By Bob Gwizdz | Photography by David Lewinski
The way Bob Batchik tells it, it all started when he and his wife moved into a home with a wood-burning fireplace. He’d sit by the hearth carving wood shavings from kindling to get the fire going, and once it was burning well, he’d continue carving the sticks into small figures — often fish — that eventually went into the fire, too.
But Batchik’s wife Mary was taken with the carvings; so much so, that she made him a gift of a carving knife and a book on wood carving for Christmas. Batchik’s father, who always liked buying him tools for gifts, bought him a band saw. And the next thing you know, Batchik, who was working for a Fortune 500 company, embarked on a new career: woodcarver.
It didn’t happen overnight. Batchik eventually gave up his employment as a commissioned salesman to become a stay-at-home dad to his two daughters, sneaking in a little carving when time allowed. When his children became school age, he began devoting more energy to it. Still, he was uncertain.
But as an avid fisherman and an active member of Trout Unlimited, Batchik offered up his carving of a brown trout as an auction item at a fundraising banquet. It not only brought good money ($400, back in the ’90s) to TU but validation as an artist; someone who admired the brown trout commissioned him to carve a brook trout. He was officially in business.
“I owe a lot of my carving career to Trout Unlimited,” said Batchik, 60, who is currently the president of the Paul Young Chapter of TU.
Batchik, who lives in Sylvan Lake in Oakland County not far from where he grew up, has always been a fisherman. He began fishing mostly for bass and bluegills with his father and grandpa but was bitten by the trout bug when he went to Northern Michigan University, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design. It was only natural that he carved fish.
“I really stumbled into woodworking, and I can carve anything — from palm trees to beer bottles — but fish have always been my favorite,” he said. “I carve all sorts of fish — tarpon, stripers, bonefish, catfish — but if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be a brook trout.”
Batchik said he prefers to work with hand tools and calls himself “kind of old school.”
“It’s quiet and doesn’t create a lot of dust, and just keeping the tools sharp is a challenge,” he said. Batchik works with a variety of woods, depending on the assignment.
“If I’m doing a life-sized fish, like a trophy replica, I like to use basswood,” he explained. “If I’m making a sign, I like cypress; it’s like cedar, but cedar’s too soft. And if I’m making large outdoor signs, I use Extira, a wood composite, which is moisture resistant.”
Batchik’s carving studio is called Sunfish Woodworks (sunfishwoodworks.com). He excels at making signs, like the large brown trout for the Northern Angler fly shop in Traverse City. He also makes furniture, often with a fish theme, like glass-topped and glass side coffee tables with a stream scene that includes, of course, trout. He even carves the rocks on the stream bottom.
“My philosophy on the whole thing is it’s nice to do something you’re passionate about,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to use your time for something you believe in. I’m fortunate that the two things go hand in hand.”
His biggest piece, so far, is an 8-foot black crappie that sits outside a fish camp in Louisiana, and he’s currently at work on an 8-foot yellow perch for a craft brewery in Ohio. His work is on display all over the world — musician Huey Lewis had a steelhead he carved hanging outside his studio in California.
Batchik’s work also is seen in galleries (Twisted Fish Gallery in Elk Rapids) and fly shops (Little Forks Outfitters in Midland), though most of his commissions come from people who have seen his work and like it.
Remember his first commission, that brook trout? Twenty-five years later, the guy’s wife contacted him to make a replica of the 20-inch brook trout her husband caught. That’s the kind of thing that makes him happy he had that wood-burning fireplace all those years ago. ≈
Bob Gwizdz is a career outdoor writer who lives in East Lansing. – Michigan BLUE Magazine