Historic woods carry on custom turkey call-making tradition

The R. H. Jensen turkey calls used to lure this gobbler were made of a historic cedar tree used as Christmas tree (left) and a wormy chestnut table and hurricane-felled cherry tree from Wilmington's Oakdale Cemetery. Old woods that have historical value are hallmarks of Jensen calls.
The R. H. Jensen turkey calls used to lure this gobbler were made of a historic cedar tree used as Christmas tree (left) and a wormy chestnut table and hurricane-felled cherry tree from Wilmington's Oakdale Cemetery. Old woods that have historical value are hallmarks of Jensen calls. Mike Marsh

The only thing that grabbed more attention than the tall height of the white-haired craftsman hunched over his workbench was his deeply drooping handlebar mustache. The mustache was integral to the master woodworker’s motto, “For a call with class, go with the ‘stache.”

Burning or carving a skeleton outline of his hairy-faced visage has become the trademark of Ralph Jensen. He got the idea from his children.

“They said I needed a brand,” he said. “So, I used my mustache. Everybody who sees my long mustache recognizes me right away.”

Among the first to wear his logo were duck calls he completed before Christmas for Orvis. He said that was the highlight of his call-making career. Now, Easter was near and he was busy making turkey calls for the season, which opened April 9.

“All of the woods and other materials I use for calls have a history,” he said. “Right now, I am finishing up some calls made with teak from the deck of the USS North Carolina. I did some work on the battleship years ago and one of the workers who was helping restore the ship’s deck gave me some of the planks.”

The calls were functional works of art, tools for the taking of turkeys, and Jensen was trying to time their completion just right, with 2016 the 75th anniversary of the USS North Carolina’s christening and the 55th anniversary of its arrival in Wilmington. The Azalea Festival would soon bring everyone downtown, overlooking the Battleship Memorial Park.

Some of them are completely made of battleship teak, others were battleship teak on the bottom with lids of old mahogany grown in the mountains of Honduras. It was slow growing, extremely hard and what few trees are still left in the forests are illegal to cut. Some of the mahogany is so old that it has mineral deposits in the dark grain, like some old-growth cherry wood grown in some places in the U.S.

“I only have six of the mahogany calls left. They are all hand-checkered with mammoth ivory inlays.”

Jensen, 67, had calls in various stages of completion on benches, tables and tool platforms around his shop, which was built decades ago to house the Simmons Sea Skiff manufacturing facility, which handcrafted wooden workboats.

The building was made of tongue and groove planks. Everything seemed to be made of wood, smelled of wood or was covered with sawdust. Jensen’s main business is making and restoring antique and modern furniture as well as making cabinetry for kitchen remodeling. Making game calls is his side business, an outgrowth of not being able to bring himself to throw away a scrap of beautiful, old wood, no matter how small.

“Sometimes people bring me the wood and ask me to make them the calls,” he said. “I have calls made from an old wormy chestnut table and from the gunstock of a Parker shotgun owned by Admiral Anderson, whose name is on a historic marker in Hugh MacRae Park. He received the Medal of Honor in the Spanish-American War and I put the brass name plate from the shotgun in the lid of the call I made for his son with the wood.”

Jensen showed some other lids he was making on request from the stock of an old Browning rifle. He had preserved the cheekpiece, which jutted up from the lid, giving it a unique flare. He was making it, along with other calls that had the stock checkering still on the lids, for the gun owner’s sons.

“I also use Riverwood, which is old-growth cypress or pine recovered from the Cape Fear River. I also have a call made from beech preserved under the water and the wood is beautiful. Trees like those no longer exist and being submerged for hundreds of years preserved them and changed their color. I like using the cypress for the sides, or soundboards, and have used the pine for the bottom and lid. I also have calls made from a cherry tree and a spalted dogwood tree felled by a hurricane in the Confederate Soldier’s section of Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington.”

Jensen even patterned his turkey calls after history’s classics. A local turkey hunter named Bill Maus brought him some calls that had been made by two grand national turkey calling champions.

“Bill knew I made duck calls,” he said. “I used those turkey calls and came up with my own unique turkey call. One of the call makers was still alive, back then, about 15 years ago and he was an engineer. He was nitpicky and used some springs for the screw in the lid that had a certain size and temper and he gave me enough of them to last my lifetime.”

Even the friction material Jensen uses has historical background. Rather than carpenter’s chalk that most hunters use on the lid to create friction against the soundboards to scratch out the calls of a turkey hen, he uses violin bow rosin.

“I got the rosin from a fiddle maker who built fiddles for Bill Monroe, a famous musician in the Grand Ol’ Oprey. It takes so little rosin that I have enough for fifty lifetimes. A fingertip’s worth lasts an entire season. With chalk you have to keep putting it on all season long.”

Jensen is also making calls from a piece of walnut from a tree that was more than 150 years old. It was cut to make gunstocks and has a distinct line where English walnut was grafted onto American walnut. The English wood is a lighter tan and the American wood is a darker red, almost purple color.

I took Jensen several cedar logs cut from an old eastern red cedar that served as a Christmas tree for my neighborhood for 30 years. The tree was visible to anyone rounding the sharp curve in the southern end of Myrtle Grove Road in Wilmington and was more than 50 feet tall. The tree had much more figure in the grain that any cedar Jensen had ever seen, so he was also using it to make calls.

“I had never made a call from a cedar log before, but I made one out of a dense piece of white oak that had a very straight grain,” he said. “It wasn’t as pretty, but it sure sounded great. I have also made them from persimmon and sassafras people have brought to me.”

Different woods and different grains cause turkey calls to make different sounds. The different sound is the key to a turkey hunter’s success. With mass-manufactured calls, many calls can make similar sounds and turkeys learn to associate them with hunters and avoid them. The unique sounds made by custom calls typically bring more gobblers within shotgun range.

“If the sides have harder wood, it makes the sound higher pitched,” he said. Thinner sides also make a higher pitch. The grain also makes a difference. If the sides have a grain that runs across, the pitch is lower and, if the grain is going straight down the wood, the pitch is higher. By making the grain or thickness different on each side, the call makes the sounds of two different hens.”

To make the sound, the sides are most important. The lid comes in next, with the more open the grain, the raspier the sound and the tighter the grain, the smoother the sound.

“The more open grain usually gets better response on a windy day or at a long distance when you want loud yelps and clucks,” he said. “But the tighter grain is better when a gobbler is getting close and you want to make softer cuts and purrs. I have made more than 300 turkey calls and everyone one of them will call in a gobbler.”

Jensen’s calls cost $100 to $425, but one recently sold at the Wilmington Chapter of Ducks Unlimited Banquet and Auction for $900.

“It was made of battleship teak with an ivory inlay,” he said. “It set a record for one of my calls.”

To learn more, visit rhjensengamecalls.com or call 910-231-6865.