My name is Bob Ashley, and I reside in West Michigan, where fish are abundant, but remain elusive to an amateur like me. I devour the helpful information I get from the contributing writers in Great Lakes Angler, but continue to struggle with my “technique.” None-the-less, I love anything to do with fish.


Fool other fishermen as they pass your boat.


As a former cartoonist for Hallmark Cards, and a consummate artist over a career that spans 50 years, I look for opportunities to incorporate fish into my cartoons and fine art. Recently, I came across a 110-year-old Michigan barn being demolished, and talked the owner out of a few choice pieces to try something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, carve fish from barn wood.






Taking advantage of the plank’s knotholes and blemishes, I taught myself to repurpose the wood into a new lease on life. In the enclosed photos, you can see the evolution of the process, using simple sketches, basic tools, and spray paint, with brushwork for details. Mind you, it’s taken me two years to discover why old wood breaks and knotholes fall out, but I think I’ve narrowed the carving process down with experimentation.






Through trial and error, I learned that working on three at a time is the most practical way to carve, and will take between 16 and 20 hours to finish. That includes sketching, carving, creating scales and eye holes, and painting. It becomes contagious after a while, so if you get into it, you’ll likely end up making more, just like me. Wood will snap, and fins will fall off, but don’t be discouraged. It gets in your blood. Now, to you serious sportsmen out there, I realize the coloring on my fish might not be exact, but hey, I’m still practicing. To date, I’ve made almost two hundred, one-to-nine-feet in length, many of them two-sided. The longest is a sturgeon that hangs over my bookshelves. Neighbors and galleries have shown great interest, and I’ve moved the majority to fish lovers who buy as gifts, or to decorate their homes or stores. If there’s any bad news with selling them, it’s somewhat like seeing your children leave for college, so keep your favorites hidden.





Below are some basic things I’ve learned while carving. Mind you, these fish are as flat as the board they’re carved from, and do not resemble the high-quality, three-dimensional art that true professionals make for the exclusive collections. That said, they look great as wall-hangings, or mounted on drawer fronts if you want to get really creative. I’m still learning as I go, but a little experimentation on an already broken board will go a long way towards avoiding accidents on your art. Another tip: once you have a completed fish you like, use it as a template by tracing around the edges on another plank. That way you won’t have to sketch a new one every time. So, basically that’s it. It’s simple really… basic tools, a little practice, and a lot of patience.


For those who might like to give it ago, here’s some hints to get you started:


Step 1: The tools

A heavy black marker for sketching, anything less doesn’t show well on the wood. A jigsaw; an angle grinder; Gorilla Glue (just in case you lop off a fin); and a drill.


Step 2:

Use a photo (or your memory) of the desired fish to rough sketch the image on your wood, beginning with the submarine-like torso. Make sure you leave enough room for the fins.


Step 3:

Use the jigsaw to carve the exterior of your fish without accidently cutting off an important piece of anatomy, like a fin. Make sure you avoid cutting through knotholes, as they tend to fall apart when cut. If possible, incorporate them into the fish for character.






Step 4: Clamping

Once the fish is cut, keep it stationary on another surface by clamping it tight, so when you begin to round off the edges and fins, you can apply more pressure. With a stationary work surface, your fins stand a better chance of not breaking off.


Step 5: Add texture

Use the edge of the circular sander to run parallel groves from outside inward to make fins (practice on a separate piece of wood). Drill the eye hole about 1/4-inch deep to al-low a glass piece to be inserted with Gorilla Glue. (Hobby Lobby sells them in jars.)


Step 6: Painting

Paint soaks deep into old wood, so start with a coat of grey or green to give the fish a base tone and build with layers. Spray paint gives the fish an even tone and will soak into the crevasses, making it easier to add additional color layers after drying.


Step 7: Details—a finished fish!

Add additional detail, if needed, with a brush and acrylic paint. I often use a toothbrush dipped in paint and flick it across my finger to get a speckled look on some of the fish. Metallic silver spray gives the fish that authentic “slippery” look.


Step 8 : Mounting your fish

Use small brads on the back of the fish and fasten picture wire for hanging. Soft padded stickers allow the wood to be held away from the wall to avoid scratching. Another way to display the fish is to carve both sides, then mount on an old log slice to make the fish look like it’s hovering over your favorite fishing hole. Add a few rocks with Gorilla Glue to create the look of a river bottom.


Bob Ashley
Bob Ashley Designer on LinkedIn  



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