The Game Call Carver
Neatly shelved in the studio of Kent S. Freeman lie rectangular blocks of cedar, walnut, Osage orange and mahogany. From these blocks of wood will rise the yelps of wild turkeys and the flock talk of waterfowl.
Freeman makes game calls. But there is more to his calls than proper tone and pitch. Freeman is one of a handful of skilled wood carvers who transform game calls into world-class art. In his hands the barrel of a goose call becomes a goose head; the sides of a turkey box call become turkey feathers.
Like many wildlife artists, Freeman's interest in wildlife has ties to hunting. Born in Kennett, Freeman lived within minutes of some of the finest waterfowl hunting offered by the Mississippi flyway. Some of his earliest memories are of duck hunting with his father.
"I was six when Dad started taking me duck hunting," he recalls. "Dad would carry me to the duck blind on his back. I will never forget the sights and sounds of those hunts-Dad calling, ducks circling. Those hunts influenced what I do today for a living."
Freeman's father died young, but his efforts sparked in his son a lifelong interest in the outdoors and hunting. A Scoutmaster, the late Don Wheatley, also encouraged in Freeman his love for nature. An eighth-grade math teacher, Alan Bradley Jr., helped him make his first duck call. Under Bradley's instruction, Freeman found he had a natural knack for working with wood.
By age 16 Freeman had developed into a skilled call maker and an obsessed waterfowl hunter. To help finance his love of waterfowl hunting, he sold his handmade duck and goose calls to local hardware stores.
In college, in addition to taking up turkey hunting and making turkey calls, Freeman married and earned a degree in zoology. Graduate work in wildlife management followed, but the poor job outlook and the demands of supporting a family convinced him to take a job as a manager in a trucking company.
"It paid the bills, but I didn't like the work," he states flatly. "The job was stressful, and the long hours cut into my hunting."
To help relax and keep himself close to what he really enjoyed, Freeman began custom carving duck, goose and turkey calls in the evenings. He also began carving decoys. His skills developed quickly, as did a market for his work, and within a year he was selling his carvings as fast as he could make them. He wondered if he could make a living at it. But with two small children and his wife, Ann, staying home with the kids, he couldn't risk giving up a regular paycheck and medical insurance.
Ten years later, however, he made the move. With their two children in school and his wife teaching third grade, Freeman quit the trucking business and went to wood carving full time. He holds no regrets.
"Being a full-time wildlife artist has its rewards," he says with a smile. "But it certainly is not all good times and glamour, as some folks might think. Making a living as a wildlife artist takes dedication, discipline and hard work. You are your own boss, and you're not punching a clock. But the job still requires long hours. I put in more 60-hour work weeks than I care to think about. And there are deadlines to meet, particularly prior to competitions."
In 1992 and 1993 the Callmakers and Collectors Association of America named Freeman the National Call-Making Champion. In 1996, at the National Wild Turkey Federation Convention in Atlanta, his intricately carved box calls won first place, with one awarded "best of show."
To make a waterfowl or turkey call, Freeman starts by drawing a pattern of the artwork he eventually will carve. The pattern may be a simple drawing of a bird or an oak leaf or a complex design involving a combination of subjects. The initial design determines the shape of the call, but consideration is always given to size, so the call will fit neatly into a hunter's hand. "I've seen calls that were nicely carved but were so large they could not possibly be used," states Freeman. "My calls are intricately carved, but they're made to be functional."
When making duck or goose calls, Freeman selects blocks of fine hardwood from which both the stoppers and barrels will be made. The stoppers and barrels are bored and shaped with a lathe. He carves designs and patterns with a variety of hand tools. "Carving designs and patterns could be done with a pocketknife," notes Freeman. "But specialized hand tools help when carving in corners and smoothing areas where the grain and pattern conflict."
With carving completed, Freeman immerses his calls in hot paraffin to seal the wood. Polishing with a lamb's wool buffing wheel gives them their final finish. Inserting the molded reedbed and wedgerblock holding the reeds is all that remains before a call is tuned and considered complete.
Unlike duck or goose calls, Freeman's box turkey calls are cut using saw blades and router or mortising bits. Cedar is the preferred wood. Once sawn, the blanks are sanded and planed to final size.
Freeman's box calls have a clever feature: he inlays a 3/8-inch piece of slate in the paddle to eliminate the need for chalking. "A conventional paddle will invariably need chalk when you need one more sweet yelp," Freeman explains. "Slate takes the guesswork and worry out."
After assembling a box and shaping the slate-inlaid paddle, Freeman begins carving the designs and patterns. On his calls appear gobbling turkeys, strutting turkeys and turkeys walking and flying, as well as turkey beards, wing fans and spurs.
Freeman may insert a box call into an outer carved box. On the outer box he can carve and paint scenes without jeopardizing the integrity of the box call's sounds.
Depending on the design and details, Freeman spends anywhere from 10 to 100 hours completing a game call. Prices for his calls range from $100 to $1,000. He works on commission and is usually back-ordered for months.
Though the tones and pitches of his calls are top quality, Freeman figures only about half ever find their way to woods or swamp. Most reside under glass in the dens and living rooms of hunters as reminders of the beauty in nature's designs.