Duane Vonch of Fountain holds an Orange Crush fish he created out of recycled pop cans.
Duane Vonch of Fountain holds an Orange Crush fish he created out of recycled pop cans.
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According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010, Americans threw away approximately 2.7 million tons of aluminum-based products. The largest percentage of this aluminum came from soft drink and beer cans. In all, only 50 percent, or 0.7 million tons, of those aluminum cans were recycled. There are many great recycling centers which accept those mountains of cans you have wanted to get rid of for a while, but if you are looking for a creative way of disposing your cans, you would have to talk to Duane Vonch of Fountain.

Vonch, 77, is a man of many hobbies. He enjoys trout fishing in the summer, deer hunting in the fall, ice fishing in the winter, and gardening in the spring.

In addition, he is an artist. He paints a little, does some woodwork, sometimes sculpts, and always seems brim full of ideas for his next project.

"God gave me a talent," shared Vonch, "and I use it." He has been using that talent ever since he was a teenager.

Born at Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester in 1935, Vonch lived there most of his life, and just moved to Fountain with his wife, Judy, some five years ago. His dad was a cement contractor and owned his own business, Vonch Concrete.

Vonch started working for his dad at the age of 15 while attending Rochester Senior High School. He picked up many woodworking skills at school through shop classes that he took for four years.

"I was made head of the shop because I was the only guy who could tell what kind of wood was what," recalled Vonch.

He also took art classes for four years and became quite accomplished in his work.

According to Vonch, the retail store Dayton's had a regional art competition in 1952 which he entered. His sculpture was selected with only 49 other pieces from the state to be displayed in a special exhibit in Minneapolis and the honor awarded him was a gold key for a keepsake.

Through that same competition Vonch had his sculpture sent out to an art museum in Philadelphia for a few weeks in a national exhibit.

With some national recognition, Vonch started getting scholarship offers from distinguished art programs at the Denver School of Art and the Minneapolis School of Art. However, he and his high school friends had other ideas, joining the Marine Corps instead in 1953. Vonch was mostly stationed on Okinawa Island, Japan, for standby reserve while post WWII reconstruction was taking place.

After his service in the Marines, Vonch went back to work for his dad in the concrete business and eventually took over the company with his brother when their father went into retirement. After working for 50 years at the same company, Vonch decided that change was in order. He and his wife, Judy, moved to Fountain and it is there that he got another hobby idea.

Located in Vonch's basement is a shop area that houses numerous wood-cutting saws, lots of nuts and bolts, plenty of work benches, and plastic bags full of aluminum cans.

These cans are the medium Vonch chooses to work with nowadays as he makes fish, cars, planes and a variety of other animals and objects out of them. He said he got the idea from Bill and Marni Woltz, who are related to Judy, when they brought him a small double-wing airplane made out of old beer cans for his birthday five years ago.

"I thought it was something I could do," recalled Vonch, who added that he immediately started working on replicating the plane. It quickly became a hobby, and one that he has been able to focus much time on during the winter months.

"I've got ice fishing, but nothing else to do until spring," shared Vonch. In the past five years, Vonch thinks he has probably made over 100 pieces of art made out of an assortment of beer and soft drink cans.

The processes of making one of these pieces vary only slightly between making a car, a plane or a fish. Each type and size has its own blueprint that Vonch painstakingly draws by hand.

Vonch uses plywood to make a "skeleton" of whatever he wants to make. He washes every can with a Hilex cleaner to get rid of any beverage residue still left in the can. He then cuts the top and bottom off of a can with a band saw. Vonch then trims the edges to make them smooth and cuts the aluminum to be able to lay the entire piece flat. From there, he decides how he wants to use the piece, either making more cuts in the metal or stapling the entire piece directly to the plywood "skeleton."

For planes and cars, Vonch has to use nuts and bolts in order to create parts of the frame and wings. He also uses metal clothes hangers for plane or bird wings. Craft eyeballs for the fish, hinges for pontoon boat doors, cardboard and a variety of other odds and ends fill up his shop area.

With his skill in woodworking, Vonch also creates plane propellers for the seven different varieties he makes. Many of the plane designs, he says, hearken back to WWII, which makes it fun for kids who might not have ever seen a plane like a P-38 or P-40. Of course, the cans are the most important part and give the fish or plane its character.

Vonch gets most of his cans from friends and family and sometimes gets requests from them to make a fish out a certain type of can.

"I'm sure glad cans are made out of aluminum," he laughed while showing a very old beer can made out of steel. Aluminum cans are easier to work with and Vonch is also able to recycle any spare pieces that can't be used.

His favorite cans to work with vary with the project he is working on, but he consistently rates cans from Coors, Pepsi, Coke and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer as the best to work with. A typical plane or fish will use up about 18 to 20 cans and even more if he makes a larger design. Mostly, Vonch sticks to his blueprints and makes the same sizes, but special projects are always in the works.

Recently, Vonch has begun making different types of birds, including wood ducks and bald eagles. Upon special request by his brother, who buys and fixes up classic cars, he made a classic hot rod using Coca-Cola cans, noting that he thinks the Coca-Cola cans "look sharp."

He also used a ten-point antler mount as a canvas for Miller Genuine Draft cans because one of his friends "liked that kind of beer.:

The list goes on and on, and at one point, Vonch admitted, he had too much can artwork sitting in the basement. He decided to attend a craft show in Rushford and another in Lewiston where he sold about 14 of them.

"I probably only made a dollar to a dollar and a half per hour I spent on them," stated Vonch, "but it doesn't matter because I only wanted to get rid of them."

For the few projects he does sell, he considers the return "minnow money" for fishing trips. He isn't too concerned about prices, joking that "inflation hasn't hit me yet." Rather, Vonch enjoys his talent because he gets a good feeling from making his artwork for his family and friends.

"I'm just amazed," said his wife Judy, "When I married him, I was kind of surprised with his ability."

Now, she said, she's used to having him stay down in his "man cave" for hours on end, until he emerges with another work of art.

Vonch has extended his talents to include major woodworking projects as well, although he does only minor wood carvings now for his pop can art.

"My kids haven't gotten into art too much, but they sure request my work," laughed Vonch and Judy, whose side of the family also benefits from Vonch's ability.

He is currently working on making picture frames out of license plates and plans on making a few more wood ducks and chickens. After having been the concrete guy for most of his life, Vonch seems pretty comfortable nowadays being Fountain's local "can man."