Palm Frond Carvings
Then & Now

By: Laurie J. McNeil - 2006

This article is a compilation of four articles spanning a period of forty years. These articles were written by Lew Clingan, Roger Barton, Del Herbert, and myself, and published in various magazines over a 16 year period. I felt it was important to include all of these informative articles, so that those who are considering carving a palm frond for the PSWA California Open, will have access to as much information as possible.

From the history of palm frond decoys, to carving and painting them, these articles have it all. In addition, at the end of these four articles, I will be following with an update on the Palm Frond Carving Competition which is exclusive to the California Open, and providing resource information on where you can get a palm frond for the next PSWA show, in February 2007.

Palm Frond Decoys
By: Lew Clingan
Originally Published:



An interesting type of decoy unique to the West, and to California in particular, is the "Palm Frond". I would like to show you some of the better examples and record al of their history.
  Let me point out that the palm frond is an honest use of a cheap, available material with certain other very desirable characteristics. It is light, strong, requires a minimum of work and is easily cut. Nature equipped it with a keel and the basic configuration of a pintail. Assorted sized provided variation. The only work required is a rounding of the the front and a slight shaping of the tail and you are in business. Such a decoy seems well suited for the protected interior valley weather and water conditions.
  The first ones were made in the early 1930's at about the same time balsa and cork were again invading the market. Attention was paid to the heads and painting on these early one and they are the best from a collector's point of view. The only palm frond species I know of are pintail, mallard, Canada and Snow Geese. I am not sure who made the first one, but it is generally accredited to George Bud" Peters, Claude Keggy, or the Mello Brothers.
  Bud Peters, according to his brother, made and sold approximately 1,500 palm frond decoys before he passed away in 1947. His work is illustrated in Photo 1. The decoys are in mint condition never having been used for hunting.
  Claude Keggy of Rio Vista is reported to have made and sold several hundred palm frond decoys.
  Jack and Henry Mello made only goose decoys for their own use. While they shot ducks which came into their spread, they didn't make duck decoys. Photo 2 shows an early much used Canada palm frond. The Mello brothers eventually went from palm fronds to their version of the slat-goose decoy covered with canvas.
  These early palm frond decoys were unsatisfactory from a hunter's point of view on two counts which are peculiar to our local hunting conditions. First, although palm fronds initially float high and dry, if left out overnight, they become waterlogged. Linseed oil and paint were used as a sealer but the fronds are so dense that the seal was not effective. While it will come as a shock to many, local hunters simply would not use a material which had to be picked up after each hunt. Birds were plentiful and easy to come by. Several hunters then used palm frond decoys as "stick-ups", which solved the waterlogging problem, but not the muskrat problem.
  While normally not a food source, per se, during periods of short food supply, muskrats would gnaw just enough of the decoys to render their continued use impractical. Photo 3. So after several years of experiment the material was abandoned.
  In recent years most clubs require a large number of decoys and hunters have turned to old, crude stick-up palm frond decoys to meet this requirement. Such decoys will not excite collectors, but with the quality of synthetic sealers available today, who knows what tomorrow may bring.

Palm Frond Decoys of California

By: Roger W. Barton
Originally Published:
Winter 1990 Volume V Number 4

Canada Goose, made in 1977 by Bob Sutton, of Long Beach, California, required extra long frond, and is smoothed with applications of auto body compound and decorative inserts. Photo courtesy of Eleanor Mosca, of La Jolla, California

Muskrats are a major problem facing working palm frond decoys, second only to waterlogging. If left out at anchor, or piled up in a blind, the fronds offer a food source for those rodents, which either nibble holes enough to destroy buoyancy, or consume them entirely.

Ed Snyder, famed decoy carver of Rio Vista, claims that he once made a rig of palm frond coots, and after using them, left them floating in a drainage ditch while he packed off home. When he returned several days later, all that remained were scraps and flakes  of black paint visible beneath the water. "Damn rat ate all but the paint", laughs Ed, whose opinion of palm frond decoys as a waste of time has been no secret since.

But the muskrats will never get a sniff at the type of palm frond decoys now being made in the West. They continue to be popular entries in our service class contests as the are easy to make, with a sweeping body shape that demands imaginative paint patterns.

The palm frond decoy comes from the thick "butt" of the frond that attaches to the trunk of the palm tree, and only the last two feet of the  larger fronds will serve. If sawn off while still green, this butt is very heavy and wet, and must be dried for some time before shaping. When completely dry, the center of the butt will be porous and pulpy, with characteristics exactly like those of poor grade balsa. The top and underside of the frond, however, has a strength, rigidity and texture very similar to bamboo.

Harold W. ("Pappy") Kidwell (1895-1982), claimed - probably correctly - to have made and sold more palm frond decoys than anybody, during the last 50 years of his life. Invent and adept in most any medium, Pappy preferred cork, balsa and frond, and his exuberant and unsophisticated paintin style exactly suited such expendable materials. "I make decoys for the ducks, not the damn collectors", he once said.
Thickest portion of the frond. which attaches to the trunk of the tree, is the only section suitable for decoys. This photo illustrates how the shape of the frond dictates the shape of the decoy.


Although occasional Eastern visitors to the West have assured me that there is a tradition of usage of palm fronds decoys in certain coastal regions of the Southeastern U.S., I have never seen anything written on the subject, and so I assume that this easily constructed, cheap and expendable style of decoy has never exited the interest of collectors there.

Out in California, we have not only a continuing tradition, but also a short written history ("Palm Frond Decoys" by Lew Clingan in the 1966-67 annual of the old Decoy Collector's Guide), which served to revive current interest in making fanciful and stylish decoys from this throwaway material.

The earliest accounts of the usage of palm frond decoys go back no further than the 1930's, when imported and decorative palm trees became common in certain regions of the state. In his 1966 DCG article, Lew Clingan suggests that his own central Sacramento Valley area was the place of origin, and as the marshes, deltas and bays formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers have always been among the most productive waterfowling spots in the West, his bias may be the correct one. He told me that the leafy and durable palm fronds were commonly used by hunters as cover for their blinds, and when the thick and light weight butts were chopped off and discarded, some sharp-eyed hunter may have discovered a higher use for them upon the instant.

As for southern California, where palms proliferate in even greater numbers, Lew said that he had never discovered evidence of old rigs of frond decoys. Wherever they were first used, they would hardly have become collectors' items. Made of a trash pile material, with interiors edible by vermin, and unlovely exteriors, palm fronds were never built for posterity.

Lew attributes credit for the introduction of frond decoys to several other old-time hunters along the Sacramento: Jack and Henry Mello, who fashioned rigs of goose decoys for their own use; Claude Kagee, of Rio Vista, famed as a member of a great goose-calling team of market hunters known a the "Doc Stuart Outfit", who were active around 1910; George ("Bud") Peters, of Dixon, who, before his death in 1947, had made and sold hundreds of frond decoys, of which the better ones eventually found their way into gift shops.

But for sheer volume of production and dedication, the palm must pass to the late Harold W. ("Pappy") Kidwell, of Berkley, who claimed that during a period of "over fifty years", he had made 100,000 of the things. These went to local duck clubs and seem to have been used up at a prestigious rate. "I made 'em for practically nothing.", Pappy said, The materials didn't cost me anything." For certain customers he added the unusual precaution of dipping the decoys in hot tar to waterproof and and ratproof them. "I guess them rats didn't like the tar in their teeth.", he explained.

On this pair of mallard decoys made by the author, the palm butt has been reversed to give characteristic high-tailed swimming pose.

Because palm frond decoys were quickly made and always considered expendable, their usage declined as the equally cheap but more serviceable plastic decoys came along, to sweep the fields clear of all obsolete and inefficient folk art. But a whisper of the palm frond tradition was saved by Lew Clingan's brief essay in that long-ago article in a now-defunct journal. A handful of western carvers, grown tired of the niggling demands of cheerless, high- pressure, high-tech, "competition grade" carving, read his words and took note. Through these carvers the palm frond tradition lives.

Roger Barton has written for WC&C Magazine in the Winter 1987 issue of where is article appeared on Fresh Air Dick Janson, a decoy carver of California. Roger also edits the newsletter of the Pacific Flyway Decoy Association.

Carving A Palm Frond For The California Open

By: Laurie J. Gmyrek
Originally Published:
Summer 1998 Volume XXIV Number 2
Revised 1999


In 1994 while reading through the PSWA California Open's 1995 show brochure, I noticed a new category called Palm Frond Decoys. The major portion of the body was to be made from a palm frond. It was a 50/50, auction class and it intrigued me. Bernie Glass was the contact for obtaining a palm frond. I called Bernie and asked that he send one to me.

About two weeks later UPS rolled in and delivered a computer box to me. I was puzzled because I hadn't ordered anything. I brought the box down to my studio and upon opening it I found what I thought looked like a pod shaped alien with a spiked tail. Then I realized that this was my palm frond.

It was about 3 feet long and what looked like the tail had an upward curve to it. The spikes were from the palm leaves that were attached at one time. A palm frond, is basically the branch from a palm tree. The thick pod like portion of the palm branch, which attached it to the tree, is the portion that is used for carving.

In examining the frond I found a hard outer shell encasing what was a soft cork like center at one end. As you go toward the other end the frond gets thinner and the center becomes very fibrous, and quite strong.

I had decided to make an old squaw in a preening position. The curve of the palm frond at the one end, lent it's self to the tail of the old squaw. I then drew up a head that I would carve from tupelo and attach to the body portion of the duck.

Once I had roughed out my head, it was time to fit the head to the body. I cut the spikes off of the tail portion with my bandsaw, leaving just the main branch with the upward curve and the thick pod area for the body. I didn't have much shaping to do for the body with the exception of the breast area. This was meaty portion, which had been trimmed up with a bandsaw before I got it.

Once I began shaping the breast with my rough out bit, I found that the cork like center was very soft. If I wasn't careful the tool would, all to easily, take more than what I wanted to remove. Once it was shaped I switched over to a sanding mandrel which I also had to be careful, not to let it run, taking away more that I wanted.

After fitting the head to the body, I finished off the detail work on the head, eyes, and bill, then sanded it smooth. To attach the head, I used a small dowel, drilling a hole in the body and in the head. I then used five- minute epoxy to glue it on. I sanded the breast area by hand, and found that there were little fibers that couldn't be sanded away. So I decided to just seal the piece with deft semi-gloss.

Oldsquaw Drake Palm Frond Unpainted by Laurie J. McNeil
Oldsquaw Drake Palm Frond Unpainted by Laurie J. McNeil 1995

It didn't take much to seal the hard shell area, but any area in which the shell had been carved away, took several coats before it stopped absorbing and actually became sealed. Once the deft had completely dried, I found that the little fibers that I couldn't sand before the sealer, had become brittle and were now easily sanded smooth.

I hand painted the palm frond with Jo Sonja Acrylics. Having never seen any type of palm frond carving, I was not sure what to expect from the other entries when I arrived at the show. Bob Sutton, creator of this category exclusive to the California Open, was pleased.

Oldsquaw Drake Palm Frond - 2nd Place in the 1995 California Open

Bob told me that both pintails and old squaws were a popular choice of species because of the shape of the frond. He went on to say that palm fronds have been used for years as a material for decoys and that he had carved several of them. He also told me that now I was officially a palm frond carver.

Considering that it was the category's first year, there was quite a variety of entries in 1994. The carvers who participated, used and a lot of ingenuity! Bill Browne carved a horned grebe dancing on the water, June Lyon carved three herons, Del Herbert carved a shorebird that was mounted on a steel rod and when put into motion would dip down as if to drink water. In all there were eleven entries.

Bill Browne took best in show, my old squaw took second, and June Lyon took third. Del Herbert and several others took honorable mentions. Both the grebe and the old squaw brought $600.00 at auction, at the Saturday night Banquet.

Now I was fired up. I asked Bob Sutton to send me another frond for next year. I really liked the challenge of the medium as well as the challenge of finding a bird in the palm frond.


Just after the first of the year, I received a box from Bob Sutton which contained three palm fronds. One large, and two smaller fronds. Bob thought it would be nice to have three to choose from. I examined each one individually, looking for a potential species for the subject matter.

After looking at the last frond, I took all three and held them together, the big one in the center on the bottom, and the two smaller ones on the top of the big one. I immediately saw an image of a falcon and thought of using all three, with the large one for the body and the two smaller fronds as the wings.

I pulled out all of my reference and did some reading. I learned that the Peregrine Falcon flies up to about 200 feet, spots it's prey, usually a smaller bird, and then assumes a diving position called stooping. This was a perfect scenario, for the image that was created when I put all three fronds together. A Peregrine it would be.

I had only three weeks to pull this off. I designed the head to fit on the frond and cut the frond to the specified length. This left the tail end wide enough for a falcon. Then I shaped both of the smaller fronds into the wings and fit them to the contour of the body. I carved the head from tupelo.

Once I had completely carved in the head detail, I used a dowel and five minute epoxy to laminate the tupelo head to the body. I put epoxy in both holes and on the dowel, as well as on both surfaces of the head and body that were to meet. Using enough epoxy to have it ooze out, thus filling any gaps between the head and the body.

Once the epoxy hardened, I carved the excess away with a medium bud shaped cross cutter, being careful not to remove anything but the excess glue. Then I hand sanded the seam. I found that the areas where the frond's shell had been removed sanded too easily, and the epoxy, being harder did not.

To avoid having the seam line show, I sealed the head and body with deft, and relied on the deft sealer to harden the soft areas, which allowed me to sand the seam smooth, thus hiding the seam. I then sealed the wings and sanded them smooth as well.

To attach the wings, I held the first wing in position on the body and drilled two holes, the size of my dowels, through the wing and into the body. I then cut the dowel down to pegs that were about a quarter of an inch too long, so that they could be carved away, after gluing.

Once I had done this with both wings, I put epoxy into the holes in the body for the first wing. I was careful not to use too much epoxy here, to avoid having it drip out from under the wing. I lined up the first hole, applied epoxy to the peg and inserted it. Then I did the same for the second peg on the first wing.

After the second wing was pegged on, I carved the extra length of the peg, flush with the wing and filled any small holes with epoxy. After hand sanding these areas smooth, I applied several coats of deft so that I could sand any sign of the pegs away, leaving a smooth surface on the wing.

Peregrine Falcon Unpainted by Laurie J. McNeil

After working out a base to mount my palm frond on, I painted the falcon, using the Jo Sonja acrylics. This was the second time that I had used an airbrush to paint with. I loved it! Combined with hand painting I was very pleased with the out come.

I was also very anxious about whether anyone else had thought of using three fronds or of doing a bird of prey. I thought that maybe I would be the first, and I really wanted to impress Bob Sutton.

When I arrived at the show, after registering I quickly went to see what had been entered in the Palm Frond category. Wow! There were 16 entries when registration closed. There was a pheasant, a grebe, an egret, a ruddy duck, a tern, a hooded merganser, a flamingo, a green wing teal, a mallard, and several more.

It wasn't long after I arrived at the table that Bob Sutton walked up to see how the category had fared. When he saw the peregrine he said, "All right, this changes everything!" Bob had a few doubters in regard to the inclusion of a Palm Frond category in the competition. He saw fine art in the Peregrine, a departure from the crafty image that the medium had sported in the past.

The Peregrine went on to take Best in Show and sold for $1,350 at auction on Saturday night to Betty Odine. It is pictured in the California Open section of Competition '96.

Peregrine Falcon Palm Frond Sculpture by Laurie J. McNeil 1996Peregrine Falcon Palm Frond Sculpture by Laurie J. McNeil 1996


For 1997 I decided to carve a Red-tail Hawk perched on a stump. I used the excess from the ends of the wing portions, as the leg portions coming off of the hawk. I made feet from brass and epoxy and carved the talons from solid brass rods. I carved the stump from a checked piece of tupelo, and enhanced it with growth rings and cracks.

Unlike the three weeks I spent on the peregrine, I spent about six weeks on the red-tail. I employed the same technique of using three fronds again, pegging the wings and doweling on a tupelo head. This time I tried the new Chroma Airbrush Colors for the first time. George Kruth, Georgetowne Arts, was instrumental in the development of these new acrylics for wildfowl carvers. These may be used in your airbrush or for hand painting, and offers a velvet matte finish artists have grown to love.

This time when I arrived at the show, there were twelve entries. There were two macaws, two pintails, two gulls, one with teeth, a tern, a Shoveler and three more entries including my hawk. To my surprise and others, this year the judges didn't feel my entry deserved a ribbon. I was disappointed, but I looked forward to the auction.

Cliff Hollestelle took best in show with a Scarlet Macaw...

Second went to ??? (If someone know this, please let us know.)

Third went to Bill Browne, also for a Drake Pintail...

Honorable mentions were awarded to Del Herbert for his Herring Gull...

Thomas Stewart for his Seagull with teeth (no photo available), Greg Pedersen for his Arctic Tern...

 and Peter Palumbo for his Drake Shoveler....

At the Saturday night auction, the Palm Fronds went up for auction. Cliff's Macaw fetched $1,400, my Red-tail came up for auction toward the end, and despite the lack of a ribbon, it sold for $1,350, Greg's Tern sold for $775 to Betty Odine. Dennis & Carol Mack purchased Cliff's Scarlet Macaw and my Red-tail Hawk.


For my entry this year, I chose to use one very large palm frond. My subject would be a Common Loon, dancing on the water, in a territorial display. I carved the head from tupelo and attached it at the breast, again using the dowel technique. Because of the softness of the palm frond, and for balancing purposes, I laminated a piece of butternut to the base of the palm frond. I placed lead in the base to serve as a counterweight, so that the piece could stand securely.

I painted the piece using the Chroma Airbrush Colors exclusively. The iridescence on the head was achieved using the interference colors and my Badger 100-8-SG Airbrush. The remainder was painted by hand using the airbrush colors right out of the bottle.

This year the California Open celebrated their Silver Anniversary Show. The Palm Frond category had its best turn out ever with 17 entries. Many of the past years entrants and several new, but very famous names.

The judging produced 8 ribbons. Best of Show went to veteran Palm Frond carver, Bill Browne III for this Pintail Hen....

Second was awarded to first time entrant, John Gewerth for his Red-breasted Merganser Drake....

Third went to Paul Foytack for his Pintail Drake was Paul's first try at the Palm Frond category too...

Honorable Mentions were awarded to Cliff Hollestelle for a really unique Great Blue Heron...

Del Herbert for a Whistling swan, using two separate fronds for wings, my Common Loon, and Marcel Meloche for the first ever fish entry, a Brook Trout.

Other artists that entered included some very prominent names, Victor Paroyan, Tom Christie, Peter Palumbo, and colorful R.D. Wilson, well known auctioneer and carver.

The auction was different this year with the Palm Fronds fetching considerably lower prices than previous years. This was due to the absence of several regular collectors, leaving some beautiful pieces to be had for very good prices. The top price for Palm Fronds this year was $950 for the Bill Browne's Hen Pintail, $750 for John Gewerth's Red-breasted Merganser, $500 for my Common Loon, which was purchased by an unchallenged Betty Odine, and Cliff's Great Blue Heron fetched $475.

Though these pieces did not fetch the prices we have experienced in the past, I know those who were fortunate enough to purchase these pieces, knew this was a chance of a lifetime.

I look forward to the Palm Frond Category again in 1999. Each year the artists are becoming more innovative in their designs. Champion carvers from all over the US and Canada have come to find a category with few rules, provides more of a challenge than meets the eye.

Bob Sutton should be proud that he has established a category that has gained so much popularity since its inception 4 years ago. Rumor of separate categories, with an over all Best in Show is being heard, so get your Palm Fronds together and plan on entering in 1999.

Palm Frond Sculptures

Part One

By: Del Herbert 2005

Carve a California classic.

Originally Published:
Winter 2004 Volume XX Number 4

In their wonderful book Wildfowl Decoys
of the Pacific Coast
, Mike Miller and Fred
Hanson relate this information about palm frond sculptures:

  Redwood and balsa were the materials of choice for most of California's decoy carvers. However, an inexpensive California material, palm frond, was frequently used. Palms are available in most communities, and with seasonal pruning, a supply of free decoy material is produced. Palm was used in great quantities by Pappy Kidwell in his later years, but the longest history of its use was in Rio Vista and Fairfield, beginning with Claud Kagee. Unquestionably, the handsomest palm frond decoys came from the hand of Bud Peters of Fairfield.
   Peters manufactured pintail decoys in great quantity, probably in the thousands, and produced a few mallards and white-fronted geese. Peters lavished care on shaping and sanding the bodies, but chose to use Herter's factory heads as an expedient.
   The completed decoy was immersed in linseed oil, allowed to dry, and painted directly over the dry linseed. The counter weight consisted of thin strips of lead about six inches from which a two-ounce fishing sinker was suspended. Given the extreme lightness of these decoys were that muskrats often feasted on them, and those left in the water for more than a few hours would begin to absorb water. This was unacceptable in California where decoys are often deployed for the entire duck season.

Figure 1
For a palm frond sculpture, you can use the first couple of feet of the butt section that branches out from the trunk.

   Near as I can tell, several contemporary carvers like Bob Sutton, Roger Barton, Ed Snyder, and Dick Troon made a few "modern" palm frond decoys, and their cocktail party reminiscences kept the ideas alive. The, in 1995, the Pacific Southwest Wildfowl Arts Association introduced a palm frond competition as an auction category to help raise money for the and the carvers. This division remains extremely popular and has produced some very creative palm frond "sculptures" over the years.
   For those who don't know, a frond is the leaf of a palm tree. We use the first couple of feet of the butt section that branches out from the trunk (Figure 1). This section has a hard, strong outer shell and a fibrous interior. As with anything in nature, there is a great variety of size and shape to the fronds. Date palm fronds work well because the have a large butt section and assume a multitude of shapes, which help to jog the artist's imagination.
   Here's the challenge - to portray the "essence of the species" of your subject matter and maintain as much as possible the shape of the frond. Also, from a structural point of view, we want to utilize as much of the outer shell as we can. This places a premium on the imagination and ingenuity of the carver.

Figure 2
Here's is one of my many preliminary sketches of the  palm frond tropicbird.

   When I first walked into the convention center for the Ward World Championship and spotted this large white bird with graceful extended tail feathers, I immediately said to myself, "Self, now there's an idea for a palm frond." As I got close enough to appreciate the magnificence of Larry Barth's red-billed tropicbird, I was a tad overwhelmed and that idea in the "too hard" locker. However, later in the year, I just couldn't get this inspiration out of my head. I will use this project to demonstrate my interpretation and methods of palm frond carving.
   We are all fortunate to have photographs of Larry's great tropicbird in numerous publications. They aided me significantly in designing this project. First there was the issue of fitting the necessary elements (tail feathers, primaries, tertials and so on) to the frond. Figure 2 shows the results of dozens of of preliminary sketches for this project. As you will see later, this sketch was modified greatly as the sculpture evolved.
   Part of the fun of palm frond sculpting is the search for the frond that fits the needs of your project. For instance, Figure 3 shows a large frond with a relatively straight profile, which might be good for a large duck or swan.

Figure 3
This large frond would work well for a large duck or a swan.

Figure 4
This is a smaller frond with a curved profile, which turned out to be a good fit for my tropicbird project.

Contrastingly, Figure 4 is a smaller frond with a curved profile, which turned out to be good material for my tropicbird.
   The following photographs show my method for completing the red-billed tropicbird. I have endeavored to generalize my techniques a bit so the will e adaptable to other projects as well.
   In part two I'll paint the red-billed tropicbird palm frond. I'll discuss feather layout, color mixing and finishing techniques. I'll also include a few photos of my favorite palm frond carvings over the past several years.
Though this project might seem out of the ordinary, give it a try. The experience will only make your conventional bird carvings that much better.

A consistent best of show winner and frequent contributor to Wildfowl Carving Magazine, Del Herbert published his first book, WORKBENCH PROJECTS: CHAMPIONSHIP SERVICE CLASS SHOREBIRDS, IN 1998.

 1   The head pattern is transferred to a block of jelutong wood. Note the the weakest portion (the lower mandible) is aligned with the grain of the wood. Also, to facilitate the carving of the open bill, I will cut out the section marked by the dotted line, then temporarily glue it back in place while the head is carved.

 3   The lower mandible section is set back in place with hot glue. Note the misalignment on the right-hand edge and bottom of the block where the piece fits back in. This effect is due to the width of the saw cut, it is also the reason the pattern must be redrawn after the lower mandible section is glued back in place.

 2   Cut out the section for the lower mandible as shown.

 4   The profile of the head is cut out on the band saw.

A suitable piece of lumber is cut for the base section. I used 1-inch thick stock so the finished piece would have a wide. stable base.




 6   A section of the underside of the frond is cut out to fit over the base piece.


 8   The cut-out frond is fitted to the head/base assembly.
(I have temporarily attached the head and base with a 3-inch deck screw, shown in step 12). The fitting is an iterative process. Cut/fit. cut/fit, cut/fit until the frond is snug on the base and projects the desired elevation and attitude.

 7   Here is a top view of the cut-out section of the frond. This is done to allow the top shell of the frond to project forward for the "elbow" of the wing.


 9   In this photo, the desired attitude has been achieved and the and forward sections of the frond have been rough-shaped. It is important to step back and view your project from a distance at this point. Minor changes in the shapes and angles will affect the final character and attitude of your piece.

 10   Here the head has been shaped and the frond and body refined. I carve wooden eyes in every bird to facilitate the final head shaping and achieve my desired look (Note: for a detailed demonstration of head-shaping and eye placement, see my article "The Eyes Have It", which is included in the WILDFOWL CARVING'S Reference Series: Pintail Drake.) These will be ground out later to install glass eyes.

 12   Here I am prepared to attach the head to the base.

 11   The long, cantilevered tail section gave me cause for some concern that the finished piece might tend to tip aft. Therefore, a lead bar was installed in the forward section of the base.








 13   The head and base are glued together with Bondo auto body filler, which is also used to smooth the transition between the two pieces.

 14   The wooden eyes are ground out to provide sockets for the glass eyes.


 16   I elected to use PVC material for the tail feathers. Here is the 16"-long section cut from one-inch PVC material.


 17   I use a heat gun on a low setting to shape the tail feathers. Heat and bent the PVC very slowly to avoid putting a kink in it. (Yes, that's Judy's hand. I'm holding the camera.)

 15   The 9 millimeter brown glass eyes are
installed with Apoxie Sculpt, and the breast
area is shaped with Bondo.

 18   Cut out a section of the underside of the frond to receive the PVC tail feathers.

Palm Frond Sculptures

Part Two

By: Del Herbert 2005

Paint the palm frond tropicbird.

Originally Published:
Winter 2004 Volume XXI Number 1

Figure 1
Here is the primed sculpture. The eyes have been cleaned off for the photo. I normally don't clean them off until the painting is nearly complete.

In the last issue we discussed a bit of the history of palm frond decoys, and we "carved" a red-billed tropicbird out of a medium-sized curved palm frond. I put carved in quotation marks because only a small portion of the sculpture was actually carved. Most of the sculpture was fabricated from the palm frond and PVC. In this issue we'll paint the sculpture.

A consistent best of show winner and frequent contributor to Wildfowl Carving Magazine, Del Herbert published his first book, WORKBENCH PROJECTS: CHAMPIONSHIP SERVICE CLASS SHOREBIRDS, IN 1998.

Figure 2
The major feather groups are penciled on the primed surface with a Sanford Prismacolor penicil. I normally use a color a shade or two lighter than the feathers I will be painting.


Figure 3
Here is another view in color. Note that the pencil marks are just dark enough to blend into the over-all paint scheme - there is no need to erase these marks. In Part One, I mentioned that I paint the tongue and the inside of the upper and lower mandibles before the lower mandible is epoxied in place. This is done with a flesh- toned mixture of raw sienna, white gesso and a touch of napthol crimson. The outsides of the mandibles are painted with several coats of Turners yellow and then overcoated with successive blends of Turners yellow and napthol crimson. I used my Badger 100SG airbrush to blend in the overcoats; however, this can also be done with hand-blending if you don't have a airbrush.


 1  Steps 1 through 4 involve the painting techniques for the tertials and greater coverts with the male and female templates. The feathers on a tropicbird appear black and white, but I chose to warm up the black with burnt sienna (60 percent black.40 percent burnt sienna). Since the palm frond is a "sculpture", we have more artistic license than if we were painting a "realistic decorative". I find the warm black more pleasing for this project than the straight black, so that is what I used. Here is the initial layout of the tertials with the male template, with shafts added to define feather flow.

 2   Add the dark internal patterns with the female template using the same hue. 

Figure 4
Tropicbird Feather Templates
Once I have achieved the desired feather pattern, I cut templates for airbrushing the feathers onto the carving. Note that I had to take some artistic license with the size and shape of the feathers to fit them in the surface of the frond. I use medium-weight plastic template material available at sewing/quilt shops to make the feather templates.


Greater Coverts


Large Scapulars

Small Scapular/Covert

 3   Darken the central distal areas with the airbrush. This must be done freehand to avoid harsh lines.


 5   Steps 5 through 8 involve the painting of the scapulars and remaining coverts with the same hue. Here is the initial layout of the coverts.

 7   Then add darker internal patterns with the same hue. This must be done freehand similarly to Step 3.

 4   Add splits with the same hue and a fine liner brush such as the Loew-Cornell 7020 #2 or #4. Note that applying the same paint mix with a brush results in a higher intensity that that produced by the airbrush. The light ends of the barbules are painted with Jo Sonja's Warm White tinted with the black.burnt/sienna mix.

 6   Add darker internal patterns with the female template.

 8   Add feather splits and the light ends of the barbules.

 9   Here is the initial layout of the feathers on the sculpture I also started to establish the dark eye stripe and some of the shadows in the breast area with the same mixture.

 11   Here I am continuing the process from the previous step. It is always easier to build up the color slowly.

 13   I have increased the intensity of the internal feather patterns by freehand airbrushing.

 10   Darken the central area of the feathers freehand with the airbrush. I also have started to establish soft breast/belly feathers with a watered down mix of the black/burnt sienna mix and 1/2 - inch Loew-Cornell 7520 Filbert Rake brush.

 12   This is the initial layout of the internal feather patterns with the templates on the bird.

 14   Feather shafts, splits and edge highlights are added with the Loew-Cornell 7020 ultra round brush.

 15   Here is the finished sculpture. I decided to place the bid on a black cube to highlight the color scheme.
  I hope you have had as much fun with this project as I did. Again, projecting the essence of the species of your subject while maintaining the character of the palm frond can be a challenge to our artistic skills, but it is often well worth the effort. Addition information and photographs of this subject are provided by Laurie Gmyrek in the Summer 1998 issue of WILDFOWL CARVING MAGAZINE and "Palm Frond Decoys of California" by Roger W. Barton on the Winter 1990 issue.
  16a through e are some examples of how others have interpreted palm frond projects over the years.

 16a    Pintail, circa 1974 by Bob Sutton of Long Beach, California.                                                     

 16b   Pair of pheasants, circa 1997 by Cliff Hollestelle of Lincoln, Nebraska.                                       


 16c   Tundra Swan, circa 1998 by the author, Del Herbert of Chula Vista, California.

 16d   Clark's Grebe, circa 1995 by Bruce Buckley of Costa Mesa, California.


 16e   Pintail, circa 1993 by Bill Browne of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Palm Frond Carvings
Then & Now

I have found that I enjoy using a palm frond that has the majority of the original characteristics still intact, such as those pictured below....


Many times, when the palm fronds are harvested, and the the unique qualities of the frond are removed by a band saw. When trimmed, the band saw removes the gnarled edges which are indicative of the palm frond. For me, a big part of the challenge is incorporating the natural characteristics of the frond, as seen above.

For the 2004 California Open, I chose to carve a female Kestrel. I selected a smaller palm frond and used the "tail-end" because the width was appropriate for the subject. When you use this part of the frond, you'll find that it becomes stringier and less cork-like, thus making the material stronger.

This time I decided to try carving the entire piece out of the frond, rather than using tupelo wood for the head, as I have done with my previous palm frond carvings. I figured I would try to carve the head entirely of the frond material, and if I did not succeed I could laminate a wooden head, as I have done in the past.

As I carved the head, I was pleased with the look I had achieved. I carved the eyes out of the frond,  much like Del does, then once I was happy with the look, I carved away the eyes and cleaned out the sockets so that I could insert the glass eyes. Now it was time to attempt carving the beak.

On a Kestrel, there is a tiny hooked tip, used for tearing at its prey. Even the slightest slip with my Dremel, and the entire beak could be destroyed, which would mean I would have to carve the head from tupelo and laminate it onto the frond.

I roughed out the basic shape with my Dremel, then I stepped it down to my Micro-grinder and my 3/32" mini diamond bits. I carved in the definition between the upper and the lower mandible and things started getting pretty dicey at this point. Then I remembered a trick I had used back in 1986 on my Canada Goose head, and the drop of water I had carved, dripping off of the trip of the bill. I had heard that Superglue would strengthen the wood, and I soaked the tip. To my surprise, when I did this, there was actually ribbon of smoke which rose from the area I had applied the Superglue.

A day later, during the competition, I learned a tough lesson regarding this strengthening technique. While the wood itself may be stronger, it is also very brittle. The drop of water was broken off of the tip of the bill during the judging, and found in the recess of the whirlpool of water beneath the head. If I had left the tupelo alone and not used the Superglue to strengthen the wood, the tupelo may have been forgiving enough to survive a slight hit and the drop of water may have not been broken off.

Another danger I had learned during this trip to the North American Show in Livonia, Michigan,  and not really related to palm fronds, but certainly worth passing on, is that a person should NEVER wood burn over an area of the wood that has had Superglue applied. There was a carver at the show, and I do not remember his name, but he had gone blind, because he had wood burned over Superglue. So be forewarned. I never used this technique after this, knowing that nature of tupelo allows it to give or bend, when pressure is applied.

Though it may not have been the best technique for the Canada Goose Head, I felt it was a way to control the punky nature of the frond, and perhaps allow me the stability to carve in the fine detail of the Kestrel's beak. So I saturated the beak with Superglue and allowed it to harden. This was what I needed to enable me to carve this piece entirely from the frond.

When it came to a base, I was perplexed. I did not want to carve feet for the piece and I had considered painting feet on, but on second thought decided not to. I found a piece of tupelo which still had some bark on it, and used the bark side on the front to create texture and interest. I attached the Kestrel to the base using brass channel and a brass rod. I painted the piece entirely by hand, using Chroma Airbrush paint out of the bottle, combined with some Jo Sonja colors.

Though this is my second favorite palm frond, of all the fronds I have carved for the California Open. It only received an Honorable Mention. It was purchased by Betty Odine of Riverview Michigan.

In 2006, I decided to carve a Black-billed Magpie. I felt the long nature of the Magpie's tail lent itself to the shape of a palm frond. Again, I chose to carve the piece entirely from the frond, and not carve the head from tupelo. This time I did not use Superglue to strengthen the beak, and the piece was damaged during the competition, resulting in the beak being broken off. I can't say whether or not the beak would have been broken if I had strengthened it with Superglue, but the design of the carving left the beak exposed and I believe it was tipped over and landed on the beak, thus breaking it off. Bob Sutton purchased the Magpie, despite the damage, and I am currently carving a tupelo head to laminate onto the frond for Mr. Sutton.

So you can see in some cases, you may get away with using entirely the frond, however, it is important that you look toward the future in any carving you do, especially a frond carving that utilizes the inner material for an area as important as the head. If this area is vulnerable unlike the Kestrel, but such as the Magpie, it may be the best decision to carve that area from wood.

The species I have carved are as follows...

Old Squaw Drake, Peregrine Falcon, Red-tailed Hawk, Canvasback Hen, Burrowing Owl, Common Loon, Female Kestrel, Black-billed Magpie.

The preceding articles have covered the history of palm frond decoys, techniques of carving palm frond decoys and sculptures, and provided valuable insight and instruction for anyone who may be interested in carving with this unique medium. Below is information on how you can purchase a palm frond from the best supplier, Chet Wilcox. When you call for your frond, be specific about the size you need and if you want it with the edges intact, he has both and is always happy to meet your needs. If you attend the California Open or the PFDA Show in Sacramento, you'll be able to choose your fronds directly from Chet.

Chet Wilcox
Wil-Cut Carving Supplies
7113 Spicer Dr
Citrus Heights, CA 95621

(916) 961-5400

These are the the Rules and Awards for the Palm Frond category for the PSWA California Open held February 24th & 25th, 2007:

Palm Frond Carvings
Sponsored By: Doug & Ellen Miller

Major portion of body must be made from a palm frond. The challenge is to portray the "Essence of the Species" of your subject, while retaining as much of the character of the frond as possible. Carvers may elect to have their pieces auctioned or not, by checking the appropriate block on the entry form. Carvers receive 50% of the auction price.

Best of Show - $1,000 PURCHASE AWARD
Second Best in Show - $750 PURCHASE AWARD
Third Best in Show - $500 PURCHASE AWARD
1st, 2nd, 3rd, and H.M. Ribbons in each category

If you have any palm frond carving photos which are not included in these article, please feel free to send them to me via e-mail or on CD. If you need my mailing address for sending a CD, e-mail me at:

Many thanks to these people who contributed to the content of this collective article...

Bob Sutton
Roger W. Barton
Del Herbert
Lori Corbett


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