Today’s turkey decoys are more realistic than ever; often so lifelike that you have to look twice to make sure it’s a decoy in front of you and not a live bird. But that degree of realism usually comes with a hefty price. Ultra-realistic decoys can often total nearly as much as a new shotgun. For a family with multiple hunters, that adds up to a hefty investment.
What if you could take an old or inexpensive decoy and make it look nearly as good as one of the more expensive models? With some paint and a bit of time, you can transform even the most basic decoy into an eye-catching, lifelike decoy that will fool even the wiliest old longbeard.
Paint and Brushes
© Michael Pendley photo
Good friend and longtime hunting partner Tim Daughrity has been painting his decoys for years now. He hunts with them all over the country, on both private and crowded public land. His decoys consistently fool turkeys, no matter where he hunts. Here is how he goes about putting a custom paint job on a decoy.
Start by cleaning the decoy well. In order for paint to stick to the plastic foam of the decoys, it must be free of dirt, oil, and dust. Daughrity recommends using Dawn dishwashing liquid and water to remove dirt and any oils leftover from the manufacturing process. A sponge or soft bristle brush will work down into the cracks and cervices of the decoy, cleaning it well. Allow the decoy to dry completely before beginning the painting process.
As far as paint goes, Tim prefers a multi-surface acrylic craft paint. He usually finds them in craft sections at big box stores and craft stores. His colors of choice for the body are bark brown, coffee latte, burnt sienna, black, and white. “You can use them as they are, or blend the colors for custom shades,” says Daughrity. For the turkey heads, Daughrity likes red and light blue. Make sure your paint is labeled as indoor/outdoor so that it will stick well in inclement weather.
When it comes to brushes, he prefers a variety of shapes and sizes to fit the different feather shapes and patterns of a wild turkey. “I like to buy the large pack of craft art brushes so that I have plenty of head shapes and sizes to choose from,” he says.
Paint Individual Feathers
© Michael Pendley photo
One of the most important aspects when custom painting decoys is having plenty of reference material. Daughrity likes to have multiple reference photos of turkeys from various angles and in varying lights. Spend time studying feather detail, colors, and block shapes on both the head and body of turkey photos. When it comes time to paint your decoys, concentrate on the individual area you are working on at the time. Don’t worry about the entire decoy, just focus on the feather detail of the area you are painting.
Paint a section of the decoy at a time. The paint will go a long way and it dries quickly, so don’t pour out more than you need at the time. Many decoy painters start at the head. Tim likes to mix a gray color for the hen heads, then highlight the “warts” in red. On male turkeys, the head often exhibits the brightest colors and is used for communication between birds. Brighter heads indicate more of a challenge, darker, duller heads can often be found on subordinate toms. Choose either, depending on your hunting area and style. Since you can paint inexpensive decoys to make them look more realistic, try doing one of each so that you have both available depending on hunting conditions and time of season.
When it comes to feather detail, paint individual feathers instead of entire sections. Follow the feather shapes molded into the decoy. Pay more attention to the feather outlines than to the interior details, since the outlines can be seen from a longer distance.
Lifelike Decoy Details
© Tim Daughrity photo
For the iridescent color shift found in live turkey feathers, Daughrity orders a color-shifting copper/green pigment designed for use in automotive paint. He mixes a small amount into semi-gloss clear polyurethane. He recommends starting with just a little, testing it on a paper plate for proper pigment, then adding more of the color shifting material to the mix as needed. Once he has the proper color, he brushes it onto the decoy’s body. “Don’t overdo the color shifting pigment, or you will have a glowing green neon decoy in bright sunlight. Try a little, then test it outside, then add more as needed,” says Daughrity.
For even more lifelike detail, Tim borrows a tip from waterfowlers and applies black flocking to the ruffled black feathers along the backs of the gobbler and jake decoys. You can buy the fuzzy black flocking powder at any number of waterfowl retailers or online. To apply, put a heavy coat of flat black paint on the area you want to flock, then sprinkle on the flocking powder so that it sticks to the black paint. Shake off any loose powder and decide if it needs more. If it does, simply apply more black paint, and shake on more flocking.
While custom-painted decoys are durable, they do lose some paint as they are carried in vests and decoy bags. Tim likes to touch them up every couple years, especially the heads. “In my experience, fresh head paint makes a world of difference,” says Daughrity.
Editor's note: Do you ever paint your old or inexpensive turkey decoys? Please comment below and offer some additional tips.