The scent of burnt wood hung like incense in the garage at the end of a quiet Northridge cul de sac when Leo McMahon Jr. welcomed a visitor into his hideaway one morning recently.
Other than that slightly acrid odor, it appeared to be an ordinary garage.
Around it was scattered the familiar clutter of once-valued things that no longer have a logical place to be. The wood slat garage door was warped and didn’t look like it could open.
It was a humble setting. But to McMahon, it has become a kind of shrine.
He goes there to burn life into wooden blocks. As his visitor stood by, he demonstrated.
He sat on a tall stool, hunched over an impeccably neat workbench. On it were a portable radio, a cordless phone, a few scraps of wood and a small electric wood-burning tool. McMahon picked up the device and turned a dial. Its razor-like blade became cherry red. Then he pressed it against a piece of wood in front of him. The blade turned gray and a puff of smoke rose from the wood.
In slow, precise repetitions, he touched the blade down and slid it half an inch across the wood, leaving behind a small burnt furrow.
Furrow upon furrow, he drew the hairs of a feather. That took about five minutes.
Feather upon feather, the block of wood was becoming a duck. The transformation would take three to four weeks, he said.
As McMahon worked, the scent of burnt wood intensified.
“It’s my narcotic,” he said.
McMahon, who is 38, got hooked only four years ago. But he believes everything in his life was leading to it, unknown to him.
He grew up in North Hollywood. He studied at California State University, Northridge. He put himself through school as a grocery store clerk. After he got his degree in radio and television journalism, he kept the job. Groceries paid better.
Eventually, McMahon married and settled into a suburban home.
The McMahons had no children. So they decided to have dogs.
They struck up a friendship with an Agoura Labrador breeder named Bill Liittschwager.
One day McMahon saw Liittschwager whittling a duck.
“I said, ‘Doggone it, Billy, that really looks like fun. I’m going to give it a try.’ ”
McMahon went home and carved a duck decoy.
Liittschwager thought the piece showed enough potential that he asked McMahon to carve another duck for a dinner of his chapter of Ducks Unlimited, an organization of hunters that raises money to preserve duck habitat.
“We took the carving down to the dinner,” McMahon said. “We put it into the raffle. That little carving was raffled off for $280. ‘That is fantastic,’ I thought. ‘How can you take a piece of wood and shape it so it becomes something that people will plunk down their hard-earned cash for?’ ”
McMahon did more carving.
“I really started getting into carving,” he said. “It’s like a narcotic. Once you start, and if you have any chance of success, it becomes an all-encompassing form. I’ve known people who lost their marriages. You take off into biology. You find yourself going to the natural history museum and getting into anatomy.”
And hunting. About a year after he did his first carving, McMahon met another Labrador owner who invited him on a duck hunt.
“I tell you,” he replied. “I’ve never killed anything before. I don’t know how it’s going to set.”
But the man told him, “ ‘You don’t have to kill anything,’ ” McMahon said.
So he went.
“It was the most unbelievable experience in my life,” he said. “It was everything I ever dreamed of. The smell of the marsh in the morning and watching the birds fly over. It rained all night. The guys put 30 pounds of decoys on my back and a shotgun through my arms. I stepped into the marsh and fell into a hole and went three feet under. It was just such an Americana type of trip.”
He bagged one duck on the trip. But he says, “To me, hunting is not in the taking of game. You don’t have to go out there and pop a cap. It’s really a communion with a primitive type of life.”
The hunting experience gave McMahon a living model for his work.
And it synthesized the unexpected changes in his life just at a time when a market for decorative decoys was coming into its own.
A chain called the Wooden Bird opened a store in Glendale and will open another this year in the Sherman Oaks Galleria, McMahon said.
The store took some of his carvings, and they sold. Then it got to the point he didn’t have the time to keep them in stock, he said.
That was soon taken care of. Not long ago McMahon got laid off as a grocery clerk.
Now he works only part time. That allows him two full work days a week in his garage. Cosmically, it makes perfect sense to McMahon.
“I hate to think of the hundreds of people being laid off,” he said. “But, if it would not be for that, I could not be what I am now, which is a successful carver.”
Financially the transition may not be complete. But McMahon has faith.
“This isn’t a hobby,” he said. “It’s a way of life. You are a wildfowl carver. You’re not a grocery clerk. You’re not an executive for CBS or IBM. You are a wildlife carver. That’s what you want to be known by.”
He acknowledges that he’s in a tough field. Decorative ducks have become a high art form in the past two decades. The nation’s premiere carvers are turning out elaborately realistic pieces that have flights of ducks on the wing with droplets of water trailing behind them.
McMahon is just learning to make a duck lift its wing. To go further, he said, he’ll have to have a living duck in front of him all the time.
“The wife doesn’t know it yet, but I’m about to start an aviary,” he said.