"The Call of the Wild" by J. Mark Shoup, associate editor, Pratt

So what goes into the making of a championship duck call? In the case of a Don Dennis call, the simple answer is wood, brass, a little cork and a strip of mylar for the reed. (Dennis originally used hard rubber reeds, but they were two brittle. Some early Dennis calls even employed metal reeds.) Mostly, however, it’s years of experience, a deft hand, and a fine ear.

Starting from scratch, Dennis obtains fine hardwoods walnut, maple (curly and bird’s eye), coca bola, cherry, Osage orange, rosewood, ebony, amaranth (purple heart), and even honey locust and cuts it into rough blocks.

The barrel pieces (see illustration) are cut to 1 ½ x 4 inches with a 5/8 inch hole bored in the middle. The inserts are cut to 1x 5 inches and left unbored. Working in a small workshop in his backyard, Dennis keeps a number of these rough blanks ready to go at all times.

When it’s time to fashion a call, he starts by attaching a barrel blank to the mandrel on his lathe. Then he slides the tool rest in front of the blank, screws it down tight, and flips the switch on the lathe.

Like most craftsmen’s hands, Dennis’ are at once broad and delicate, rough and graceful. The wood is a blur as Dennis deftly picks up a gouge like a surgeon grasping a scalpel. To steady his hand, he slides the gouge (which looks like a chisel with a rounded end) on the tool rest and quickly runs the tool back and forth across the block.

Chips fly as the rough block quickly assumes the graceful shape that will one day hang from some lucky hunter’s neck. Although Dennis calls have a readily recognizable symmetry, their shape is created by eye, making each one truly custom.

Once he is satisfied with the barrel’s shape, Dennis makes a shallow tenon cut around the insert end of the barrel. Then he sands one end of a pre-cut brass ring, coats the inside with epoxy, and taps it over the tenon cut. At the point where the ring meets the end of the cut, the fit is perfect. He then sands off the excess brass from the end of the barrel.

Using a wire gauge to mark the spots, Dennis next burns in decorative rings and the lanyard ring with a wire stretched across the spinning wood. To finish the barrel, he sands it on the spinning lathe with 80, 150, and 320 grit emery cloth, then fills any possible flaws in the grain by buffing with colored wood putty. A final polish is buffed on, and the barrel is ready for the partner.

The insert is a bit more complicated. After all, this is the piece that will determine the quality of the call’s tone. First , the insert blank is turned on the lathe much like the barrel was, only this piece has a straight taper so it will fit tightly into the barrel. While the insert is still on the lathe, he drills a ¼ inch hole in the center with a stationary drill but attached to one end of the lathe. The artisan then quickly removes the insert and does some boring and gouging that I cannot follow. I inquire about this maneuver, but the response is cryptic. "Certain things are a secret of the trade."

Now comes the tricky part. The insert is locked in a small stainless steel jig, and he makes a cut about two inches long, lengthwise from the narrow end. Then he crosscuts half of that end off, leaving a ¼ inch notch for the cork that will hold the reed in place. Now every-thing rest on the steps that follow. The tapered end of the insert (which now looks like a half-moon from the end) is clamped on another small jig, called the filing jig. The filing jig leaves part of the insert (the part that will go into the barrel) exposed so that Dennis can put the jig in a vise and file the insert to a radius that, hopefully will make perfect sound board. "The radius is the most Important part of the call," Dennis explains, "because the reed must lay properly on the sounding board."

After the sounding board is shaped, Dennis cuts a piece of mylar for the reed and a small piece of cork that holds the reed in place. (The mylar is about 1 ½ inches long and 3/8 inch wide, with the top two corners snipped off at 45 degree angles. The cork is about the size of a pencil eraser.)

Once the reed and cork are in place, it’s time to begin the laborious process of tuning the call. With insert pressed into barrel, Dennis’ creation looks like a beautiful duck call, but it’s anything but a finished product. Grunting audible, he blows on the instrument, which he calls an Arkansas call – loud hails, soft ones, cackles. Then he pulls it apart, pulls the reed, trims, puts it back together, calls, pulls it apart, files the sounding board, puts it back together, calls some more. He does this perhaps two dozen time. Ever call sounds good to me, but he’s not satisfied.

"I can file here, file there, but if it doesn’t sound right to me, it goes in the trash," and he pitches the insert in a can under his workbench. "I suppose I have about 20 percent failure. It may sound okay to some people, but it’s not a Dennis call."

When a Dennis call does sounds right, it gets a fine lacquer finish and is ready for the caller’s hand. Once in hand, Dennis has a little advice for the novice.

"If you want to learn to call, get a good call. Everybody blows differently, so it’s best to get fitted by the guy who makes the call. Anyway, get a good one, then practice. Tapes are fine, but you’ve got to practice.

Learn different calls – comebacks, feeders, hails quacks – because they all work at different times." Other good advise for the beginner, Dennis adds, is to limit your calling.

"A lot of people call too much. Most times, you’ve got to call to get their attention, then just let them come into you."

Today, duck callers – not just ducks – are coming to Don Dennis. And after 30 years on the assembly line at General Motors’ Fairfax Plant in Kansas City, Kan., he is enjoying retirement duck and goose callmaking at his leisure. The old mallard hunter-cum-craftsman is creating functional works of art that should leave a legacy of quality for generations of waterfowlers to come.