Tom Flemming grew up on a dairy farm in west-central Minnesota, where the great outdoors was just outside his door.
“I’d go waterfowl and pheasant hunting with my dad and friends,’’ Flemming said. “I always liked ducks.’’
At age 12, his life changed when he happened upon wooden duck decoy carvers demonstrating their talents in a mall.
“I was fascinated,’’ said Flemming, 44, of Minnetrista. “I asked my parents for carving tools, and got some for Christmas.’’
Subsequently, an elderly carver in Hutchinson taught him to turn a block of wood into a piece of art.
“He got me started … and I just kept going.’’
He still has his first carved duck, a small mallard. “It’s not very good,’’ he said Tuesday, turning it in his hand. But it was a start.
Today Flemming is one of the top decoy carvers in Minnesota and beyond, twice winning “best in world” at the prestigious Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition at Ocean City, Md.
“He’s phenomenal,’’ said Doug Lodermeier of Edina, a collector, waterfowl historian and author of Minnesota Duck Decoys, a definitive book on Minnesota decoy makers. “It’s no small feat to win at the worlds. He’s as good as just about anybody.’’
Duck decoys are center stage in Minnesota this week as the 35th annual Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association Decoy Show runs Wednesday through Saturday in Bloomington. Showcased will be stellar carved decoys, from antique to traditional to contemporary — valued from under $100 to many thousands of dollars.
Flemming carves and paints contemporary working decoys, meaning he adds fine detail work to make them look more real. Though they are works of art, “they are functioning decoys,’’ he said. “Most are going on mantels, but some of my customers hunt over them.’’
They should use caution: His competition-grade decoys sell for $1,500 apiece.
In his basement workshop overlooking wetlands and woods near Lake Waconia, Flemming starts with a block of tupelo, a soft wood with a very tight grain, and uses a band saw to cut it into roughly the shape of a duck. Then he uses razor-sharp carving hand tools to whittle the form, stroke by stroke, into a finished duck decoy. The decoy is hollowed out with a drill press, so it will float properly, and a weighted keel is added.
Not only must the duck be shaped right, it has to be painted properly.
“Carving for me is the most enjoyable,’’ he said. “I stress out a bit over the painting.’’
He invests 60 to 80 hours to produce a single decoy — much of it spent painting — and generally makes just six to 10 a year. Flemming owns a commercial flooring company and is a husband and father to three kids — meaning there’s not always time to seclude himself in his workshop.
And when he does, he’s not doing it for the money.
“That’s not what it’s about,’’ he said. “It’s just a fun thing to do. I enjoy the quiet [of carving]; it’s relaxing and therapeutic to work with the hand tools.’’
His customers have a passion for waterfowl, too. Most of them buy his decoys not as investments, but because they love waterfowl and waterfowl artwork, Flemming said. Customers order the species they want. In his workshop this week were about two dozen ducks — redheads, canvasbacks and teal, among them — in various stages of completion.
Flemming is a member of the Minnesota Decoy and Wildfowl Carving Club (www.mdwcc-carving-club.com), a group of 40 or so who gather once a month in south Minneapolis to talk decoys. Flemming sometimes gives presentations, sharing the knowledge he’s gained over 32 years of carving.
“Tom is very unassuming and very willing to share the craft,’’ Lodermeier said. “He’s been a mentor to old and young guys alike and is really looked up to in the community.’’
Said Flemming: “It’s a great group. We critique each other. I’m still learning, but I try to teach others what I know. I learned a lot when I was young, so I try to help others, too.
“You try to give something back.’’