at the inventory at the Washington House Antiques store overwhelms the senses.
"Got stuff?" asks Steve Kerper, with a smile. "I'm the biggest pack rat in New Vienna."
He's probably correct. But what draws the eyes full bore are the polished, gleaming, hand-carved duck decoys that share space with the antiques, some dating to the 19th century.
Kerper is the Midwest Michelangelo of duck carving, a craft born of his love of the outdoors, creative mind and skilled hands.
Kerper began carving in 1986 to supplement the antique store sales, which were slow — and remain so. In 1992, the carving turned serious.
"Decoys were the main thing and the store became a hobby," he said.
Kerper collects his wood in Clayton and Dubuque counties.
"It's the most beautiful wood in the world, and all out there," he said. "I roam the timber. Either woodpeckers, grubs or me will get it."
A wood carver's palette is similar to that of a painter. Kerper began making decoys out of catalpa, locust, hickory, elm, oak, cedar, sumac, cherry, wormy butternut, walnut and other Iowa woods.
His favorites are walnut, butternut and catalpa, with sumac, red cedar and gray elm being the most striking.
A prolific tree planter, Kerper owns 12 acres of woodland mixed with river bottom and cropland. Here he has planted more than 5,000 trees of 65 species since 1974. He cuts the trees, dries and cures the wood naturally. (He also picks up dead wood, standing or fallen, too.) Kerper then hand carves them with
a knife and hand sands the decoy to a satin finish.
"I'll carve outside when the weather is decent," he said. "If it's too hot, cold or wet, I'm in the corner."
On a sunny day, if it's not windy and 35 degrees, Kerper will carve outside.
"It keeps the wood chips off the floor," he said. "When they're outside, I say it's good, clear dirt."
After the sanding, Kerper hand rubs the decoy with 10 to 50 coats of tung oil.
"I'll put my finish up against any in the world," he said, "and I'll cut every corner (wood block) I can, but I don't spare any effort. I try to make every one better than the one before."
Kerper said each decoy has to meet his specifications.
"I'm my worst critic," he said.
Kerper is self-taught. His talent is the result of his rural life and growing up hunting, fishing and trapping near the Mississippi River and the North Fork of the Maquoketa River.
"I see other people's work and incorporate that into mine, but most of my ideas are dreamed in my head," he said.
Kerper recalled a buyer saw a picture of a red cedar decoy and thought it was plastic.
"It made me upset at first," he said, "smoke coming out of both ears. Then I thought that was pretty good. I took a piece of dead wood and made it look like plastic."
Kerper dismisses painted decoys.
"Those only appeal to duck hunters or duck nuts," he said. "Everybody loves natural wood."
Some people will bring in wood from a farm or an old barn for Kerper to carve.
"There's a sentimentality," he said, adding an aunt who was a teaching nun once called him "determined."
"If somebody brought me a hunk of concrete, I could make a decoy out of it," Kerper said, laughing.
Kerper doesn't confine his carving to decoys. He hand carves baseball and softball bats, fish whackers, walking canes and sticks and rolling pins. One of his baseball bat recipients is famed Milwaukee Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker.
The decoys are the gold standard, however. There's a walk-in cooler in the store that was once tavern and hotel. The tappers are still there, touting Bud Light, Schmidt and Bare Knuckle. Ducks sit in the overflow tray.
"The decoys are unconditionally guaranteed for the rest of my life," Kerper said, "and guaranteed not to rust, must, bust or lose their luster."