"The Call of the Wild"
by J. Mark Shoup, associate editor, Pratt
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, its years
of experience, a deft hand, and a fine ear.
Starting from scratch, Dennis obtains fine
hardwoods walnut, maple (curly and birds eye), coca bola,
cherry, Osage orange, rosewood, ebony, amaranth (purple heart),
and even honey locust and cuts it into rough blocks.
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 its 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.
most craftsmens 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
Chips fly as the rough block quickly assumes
the graceful shape that will one day hang from some lucky hunters
neck. Although Dennis calls have a readily recognizable symmetry,
their shape is created by eye, making each one truly custom.
he is satisfied with the barrels 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.
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 calls
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."
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."
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, its
time to begin the laborious process of tuning the call. With insert
pressed into barrel, Dennis creation looks like a beautiful
duck call, but its 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 hes not satisfied.
"I can file here, file there, but if
it doesnt 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 its not a Dennis call."
a Dennis call does sounds right, it gets a fine lacquer finish and
is ready for the callers 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 its best to get
fitted by the guy who makes the call. Anyway, get a good one, then
practice. Tapes are fine, but youve 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
"A lot of people call too much. Most
times, youve 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.