A frequent contributor to the Barton County Historical Society Museum, Robert Button was recently asked to exhibit part of his vast collection of shorebird carvings and decorative decoys. The collection includes many varieties of birds which will be visiting the Cheyenne Bottoms again soon. What’s unique about the collection is they’ve been carved by Button himself.
“I got started doing decoys because I had a friend who went up into Wisconsin, spent a week with a guy who carved decoys and came back and started making some,” he said.
What started out as a mere hobby has led to a craft, and with a numbered and signed collection of over 550 completed carvings, Button has become a craftsman. Early on, his interests included relief carvings and indians, but expanded to include ducks and birds thanks to an introduction by a friend. Right now, he’s interested in ducks and shore birds that visit Cheyenne Bottoms.
Button is a fellow member of the Golden Belt Carvers Club, which meets weekly at the senior center in Great Bend.
“We carve in the morning, eat lunch there, and then carve in the afternoon,” he said.
While some of the carvings have become Christmas presents for friends and family over the years, he keeps his work close to home. He has provided carvings and decoys for a number of displays at the Barton County Historical Museum, and has contributed to other museums in the immediate area.
The carvings start off as simple blocks of either sugar pine or bass wood, from which he carves the body. The heads are sculpted separately, and the feet and legs are made of cast pewter because the legs and toes bend and can be wrapped around the wooden base the carver chooses for the display. You have to be careful not to break them, however, Button cautions.
He uses books that have outlines and show the feather patterns each bird has.
“Each bird has a different pattern and shape to their feathers,” he said. “You can get patterns for just about anything.”
At his workbench, he has a work in progress. He’s been working on a pintail duck, but still needs to put the vermiculum on--the little squiggly lines on the feathers. “That’s what I really like about the pin-tail.” The wing tips cross, and he reveals the secret--that the tips are separate pieces he’s imbedded into the carving.
He is also working on a carving of an avocet, a shore bird that visits the Cheyenne Bottoms. He uses a wood burner and with a double edge, allowing him to burn two lines at a time.
“You go deep enough to what you call a stopcut, then you underlay, and burn the shaft and veins into each individual feather,” he said. “That’s basically how it’s accomplished.”
Different tips burn details into the wood, some that are simple lines, others semicircular. He uses blades to undercut the details of the feathers, sands them lightly, and then runs the hot tips over the surface to create the detail. It creates the illusion of one feather laying over another. Button makes the tedious work look relaxing.
When the details are set, it’s time to start painting. He uses several very thin coats of oil paint to avoid covering up the fine details he’s worked so hard to burn into the wood.
The total number of hours that go into creating a life-like decorative decoy ranges from 20 to 120 hours depending on the size of the bird. Button’s carvings range from Great Horned Owls and pheasants to tiny chickadees and nuthatches.
Bases are an important part of the display also. He searches for different pieces of driftwood
“You never know when you’re going to find something,” he said.
He has one base which came from a nob that came from a neighbors yard. He walked by and noticed that it was loose. The neighbor was only planning to throw it away and gave it to Button who cut in in half to make two bases from it.
Decoys are used by hunters, but Button’s carvings are not used for hunting. Straight decoys will be just plain -- they are painted, but the feather work and inlay isn’t present. Decoys used for hunting have rudders to keep them steady on the water, and are often times hollow. Decorative decoys are the ones with all the details, and the ones that Button looks forward to carving.