. One reason I go to local mills is the fact that the carving tradition has prompted the setting aside of clear boards of 2, 3, and 4" thicknesses for carvers to buy at premium prices. I dry my boards by standing them upright in the shade, (a garage is fine),with good ventilation, and dating each board with a crayon with date of purchase on the top end. Culling the best clear boards for heads, as knot free wood is essential for this part of the decoy. Small knots in the bodies are easily drilled through after rough shaping and a cedar plug whittled and set with glue. The typical construction sequence is to saw out and carve the head first. The hollow bodies require two seperate pieces (not a solid block split), and paying attention to the growth rings: when looking at the ends of the stock, the larger rings should be on the seam side,as White Cedar shrinks away from the heart of the tree, (the smaller rings toward the center). I have seen other species shrink the opposite way, but White Cedar in my experience always dries away from the inside of the tree. Even though I dry my cedar for years before carving, when you have reduced the volume of the body by carving and especially hollowing, it will dry just a bit more, so making sure the seams shrink toward each other is a sound practice. The spoiler to this method is :"wane, on one or both edges of the board. Then you must work with at least one board which will shrink away from the seam. In most cases, glue and nails will negate this problem during joining of the top and bottom body halves. I make all my decoys to be real working birds, even though most people sit them on the shelf for eternity... Having decoys in a room, say with a woodstove where the upper areas can get to be very hot and dry will shrink decoys to the point where any two pieces of joined wood will seperate to some degree, so be forewarned. The actual carving characteristics of Atlantic White Cedar include wanting to split easily along the grain,(that's one reason hand-split shingles are commonly made from this wood), so any knife carved curves have to be done carefully in all cases. The actual hardness of White Cedar can vary in certain boards, I have had some pieces,frequently with a more yellow cast to the wood,which was as hard as maple. Probably the effects of the habitat it grows in. Fortunatly this is a rare occurance. Another problem can be what I call "running knots" which are longer defects enfolding along the grain and are often hidden to some extent. Careful inspection before sawing out the planshape is required. Atlantic White Cedar is rot resistant, light when properly dried, and I must say has a beautiful grain that I hate to cover with paint,but is of course required for the making of species specific carvings. I hope this guide help you understand Atlantic White Cedar and it's relation to Southern NJ decoy making a little better.
Examples of my duck and shorebird decoys can be found at my eBay auctions, where you can link to my webpage as well. I make decoys for a living, not a hobby,so this information is what I have learned first hand through the decades. Anthony Hillman