South Jersey Native is Keeping the Ancient Art of Decoy Carving Alive

J.P. Hand's work is coveted by collectors and exhibited in museums.

J.P. Hand has been carving local waterfowl since he was a teenager;
J.P. Hand has been carving local waterfowl since he was a teenager. Photo: Dave Moser

When J.P. Hand was growing up in Cape May County in the 1960s and ’70s, “gunning on the salt meadow”—hunting ducks in the marshes—was a favorite pastime. Learning to carve decoys to lure his prey happened naturally: first, because he had no money to buy them; then, as a hobby; and finally, as a livelihood.

“Decoy carving has provided me with a living doing something I enjoy,” he says. “After half a century, when I go out to my workshop to carve, I still enjoy what I do.”

Hand, 70, was mentored by other decoy carvers, who practice a craft that dates back to the Native Americans who lived along the Atlantic coast. “No one carver could have developed the arts and mysteries of making a traditional South Jersey decoy,” he says. “Many carvers over many generations have added to the craft.”

JP Hand

Hand says that carving allows him to make a living doing something he enjoys. Photo: Dave Moser

He uses planks of Atlantic white cedar to carve the hollow decoy, and only one power tool, a bandsaw, to cut out the rough shape according to his pattern. The bird emerges with the aid of hand tools—a hatchet, spokeshave, curved gouge and knife—and is then painted in colors mimicking the bird’s plumage.

The patterns and style differ slightly among master carvers. Hand’s carvings are sleek and minimalist, typical of the South Jersey style. One of his signatures is the snaky head and neck he gives some of his waterfowl. His favorite subjects are the green-winged teal and the mourning dove, but he’s also carved geese, swans, shorebirds, raptors, turkeys and songbirds.

JP Hand

Prices for Hand’s decoys range from $100 for a songbird to $1,500 for a life-size swan. Photo: Dave Moser

Hand, who traces his roots to the English whalers who migrated to coastal South Jersey from Long Island in the 1690s, has customers all over the world who find him via word of mouth and decoy shows and dealers. (He doesn’t have a website.) Prices range from $100 for a songbird to $1,500 for a life-size swan.

His decoys have been exhibited at the Ward Museum and the Havre de Grace Museum, both in Maryland, and at New Jersey’s Tuckerton Seaport Museum.

Would-be carvers can apply to apprentice with a master carver through the New Jersey Council for the Arts, or take a seminar at the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, Tuckerton Seaport, or the South Jersey Carver’s Association in Cumberland County. In North Carolina, there’s the Core Sound Carver’s Guild at Harkers Island. Try online carving forums to find someone to work with hands-on.

No one knows New Jersey like we do. Sign up for one of our free newsletters here. Want a print magazine mailed to you? Purchase an issue from our online store.