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How to make your own duck call

A good duck call is worth its weight in gold, and making one by hand might just be the way to go for perfection, discovers Richard Negus as he shows how to make your own duck call

Richard Negus and Dave Fox set up decoys on the Ouse Washes as they prepare for the evening flight

Three mallard appeared in the grey skies inland from Breydon. They flew straight, every second becoming larger. I picked up my gun and peered through the reeds until my eyes watered. With the wind to their left flank, they seemed to lean into the gusts. “Are they too high?” I wondered. I reached for the calls strung around my neck on a lanyard. With eyes glued to the oncoming trio, my left hand felt for the familiar egg-timer shape. The mouthpiece felt cold against my lips and I filled my cheeks like a trumpeter. Exhaling, I blew out my best impression of a lonely hen mallard. 

In a trice the lead bird let out a single wack, which is mallard for, “Look out, danger!” Clearly spooked, they veered in two wingbeats 30 degrees off their flightpath to cross the dyke 50m to my right. The report of a Bettinsoli to my starboard boomed. The rear two ducks tumbled out of the sky to land dead with a sodden thump in the marsh beyond. From out of the reeds came a voice. “Well done,” shouted Darren Sizer. “That call of yours is the best duck scarer on the market.”

I own three calls. A cheap wigeon whistle, bought at the Game Fair a few years back. The wigeon ignore it, but my dog Mabel seems to like the peeping it makes. The second is a diminutive, mud-smeared and cracked pinkfoot call. It doesn’t look much, yet it is a handy tool for turning a skein. The mallard call on my lanyard is an American-produced bit of plastic. When I bought the thing it came with an instructional CD. I used to play the disc in my old Land Rover as I trundled from job to job. The drawl of the narrator described how to hold the call and purse your lips “like your you’re drinking beer from a bottle”. I copied his instructions to the letter and quacked and chortled and chuckled as I drove, convincing myself that mallard would scud in from half a county away to my realistic rasp. The reality was somewhat different. 

Mallard seem to have a distinct aversion to my Buck Gardner call and, as Darren has long discovered, if you want to place yourself under some ducks, it pays to hide yourself a shot distance away from me whenever I blow the thing. I relayed my tale of calling woe to Dave Fox, the wash warden for the Ely Wildfowlers. Lovely man that he is, he told me he had a remedy and invited me to join him in his Fenland shed to conjure up the cure. 

Richard puts his handmade duck call to the test

Turning starts with a blank of wood. “You can use almost any wood to make a call,” Dave explained as I inspected his stock. Lumps of oak, ash and walnut stood in ordered lines on the shelves of his well-equipped workshop. Beneath these racks sat his lathe and bandsaw. I picked up a blank. It was a matt deep purple, a notably heavy oblong. I weighed the bulk in my hand.“African blackwood,” Dave responded to my quizzical look. On a neighbouring shelf stood a squadron of calls that Dave had finished. A few were gaudy-looking space-age creations. 

“These are acrylic,” Dave explained. “I’m making a pink one for someone at the moment, but it may look a bit…” he briefly paused to find the right word. “Phallic,” he concluded. 

My eyes fell on a dark, intricately grained and highly polished call. Dave took it off the shelf, raised it to his lips and the room was suddenly filled with the cry of pinkfeet. “That’s made out of African blackwood; it smells funny when you work it,” he said, placing it reverently back on its stand. The transformation Dave had created, from lustreless lump of wood to this thing of beauty, was remarkable. “Now, time for you to make one,” he said, turning to the lathe.



A rectangular piece of oak, about a fist in length, was already clamped in the jaws of the lathe. A hole had been drilled lengthways through the centre. The lathe began to spin at the press of a green button. 

Dave handed me a carbide-tipped turning chisel, and showed me how to rest my finger in a groove next to the madly spinning block and steady the long-handled chisel tip with my thumb. Expecting a juddering shock, I was surprised to feel nothing but a satisfying knife-through-butter sensation as the metal bit into the blur. I was instantly hooked. 

Despite best efforts, no mallard are lured into range


The perfect finish

My hands and arms became flecked with shavings as I shaped and turned the whirring block. Before my eyes, the forms of fingerholds appeared. I carved out a groove that would accommodate a lanyard, and a wider gap for a split ring was measured with a gauge and cut out to size. 

Each of Dave’s calls is crowned with a bird ring, individually numbered and stamped with his company name DDC. “Where do you sell these?” I asked Dave as the lathe ground to a halt. “Word of mouth mainly, but they are on sale in Whittlesey Gun Shop,” he answered. 

Looking down at my handiwork, I was astonished to see that I had turned a passable impression of a duck call mouthpiece. A few cuts later, and a reverse about on the lathe, I had burned decorative lines into the call with a cheese wire, letting the friction of the 4,000rpm machine do the work. Next came sanding, and finally a hefty coat of wax to seal it all. “I usually use 24 coats of superglue to seal them,” Dave said. “It makes them completely waterproof.” 

Most of Dave’s exquisite wildfowling calls are sold through word of mouth

Of course, the secret to creating effective duck and goose calls isn’t found at the mouthpiece end that I had just turned. In true Blue Peter fashion, Dave had already made the reed end. This is a more complicated process that involves numerous drillings and turnings, then cutting out on a jig. 

The tuning of the reed, which is held in place by a cork block, is where Dave’s skill with his hands and 40-plus years of wildfowling know-how come into play. The reed is made from a paper-thin piece of Mylar. The vibration this makes in its carved-out echo chamber is what creates the gabble of a greylag, wink wink of a pink or rasping quack of a mallard. 

Dave smooths and carves each call, trying and retrying the tone for authenticity. “This can take up to two hours to get right,” he said. “We don’t have time for that. We’d better get to the Wash if we are going to get
a duck.” 

With that, he put his perfectly turned reed end into my not quite so exact mouthpiece and we set off for the 30-minute drive to the Ouse Washes to test my new call. 


Glowering skies

It would be the ideal end to the wildfowling novelist’s tale if I recounted how we’d set out our decoys and waited in the wet. How we watched the sunset in a sky filled with packs of wigeon and skidding teal. How mallard skewed round in their flight to come confidently to my calling, how Dave and I bagged a brace a-piece. This is no novel, however. We did, in truth, set out our deeks on a newly flooded wash, the glowering skies above us filled with fowl. But no mallard came to my calling, however wonderful this piece of treen felt in my hand. 

Dave’s motto is “call and they will come”. This holds true when duck want to feed on your particular wash. A call can indeed lure birds within range of shot. Sadly, if they have made up their minds to wing their way elsewhere, the greatest call — and Dave’s calls are just that — will not change their minds. But who cares for such worries? This is wildfowling and next outing we may get lucky. 


1. Richard makes his first nervous attempts at turning the wood on the lathe. Dave lends a steadying hand on the carbide-tipped turning chisel as shavings fly everywhere


2. Richard finesses the duck call mouthpiece, shaping fingerholds with the chisel before carving out a groove to accommodate a lanyard and another for a split ring


3. Happy with the shape of the call, Richard starts to carve decorative lines into the wood, letting the cheese wire melt into the call as the lathe does its high-powered work


4. Once Richard has completed his phase of the work, Dave lets loose on crafting the reed end of the duck call and finishes it off by sealing the wood with wax