Wilmington — Ralph Jensen’s shop is a cozy place, his lab asleep in the corner, his chair rolled close to the workbench where he sits, his wire rimmed glasses perched halfway down his nose, his eyes glued to the piece of wood he’s carving into a duck call with a Boykin Spaniel inlayed in the walnut.
Jensen slowly shaves away the wood, a grandfather clock to his left ticks away the time. Duck calls in various stages of completion jumble every nook and cranny. Books and magazines line the wall, duck decoys perch on the shelves, a sailing ship gathers dust.
It may take up to 30 hours of tedious carving to finish the call, but it will fetch $1,200 or more, and Jensen, 63, loves his work.
Jensen, at 6”5, sports a gray, mutton chop moustache. Florescent light bounces off his gray hair. He’s come a long way in 42 years – from a lost soul with hair to his waist who hung with Hells Angels in New England. He was headed to prison or the grave when a one page poem from his mother back in Guilford County N.C. changed his life.
“It said rise up and walk. Return to your father’s home and the Lord will help you settle and have a family,” Jensen said. “That gnawed at me…and I heard my mother’s voice as I was sitting on a rock by the ocean, beckoning me to come home and something good would happen.”
So he returned to his native Greensboro and discovered his life’s work.
“I knew in my heart I wanted a job in woodworking. Something just happened to me. I can’t explain it,” he said.
Jensen, with a degree in history from a Massachusetts College, knew nothing about wood, tools and machines. It took him three months to find a furniture company in High Point that would give him a chance.
“I started out with Snow Lumber. I was a mule hauling lumber,” he said.
Several years later Jensen was back in Greensboro working at Harvell’s Woodworks. He said that’s when he learned how little he knew. Ernest Harvell was his mentor and taught him how to build high end furniture. Soon Jensen was building reproductions for Otto Zenke, a world renowned interior designer. That experience catapulted him to Wilmington, where he opened his own shop in 1978 with 10 workers.
“Now it’s just me here in an old boat shop started by a Mr. Simmons,” he said.
Jensen named his business The Master’s Touch. He does something extra on every work that gives it a special touch whether a duck call, cabinet, table or chair.
“My real passion is the creating, especially the calls,” he said.
He’s crafted calls from heart pine salvaged from the bottom of the Cape Fear River, ebony and ivory from the keys of a discarded piano, wood from a chapel door in England, a broken stock from a vintage Parker shotgun. He’s fashioned tusks from a wild boar into the duck bill of a call shaped like a duck. Many of his calls are the shape of a retriever’s head. Customers have come from afar to have a call designed from the photo of a favorite dog.
Jensen starts by drawing a pattern on a piece of wood. Then he cuts out the shape with a ban saw. He may draw a goose or dog on the wood. Then with a custom knife he carves out the figure. His favorite call is a wood duck grasping an acorn in its bill. One sold for $3,500 to a sportsman who wanted the likeness of a 20 lb brook trout and a 10 point buck, all carved on the same call.
All of Jensen’s calls are functional and designed to use in the duck blind. His customers range from the hunter to the collector of folk art who wants to hand the piece down from generation to generation.
He plans to keep carving and building and restoring furniture for as long as his arms hold out. He’s working on new articles such as turkey calls and smoking pipes with a pointer and quail carved into the bowl. He’s restoring furniture from the historic Orton Plantation, between Wilmington and Southport, and has been commissioned to build an entertainment center in a mansion.
Jensen is now considered to be among America’s finest wood craftsmen, not bad for a long-haired youngster who begged for a chance when he felt called to the craft.