Laurie J. McNeil - Master Wildfowl Sculptor - Click here for Laurie 's Artist Bio

Carving a Palm Frond for the
California Open

By: Laurie J. McNeil

February 1998 Revised January 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.

Palm Fronds
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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. McNeilOldsquaw Drake Palm Frond Unpainted by Laurie J. McNeil 1995
Click on the individual images for a larger view......

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
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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 Lyons 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 Lyons 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
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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
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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 handpainting. and offer the same velvet matte finish we 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 Paul Foytack for his drake pintail, 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, Greg Pedersen for his arctic tern and Peter Palumbo for his 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 the macaw and the redtail.

Redtailed Hawk Palm Frond by Laurie J. McNeil 1997Redtailed Hawk Palm frond by Laurie J. McNeil 1997
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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, this 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.

Common Loon Palm Frond by Laurie J. McNeil 1998
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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.

Laurie J. Gmyrek (Laurie J. McNeil)

Laurie J. McNeil- All Rights Reserved 2015
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