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Bruce Burk: Legendary Carver

by Bill Einsig

Based on interviews with Bruce Burk 

Photographs supplied by Diane Burk Byrnes


If you examine the library shelves of most any experienced bird carver, you’re likely to find one or more, if not all, of Burk’s works on waterfowl. With the technical eye and organizational skill of an engineering draftsman, Burk laid the foundation for contemporary decoy carving and strongly dictated the way most carvers now work. In addition, his step-by-step photography and use of detailed reference photos paved the way for later publications that help carvers develop their skills and stretch the envelope of decoy and decorative carving.

Our own IWCA Historian, Bob Sutton, said, “I never knew a person who did more for wildfowl carving than Bruce Burk.”

Certainly, Burk helped launch the art of contemporary bird carving in the latter half of the 20th century, and his seminal contributions to the art form, with their careful attention to detail, will continue to influence generations of carvers.



Bruce Burk was born January 7, 1917 during a severe snowstorm on the family's North Dakota farm. The doctor arrived on horseback barely in time to deliver him and his twin sister. He spent his first 18 years on this farm and experienced the trials and frustrations of the Great Depression, record drought, and resulting Dust Bowl. 

On November 22, 1935, (A banner day!), he left the farm and traveled by bus to Upland, California arriving around 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. The balmy, summer-like temperature, green grass, and palm trees of California were almost unbelievable for a hick kid who had just left the barren, snow-covered, subzero prairie.

Burk completed his education in California and in 1937 went to work for Hughes Aircraft located in a small hangar on the Burbank Airport. He worked on a design proposal for a twin-engine interceptor needed by the Army Air Corp. Lockheed Aircraft, rather than Hughes Aircraft, later won this contract with a design which became the famous Lockheed P-38 Lightning.  

The Hughes design proposal was completed in about two months, and all engineers were then laid off. Aircraft design jobs in those days were typically short-term assignments. However, Howard Hughes permitted this group of eight engineers to use the facility without charge, and a consulting organization called United Engineering Service soon formed. Business was slow, and the group dwindled to Burk and three other engineers.


In November of that year, Hughes took delivery of a new Sikorsky S-43 amphibian aircraft and flew it from the East Coast to Burbank where it was to be readied for an around-the-world flight. Burk and his three fellow engineers were rehired bringing the number of Hughes Aircraft employees to nine.


About this time, Lockheed came out with their new L-14, a small, twin-engine transport that was considerably faster than the Sikorsky S-43. Although considerable preparatory work had been completed on the S-43, Hughes decided to switch to the L-14, and in January 1938 construction began at the Lockheed factory near Burbank.


The Lockheed L-14 Super Electra became Hughes' choice for his record-breaking round-the-world trip. Burk worked on design changes for the long-distance flight.

Burk spent over two months at the Lockheed facility making design changes to the aircraft. The new plane was completed in Spring 1938 and was towed to the Hughes Burbank hangar where final planning for the world flight began in earnest.

Large fuel tanks were designed, built, and installed as was a considerable amount of radio and navigation equipment. All conceivable emergencies were considered, and provisions were made, wherever possible, to deal with them. Preparations were completed around the beginning of July, and Hughes with his four-man flight crew flew the plane to New York where the successful, much-publicized trip around the world began and ended.

During this period, Hughes spent almost all of his afternoons and early evenings at the hangar where Burk worked with him closely. Later, after the successful flight, Hughes rarely came to the hangar but asked Burk to bring whatever he was working on to the Hughes home on Muirfield Drive in the Wilshire Country Club.


After the world flight, Hughes bought a new Boeing 307, the first four-engine transport airplane and the first with a pressurized cabin. This plane, like the Lockheed, was prepared for long distance flight, but war in Europe interrupted the project.


Hughes decided to enter the war effort and, in 1939, started design work, again, on a twin-engine interceptor similar to the previous proposal. This fighter was eventually built at Hughes’ expense and dubbed the D-2. Burk worked on the landing gear design for this new interceptor.


Early in World War II, Hughes and Henry Kaiser worked on a design for the highly touted Hughes Flying Boat, dubbed by the press as the Spruce Goose. Burk's assignment on this project was the design of the wings which were made chiefly of birch wood. With a wingspan longer than a football field, this monster transport was six times larger than any aircraft of its day.






In 1935, Hughes achieved a land speed record of 352 mph in his Hughes H-1 Racer. Burk later painted the racer in flight. The H-1, above with Hughes, and Burk's painting, below, are on display in the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. Burk's rendering of the H-1 was used as a two-page spread in Walter J. Boyne's Smithsonian Book of Flight, 1987.

In 1949, Hughes put Burk in charge of his personal aircraft and Burk reported directly to Hughes. Burk assembled a small division of top mechanics and technicians within Hughes Aircraft to handle the many projects Hughes was interested in until his death in 1976. Burk retired from Hughes Aircraft shortly after Hughes died.

Furniture craftsman 


Burk was always interested in working with his hands. After the war, but while he was employed by Hughes, he bought woodworking equipment and became very involved in designing and building furniture for his home. Eventually, he made most of the furniture in his home. As an offshoot, he began writing how-to articles for his furniture and sold more than forty articles to various how-to magazines.



Bruce Burk developed his step-by-step method of writing how-to articles for several magazines.

He learned it was essential to take good photographs of each step with clear, detailed images of the completed project. He acquired the necessary photographic equipment and taught himself to produce images that would make his text come alive. In addition, Burk learned to make good ink drawings and illustrations to supplement his articles.



Decoy carver 

It was quite by chance that he became interested in bird carving and painting. After seeing several Richard Bishop paintings in 1953, Burk recalled his own duck hunting days in North Dakota. He decided he needed a duck carving to accompany a lamp for the den of his new home.

He looked for a suitable carving at the exclusive Kerr’s Sport Shop in Beverly Hills. Not only did they not have the carving he wanted, they had no idea of where to get one. After a few moments, Burk said, “Well, I’ll just have to carve my own.” Burk has never forgotten the “not likely” expression on the salesman’s face.


Burk elected to carve a mallard with wings and feet outstretched for landing—a fairly complicated decorative carving, especially for someone with no knowledge of carving or painting and one who had no reference materials or specimens. Armed with a few tools, a piece of sugar pine, a borrowed copy of Kortwright’s Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America, and “confidence inspired by complete ignorance,” Burk started his first carving.


Without training or experience in wildfowl carving, Burk carved this landing mallard for a lamp in his new home.

When the carved bird turned out “tolerably well,” he faced the daunting challenge of painting the bird, and he new even less about painting than he did about carving. Fortunately, a neighbor, who worked for Walt Disney Studios, showed Burk the rudiments of mixing and applying oils. During the next three years, Burk completed a few more carvings and several pieces of flat art.


At just 18, Bruce moved from the family farm in North Dakota to southern California.


At just 18, Burk moved from the family farm in North Dakota to southern California.


After losing much of his investment in a failed business venture, Burk decided to earn extra money by selling his carvings. In 1961, while still at Hughes Aircraft, Burk showed several of his pieces to Kerr’s Sport Shop and they immediately bought his work. Later, Ralph Terrill of Crossroads of Sport, a well-known New York City sport art dealer, became interested in handling Burk’s work. 


As Burk neared retirement, he found himself producing wildfowl carvings for private collectors and for retail at the two stores on opposite sides of the country.


In the 1950s, as Burk developed his carving skills, there were few bird carvers and most of those were on the East Coast. He had no opportunity to share ideas or experience with other carvers, so he developed his own techniques using trial-and-error methods.

Then, in 1965, he accepted an invitation to participate in a carving exhibition sponsored by the Kent County Chapter of the Maryland Audubon Society. This exhibit, held in Chestertown, Maryland, brought together the nation’s top bird carvers and featured the most comprehensive display of contemporary bird carvings ever assembled at that time. Burk was one of only two carvers representing the western half of the country.  

The exhibit was a great success and the chapter held similar exhibits in 1967 and 1969. Burk became acquainted with many of the carvers and, for the first time, was able to share ideas and techniques. These exhibits also gave him the inspiration and drive to improve his skills.  



Author and photographer 


Burk and Wendell Gilley had become very good friends although they did not actually meet until the first Chestertown show. Gilley, author of the first book on bird carving, suggested that Burk do a book. Burk took his first steps in that direction when Byron Cheever, owner and editor of North American Decoys magazine asked him to do an article on bird carving. Burk considered the topic too broad to do a meaningful article, so he suggested doing three articles: Draw Before You Carve, Waterfowl Carving, and Painting the Carving. All were published in 1970.


When the articles were well received, Burk considered doing a book as Gilley had suggested. He used the three articles as a start and began to take step photos of all his carving projects. By Summer of 1971, the format was well organized and much of its content was ready. Burk decided to call this volume Game Bird Carving.


At the suggestion of an artist friend, the late Milton Weiler, Burk submitted the outline of the book, a typical page, and a sample chapter to Winchester Press in New York City. Editor-in-chief William Steinkraus replied that Winchester was interested in publishing the book and asked if Burk would be willing to lay out the book. Because of the large number of photographs and drawings, along with the corresponding text, it seemed the author would be the best person to organize all the content. Although he had no experience with graphic layouts, Burk agreed to do this. Game Bird Carving is unusual, in that, in addition to the writing and typing, Burk took all the photographs, made all the drawings, did the page design, and completed the page-by-page layout.



Game Bird Carving was published in 1972 and was revised as subsequent editions in 1982 and again in 1988. More than 150,000 copies have been sold and it remains the most popular book on the subject ever published.


As Game Bird Carving came together, Burk became interested in bird photography as a means of providing more reference material for his carvings. He acquired the necessary lenses and other equipment and learned the specialized techniques and problems of this type of photography.


By 1975, his picture file held more than 7000 photos, and Winchester Press contracted for Burk’s second book—Waterfowl Studies, published in 1976. This book consists mainly of photo coverage of 33 waterfowl species and five Canada Goose subspecies and contains more than 700 photographs.


Burk’s next project was a three-volume set called Complete Waterfowl Studies published in 1984. This work had more than 1750 photographs of 47 waterfowl species and was the most comprehensive pictorial coverage of North American waterfowl at the time.


Burk developed a pattern book series starting in 1986. The first was Decorative Decoy Designs: Dabbling and Whistling Ducks. Burk’s patterns included burned-in detail and were printed in full color along with paint mixing instructions. Later titles in this design series covered Diving Ducks (1990) while another covered Geese and Swans (1991).


Burk authored his first two books and completed over 300 carvings while he worked for Hughes Aircraft. After retirement, he continued carving, learning new techniques, and improving his photography skills as he published his later works. He also moved from Sherman Oaks, near Los Angeles, to Grass Valley in northern California. He has completed about 100 major decorative pieces incorporating one or more standing birds.


Although Burk entered a few carvings, and won ribbons, in very early competitions, he was never much interested in competitive carving. In addition to exhibiting in the Chestertown shows in the 1960s, he has exhibited at the Salisbury and Easton shows in Maryland, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson exhibits in Wausau, Wisconsin, and several other eastern shows in addition to most of the California shows.



The IWCA Gallery has a new category for Bruce Burk's art. Bruce was a talented artist, skilled carver, gifted author, and outstanding photographer. And, his engineering background helped him design and build several mechanical devices that have a beauty of their own and quite apart from his loved waterfowl.