Kemp Barber is hand crafting duck calls from his Bladen County workshopBy Gordon Byrd | Photos by Claire Witmore
Flakes of paint peel off Kemp Barber’s woodshop doors as he pulls them open in the cool morning air. His olive green lathe is stationed against the back wall, where a half-dozen cutting tools hang conveniently in a custom-made cabinet. This is where he makes duck calls.
Blocks of wood dry in stacks along the eastern wall. Mahogany, hard maple, quilted ash, Chinese privet, walnut, redwood, and a few other hues and textures decorate the walls of his Bladen County workshop. These small blocks of wood are the canvas and the lathe is Barber’s paintbrush.
The wood, like Barber, grew up around the Cape Fear River. The maple tree he is drying was felled by Hurricane Matthew in a soggy marsh behind his house. Only the mahogany and redwood were imported, the latter a leftover from a two-decades-old side project.
Before carving duck calls from mahogany, Barber was a cabinet maker. He didn’t apply his hands to calls until August 2017. Making duck calls wasn’t even a hobby — he was in a band. Judge Scott Ussery remembers hearing Barber’s band, Diamondback, playing in a rundown shack in Elizabethtown off of Mercer Mill Road.
“He is amazing on the guitar,” Ussery says, remembering watching the band during his high school years.
Barber fits a peg-shaped block of privet to the chuck, then the lathe begins to whirl in a continuous, rhythmic bass. The gouging tool touches the hardwood in a steady sonorous treble. He points to a collection of carving tools behind the lathe. “This is the skew, and a parting tool, and I do not know what this one is called. But I know what to do with it,” he says as he demonstrates its purpose on the barrel insert of the Arkansas-style duck call he is turning.
Curled shavings tumble off the edge of the turning tool. Barber grabs another, more pointed tool and carves three quick grooves. He doesn’t measure, but the spacing is flawless. Then he applies a thin steel wire to each grooves and within seconds a wisp of smoke rises. The contrast between the pearly white privet wood sets off the burn marks made by the wire.
“I have a vocabulary of shapes and tricks I learned from my years working in cabinetry and making furniture,” he says as he brushes off fine shavings from the duck calls’ bugle-like curves.
Strong, nimble fingers guide the tool along the thin, narrow portion of the insert until the diameter is 5/8 of an inch. Rather than grab a caliper to measure the width, Barber reaches for a ⅝ wrench.
The simple shortcuts do not stop there. The lathe he received after leaving high school in 1983 has his own fabrications to increase stability and certain jigs for duck calls. The casing for a ball point pen helps guide the lathe along a tapering edge.
“You learn to improvise, because a lot of the tools you can’t find in a hardware store.”
Holding a three-string cigar-box guitar he’s made, Barber, who is partially deaf in one ear, says, “sound is something you can feel as well as hear.”
The guitar sits idle on his lap while he explains the high and low ranges of a duck call, versus the more segmented goose calls.
For a hailing call, when the ducks are flying over and passing by, a longer barrel insert will reach them. If the ducks are on the wrong side of the pond and the hunters want to bring them closer with a feeding call, then a shorter barrel insert will be more effective.
Both sizes, when blown loudly, do just fine to attract trade show customers.
About the AuthorGordon Byrd is a veteran who works for UNC Pembroke. He tries to keep things interesting with a little homebuilding, some writing, triathlons and time with family and church.
Meet more Carolina People