Playing professional baseball with the Normal CornBelters and operating a local hitting center weren’t enough to keep Justin Fletcher busy, so he added a wooden bat company to the mix.
Fletcher, a 2012 Pekin Community High School graduate, started the Ox Wood Bat Co. in January in the same building that houses his Fletcher’s Hitting Center at 1113 Broadway Road. The 24-year-old Northern Illinois University graduate makes and sells wooden bats for many people, including some of the same kids who take lessons from him.
“Basically, I was giving hitting lessons, pitching lessons and fielding lessons (during the off-season) once kids got out of school at 3 p.m., so I was looking for something to keep myself busy earlier in the day,” said Fletcher, who’s starting his third year with the CornBelters.
The idea to make wooden bats surfaced when he thought about how many bats he’s bought from other people throughout his lifetime of playing ball.
“The most challenging thing was that I knew about wood bats but I didn’t have the first clue on how to make a good wood bat,” he said with a chuckle. “So it took me every bit of two or three months of every single day trying to figure out the process and getting the process down.”
Once he purchased the equipment necessary for the operation, Fletcher started practicing making bats with pine, which is relatively inexpensive.
“I knew it wouldn’t get me upset if I messed up a few things on pine compared to the good wood, which is expensive,” he said.
After practicing about two months on pine, Fletcher moved on to making bats from maple and birch, which is what he currently sells.
“Those are good woods because they’re hard,” he said. “If you try hitting with pine, it would shatter right away.”
Professional ball players use wooden bats, and it’s often recommended for kids to learn with. “They say if you can hit with wood then you can hit with metal for sure, because wood is a little heavier,” Fletcher said. “Using a wood bat helps kids get a little bit of strength with their swing. And a lot of them just like it because they know that’s what the pros use.”
The process of making one bat takes about two days, starting with using a machine to cut the wood, which typically comes in 2.75-inch diameter logs. That process alone takes about an hour.
“Then I take it off that machine, and I sand it by hand to the exact specs that the customer wants,” Fletcher said. The next step is to paint the bat, a job his dad, Jake, sometimes helps with.
The final step is to use a machine to engrave up to three lines of personalization on the bat.
“Usually, the customer puts their name and maybe the team they play on, but we can personalize it however they want. So far, I’ve had requests for quite a few logos,” he added.
Fletcher also offers the option of 3-D engraving. While many customers purchase bats for hitting, some order bats strictly to display. He’s also had a steady request for 29-inch youth bats.
“Business has been good,” Fletcher said. “If I had too many orders, I would be backed up because I’m just now starting my pro season. Not enough orders and I’d be worried about covering some costs. But it’s actually been pretty steady right now.”
Custom bats sell for $108, while display bats are $90, all prior to tax and shipping.
“What I enjoy most about making the bats is that it’s challenging,” Fletcher said. “It’s something new every time. Every time I get an order, I put 100 percent into it, because even though I’ve maybe made four bats today, this is the only bat this customer is going to receive. So it challenges me every day, and I like that. I also enjoy seeing beautiful bats.”
Fletcher said he’s made a couple of bats for teammates in Normal, and he’s made a few for his own use. “I think it’s awesome that I can say that I’m professionally playing with a bat that I made. I think that’s pretty unique,” he said.
In addition to bats and lessons, Fletcher sells hats and shirts with the Ox Wood Bat Co. logo online and at the hitting center. For more information, visit the website www.oxwoodbatco.com or call 309-696-5323. For more information about Fletcher’s Hitting Center, visit the center’s Facebook page.