Award-Winning Carver Brings Wooden Birds to Life

 Ray Tameo’s carving has evolved from duck decoys to small songbirds. Each one typically takes him 125 to 150 hours to complete. (Todd McLeish/ecoRI News photos)

Ray Tameo’s carving has evolved from duck decoys to small songbirds. Each one typically takes him 125 to 150 hours to complete. (Todd McLeish/ecoRI News photos)

Massachusetts resident will be exhibiting at upcoming Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s annual carving exposition

By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — When Ray Tameo was a young boy and his friends invited him to play baseball, he usually turned them down in favor of going birdwatching. The retired highway bridge designer later combined his passion for birds with his interest in duck hunting and began experimenting with carving duck decoys.

Today, Tameo is an award-winning bird carver whose carvings are in numerous private collections and exhibited around the region. He will be one of a dozen carvers who will display their work at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s annual Bird and Wildlife Carving Exposition in Bristol, R.I., Nov. 3 and 4 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

“I’m entirely self-taught, and the longer you’re at it, the better you get,” Tameo said. “The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”

Tameo’s carving evolved from duck decoys to small songbirds, which typically take him about 125 to 150 hours to complete. Working in his basement workshop or garage, depending on the weather, he carves highly detailed birds perched in lifelike settings. His carvings are made almost exclusively from tupelo wood from Louisiana, because of its light weight, absence of grain, whitish color, and ease of carving.

“It also takes paint beautifully,” the Attleboro resident said.

The first step, he said, is to draw the bird’s profile on the wood, then cut it out using a small band saw.

“From that, I put a centerline down the middle and start shaping the bird and cutting off excess wood. Then I use Dremel tools — a rotary tool — to start shaping it finer and finer. Once that’s done, I do relief carving.”

For the final details, he uses an X-Acto knife to give texture to the feathers and finishes with a burning tool. Painting the birds involves two coats of acrylic sealer and seven or eight layers of paint.

 Most of his carvings are commissioned by clients and collectors he meets at exhibits.

Most of his carvings are commissioned by clients and collectors he meets at exhibits.

“I’m very meticulous; I’m a perfectionist,” Tameo said. “Down the road, I’m going to be long gone, and my carvings are going to be in somebody’s house, so I don’t want to produce a mediocre bird. I want a bird that will last. It will speak for me when I’m gone.”

Most of Tameo’s carvings are commissioned by clients and collectors he meets at exhibits like the upcoming Audubon show. One man in Bristol has bought 17 of his shorebird carvings over the past five years.

While he occasionally enters carving competitions or gives lessons to beginning carvers, Tameo said he’s too busy to focus on anything but the work his clients commission him to produce. He just finished painting carvings of an eastern bluebird perched next to an abandoned woodpecker hole and a Baltimore oriole on a maple tree branch. He even carved each maple leaf on the branch. Now he is in the early stages of work on a three-quarter size common loon and a life-sized black-capped chickadee and northern cardinal.

His most visible work, however, was done for Greg Esmay, the owner of the popular Old Grist Mill Tavern in Seekonk, which burned down in 2012 after a tractor-trailer rolled over, slid into the building, and ruptured a gas line. Prior to the fire, the restaurant displayed Esmay’s extensive collection of antique duck decoys, most of which were damaged in the fire and subsequent demolition of the structure. Tameo restored 35 of them.

“I put new heads on some, made other repairs on others, and I made them all look antique-ish again,” he said proudly. “Then he asked me to carve three Canada geese flying that I mounted on a piece of wood from the original restaurant.”

The geese are now hanging over the rebuilt restaurant’s fireplace. Esmay bought several original Tameo carvings as well, including a puffin and kingfisher.

Out of all of his carvings, Tameo is most proud of his rendering of an eastern meadowlark perched on a barbed wire-wrapped fencepost, the bird’s head tilted back and its beak open wide as if in full song.

“That’s my favorite,” he said. “I won’t part with that one.”

The Bird and Wildlife Carving Exposition takes place at the Audubon Nature Center and Aquarium, 1401 Hope St., Bristol. In addition to the exhibition of finished carvings, some of the participants will demonstrate their carving techniques. Admission is $5.

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.