Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rodmakers' tips and advice on setting up your bench

My workbench is much more than just a place to tie flies, wrap rods, or tinker with tackle. For me, it's also a sanctuary. When my family is asleep, I'm sitting here, doing something fishing related to pass the time during the offseason. It's far more therapeutic than surfing the internet or watching tv. I didn't really plan my working area as much as I should have, I set it up based on a combination of different factors: The space allocated to me by my wife, my needs, and my budget, in that order.

It would have been helpful had I had some tips and advice, and perhaps seen the layout of some other workshops before I designed what I did, and who better to give advice on setting up an efficient, functional rodbuilding or tying spot than a someone who's living depends on it? Seven different rodbuilders were kind enough to answer a few questions and share some photos that could prove valuable to anyone setting up or modifying a fly tying/rod building workspace and trying to put a little more efficiency and enjoyment into a routine.

Matthew Leiderman of Leiderman Rods

Matthew is a science teacher in Pennsylvania, and father of two kids. He started out in bamboo, and slowly migrated into the world of fiberglass. Like all of these rodmakers, his rods are works of art, and the custom rod tubes with an engraved brass plate give the perfect finishing touch to an heirloom quality rod.

Kabuto 7033, more info at

Do you work from home?
Yes, my current workshop is in the basement of my home.  Previously, I had an 800SF outbuilding on our property which contained my shop.  Half the shop was my "clean" shop and the other half my "dirty" shop.  Basically, handwork and lathe work was done in the clean side and all my woodworking (another hobby of mine) tools were on the other. Because it was separate from my dwelling, dust was a menace but not a big deal otherwise.  The shop was insulated but had no climate control other than a gas stove for heat in the winter.  Tools, materials, etc... went through HUGE temperature swings and rust was a problem.  I loved having the dedicated space (and being able to back a truck up to the door) but it had numerous drawback as well.   
Fast-forward a few years and we moved into a larger home that had a very open, high ceilinged basement.  Finding a space for my shop was a priority and a garage shop was not going to work  because I was tired of the temperature swings.  A basement shop is ideal for me currently.  First, it's always the same temperature and it's bone dry (even without a dehumidifier).  My lumber and bamboo stock is MUCH more stable and there's no condensation to rust tools anymore.  Second, having a young family, I'm needed often "upstairs" and stopping work to run up to do something quickly makes the trip easier than being texted from the house and having to walk through the snow/rain/etc... to help out.  I did take the time, however, to properly outfit my woodworking tools with a dust collector to keep as much dust down as possible and to not have woodworking dust kicked up throughout the house.  It's pretty efficient and catches 90% of it from what I can tell. 
Of the two options, I'm happier with basement workshop however should we move again when the kids are older, I'd love to have a well built, climate controlled outbuilding to work in (while we’re dreaming, overlooking a river would be a requirement too…)   There is something nice about that separation from other distractions.   

What item on your bench sees the most use? The least?
It depends what I'm doing at the moment.  I use my metal lathe ALOT through the process of building rods since I do all my component making in-house.  A stable rod-wrapper is something I've grown fond of as well.  When I'm wrapping rods or tying flies, my iPad is always on (my only time to watch any movies/tv).  Honestly, the thing I go through like crazy (and they're laying everywhere...) are toothpicks.  I use them to apply varnish, mix/spread epoxy, etc... can never have too many toothpicks. As for what I use the least... tough question.  Most things I never use have gone away over the years.  My bamboo tools have been in storage for far too long sadly.  I can't remember the last time I planed a strip of cane. 

What's your favorite feature of your workspace? And the least favorite?
I love having an ample amount of bench and table-space to work on.  I have different rod building operations that are done at different locations throughout the shop with very little rhyme or reason other than habit.  Speaking of habits, I do tend to take everything out and never put anything away, hence the once a year (or so) cleaning that HAS to happen because at a certain point, you can't function anymore and things go missing all the time.  I should probably clean up more but I'd rather build rods than clean!
My least favorite feature comes with the territory of a basement shop and that's having to use stairs to access it.  I'd love a bigger lathe or to add a milling machine but it's not feasible with only a staircase to access the shop.  My current lathe is approx. 400lbs.  Getting it down the stairs was tough... I have no clue how I'm ever going to get it out of there should we move again.

Do you follow any specific routines or habits when working? Music, privacy, etc?
Rule #1 has to do with safety.  My wife and kids know, if they hear a machine running to wait until it's off before trying to get my attention.  Jumping or being startled while you're running a lathe or table saw can quickly result in a few fingers missing.  I actually don't listen to much music in the shop.  I enjoy it when it's on but my stereo broke a year ago and it's never been replaced (and I haven't really noticed)  I like the solitude and just plugging away at my work (cup of coffee or an IPA never hurts either).  I'm usually jumping from work area to work area anyway so watching anything doesn't happen but I will put on "Troutgrass" or "The Lost World of Mr. Hardy" as a background sometimes just to inspire my craftsmanship.  Never get sick of those documentaries.

Do you have any photos or posters or something similar on the walls to motivate or inspire you?
Not too many... the old shop had more wall space for more posters and photos... I'm fairly limited due to cabinets and tool racks taking up space... I do have my Fiberglass Manifesto banner up though.  Cameron @TFM has been a HUGE influence on the growing glass market and has always been extremely supportive since I first started building, let alone selling glass fly rods.  I do keep a whiteboard up with the rods "on the bench" and some simple sketches to brainstorm cosmetics and details. 

What's your next workshop specific purchase?
I don't know... at this point I'm actually downsizing more than adding... I was fortunate to have a father and grandfather both very interested in woodworking and have inherited a pretty full shop (both power and hand tools) from them.  Since I've been a mildly to overly obsessive fly fisherman, fly tier, and rod builder since my early teens, I'm swimming in all manner of fishing related stuff.  I recently headed back to school to work on another degree and combined with work, family, and building rods time has been precious.  I find I enjoy building rods for myself much more these days and as I build more for myself, I hope to get back into bamboo a bit and do some experimenting.  One of the best tools to experiment with cane designs (quads, pents, hollows) seems to be a Morgan Hand Mill.  They are always on my radar.

Nathan Chapman of Southern Appalachian Rod Co.

Nathan with his little helper

When I first wrote these inquiries, Nathan wrote back, essentially saying that I wouldn't be interested in his workspace because he had two small kids that he took care of during the day, and generally worked from the coffee table or in the kitchen, essentially wherever and whenever he could get a few moments to make some progress on his work. Being a father of two kids myself, I know exactly how that feels and find it particularly inspiring to see what he does in a less-than-optimal environment. Unfortunately, I tend to be the kind of person who feels like I need to be completely outfitted with an array of expensive gadgets before I can properly embark on a project, and I find it very inspiring to see that the ability to make nice rods doesn't depend on having an immaculate, fully outfitted workshop, but on the skill and dedication of the builder. 

While I can see the appeal of buying a rod from a wizened, spectacled rodmaker in a picturesque shop, I would rather know that while a rodmaker was building my rod, he had to gently pry the blank from tiny, curious hands dozens of times, wrapped the guides at the kitchen table amidst the din and chaos of a family breakfast, and most importantly, that a child was sitting on his lap, intently watching and learning as his father was doing what he loves, creating something beautiful with his hands. That's priceless...

One of Nathan's White Oak Creek glass rods,
available at

Do you work from home?

Yes, I have a small shop at my home that was a screened in porch when we bought the house, which I framed in and made into a shop space later on. My wife and I have 2 sons not in school yet (4 and 2) and I stay home with them during the day. I get a lot of my more intense (from a concentration sense) work done while the 2 yr old naps, in the evenings after my wife gets home. When I start a rod, the most basic steps in terms of being able to multitask with my sons are the assemble of the reel seat and cork grip and taping on and spacing of the guides. I can usually get those steps done during the day even with one of the boys crawling all over me.

What item on your bench sees the most use? The least?

I have a Batson hand-wrapper, set up to wrap my fly rods, that I do most of my rod-building on. Most of the steps of assembly can be accomplished using this set up as a platform on which to work. My actual work-bench in my shop has become the item that sees the least use as I often wind up working on the kitchen table, or the living room coffee table, or now a little black utility table my wife brought home from her work. Most of the time now, the work-bench in the shop gets used as the drying station, where I have my drying motor set up for applying the rod finish.

What's your favorite feature of your workspace? And the least favorite?

I have developed an overall familiarity with this entire process of rod-building now that has probably become my favorite feature in that no matter what room I am working in, or what step I'm on with a particular rod, I am comfortable with what I'm doing and do not feel intimidated by how finite the steps are that are involved in this process. There are any of a number of mistakes that can be made that will render a potential fly rod all but useless and this can seem intimidating to a neophyte, but even a complicated wrap scheme is nothing but time and concentration now.

My least favorite aspect of my rod-building process would be the low level of control I have over things like dust and humidity. I live in the southern Appalachian mountains, which is an extremely humid albeit higher elevation region within the southeastern United States. This alone creates a fairly unique set of circumstances for applying almost any kind of rod finish. I would have to invest serious money into a controlled-environment shop space in order to eliminate this aspect altogether. Most finishes do not respond well as far as setting up properly and curing out properly to rapid changes in temperature, barometric pressure and/or humidity levels. Epoxy finishes are probably the most finicky along these lines. They have been maddening for me and I seldom use them anymore. They're also highly carcinogenic and I have developed an allergy to them as well. If I get any of the epoxy used as finish or as rod-building glue on my hands my eyes will swell almost shut. 

Do you follow any specific routines or habits when working?

I often keep either music or the tv going in the background while I work, as it helps me to pay less attention to silly conflict going on between my 2 sons as they play around the house, etc. This allows me to work and not constantly be questioning them on what is going on in the other room or whatever. They're good kids and do not need 24/7 Daddy intrusion. I do not mean that to sound as though I ignore them all day every day, just that if I am concentrating on one of the more intense steps of rod-building I do need to tune them out as best I can for a bit. 

Do you have anything motivational on the walls where you work?

I do work a lot in my den now when I can, it has a fishing/hunting theme with paintings and photos of outdoor scenes all over the walls. My fly rod collection is standing in a rod rack in the corner, a large book shelf with a good sized library of fishing and hunting books in it, my 2 mounted native brook trout on the wall, etc and this is a good environment in which to work on rods. Though depending on what is going on with my wife and sons, I do not always get to work in there.

What's your next workshop specific purchase?

I will be setting up another drying station in the shop soon, as I often fall behind on finishing as it takes SO many hours to apply spar varnish and allow it to set up and cure out properly. I can often have 2-3 rods backed up waiting on the next rod to get finished. I eventually hope to have a larger shop space where I can have more like a half-dozen rods going at one time. Once I reach that point, my production level could improve exponentially as I have stream-lined all the steps to maximize efficiency as best I can.

Shane Gray of Graywolf Fly Rods

Shane Gray makes close to 100 bamboo, fiberglass, and graphite rods a year out of his Michigan shop, in addition to designing his own highly regarded fiberglass blanks.

An Epic rod recently built by Shane to benefit Casting for Recovery,
a breast cancer charity.
Ijuin 7' 3 weight with stacked rattan reel seat.
More info at
Do you work from home?
Yes, I have an outdoor shop with a lathe and other tools. This is where I do the grip turning, blank cutting and ferruling. I also have a shop in the house that is off limits and this is where I do the wrapping and finishing, there is a small attached room a tad larger than a closet attached where I dye and dip blanks.

What item on your bench sees the most use?
The most, is the rod wrapper, the same one I started wrapping on years ago.

What's your favorite feature of your workspace? And the least favorite?
Favorite is the size, I have much more room now in the past year than I have had in the first 11 or 12 years of building rods. I used to have to pull my lathe out to the picnic table to turn the grips, and ferrule stations. I also used to dip the blanks on the porch and the drying cabinet was also on the porch. Wrapped rods at the kitchen table and varnished them in the laundry room. Now I have dedicated space for all I do. Least? Still not enough room, I am terrible at putting things back where they go.

Do you follow any specific routines or habits when working? Music, privacy, etc?
I follow habits in the building, you know step 1, step 2 and so on, but no music or tv nothing like that.

Do you have any photos or posters or something similar on the walls to motivate or inspire you?
I have two banners, One TFM banner and one Abel reels banner. Most of the walls are covered in notes or silk fly lines that I am drying.

What's your next workshop specific purchase?
Another lathe... I have been saying this for years.

Christian Hörgren of Fine Tackle

Christian Hörgren is an architect from Sweden, and that architectural influence is apparent when you look at his rods. He's currently in the midst of bringing a reel to production, something I hope to have my hands on sooner rather than later.

Here's a little something Christian threw together for King Gustav of Sweden.
Order one just like it at
Do you work from home?

I have been working from home with my bare hands for many years. It's just recently that I have rented a space and aquired some high-end tools. I have tried to take advantage of my limitations and develop techniques that don't require advanced machines. You can spend hours browsing for mortising tools and lathes, and trust me I have wasted so much time on it.... But after a while I grew sick of it and decided to spend the same time working with hand tools. This is my basic philosophy. Keep it simple and don't hesitate to use your hands. People are often much more interested in what machines you are using than the actual design decisions you made. But to answer your question - since I got my new work shop, I have divided my work and do all my wrapping and finishing work at home. My workspace is far to dusty and rough for that kind of activities.

What item on your bench sees the most use? The least?

I'm a big consumer of masking tape. It doesn't leave any traces and can be used for basically anything. Besides that, I have a scalpel and a whole bunch of small, homemade sanding tools that I use a lot. I'm a huge fan of cork.

What's your favorite feature of your workspace? And the least favorite?

I love my work desk, my chair and my task lighting. Without an ergonomic work place, I can't work properly. I have switched over to LED-lighting, which is perfect. It has daylight temperature and is very strong.

Do you follow any specific routines or habits when working? Music, privacy, etc?
My workshop is situated between my home and my work, so I try to stop by every day for a short session. I listen to music when I work, mostly jazz. At the moment it's a lot of Miles Davis fusion from the early 70's. I always work alone.

Do you have any photos or posters or something similar on the walls to motivate or inspire you?

Cameron has given me a TFM banner that is hanging in front of me. The TFM community is a huge source of inspiration, and I'm very fond of it. Besides that, it's tools and blanks everywhere.

What's your next workshop specific purchase?

I have just recently invested in a small jewelers lathe, and will start turn my own skeletons. Besides that, I'm working on a custom made work bench for my Tom Morgan Hand Mill. I will start experimenting with bamboo in 2014.

Zeb Tonkavich of Snowman Custom Rodworks

A recently finished 734-4 Ijuin Yomogi. More info at
Zeb Tonkavich is a Pittsburgh area rod builder. Sure, his rods look fantastic, but he also delves quite deep into the technical aspects of rod building and casting, as this article on TFM illustrates.
Sometime next year he's planning a 2 day rod building workshop in the Pittsburgh with the Epic kits from Swift Fly Fishing. Not only do you get to build an awesome rod, you get to do it under the tutelage of a very talented rod builder. If I lived within a thousand miles of Pittsburgh I'd be all over it. Check out his Facebook page for updates.
Zeb is in the midst of a remodel, so he kindly provided a verbal description of his shop. As soon as he's up and running, I'll update this post with a photo.

Zeb writes

My finishing area is 20' x 12', at the moment I have one bench in the finishing shop that's 8' x 30'. I have the capacity to dry 6 rods at once with two wrappers, my original and a 4' power wrapper. I have a vertical drying cabinet for varnished rods 5'x3'x12" and a blank storage rack that has probably 20 blanks in it at the moment.

The other aspect is the wood working area. This includes my wood lathe, drill press, and band saw. I couldn't live without my lathe. It's definitely a lot different than when I built my first rod. A coffee cup, a large dictionary, and the tops of my knees as a rod bed. With a single dryer that is still around.

What item on your bench sees the most use? The least?

Things that are critical to the indoor shop would have to be my epoxy mixer, it's such a dumb item but it allows me to mix epoxy and continue to work elsewhere. Also my ipad, this may sound strange but I always have netflix or hulu+ on in the shop. I haven't actually watched television in over a year and a half. I think overall everything is integral and necessary to what I intend to achieve. I don't think I have an item I use the least. If I did I would have disposed of it by now. What I have works and I trust it.

Do you follow any specific routines or habits when working? Music, privacy, etc?

If I'm out in the wood shop, I will throw on music. I guess I forgot to mention that bench does have a stereo with RCA connects for the ape devices. I can tell you every rod I have built I can remember the music type, or movies I watched while building it.

Right now I have been watching American Horror Story, Hell on Wheels, MadMen, and some Walking Dead. Music it has been a bit eclectic as of late, the National, Vampire Weekend, Hank 3, Datsik, Slightly Stoopid, Sublime, and Cookie Monster. It doesn't get much more random than that.

Do you have any photos or posters or something similar on the walls to motivate or inspire you?

I don't have much on my walls. Some of Andrea's (Andrea Larko, who creates amazing fishing artwork) stickers on my driers, an epic logo on my drying cabinet, and TFM logos everywhere.

For Inspiration I really don't use anything visual. I have a pretty distinct image in my head going into a build. But things sometime change.

What's your next workshop specific purchase?

I will add a second bench in the next couple weeks dedicated to cork, guide making, and plating, and a metal lathe will join the mix here soon.

Chris Barclay of Chris Barclay Fly Rods

Chris Barclay just recently starting selling his own line of fiberglass rods, the first of which is a beautiful little 7 foot 2 inch 3 weight. The flawless finish, the deep caramel color of the blank, the brass hardware... I love the way these rods look, especially the custom made hardware, and judging by the early buzz, they don't just look nice, they also cast and fish beautifully.

Barclay Glass, 7'2" 3 weight, more at

Do you work from home?

Yes I do. We live in a circa 1907 brick house in St. Louis. I have a 12' x 11' corner of the basement that's dedicated to my rod shop. I have a lathe, chop saw and table saw in another corner area of the basement. That's where I generate the most dust so I prefer to keep that part separate from the finishing area.

What item on your bench sees the most use?

The item I use most and could not do without is a fresh Xacto knife blade. I cannot do without that. And a comfy chair.

The least? 

My guitar. I'd like to play that more.

What's your favorite feature of your workspace?

I'd say my layout bench. It has a tape measure stuck to it and I am always measuring, working on guide layout, gluing cork and other parts there. I also keep my 'in progress' rods there. My drying cabinet is simple but very helpful to keep a good finish going.

And the least favorite?

7' ceiling. That's a little hampering but at least I don't have a ceiling fan.

Do you follow any specific routines or habits when working? Music, privacy, etc?

I'm always listening to music. Lately it's been a mixture of Guy Clark, Guy Davis, The Wood Brothers and Jeffrey Foucault. I have times of 'no entry' by others when I'm doing finishing work but generally my wife and kids are always welcome and encouraged to come down and hang out when I'm working. The cat likes to hang out as well though that can be problematic when she gets curious. My 5 year old son likes to bring his tub of Legos and create stuff with me. My 9 year old daughter likes to come down to hang out and avoid her brother. Last night I wrapped a rod while watching Christmas Vacation so I like to change it up a little. Arrested Development is another good one that's not too distracting. Old Sherlock Holmes shows are also a winner.

Do you have any photos or posters or something similar on the walls to motivate or inspire you?

I have a The Fiberglass Manifesto banner hanging in front of my wrapping desk and various artwork from my kids. I also have a couple very nice flies tied by friends on my desk. I'd like to get one of those sweet bluegill paintings that Cameron at TFM keeps posting but haven't done that yet. (I think the bluegill paintings that he's referring to are the ones from Andrea Larko, who's mentioned above and who's work I've also linked to here and will do so again.)

What's your next workshop specific purchase?

I've been ramping up my production lately so I'd like to add another rod dryer but I could also use a drill press. I'm pretty content for now though so those are not imminent purchases.

Pete Emmel of Rennaissance Fly Rods

Pete Emmel lives in California, and built his studio (he feels rodbuilding is an art, and should be conducted in a something more than just a "shop". I can't say I disagree!) by hand, using lumber from a building dating back to the 1800s. He designed and built everything from the walls to the cabinetry.

A Salsa Epic from Reinnaissance Rods

Do you work from home?

For rod building...yes. As far as a full time

What's your favorite feature of your workspace? And the least favorite?

My favorite is the height. I built it for my height. I am a bit over 6' and don't build sitting down, so it needed to fit me.

My least favorite feature is the size of the bench. It needs to be a couple of feet longer. It is only 9' and when I am applying finish on a spey/switch rod I have to do two revolutions. Only half the rod will fit on the bench at one time.

What item on your bench sees the most use? The least?

My wrapping station probably sees the most use.  That is why I built it to my personal preferences.
My least used is probably my fly tying roll top desk. Rod building has started keeping me fairly busy so something had to give. Unfortunately it has been fly tying.

After working in the studio for a couple of years there are some things I would do differently. They can and will be done, its just a matter of finding the time to make the changes. I would add a small rolling bench for the Sherline metal lathe and future mill. Also add a couple more feet the the length of the bench top. That will be an easy modification as I think a hinged top attached to the wall will work fine. Then I can just drop it down when I need it.

And finally, and clearly not in the same league, here's my working (and general fishing) area:

I only have a corner of the garage, so I had to make the most of the space I've got, and I think I'm doing alright so far. I built both horizontal and vertical rod and blank holders, a rod wrapping station, and the three sided box visible in the center of bench. It hides two heating pipes that go up along the wall, but also serves as an ipad and lamp mount. The few inches I lose from the pipes I gain back by having the lamp mounted without a base taking up bench real estate, and the ipad mount is at the perfect level for watching videos or looking at tying instructions and I'm toying with the idea of adding a bunch of little pegs for thread and various other miscellaneous items, and also a second lamp on the left side of the column. I also have a small folding workbench that I pull out when I want to tie leaders on my jig or improvise a lathe to shape cork with drill. I keep some things pinned up to inspire me, an 8 year old day license from Idaho, a couple of postcards from Henry's Fork, and my daughter's drawing(s) of the week.

Lately, despite the cold, I've even found myself writing blog posts in here as well. I'm a little more inspired and focused when surrounded by rods, hooks, and snippets of tying materials. During the winter, nothing happens in here without a pair of fur lined slippers and a thick hoody, a cup of coffee that has to be drunk particularly quickly lest it cool down too fast, and a finger of whisky that I take hours to enjoy.

It seems that there's two very common items that belong in a talented rodbuilder's shop. An iPad, and a Fiberglass Manifesto banner. Personally, I just have a little TFM postcard hanging up over my bench, but if the size of the logo were proportionate to the skill of the builder, I'd have to ask Cameron if can whip up some TFM postage stamps.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

This Christmas, support the little guy!

I have a soft spot for handcrafted, unique items. Maybe the flyfisher in your life does too, or maybe they'd rather buy a handmade lanyard from a mother of two in Arkansas than from a global corporation.

I browsed through Etsy for some handmade, fly fishing related items that are sure to please any flyfisher this holiday season, and here are my favorites:

Mike Worthen Fine Art

Gorgeous, black and white sketch prints of flyfishing scenes. For me, these prints evoke the past, these could be my grandfather's hands, as seen by a five year old me.

Laurel Mountain Lanyards

I'm still warming up to the idea of a lanyard, but they certainly have their place, and Laurel Mountain Lanyards offers large variety of reasonably priced and very fetching lanyards.

 Equally fetching lanyards, but differently so.

I absolutely love her whimsical and intricate take on fishing artwork. One of these will land on the wall above my bench before 2014 is out.


I ordered a few hats from block print artist Jonathan Marquardt a few months back, one for myself, and one for each of my little kids. Despite having a ton of hats, the trucker hat from BadAxe is my favorite. I'm particularly short on hair, so for me to brave the Swiss winter in a mesh cap says quite a bit.

Fishing for Gyotaku

Traditiononal Japanese fish printing. Extremely cool looking, and would likely make an excellent gift for a Tenkara fan in particular.


Shawn Bichsel is another artist, providing his designs as prints, cards, and wooden business card holders. His take on a mayfly:

TafSchaefer Designs

Handmade brass belt buckles with a Royal Wulff. Awesome.

If you can, think of the little guy while shopping this year and consider buying a gift or two made one at a time, by hand, and by an individual. You'll be helping them have a nice Christmas too!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Is that an Olive in your Salsa or are you just Amber to see me?

Carl McNeil is a man on a mission, a mission to bring some color to the often monochromatic world of fly rods. Carl, one of just two F.F.F. Certified Master Casters in New Zealand, decided to branch out from fly casting instruction and infuse some life and color in the fly rod industry via his new company, Swift Fly Fishing. I'd say he succeeded, as his Epic blanks, thanks to a handpicked team of dedicated and incredibly talented builders from around the world, have been turned in to some of the most innovative and head turning rods available.

As they spread around the world, their potential disruptive force is apparent, not only because of the the bright colors rarely seen in the relatively subdued and drab world of fly rods or the use of fiberglass, but his entire philosophy of rod design is somewhat at odds with the status quo. According to Carl, there was a niche to be filled in the world of fly rods, and the trend towards faster graphite rods isn't a move in the right direction.

When I first emailed him, I just had a small handful of questions and was very pleasantly surprised at the wealth of information Carl provided. Here he explains the long, involved process at arriving at his tapers, his reasoning behind his introduction of these radically different fly rods, and gives us an incredible insight into his design philosophy, and his take on the shortcomings of modern rod design:

The Rods

Oliver - As a casting instructor, I imagine you knew exactly what you wanted when it came to the tapers for your rods and that you were quite particular. How long did it take for you to arrive at the current tapers? How many prototypes ended up in the trash? And When it came time to choose a blank material, why fiberglass over graphite?

Carl - Initially I didn't know exactly what I wanted, but I did know that my graphite rods weren't cutting it for the type of trout fishing I was doing. I was also seeing a lot of guys rocking up to casting workshops with the latest super stiff fly rod and really struggling to put a bend in it. Fly casting is all about putting a bend in the fly rod & controlling the tip, loading and unloading. Very fast rods make this much more challenging, over the past 5 or 6 years we've seen more line manufacturers producing overweight fly lines to counteract this - that is, lines that are outside the AFTMA standard for their designated weight. Weight and a half lines are now the norm, in order to "load todays modern fast action rods" - apparently. It's become common to see anglers purchase a fast 5 weight fly rod and then over-line it with a 6, and that 6 line is a weight and a half. While this is all subjective and each should follow their bliss, I see absolutely no sense in buying a Lamborghini and then trying to limit it's performance by piling a few bags of cement in the trunk.

Over-lining does not change the intrinsic properties of a fly rod. If you want a very quick rod, buy one. It's quick and snappy because it's a comparatively fast taper built on very high modulus materials. It's resistance to bending is high, the recovery speed is high. Stringing it up with the next line size so that you can feel it load at 30 feet it is akin to strapping a bag of cement to it.

If you wanted a slower, softer action rod - well, that's what you should have gone shopping for and come home with.

I wanted fly rods that would bend.

And this is where we start to uncover the marketing con' that we've all been inadvertently party to over the last decade. There is no universally accepted standard for labelling fly rods, the AFTMA line standard is for labelling fly lines and not fly rods. (the mass in grains of the first 30 feet) - Putting the number 5 on a fly rod is really just an arbitrary designation that the manufacturer saw as being desirable for his design.

One company's 7 weight is another companies 5 weight. In fact, if you want to present the market with a very fast, stiff rod, simply build what could be called a 7 and label it as a 5. My company's 5 is now much faster and stiffer than your brand. And this is almost exactly what we see in the industry. How do you think rods have become incrementally faster and stiffer year upon year? Yes, no doubt we've seen gains in material, resins and the composites used to construct fly rods. But I think you'll find that the easier way to get this years faster, stiffer rod is to take what was last years number 7 mandrel and call it this years 5 weight and rename it.

For arguments sake, If you took four well known fly rod models from different companies, all designated 5, and then compared how they bent under a static deflection test you are obviously going to see huge variation in how deeply they bend. I'm not talking about lockup point, or action here - just how far they deflect down between the butt and the tip for a given static weight. As an example I had some involvement with one company's new designs a year or so ago. One of the rods that was tested was clearly a good 7, or a very fast 6 at best. It went to market labelled as a 5 weight.

So how can you get any objective baseline comparison of how a rod bends? - there is actually a system to do it. It's far from perfect, but the CCS, Common Cents System invented by Dr Bill Hanneman, does provide a system and set of standards were fly rod actions can be compared. Admittedly it's a static deflection test and the loads on fly rods are very much dynamic and active. Also at least one of the numbers in the formula has been arbitrarily chosen (a deflection of one third the rods total length) However, the CCS is really all we have at the moment. And while it's not so valuable in actually describing a fly rods action as the CCS was originally intended, it is very valuable in making comparisons on relative stiffness and action. As a note - all the Epic tapers feature an AA (Action angle) of around 70 degrees - which puts them squarely in the fast category against any fly rod. The CCS can be found here

A very stiff rod is simply not as capable of loading up and throwing a short accurate line as a medium or slower action rod is - as much as the marketing department might have you believe. So, many rods are getting stiffer and stiffer, line manufacturers are beefing up their lines so that the rods bend and people can actually fish with them - it's like the Cold War…

In short, for fly fishing anyway, faster and stiffer is not always better. Don't get me wrong, stiff can also be great and I'll not be selling all my graphite sticks any time soon.

Back on topic...
I wanted to fish lighter lines for stealthier dry fly presentations so decided to ditch my usual graphite 6wt for a season and go with a much smaller softer rod, and while my 7ft plastic 4wt could certainly present the line I wanted use, it most certainly didn't have the balls to turn and land the fish I was chasing. Getting a 5lb brown to the net with a dainty little 4wt involved a fair amount of trepidation and careful manoeuvring to avoid rod tips getting broken.

The one thing that I really don't like about light tackle is the necessity to play big fish out in order to get them landed. Many anglers proclaim to be Catch and Release practitioners and yet play the shit out of a fish once hooked. There is a direct correlation between time spent playing a fish and it's chance of survival after it is released. Overplaying a fish sends the mortality rate through the roof - as much as you might think that trout swam away quite happily, it more than likely died from the effects of exhaustion within an hour of release.

I'm of the "horse them in" school of fly fishing, for me fly fishing for trout is all about the deception. Once hooked the object of the exercise is to get the fish in and released in as good shape as is possible. All the guys I fish with are the same.

With all this in mind I wanted fly rods that could present delicately, load up at relatively short range and yet be very robust and with the lifting power of rods in heavier line classes. My first rod was a Japanese built hollow glass rod, translucent Olive green - It has (I still have it) a cheap closed cell foam grip - but it's still the prettiest rod I've ever seen - I wanted rods that looked like that. Fiberglass seemed an obvious choice.

I began looking all over at all sorts of materials & fly rods, including quite a few new and old glass models. I had no desire to reproduce anything that was in any way "retro" - let me be very clear, I am no fan of slow, sloppy, unresponsive e-glass like the rods of old. While I appreciate that there are a few big brand companies out there trying to reproduce the glass retro thing - I really don't get it. Those rods might have been good 30 years ago, but by today's standards - we'll, they really are crap casting tools. They died for a reason. While It's easy to get lost in the misty eyed romanticism of old school glass - My old [brand removed to protect Carl from the wrath of aficionados] really does cast like a bucket of poo. I get it out occasionally as a reality check, just to make sure we're not missing something - we're not.

Our search ended up full circle back here in New Zealand with Composite Tube Systems, a very clever Auckland company well versed in rolling excellent fly rod blanks. CTS was already rolling glass blanks, so that's where we started the development journey. We worked with Stephen Pratt, owner and designer to move from their already very capable factory tapers to something that matched what I was after. It took a little over 12 months and many prototypes & iterations before I had something that could be locked down and taken to market as an Epic.

The material we are using is not conventional fiberglass, nor is it a standard s-glass.
I'm now convinced that in sub 8ft lengths and in weights of 5 and below modern glass composites just make for a superior fly rod. They are smoother, many times stronger, more responsive and have far greater feel that graphite. They simply have more soul than plastic rods do. It's difficult to quantify, but the small glass Epics are just more fun to fish with & they cast like a dream. Longer rods in heavier weights - that's where Carbon Fibre excels. Glass is simply too heavy and slow to produce a really lively, responsive rod as you scale up. We do produce a 9ft 9wt glass monster called the 990 (Nine Ninety) - but it really is a glass enthusiasts rod. Most graphite casters would find it comparatively heavy and quite sluggish. It is however incredibly strong and loads up wonderfully with a short line.

Oliver - Speaking of lines, as a guy who knows what he's doing when it comes to casting, are there any particular lines you recommend for your tapers?

Carl - I think fly line choice is very subjective & quite complex. So much depends on the caster's style, their ability level and the type of fishing they are doing. Personally I'm a big fan of long belly lines, but I know that many guys who use our rods prefer heavier weight forward lines. We're working with a fly line company to develop something that will be a great match for the Epics.

Oliver - Are there any new tapers and/or colors in the works?

Carl - Yes, we have a new colour to be released in the new year, our Epic Rod builders are already building on it. A 3wt in our Epic FastGlass will make an appearance in late January /Feb.
We'll also release a remarkable graphite blank in 9ft 5wt & 6wt.

Fiberglass fibers on an Olive blank.

When I first cast an Epic rod a few months ago, I took the Salsa 686 from inside the relatively dimly lit fly shop and out into the daylight, where it not only came to life in my hands, but also visually as the sunlight shone through the blank. The first thing I noticed is that while the rod was sensitive, and, despite it being, as Carl terms it "Fastglass", it doesn't have an action I would consider fast in the world of graphite. I like medium action rods and bamboo and I felt very comfortable casting the 686. (As comfortable as one can be casting a rod in a parking lot. I'm not a particularly good caster to begin with and avoiding cars and "no parking" signs doesn't really help.) I've since cast the 580 as well, and they're light rods, doing most of the work for you. Exactly the kind of rod you want if you're going to be fishing all day, day after day.

The range of available blanks include the 476 (7 foot 6 inch 4 weight), 480, 580, 686, and the 990 (currently only available in blue), and they're available in the following colors:


So Blue




The Builders

Oliver - Carl, you built up a network of rodbuilders that are incredibly effective at showing what's possible with your blanks. Did basically you approach these guys and hand them some blanks with the hope that something amazing will result?

Carl - Yep, pretty much. We launched with a promotion very generously supported by Cameron Mortenson of The Fiberglass Manifesto. Cameron shoulder tapped a few top builders that he suspected might be interested in taking part in the "Epic Rod Build" and trying out an Epic blank. Swift donated the blanks and the builders donated their time and expertise - We were astounded by the quality and craftsmanship of the completed rods. The finished Epics were then donated to The Fiberglass Manifesto's rod loan program so that anyone could take an Epic for a spin. It was a hugely fun, successful and rewarding promotion that got us introduced to some of the best rod builders out there - things only blossomed from there on.

The Epic blanks are somewhat faster and stiffer than other glass blanks so we were unsure how they would be received by the glass building fraternity. The response was excellent and these top builders have become a fundamental part of our business. I get to talk with at least one of them almost daily, their feedback and input is invaluable in our companies development, it's a great privilege.
We continue to be amazed at the endless creativity and talent demonstrated by these guys - the partnership has clearly shown me the value and advantage of working with a master craftsman to create a one off fly rod that is of heirloom quality. These custom rods are truly jaw-droppingly beautiful and supremely fishable. Everyone should commission at least one in their fishing career.

The diversity of the rods from Carl's team of builders is fascinating. Rods built on the same blank by Zeb Tonkavich and Christian Hörgren, for example, couldn't be less similar. Sparse, Scandanavian beauty on the one hand, and stunning, unconvential style from the new world on the other.

Photo and rod by Christian Hörgren of Sweden
(On the new, not yet named color)

Photo and rod by Christian Hörgren of Sweden

Photo and rod by Zeb Tonkavich of Pennsylvania, USA.

Photo and rod by Zeb Tonkavich of Pennsylvania, USA.

Photo and rod by Shane Gray of Michigan, USA.

Photo and rod by Shane Gray of Michigan, USA.

Photo and rod by George Minculete of Romania

Photo and rod by George Minculete of Romania

The Kit

If you want an Epic rod of your own, you'll either have to order one from a custom rodmaker such as the ones shown above, or build one yourself, as Swift fly fishing currently doesn't sell complete rods. Fortunately, Carl invested quite a bit of effort into making the rod building experience as smooth as possible, even for a first-timer:

Oliver - You've put a substantial amount of work into making it as easy as possible for your customers to make a beautiful fly rod and there isn't really a rod building kit on the market that can compete in terms of the quality of components. Why the focus on the rodbuilding when so many other companies either sell just the blanks, or the complete rod? Are you planning on offering complete rods in the future?

Carl - Our goal is to produce the very finest fly rods available and a large part of that is to finish our blanks with the very best hardware made. Jeanie and I have spend almost two years producing or sourcing the very best cork, reel seats and guides out there - it seemed entirely logical to offer these to people that wanted the satisfaction of building their own rod too. Building your own fly rod is incredibly satisfying and a huge amount of fun. I had to build up every prototype we tested and got a real kick out of it, still do. Truth be told, building a fly rod is not complex or particularly difficult (unless you are trying to emulate the works of art produced by our Epic Rod builders - but those guys are on a whole other level)

If you can tie a fly you can build a fly rod. Much of the complexity and confusion arises from understanding and selecting matching and complimentary components. We've had to do all this for our production rods - so why not make it easy for everyone else and share this with others?

It could be said that we risk devaluing the Epic brand by letting amateur builders have access to our blanks and components - but if the goal is to get truly remarkable gear into the hands of more fly anglers then why wouldn't you offer premium components to everyone who wanted to join in?

We'll release a full "Ready to Wrap" rod kit early in the new year - there's nothing like it out there, the manual alone is pretty damn good. I would have had the Epic kit released earlier, but fine tuning on one component has meant we've had to wait until it is perfect.

Our company will produce made to order rods sometime in the first quarter of 2014. They will not be "custom" - for custom creations you'll need to go see one of our Epic builders, or make your own.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a kit at my local fly shop, HRH Hebeisen in Zürich, which recently offered an informational evening about Epic rods. We got to fiddle with the kits, examine the different blanks and components, and cast a few different models in the parking lot out back.

The kits are exactly as Carl advertised, and more.

Everything (really, everything) you need to build your own rod is included. I can only compare it to a rodbuilding course in a box. The manual consists of 42 painstakingly illustrated pages take you through every step of the way, and while it isn't a book per se, the information contained within equals that of a basic rod building handbook you'd buy online. From epoxy to a custom reel seat, a pre-fitted Portugese cork grip to Snake brand universal guides, all of it is shipped from New Zealand in a box that converts into to a rod wrapping station. Carl even designed a fiberglass rod tube to compliment the rod, and it's a wonderful touch. It looks great, and feels quite durable while still being substantially lighter than an aluminum or even a cordura covered PVC tube. The rod tube oozes style and needs to be seen and held to be appreciated.

The checklist

Even the cardboard box is meticulously designed

Mixing cups, brushes, epoxy, and matching thread..
you won't need anything else.

Abuse. There's no other way to describe it.
I'd say the highlight of the evening was seeing how tough and rugged the rods really are. While I'd never do any of this with my own rods, I was happy to help bend the shop's demo 686 tip to butt, bend the tip to a ridiculous degree, and hold the rod while a 180 pound fly shop employee ran around the parking lot leader in hand, pretending to be a tarpon. I simply don't see how it would be possible to break this rod in the course of fishing, in keeping with Carl's comments on the importance of playing a fish as quickly as possible and overpowering them to keep any potential harm to a minimum.

I'm lucky to have a local fly shop that takes chances, responds quickly to new products, and most importantly, promotes products that they believe in. I can't say for sure, but I would be very surprised if any other fly shop in Europe offers an event such as this.

Looking Ahead

Oliver - It isn't just your blanks that are a little unusual, but the reel seat and fiberglass rod tube are also something most people haven't seen before. What's on the horizon from Swift? I can't begin to imagine what kind of reel you'd come up with…

Carl - The reel seat is different by design and there are a few features that are not immediately apparent, it's also a little longer that a conventional reel seat - there's also reason for that - I believe it's the absolute best reel seat made. I also have a thing for hard anodising.

The rod tube has been the most difficulty piece of the puzzle to design and manufacture - and we're still refining it. Glass is a good fit for the Epic glass rods, but the material was chosen not for aesthetics but because it makes a far superior rod tube than extruded aluminium. It's very quiet, extremely strong, and more importantly it will not dint. Every single thing we've produced we've tried to make a better job than anything else out there.

There's lots on the drawing board for Swift and the Epic line-up, and yes, a reel is well underway, it may or may not see the light of day next year. Our reel is fundamentally quite simple, but achieving simplicity and elegance in design is actually quite complex to execute. When it's ready, it will be ready, I'm not sure exactly when that will be.

It would be a very simple and a far more profitable exercise to farm out production of our rods and reel to Asia like so many other companies have done. But for many reasons, a few philosophical, we'll resist that temptation. Instead opting to partner with more local companies that are already expert in what they do, like CTS, Snake Brand Guides in the USA and our cork producer in Portugal (Epics grips are preformed for us from premium quality cork at source in Portugal)

We're of the opinion that as soon as we mass produce and commoditize our product we loose touch with the quality and craftsmanship that help make us unique - we become just another Asian brand. Our small size and small run batch manufacturing mean we can remain innovative and very responsive. We see so many brands now touting their gear as "Designed in (insert county here)" - which is simply shorthand for made in China, why not just say it? - Fine for some, but not for us.

Our aim is to remain a small micro-manufacturer of unique, high end fly fishing gear. I've run and launched large companies in the past and don't want to get too big with this one. Our small size allows us to do things that the big boys simply cannot.

There's quite a bit to be excited for coming down the pipe in the near future...a new color, a 3 weight, graphite rods, a reel, and a line specifically designed to complement the Epic action. I wish Carl the best of luck, and I genuinely hope that Epic rods take off here, and inject a bit of much needed excitement and vitality into an aging population of fly fishers, while attracting new ones with rods they've never seen, much less imagined, before.

If you'd like to find out more about Epic rods, fiberglass rods in general, or any of the custom builders, please follow the links below:

Swift Fly Fishing, and their Facebook page. (Currently, Swift is offering free international shipping on blanks. It's no secret that many suppliers brutally overcharge on international shipping, so this a very welcome gesture for us international folks.)

Carl's YouTube channel of instructional casting videos

Christian Hörgren of Fine Tackle, and his Facebook Page.
Zeb Tonkavich of Snowman Custom Rodworks, and his Facebook Page.
Shane Gray of Graywolf, and his Facebook Page.
George Minculete of Tightloop Fly Rods, and his Facebook Page.

When it comes to the world of fiberglass fly rods, there's no better place than Cameron Mortenson's blog, The Fiberglass Manifesto. (Facebook) He also runs a groundbreaking and incredibly generous Rod Loaner program, which currently boasts three Epic rods, among many others.