Bob Hand: The Decoy Man

Decoys were originally a tool meant to help hunters shoot birds to eat. In Sag Harbor, Bob Hand Sr. elevates them from tool to art.

Hummingbirds flit in and out of sight, just outside Bob Hand Sr.’s kitchen window. While the birds sip sugar water from feeders, he studies their movements from the kitchen table. “They’re very territorial,” he says. “They’ll knock each other out of the way.”

He’s been carving decoys since he was a boy and has since sold over 2,000 birds, never a hummingbird. “They don’t really turn me on,” he says. “My son carved one. He’s a professional. Won miniature four years in a row, miniature screech owl, world champion.”

That would be at the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition in Ocean City, Maryland, where more than 750 competitors entered over 1,300 carvings in the 46th annual event, last April. Out of five Hand birds entered, three won first prize, one won second and one third.

Hand taught his son Bob Jr. the art of making decoys. “It’s his weekend gig,” he says.

“We’re working on a Cooper’s hawk together. He’s coming over this weekend and we’ll mount it and figure out a base and legs, talons,” he says, cupping both hands into bird-of-prey mode.

Bob Hand working in his Sag Harbor studio.

Bob Hand working in his Sag Harbor studio.

Hand opens up his laptop to show me the sculpture in its present state as well as the aforementioned hummingbird, painted in bolder colors than the one feeding in front of us. “That’s a female,” he says of the live version.

“That’s carved out of one block of wood,” he says, turning to the seamlessness of the award-winning, miniature screech owl.

Bringing up a video, he instructs, “Watch this. Cute as a bitch, my friend over on Shelter Island, the famous Dicky Clark and his pet widgeon. He’s a carver, too. Since he was 16. I started him carving.”

Hand has emphysema and spent a few days in the hospital in August, the month he turned 73. “I haven’t worked in a month,” he says, “Wasn’t up to par.” Still, he finished a life-size crow for a fellow and has orders “up the yang.”

“I wanna do things I wanna do. I even turn jobs down. Everybody wants songbirds,” he says dismissively.

“A chef came over from East Hampton and wants a green wing teal. I told him I’d do it. They’re very common, the smallest duck in North America. They’re beautiful,” he says. “Working on a pattern tomorrow.”

He gets a handsome fee for his painstaking work, yet, “The paperboy probably made more money than I did per hour,” he says.

Decoys were originally a tool meant to help hunters shoot birds, mainly ducks, to eat, but the beauty of Hand’s work does not deter even the most high-profile vegetarian or anti-gun advocates from making purchases. Some names might surprise you, but Hand would never offer that information up for public consumption.

People magazine did mention he and his late ex-wife, Edith, also a carver, when E. L. Doctorow received one of their loons during the publication of Loon Lake in 1980.

His studio is an iconic building in Sag Harbor, at the corner of Madison Street and Jermain Avenue. The windows are mysteriously draped with dusty canvas, a sign or two, maybe a carving. There might be a table with driftwood on the front porch. The crystal handle of the original door might turn open in the mornings.

The sign that's been turned late mornings for decades, stating either open or "in house around back." A real old fashioned open door policy, that is unless Gunsmoke's on.

The sign that’s been turned late mornings for decades, stating either “open” or “in house around back.” A real old-fashioned open-door policy, that is unless Gunsmoke‘s on.

If he’s working inside, he sits at his work table, surrounded by paint, paintbrushes and drills of all sizes, small bottles of pinesap, pumice gel, satin varnish, apoxie sculpt and Elmer’s glue, tools of the trade.

One day while Edible was there, a couple randomly walked into his studio and asked about a shorebird they found in an attic. “That was my ex-wife’s,” he said. “Two artists. We didn’t get along. After the divorce, I worked hard and enjoyed life.”

He currently dotes over his wife, Fran, who had a stroke six years ago. “I’m a creature of habit,” he says. At 3 p.m., they crack open the Coors Light. “My wife has one a day,” he says. “I’m trying to cut back to three.”

And they never miss an episode of Gunsmoke. “We’ve seen them all 25 times.”

Hand cooks meals most nights. Family and friends drop off fish, game and produce. He grew up on a farm in Bridgehampton and is still friends with the farmers there.

“Andy Babinski brought me 20 ears of corn, and beets,” he says. “I’m a fusspot. I blanch them, boil about a minute, and then put them in ice water.”

Bob Hand hand painting decoys in his Sag Harbor workshop.

Bob Hand hand-painting decoys in his Sag Harbor workshop.

After taking the corn off the cob, he puts them in ziplock bags. “I froze 16 big ears yesterday,” he says. As for the beets, he’ll roast them with a balsamic, butter and honey sauce.

“I am a foodie,” he says. “I love wild duck, mallards, corn-fed, Bridgehampton.”

He cooks them low and slow, “kinda like a pot roast,” stuffed with onions and a strip of bacon across the breast, at 275 degrees for three hours, until the meat falls apart. “My wife likes them rare,” he says. “I do his and hers all the time.”

“Look at those yellow jackets. I might have to take that hummingbird feeder down,” he says, getting up from the kitchen table. Gunsmoke has already started.

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Kelly Ann Smith lives in East Hampton between Gardiner's Bay and Accabonac Harbor. She's been writing about the East End since 1995. Her weekly column, "A View from Bonac," can be found in the East Hampton Press.