SAVANNAH, Ga. – Savannah District employee David Lekson doesn't have to watch the popular television show "Duck Dynasty" to experience the wonder of ducks—just give him a piece of wood and some power tools.
From a small backyard shed-turned-workshop at his Savannah residence, Lekson spends hundreds of hours carving, sanding, and painting competition-grade duck decoys.
"I love to carve. I've always had woodworking and arts and crafts in my blood," Lekson said. "It's an artistic release. And it's very relaxing. You can sit there for hours and time will fly, and suddenly you've been doing it for eight hours."
Lekson carved his niche into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District as chief of the Regulatory Division in January 2013. Before joining the Savannah team, he worked 25 years at the Wilmington District, located in his home state of North Carolina.
"Decoy carving has a rich heritage where I'm from," Lekson said. "I started carving in 1995, and I've been doing it ever since."
And during that time, he has kept track of the exact number of decoys he has made. His total to-date is 125.
"I make all kinds of ducks—buffleheads, canvas backs, pin tails, mallards, ring necks, teal and hen teal..." Lekson said. "I've made shore birds like spotted sandpipers and avocets, I've made blue birds, woodpeckers—even birds as crazy as a roadrunner."
Lekson has always had a passion for the outdoors. He's an avid fisherman and hunter, which he says is what led to his hobby of decoy carving.
"I'm a duck hunter, so one day I went to a decoy festival and I saw all these handmade duck decoys—and I thought to myself, I want to do that," he said. "So I met a few people and I started working with some world champions [carvers] who were helping some of us who were just getting started."
He recalls one of his first lessons on decoy carving.
"The guy handed me a block of wood and told me to 'take away everything that's not duck,'" he said with a chuckle.
How it Works
Lekson harvests his own wood from tupelo trees, which commonly grow in swamps. He cuts the tupelo into rectangular blocks with a chainsaw. These blocks become the starting point for the transformation from wood to duck.
Lekson uses patterns to trace the duck's body, neck and head onto the block. Then he uses power tools to carve out a roughened shape. The rest requires careful handiwork, using handheld carving tools, sandpaper, and lots of patience.
While carving the wood is its own challenge, painting it requires an entirely different skill set.
Lekson said that painting a smooth wooden duck is much more difficult than carving the features into the wood.
"You have to paint every single detail—the depth, textures, and shadows," he said. "You have to determine which direction you want the sun to come from so that you can paint the shadows in the right places."
Lekson uses plenty of reference materials to guide him along the process, such as patterns, drawings, and lots of photographs.
"The bill and the eyes are the most important—especially for competition birds," he said. "If you're using it to go hunting, it's not as important, because by the time a duck notices that the bill might be crooked or something, it's too late. I've already got 'em."
While creating competition decoys is rewarding, Lekson also enjoys hunting over decoys he made himself—even when the occasional mistake occurs and the decoy takes a bullet.
"That all adds to the character," Lekson said.
Competition and Commissioning
Lekson entered his first decoy into a competition in 1995, receiving an honorable mention. Since then, he has competed at various levels every year.
Among his proudest achievements are winning first place in a national championship with a harlequin duck decoy; winning second place in nationals with a hen teal decoy; and winning a third and fourth place in the world championships with a blue bill decoy and a hen teal, respectively.
He also treasures an opportunity he had in 2007 to create an ivory bill woodpecker for the National Audubon Society's 100th Anniversary. The organization reached out to Lekson and asked him to create it within 30 days.
"Normally, it takes several months to finish a competition-grade bird, but in this case they needed it in 30 days. So I spent 16 hours a day carving and painting to finish it on time," Lekson said.
The bird was presented in New York City with Lekson and his wife, Grace, as special guests at the event.
Earlier this year, Ducks Unlimited contacted Lekson and asked for a decoy to be donated for an auction next year in Portland, Ore. Lekson happily accepted the request.
"I love to carve—but when it becomes a job, then the pressure is on," he said. "I've done lots of commissioned birds."
His most recent decoy was a gift he presented to the Savannah District's former commander, Col. Jeff Hall, who retired this year.
From ducks to dulcimers
But ducks aren't the only woodworking skill in Lekson's arsenal. He also builds dulcimers, a stringed instrument which is strummed while laying flat.
He grew up playing the guitar but discovered the beauty of the dulcimer when he was a teenager.
"I saw someone at a park sitting under a tree, playing a dulcimer, so I went up to the guy and asked him about it, and he handed it to me and let me play it…and the rest is history," Lekson said.
He got his first dulcimer at age 17, and over the years he decided to learn how to make his own. Since then he has built 15. Recently, he's trying his hand at building a guitar with a cigar box body.
"I live for hobbies," he said. "And one hobby always seems to lead to another. Needless to say, my wife is very patient."
The Chief Regulator
But at the end of the day, all hobbies aside, Lekson said he loves his job with the Savannah District. As the chief regulator for the District, he oversees a team of 34 professionals who process wetland permit applications for development projects within the state of Georgia.
The Regulatory Division is responsible for issuing permits under two key laws: Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act. These laws regulate the discharge of dredged and fill material into U.S. waters and ensure the free-flow of commerce in the nation's waterways.
"My team shoulders a tremendous amount of responsibility and in turn, bears the stress of making such important decisions that impact sensitive ecosystems, people’s dreams and the economic growth of Georgia," Lekson said. "I owe it to my staff to provide them with the tools necessary to make reasonable, timely and defensible decisions."
He said he looks forward to his future years with the Savannah District and getting to work with a great team.
"Through my work and teaching experience, I had the great fortune of previously working with most everyone in Savannah's Regulatory Division, and it has been like a big homecoming for me," Lekson said. "I am so impressed and inspired by their dedication and work ethic. Everyone in the District has been amazing and I have been so warmly welcomed that Grace and I immediately felt right at home."