Although Ralph Jensen is now well-known for his perfectly crafted custom furniture and beautifully carved game calls, he claims to have been nothing but destructive the first 22 of his 65 years.
“I couldn’t hold down a job. I ran with a rough crowd and away from anything laimsI didn’t like to do. My mom said I was ‘in a far country, a long way from home, a lost sheep.’ Then one day she took me to a little prayer meeting, and my life and heart were changed completely. My desires changed and I felt an overpowering urge to become a woodworker. My mom liked to call that ‘a molten moment.’ ”
With no family background in crafting, no experience building anything or using tools of any kind, Jensen delved in and got a job with a cabinetmaker. He tuned all his senses to the woodworkers who taught him all he needed to know to graduate in 1978 to his own cabinetmaking business, which he calls The Master’s Touch.
“Within a couple of years, I got into refinishing and duplicating antique furniture, and from there I branched out into everything from gun cabinets to a cigar humidor, which towered seven feet and had a lot of carving showing the timeline of a finished cigar.”
Today, though he still dabbles in furniture and cabinetmaking, turning and carving custom game calls occupies most of his time. He specializes in the more popular duck and turkey calls, but he’ll fashion an instrument to make practically any bird come running.
“I’d hunted almost all my life here in North Carolina, but never used a call. One day back in 2000, I bought a basket of stuff, which included a call, at a flea market for $2.00. Got to looking at that thing and learning how it worked, and with my crazy mind I figured I might as well make some.”
Ralph uses an old Thomas Edison-era lathe to turn the duck call’s barrel and stopper. He drills and refines the air passages, then fashions the reed (calls may have up to three reeds) by cutting and shaping Mylar with a scissors. Finally, he fine-tunes the wind instrument.
“Getting the right pitch depends on the reed touching the stopper perfectly. The proper blowing technique is important, too. Once I discover all the right specs, I can duplicate them in subsequent calls,” Ralph said.
Carved intricate images of wildlife, dogs, birds or whatever the customer requests are a signature feature of most Jensen-made calls. Whether it’s for a special gift, a folk art collection, or for use in the field, it’s a prized masterpiece. Each call takes a week or more to craft. The highest price so far was $3,500, but most calls start at $95.
If customers don’t provide their own wood, Ralph has a supply of blanks from which they may choose. Though his favorite is walnut, he has a collection of scraps of every species left over from furniture building as well as a lot of gifted pieces.
“People know my love of wood with a story. Someone gave me a door out of a library in Bath, England. I have some old growth timber from the bottom of the Cape Fear River that sank while being floated to sawmills 200 years ago, and the burl walnut stock of a Parker shotgun used in the Spanish American War by Admiral Anderson, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.”
He’s presently working on an ebony, hand-checkered duck call for the national president of Ducks Unlimited. Also in progress is a walnut box-like turkey call measuring 2” x 7” and operated by rubbing a paddle on a soundboard primed with rosin. An intricate decoration includes a scrimshaw design with ivory inlays.
“There’s a story behind the walnut and mammoth ivory like there is behind almost everything I make. Some people buy the story behind the call, but most people like the way a custom call makes them feel when they use it. It’s not just a carved/inlaid game call, but a call with its own legacy and with stories to be told for future generations.”