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.

1 comment:

  1. Great Article. maybe this is the year i branch to rod building.