Local carver provides urns for departed pets
Bob Crigler has an unusual occupation.
“I’m in the business of making people cry,” he said in a recent interview.
Before jumping to conclusions, consider that Crigler routinely delivers beautifully crafted and painted duck decoy urns to pet lovers who have recently lost close, fur covered companions.
“It happens every time I deliver one of the finished urns,” he said. The emotion runs both ways and Crigler said it’s always a somber moment for both the recipient and the carver.
Word of mouth and the quality of his work has resulted in an avalanche of orders, but he continues to diligently carve, finish and paint the ducks. It’s a process that cannot be hurried. The final product is waterfowl art, but the real beauty lies in the solace it provides for the people who use his product.
In addition to containing the ashes of the pet, the permanently sealed decoys are often ordained with a small reminder of wonderful hours spent with a beloved dog or cat — a small tag removed from a collar or piece of fur personalize the memorial.
“It reminds them of better days spent with a special animal,” he said.
The work takes hours as Crigler toils in a small shop behind his home in Cool Springs Forest. The walls are lined with intricate tools collected during the many years of learning his craft,, something he describes as a lost piece of true American art. And then there are the ducks — dozens of them of all species and ages, each one holding its own unique story.or memory.
One of his prized ducks is a special reminder of the first time he and his daughter Kinsey went on their first duck hunt, she as an observer.
In addition to his urn business called Best Friend Pet Urns, he also sells his gunning duck decoys through another company he founded, Fat Frog Decoys, a name his daughter coined commemorating years of walking around ponds searching for frogs.
It’s all part time work for Crigler, who spends most days as an IT salesman servicing local governments.
He described the community of duck carvers as a fraternal brotherhood of artisans who love taking a rough piece of cedar and transforming it to a multi colored decoy whose eyes sometimes appear to be looking right through you.
Crigler’s evolution from a duck hunter to master carver and eventually decoy urn maker was a natural progression.
“I began duck hunting 25 years ago, and we took decoys everywhere we went,” he said. Armed with a knowledge of furniture design acquired while attending Virginia Commonwealth University, he soon realized he might be capable of producing one of the decoys he’d seen.
“I grabbed a knife and a piece of wood, and about three months later, I actually had a bird,” he laughed.
He was also inspired by local carver Heck Rice, a master artisan who mentored and guided Crigler through his development. His expertise and constructive analysis provided the then novice carver with an immense knowledge of the art.
“He took me under his wing,” Crigler said.
His first creations left much to be desired and appeared “paralyzed” in his own words. When Rice examined that first specimen he provided him with an honest and insightful observation. “I took my first decoy to him, one that took three months to carve, and…. he looked at it and said ‘it get’s better’,”
and it did. In 2019, Crigler and Rice were recognized by Richmond Ducks Unlimited as Carver of the Year and Conservationist of the Year respectively.
Crigler continued to carve and paint decoys gaining more expertise and talent with each completed bird, until an unfortunate event in his life prompted the idea of turning duck decoys to urns for dearly departed pets.
“We had a dog pass away,” he said. “We sent the dog off to the veterinarian for cremation…. and when we got this dog back that we absolutely loved, he came back in a piece of plastic. You love the dog, but you hate the plastic, so it goes in the closet or in hiding somewhere.”
Crigler’s wife Anita really like the idea of making an urn for the dog who had become an integral part of the family’s life. “I ended up cutting the decoy in half and hollowing it out and took the ashes and put them inside the decoy,” Crigler explained.
He quickly realized that merging a love of a departed animal with the desire to properly preserve and respect their memory was something that may interest pet owners going through similar experiences as the one he and his family had just endured. “I love the decoy and I loved the dog, so now it sits prominently in our living room.”
He began creating urns for hunting buddies whose dogs had passed, and word of mouth provided the only impetus needed for the business to expand.
“That decoy containing those ashes becomes something that hunter will keep for a lifetime and their children will keep for a lifetime,” Crigler said.
He said the special relationship of a hunter with his dog is unique and emotional. “They become partners,” he said. “I trust them and they trust me. They are like children who listen.When they pass away, it’s like losing a hunting partner.”
Kinsey suggested that her Dad start a company specializing in decoy urns, a unique and needed service for many pet owners.
In 2009, Crigler placed his first ad for the service and the business took off as Best Friend Pet Urns.
The response was immediate and orders began to pour in, but there was a problem. Crigler has a day job that requires extensive travel and time away from home and his shop.
“The orders kept pouring in because everyone owns an animal that they don’t want to see discarded. Here’s an animal that they loved for 10, 15 or 20 years and you want to respect it somehow,” he said.
The number of orders became overwhelming and it finally arrived at a point where Crigler could not accept future orders; but the need did not diminish.
While master carvers can produce a quality decoy in weeks, it takes Crigler longer due to his self described “slow and meticulous” approach.
He likens the process of carving to playing a musical instrument or learning a new language. “you never get to an end game,” he said. “You will never speak a language perfectly or play that musical instrument to perfection.”
What used to take him three months now takes four weeks, but he continues to struggle to keep up with demand for the urns, and there’s another problem — the cost.
The urns are priced at $500 and up, so Crigler quickly realized a more affordable option was needed to accommodate the public demand.
After considering the dilemma, he devised an alternate model more accessible to pet lovers. He transformed a plastic duck decoy available at sporting goods and hunting outlets to a masterfully crafted urn.
“I came up with an alternative to a hand carved decoy — a less expensive urn,” he said. “I’m now offering a less expensive version using the plastic decoys…. and I can produce a beautiful urn quickly.”
“I had people that were waiting a year and a half for an urn,” he said. “When I got orders and they ended up taking too long and I ended up apologizing, I realized I had to scale back so I don’t advertise anymore.”
But, demand for his services continue to grow by word of mouth. A farmer in Iowa once called to request an urn, and explained he could not forward the ashes because his wife could not stand the thought of being away from the recently departed dog.
“I made a cherry box and then put a decoy on top,” Crigler explained. “The customer placed the remains in to the cherry box.”
The pandemic has also increased the need for urns as more people adopt or purchase pets creating a demand that Crigler said is “through the roof.”
Although the number of carvers on the eastern Seaboard is dwindling, there is still a vibrant community located on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. “Those guys wrote the book on decoy carving.”
Crigler makes annual trips across the Bay to meet with the masters, admire their work and pick up some tips from the immense amount of knowledge that surround the gatherings.
“This is an American art,” Crigler said. “It’s not European or South American. It’s American to the core,” he added.
The oldest decoy found was located in the western United States and made of reeds and feathers believed to be 2,000 years old.
A carver’s shop
No space is unused in Crigler’s shop located behind his house, the walls filled to capacity with with every imaginable variety of tool, each with a specific carving purpose.
It’s a space that has a mystical connection to a carver’s world of fragrant woods and corks
Crigler said decoy carving transforms one to a sort of hobbyist forcing the dedicated artisan to attain various skills to enhance their skills. For example, Crigler said studying a duck’s physiology is necessary to carve an accurate and realistic bird. The carver must acquire competent painting and blending skills to achieve a quality decoy. And, learning how to sharpen all of those tools isn’t easy either.
The avid duck enthusiast puts more than just a seemingly infinite number of hours reducing wood one small layer at a time.
“I won’t let anything go that I wouldn’t personally keep for the rest of my life,” Crigler said. “I can’t guess how many hours I”ve put in to this. It probably comes down to less than a dollar an hour,” he laughed.
Once Crigler works his magic and a decoy is complete, Kinsey, 20, joins him in his workshop for the final task, clearing the finely painted glass eyes of all the paint.
“When a decoy is painted and ready to go, the eyes are still covered. When Kinsey exposes the eyes, it changes the bird’s personality completely.”
The white cedar wood arrives in large blocks from Pennsylvania, used to make decoys due to its minimal sap production , bug resistance and is water proof.
“It’s smooth and easy to carve, and easy to paint.”
That wood is shaped in two pieces, the body and the head. The body is cut in half and hollowed out, reducing weight and relieving stress on the wood.
He creates pencil marks on the board that guide his blade to achieve an anatomically perfect specimen. After layers and layers of strategically placed paint, the decoy is complete.
The meticulous nature of the art appeals to Crigler, and it’s something that always offers new challenges and always provides room for improvement. That’s the way he likes it.
“You’ll never learn it all,” he laughed.
His love of decoy carving combined with a desire to provide a service that genuinely helps his fellow animal lovers seems like the perfect combination for the devoted dad and husband.
“I feel like I’m doing something to help people at a time when they really need it.”
Which always brings him back to that emotional moment when a pet makes their final journey home, secured in a carefully crafted urn that places them back in the space they most belong.
“If I do things just right, the people I give those urns to will break down and cry. I get it. It’s not a dog; it’s a family member.”