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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

There's no wooden feeling to this largemouth bass carved by the author. © Robert Queen
There's no wooden feeling to this largemouth bass carved by the author.

© Robert Queen

August 2001

Carving a memory

With a block of wood, some time and an eye for detail, you can create a special memento of a favorite fishing expedition.

Karl Scheidegger

The carver's craft | Roughing out a blank
The fish comes alive | The fin-ishing touches
Resources for fish carvers

My name is Karl Scheidegger, and I'm a fishaholic. I work with fish professionally and in my spare time, so much so that some have accused me of having gills! What can I say? I chose this path at an early age and my angling addiction has only intensified over the years. There's no recovery in sight for me, thank goodness.

With someone like me around, no family member is safe. Take last summer for instance. We Scheideggers were perched on the bank of the Fox River where it passes through Montello. My daughters were learning the art of bank fishing. I could see the delight on their faces as they pulled in one fish after another: "This one looks different, it's all speckled, and this one's got a bigger mouth, is a lot skinnier, and it's kind of green." Music to my ears.

Wisconsin surely is a great state to fish, but not every fishing trip is going to be successful. The fish may not bite or you may not catch a keeper. A young angler's enthusiasm can wane if he or she has to throw back a slightly undersized fish: "Daddy, that was the biggest fish I'd ever seen! Why can't I keep it?" Of course, a short discussion about regulations and putting a fish back so it can grow follows, but it's always difficult to see that excited face turn to a disappointed one as the fish is ceremoniously plopped back into the water.

How is it possible to keep your child's "trophy" fish alive? Photographs preserve many special moments; just tuck a camera in the tacklebox and you're ready to document the fish and the day. I'd like to suggest an alternative, however. How about capturing that fish and the habitat it came from – in wood!

The carver's craft

Carving fish from wood has its early roots in American history. At the beginning of the 19th century, someone thought of the idea of tracing a fish on a board, sawing out the pattern, and displaying the trophy for everyone to see. These early fish silhouettes still grace many old riverfront lodges. Today, traditional carvers have been joined by a modern group of artists who have raised the craft of carving to new heights.

Fish carving (Dare I say, sculpting?) is an exciting art form. It's rewarding to shape a block of wood into a life-like replica of a shimmering trout or feisty bass. Unlike taxidermy, a specimen is not needed. With a little effort and knowledge, a pattern can be made for any fish. If you want to carve a great white shark, you can carve a great white shark – I know because I have!

I'll walk you through the steps here, just enough to give you a taste of the carving experience and an idea of what's involved. The references listed in the sidebar cover carving techniques in greater detail.

Remember, the most important aspect of fish carving is observation. You'll want to get a good look at the fish and its habitat and fix that image in your mind before you set saw blade to wood. Books and other reference materials with photos and illustrations will stir your memory, encourage authenticity and inspire creativity, so take time to research the species you want to carve.

Roughing out a blank

First, I create a pattern of the fish based on photographs and length and girth measurements at different locations along the body. The fish doesn't have to be kept to do this. I usually take a camera and a measuring tape on my angling trips, quickly get all the photos and measurements that are needed, and return the fish to the water unharmed.

Next, I trace the pattern on a block of carving wood. I use either basswood (a common Midwestern wood) or tupelo (native to the Southeastern U.S.). Both woods are lightweight and shape without chipping. For the largemouth bass project depicted here I used tupelo, because it details and sands a little better than basswood. The profiles are cut from the block of wood with a bandsaw. The top profile is usually cut first. The pieces are temporarily rejoined with hot glue, and the wood around the lateral profile is removed. The pieces are rejoined because it is much easier and safer to cut a solid block of wood. Cutting thin irregular-shaped pieces can chip the wood, damage the saw blade and endanger the saw operator. Once both profiles are cut away, the hot-glued pieces are separated, leaving a wooden fish blank.

The top and side profiles drawn on the wood block. © Karl Scheidegger
The top and side profiles drawn on the wood block.

© Karl Scheidegger

I then draw a center line on the top and bottom of the fish blank. This is a vital reference point. Without a clear center line, you might remove too much wood from one side and be left with a less than symmetrical fish.

I rough out the fish body with a flexible-shaft power carving tool equipped with a cylinder burr or sanding drum. Carving can be done by hand or power tool. I've chosen the power route because it is a quicker way to remove wood. I've also found I have more control with the hand piece and the various carving bits.

Safety equipment is a must, especially with power tools. Wear safety glasses, a dust mask, earplugs and hand protection. Keep the dust down with a vacuum or other collection device.

The fish comes alive

Now the fish starts breathing: I transfer the head and body details from the pattern onto the rough-shaped blank, and carve those details into the blank with a variety of bits and tools.

The fins are next. I trace and cut out the fins from scrap pieces of the wood, taking care to ensure the grain runs the length of the fin to add stability. I cut slots in the body of the fish to accept the fins. I try to shape and contour the fins to create the appearance of movement.

After the body of the fish is carved and sanded, it's time to start on the jaw and facial details. © Karl Scheidegger
After the body of the fish is carved and sanded, it's time to start on the jaw and facial details.

© Karl Scheidegger

I'll cut in the fin ray detail and get the fish ready for engraving and painting scales by sanding the blank smooth with a variety of sandpaper, from 120-400 grit. Carefully following the girth measurements results in an accurate cross-section of the body shape.

I burn the scales into the wood with a homemade burning pen and tip. I have made a variety of tips to match different scale sizes. The burning tips create a surprisingly accurate representation of scales.

Detailing and burning take a considerable amount of time and can be very frustrating (patience is a must), but once these steps have been completed, the piece begins to come alive.

The fin-ishing touches

I attach the fins permanently with epoxy. After I complete the scale burning, I burn in some of the smaller details, such as the undercut of the maxillary bone in the jaw, the forked and frayed fin rays, and the throat and gill membranes.

With the fish in good form, I can move on to building habitat from scrap wood. I've chosen to portray this bass swimming through a small stand of aquatic vegetation. I soak the "leaves" in white vinegar for several hours, bend and twist them around different sized cylinders, and allow them to dry overnight. I'll shape the contour of the lake bottom, cover it with glue, and sprinkle fine wood dust over the base. I then mist the wood dust with alcohol. When it dries, it looks very sand-like and natural. Rocks, tree branches or maybe even a crayfish can be crafted from scrap wood and placed in the habitat. It's your "world," and the possibilities are endless.

The details make all the difference: Use a small burning tool to etch in each scale. © Karl Scheidegger
The details make all the difference: Use a small burning tool to etch in each scale.

© Karl Scheidegger

Both the fish and habitat must be sealed with a sanding sealer to prevent the wood grain from raising and destroying the smooth look of the wood. Once the wood is sealed, I prime it with a diluted concentration of gesso, a plaster-like material made of gypsum and glue, to provide a base to which all subsequent colors will adhere.

I use an airbrush to paint the fish and habitat with water-based acrylics. I'll also use a hand brush to paint some of the smaller details. The color of a largemouth bass may appear pretty straightforward, but I needed almost 20 colors to capture the subtleties of this particular fish.

And that's all there is to creating a lasting memory of a special fish, time and place. The hours spent at the workbench copying one of nature's finest creations will heighten both your woodworking and observation skills. If you carve with care and attention, you'll fashion a fish so life-like it seems ready to jump off the wall. More importantly, the children will never forget the day they let that one get away!

Karl Scheidegger, a DNR fisheries biologist, has been carving fish for a little less than two years. One of his pieces was recently judged second best in the miscellaneous warmwater fish category in the professional division at the 2001 World Fish Carving Championships in Springfield, Ill.

Resources for fish carvers
Aspiring and experienced fish carvers or anyone interested in the art form should visit World champion carvers and others share useful information through the site's discussion group. Participating in the discussions is a great way to get questions answered, pick up tips and quickly improve your work.

The following books provide good carving instruction and guidance:

Berry, Bob. Fish Carving: Second Edition. Stackpole Books, 1999

Fliger, James. Freshwater Fish Carving. Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1989

Frazier, Mark. The Breakthrough Fish Carving Manual. Wildlife Artist Supply Company, 1996

Hillman, Anthony. Carving Sharks. Dover Publications, 1996

Carving Whales and Dolphins. Dover Publications, 1993

Carving Traditional Fish Decoys. Dover Publications, 1993

Roth, Richard. Carving Fish and Pond Life. Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1994