Archive for Monday, October 2, 2006

The art of the call

Wichitan takes pride in hand-made duck, goose calls

October 2, 2006


As business models go, Kelly Beltz's is particularly ruinous.

First, he gets to know each customer and learns the intended purpose of his product, He uses only the finest, hand-picked natural materials, then labors meticulously over the by-hand production.

When finally he is finished, Beltz charges only a little more than the price of a mass-produced, assembly-line alternative.

And when it comes to shipping, Beltz often sends along a freebie, just so his product doesn't have to "travel alone."

Whether the product is widgets, or, in this case, duck and goose calls, it's a model fraught with economic pitfalls.

Good thing Beltz isn't in it for the money.

"The money's cool," he said, "but I get the biggest kick out of knowing at any given time, somewhere in the world, somebody is using one of my calls.

"I've had offers to do design work for a couple of call manufacturers. They like my designs, like my innovative thoughts about things. They ask if you'll be willing to do this or this, and I'm like, 'Oh, no, I'm not really into that.' I don't want to sound like some Greenwich Village artsy guy. I like money as much as the next guy. Hey, I've got three kids. But I look at it as a practical form of art. I've always been sort of a frustrated artist, and I can't draw for squat. This is one way to do some artsy stuff."

So, Beltz will hand turn at most 200 custom calls a year in his Wichita garage, selling them off his Web site,

Please pardon him if he continually refers to his pastime - his real job is at the post office - as art instead of economics.

The skinny

¢ Kelly's Kalls are available online at ¢ Wichitan Kelly Beltz makes three styles of duck calls: Louisiana, Arkansas and Reelfoot, short- and long-reed goose calls, as well as unique miniature calls. ¢ The calls range in cost from $30 up to $150 or more. ¢ Beltz says he spends at least two hours making each call. Since he started in 2004, he has made between 300 and 350 individually numbered calls.

"There's a manufacturer right here that could make acrylic calls for me on a CNC lathe that just spits 'em out the end," Beltz said. "I could make 'em all day long that way if I wanted to and turn into a manufacturer. But I don't want to do that. That's a whole ugly world. If this turns into a real job, I'm done doing this. The manufacturers can make the acrylic calls cheaper than I can buy the wood, and they're selling those things for 150 bucks. But I think once you become a manufacturer, the art goes out of it.

"And it's hard to get excited looking at a piece of acrylic: 'Oh, look at the plastic.' : I let the wood tell me where to go. Some of the wood is so beautiful, you don't want to go cutting it up. You just can't replace wood."

In the beginning

Beltz said he made his first calls as a kid. Legend has it, some of his mother's broom handles unwittingly provided the raw materials.

"They were very crude, to say the least," Beltz said. "I don't think my father ever let us take them out in the field with us."

Fast forward about four decades.

About three years ago, Beltz's father died, and Beltz inherited his father's 1930s-era wood lathe.

"I thought, what the heck can I build with this," he recalled. "I thought about calls. I had collected 'em for years, but I'd never tried making them. Unfortunately, there's no school to go to, no Duck Calls 101. Just looking at the calls I had, I reverse-engineered some. They were rather crude."

Most of Beltz's early calls were gifts, but by November, 2004, he had a few listed on eBay.

The following month, he was contacted by a representative of the National Wild Turkey Federation and invited to enter one of his calls in the NWTF's national call contest.

In February, 2005, Beltz took fifth place in the matched-sets competition.

"I didn't think they were too whippy, so I was pretty jazzed about that," he said. "Maybe there were only five entries. But things kind of went from there."

Audio Clips
Kelly's kalls

In the field

Of course, a duck doesn't care what a call looks like. All the national awards - Beltz also has a third-place award to his name; not bad considering he has been doing this just under two years - won't attract a goose.

The sound's the thing, and Beltz knows it.

"All my calls are working calls," he said. "I make calls for hunters. If it doesn't sound good, they're not going to buy it, and if it's any indication, I get a lot of repeat customers."

One of them is Cecil Allbright, of Dayton, Ohio, who has a half-dozen or so Kelly's Kalls. He also has given some away and has awarded more as prizes at Ducks Unlimited functions.

"Their quality is just as good as any of the calls I have," Allbright said. "It's all about the personalization. He doesn't mass-produce them. And the sound : they're actual working calls."

Allbright uses and collects calls, and he's happy both to use and show his Kelly's Kalls.

"Kelly's call quality is great," he said. "Add to that the fact I know who made them, know what kind of wood they are. They're collector quality. But since Kelly is still alive, their value isn't there yet."

Pick your call

Beltz makes three styles of duck calls: Louisiana, Arkansas and Reelfoot.

He also makes long- and short-reed goose calls.

"My short-reed goose calls sound as good as any short-reed goose call in the world," Beltz said. "I use the same guts as the top three goose-call manufacturers. The only difference is, I'm standing in my garage in front of a lathe. The first one of theirs looks just like their 9,000th. The 10 I make from now to December will be dif-

ferent from the 10 I make from December to January."

Beltz also makes unusual miniature calls. About the size of a shotgun shell, the minis have proven surprisingly popular.

Beltz invented the minis as a way to hold his son's Cub Scout kerchief.

"I made a couple for his pack and thought, 'Why not make an honest-to-God duck call that small?'" Beltz said. "I made some and took them to a gun show on a whim, and I got wiped out. I had orders out the kazoo for those things. Nobody else makes 'em. You can go to any sporting-goods store, look on eBay, and never see one of those miniatures."

Their size, Allbright said, belied their sound.

"People are amazed," he said, "at the sound that comes out of them."

"It blows people away," Beltz added. "People think they're kinda cool, pick 'em up. They look like a little toy thing. What comes out is a full-fledged duck call. The first time somebody picks one up and blows it : the look on their face is priceless."

Which brings us back to that business model.

Beltz knows he could care less, crank out more, settle.

He also knows he's not about to.

"I just enjoy doing it," he said. "There are a lot of things people do to enjoy money, but hate what they do. I like what I do. Don't get me wrong. I've made some decent extra spending money.

"But it means as much to me to get a call from Australia and hear my friend down there bragging about giving one of my calls to his mates.

"That means as much to me as the money."


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