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Tony Murray
An artist turns his attention to decoys

by Rod Taylor

There are those who might say Tony Murray has slipped a notch or two in life. After all, for nearly two decades, while living in San Francisco, he was regarded as one of America’s preeminent makers of classical flamenco acoustic guitars.

Now he’s living in tiny little Pungo, Virginia making duck decoys. That’s kind of like Picasso leaving the art world to get his painting contractor’s license or George Lucas abandoning Hollywood to take a job in Des Moines as an usher at the multiplex! Yet hold one of his birds in the hand, and you’ll begin to understand why Murray would leave a burgeoning career as one of America’s premier guitar makers to carve decoys. Only then can you appreciate that this self-administered midlife course correction is a gift to decoy aficionados everywhere.

Anthony Gaillard Murray was born in February 1941 in Klamath Falls, Oregon. His father, a former actor, worked as a land manager for a number of property owners near the California border. Murray spent his early years in the area, then after graduating from high school in 1958 he enrolled at San Francisco State College where he majored in industrial arts.

During his high school years Murray developed an interest in playing flamenco guitar, an interest that would grow even more consuming during his college years. By 1963, just a scant few credits short of his Bachelors degree, he decided he had learned all he needed to know from college and realized it was time to combine his passion for playing guitar with his training in industrial arts. In 1964 he opened his first guitar shop in the highly affluent Nob Hill section of San Francisco.

A chance cross continental journey to visit some friends in Virginia Beach, Virginia, convinced Murray to leave the rat race of San Francisco, where finding even a parking space is a difficult task, to move to rural Virginia. In 1975 he closed his guitar shop and moved lock, stock and barrel to the East Coast. Ever honest, Tony’s quick to admit, “It’s not a good place for business, but I have no regrets.”

The incredible humidity of the Virginia Beach summers would prove to make the manufacture of acoustic guitars a physical impossibility. After all, when you’re working on hand planed wood that must measure a strict 1/32 of an inch all around, the near steam bath summers made the wood extremely uncooperative.

While the climate proved frustrating for a guitar maker, Murray realized that one of his neighbors, also a wood worker, was doing a booming business right next door. That neighbor was Frank Finney, a talented contemporary decoy carver and restorer whose work is nationally renowned. “When I met him he was already an extremely talented man,” Finney says. “What he knew about making instruments he was able to apply to decoy carving once I instructed him.”

Murray’s first decoys, solid blocks rough cut with a hatchet and fitted with hand cast lead weights, were made in 1987. At $25 each these early decoys were financially reminiscent of his early guitars – neither really paid for the labor involved. Then one day he spotted a pair of Shang Wheeler decoys, in Finney’s shop for repair, that changed his view of carving. These masterworks convinced him to abandon his earlier methods to concentrate on producing fewer, but more considered, hollow body decoys.

Thus inspired, after a liberal dose of patient training at Frank Finney’s bench, who showed him “all the tricks of the trade,” Murray made a pair of black ducks that he left in Frank’s shop for sale. The pair not only received much admiration from everyone who saw them but were sold very quickly, leading Murray to believe that he might have a future career carving decoys after all.

“I had the unique privilege to examine top decoys that were in for repairs in Frank’s shop – Crowells, Wards, Shang Wheelers,” Murray explained. “This gave me an idea of what things should look like. I liked what Wheeler did with his carving, but I didn’t like his paint. I like Crowell’s paint, but it wasn’t my style. I just developed my own ideas out of their teachings, standing on their shoulders, so to speak. This is standard procedure in other art forms. Usually the great ones have studied everybody.”

Today Murray’s carving process can only be described as painstakingly thorough. As Finney notes, “He will take hours to make sure the joints on his birds are hand done. His approach to the work is almost sacred.”

Knots are a fact of life when working with wood, and few carvers spend much time letting nature’s blemishes slow down their production. Yet Murray does. He drills out all the knots on his decoys and fills the holes with hand cut plugs. This procedure, he claims with pride, also reduces the weight of the decoy.

Once the rough cut is accomplished, Murray glues the two body halves together, using paper at the joints to insure a workable but temporary bond. With a spokeshave he finishes shaping the bird and creates the neck shelf to attach the head. Once the shape meets his satisfaction, Murray separates the two halves and inserts hand carved oak plugs in the joints prior to regluing the body. He insists on using plugs because he believes nails cause the wood to split.

Murray hand carves the heads for his decoys, finishing them with a rasp and sandpaper. They are attached to the body using a single oak pin that runs up the middle of the bird’s head. He then applies his finishing touches to the head joint and tail with a series of graduated spokeshaves and rasps. He sands the finished carving with coarse grade sandpaper, preferring the courser sandpaper because he believes it reveals a surface that will show through the paint, thereby giving the finished piece an additional depth unattainable by smooth sanding.

While the craftsmanship evident in his carving is superb, his skill with a paintbrush is exponentially greater. Nearly two-thirds of his production time is spent painting, a process so involved that the drying alone can take up to two weeks. And Murray rarely applies any paint color without mixing it with another color to soften the effect on the viewer’s eye.

Murray begins his process by sketching patterns on the decoy using wash coats of paint. These wash coats provide the additional benefit of acting as an undercoat. Working from the tail forward, he paints a series of successive coats using artist’s tube oils. By laying down multiple coats of paint before the last one completely dries, Murray is able to perform his signature style of scratch painting. Virtually all of his hen decoys, and the majority of his drakes, are methodically scratch-painted with a variety of custom made sticks as well as a modified dental tool.

The final step is mounting the glass eyes in the decoy. He takes the extra step of painting the reverse side of each eye to give the finished bird the look of a “classic” decoy. From start to finish, the average decoy takes 50 to 60 hours to complete.

Recently, after years of being bugged to make miniature carvings of his birds, Murray finally started a limited line of ¼-sized decoys that measure roughly 4 ½ inches. Not surprisingly, they carry every detail found on his full size, from the quality of carving and paint, to the pad weight and the leather anchor loop. Any collector would have a maddening choice trying to decide which to buy – they’re that good!

Along with the miniatures, Murray is still able to make about three guitars in the winter and averages about 20 decoys a year. This low production, and the inherent reluctance of their owners to part with them, insures that his work is hard to acquire. And despite the quality of his work – some put it on a par with the Crowells and Wheelers that Murray admires – he is virtually unknown outside a small circle of insiders who jealously guard their relationship, lest any other collector get into his lineup ahead of them and interrupt their flow of decoys. For years, one dealer, on the rare occasion he had a Tony Murray decoy available, referred to him as “Mister X.” 

“Tony’s birds will withstand the test of time,” Finney insists. “He’s like a Renaissance man. If there ever was a decoy Louvre, Tony would be in it.” Finney’s wife Mary adds, “There’re a lot of decoy carvers, but not many true artists.”

And as to share the fate of many struggling artists, Finney notes, “His ambition is certainly not money.”

But for Tony Murray, once the guitar man from cosmopolitan San Francisco, now the decoy maker from tiny little Pungo, Virginia, it’s doubtful it ever was.

For the complete story, please see the Sept./Oct. 2002 issue of Decoy Magazine.

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