I have been involved with making decoys for well over 30 years, and fortunately I got into it while it was still common to see a fair amount of bona fide classics at the many shows held years past. One thing that struck me from the outset was how many flat sided shorebirds were made by the old-timers. Some of course were flatties: silhouettes, painted and usually made of 1" thick stock. Remembering that many years ago a 2 X 4 was actually two by four inches, (a fantastic thought today), instead of the continually thinning stock we now recieve from commercial mills, one could make a decent shorebird from the fuller dimensions of commonly available lumber. This was fine for the smaller species such as Sanderling and the other "Peeps". As makers expanded the patterns which species like Yellowlegs and Plover required, using the same 2 X 4" stock, the sides became less full and flat spots were common in the larger species. Even 3" lumber would not have a fat body on the Black Bellied and Golden Plover species. I make quite a few birds using full two inch thick White Cedar, and although I don't allow flat spots, the finished decoy is to me, a better representation of the old methods. 3 and 4 inch stock is a must for Plover, (and these include the RuddyTurnstone a 'Jersey favorite ), and Curlew, as these birds are 11" and longer in length. One reason for the skimpy dimensions on many of the older decoys is that they were tools made from available lumber, often scrap, and the fact is, lumber 3" and thicker just wasn't lying around as often. The fact that decoy use was not as essential during the 1800's as the shorebird population and habitat was far greater than today is another reason only a few craftsmen took the trouble to make really full bodied birds as we see being made today by those who decoy collectors rather than live birds. By the late 1800's when better technology allowed the Golden Age of Wingshooting, and shorebird populations were in general decline, decoys became more important. Many of the better examples were made during this time, and most makers (who were only making what was necessary for personal use), were not "Decoy Makers" by trade.
For every A. E. Crowell, (1862 -1952) who was the supreme professional decoy maker of his day, (or any day, for that matter!) there were a hundred men who only made a few decoys for their personal use, with whatever was available, and this in no way detracts from the charm of these carvings.
As far as duck decoys go, a prime example of using what was available is evidenced by the Blairs, John Sr. and John Jr. and their employees in the carriage making business with which they shared their patterns. The stock used for their ducks was 1 1/4" and 1 1/2" thick, the same as they used for the carriage bodies which was their main business. John Blair Sr. sold the decoys produced from the Phiadelphia side of the ferry landing on the Delaware River to supplement income for his carriage making trade. This was a productive use for scrap material which was already seasoned, valuable wood. So when eyeing one of the old decoys, whether a shorebird or other species, remember that many were made from available material, and that a somewhat "hungry" dimension is another indicator of age and origin. Anthony Hillman