Man turns hobby of hand-crafting duck and goose calls into business
BY KELLY BOSTIAN World Outdoors Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2013
2/10/13 at 7:49 AM
Go to Kelly Bostian's blog Original Print Headline: Heeding the call
ALL IT TAKES is piles of spent acrylic, buckets of rejected calls, 10 years of trial and error and, finally, Kenneth Whitehead feels like his Caney River Calls is on the cusp of doing something great.
Last year, the one-man goose- and duck-call factory had its best year ever with "about 1,000 calls sold, give or take 100." he said. He recruited a pro staff, and his calls brought home titles from contests held at Siloam Springs, Ark., and at Bass Pro Shops locally.
He had a great outdoors trade show event in Oklahoma City. "I have a call bag with 100 calls in it and a display case with about that many," he said. "I came home with six calls. That was my best couple days ever."
Thursday evening, he said he'd received seven orders for new calls. I met him where he builds the calls, in a shoebox of a shop he has attached to his home in Bushyhead, north of Claremore and just east of Oologah Lake. His calls are named for the 50-acre farm he owns on the opposite side of the lake. He plans to have the farm one day mostly returned to a wetland.
Looking for something new to enhance his outdoor endeavors, the career maintenance worker considered putting his mechanical skills to use making his own duck calls, just as a hobby. So, 10 years ago, he bought a small lathe and turned his first duck call.
Today his shop has several drills, lathes and cutting tools, including a computer numerical control machine that has absolute fits over the unreliable power source at his rural home. "You're killin' me, Smalls!" Whitehead said, quoting the movie "The Sandlot" as power flickered in his shop and the digital machine tool whined and clicked on and off. "Time to recalibrate it again," he said.
The shop has the look of a place surrounding a man of singular purpose. Extension cords drop from the ceiling and cross the floor underfoot, strings of acrylic that escaped vacuum hoses pile up behind the lathe and hang by invisible spider webs under the workbenches. The fine dust of lathe work coats all surfaces. Whitehead enters the shop to work and turn out calls. Cleaning is a once-in-a-while chore.
Every call that comes out of the shop is hand-turned, sanded, polished, blown and tuned by Whitehead. The digital machine tool is the only high-tech item. "I use that for the toning board because it has to be so exact, within 1/1200th of an inch, thinner than a piece of paper," he said. The toning board is the part of the insert, inside the call, where the reed is placed. It is what the reed vibrates against when the call is blown to create sound.
As Whitehead sets a cork and trims a reed a hair's width at a time, he may still use some light strokes with an emery board on that toning board, just to achieve the tone he's looking for. "It's that tiny bit that makes all the difference," he said.
It's a tiny difference that took him 10 years to find and, with luck, a measurement that makes a difference for a hunter. "For fathers and kids who use my calls and when they come to tell me what success they had with it, that's just extremely rewarding. It's what makes this my passion," he said.
Kenneth Whitehead turns one of his Caney River calls on the lathe in his shop north of Claremore on Thursday evening. KELLY BOSTIAN/Tulsa World