Chris McDowell Rodmaker by Joe Beelart

Originally written by me and some friends 2002-04 for the Virtual Fly Shop, Flyfisherman Magazine Online. The Cracker Barrel has been published in book form with the limited first edition hard cover sold out and a paperback version will be available early 2011.

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Chris McDowell Rodmaker by Joe Beelart


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Welcome to the Cracker Barrel. Last winter there were 13 Cracker Barrels written by myself and several Bobs (members of the Brothers of Bamboo) on the old VFS Board.
These can be found from this link which is available on my website unfortunately, the Cracker Barrel Links do not include the discussions that occurred after the initial posting which often ended up being as informative as the Cracker Barrel post since much discussion followed. The Cracker Barrel was originally formed from ideas posted on the old VFS Board in 2002 and one of those suggestions was for articles about bamboo rods, their makers, history and tapers presented in such a manner as to be informative and educational.
It would also allow for questions about the postings content to be discussed and as I said often ended up segueing into the next segment or becoming an offshoot of the post. What I will be presenting is a series of articles written by a friend of a friend. The gentleman who is my friend is Greg Hall who wrote one of the segments to last years Cracker Barrels and his friend is Joe Beelart. The first segment written by Joe is from a day he spent with rod maker Chris McDowell at his shop where he interviewed Chris for his comments. As always please feel free to ask questions but in this case if they are directed toward Joe Beelart I can't answer for him directly and will try to direct them to him but cannot guarantee an answer as quickly as I could give you on a subject I can answer to since Joe's job has him traveling a lot, if you have questions you'd like to direct toward Chris McDowell he may be reached at the address at the bottom of this posting or you may find him posting on Clarks Bamboo Rod Forum in the makers forum under the moniker of Blitzen. This will be the only real departure for these initial segments and I hope you understand. Well the coffee pot is letting me know the coffees ready so while I stoke the old pot bellied stove and pour myself a cup why don't I let you enjoy the Cracker Barrel. Rod Maker Chris McDowell The drive from Portland to Eugene, Oregon is a little over two hours long and it never gets shorter. The two crowded lanes of freeway from Salem south generally keeps the trip interesting, but that was of no matter today, I was happy. At about 9 AM, I was to meet with Chris McDowell at his home, site of the Blitzen River Rod Company. I was pretty sure I was at the right house when I parked. The garage door was open, revealing one of the most organized and clean shops that I have seen in any avocation. Long culms of bamboo were stacked under the center workbench and power saw table, so I was certain with a high percentage of accuracy that I was at the right place. Hardly anyone besides bamboo rod makers have stacks of culms in their garage. After ringing the doorbell, through the side panes, I could see Chris striding for the door with his usual energy. Chris is the type of person that is just nice to be around. I think that was one of the reasons his area was so heavily used at the Salem fly fair. He's in his mid-30's, tall and fit. His home is a modern, immaculately maintained, light filled two-story, just right for raising a young family and making rods. He signaled me toward the dining room table, I pulled up a little short to look at a very old rod on the mantle, he had done an exceptional job refinishing it. It had golden wraps and about every inch, there was a stabilizing wrap in the old style of bamboo, the label said "Tip-Top." Chris said it was a Montague and that the rod was probably made from Calcutta cane around 1915, just before the start of the Great War. A very early rubber-sided reel was mounted on the rod. Chris said he believed it was a Pennell, made in the vom Hofe style, but there was no tag. Chris and I had talked about the visit on the telephone and he'd prepared well. After a few pleasantries, a few words about the progress of the book, and a mention of the basic questions, he took over the interview. For the next three hours, I had to say very little as the man knows his business and a great deal of history about the art. He started refinishing bamboo rods in 1995 and moved on to making rods in 1997 under the tutelage of Mr. A.J. Thramer, an accomplished Eugene rod maker. Chris said they had a regular Thursday night session where A.J., freely taught him a series of steps that had to be followed with great precision to make a rod. Chris' first rod was an 8' 5-weight, three-piece Thramer DX series taper. He pulled it from its felt and laid it on the table. It had a dark flame finish, which Chris had decided early on as something he wanted as a signature on many of his stock built rods. This is quite an attractive approach to finishing. The darkest of his rods have the color of tiger stripes in the night. The first rod also had traditional burgundy wraps. Chris said he soon changed to the almost golden "java beige" wraps that he now uses on all of his stock built rods. He showed me both color preserved and unpreserved wrappings he had done on both new and refurbished rods. The fine thread he uses metamorphoses into a sort of rich dark tea color if unpreserved. The unpreserved threads allow the varnish to do its work and the thread becomes transparent so the feet of the snakes are seen. If the thread color is preserved, the feet are not seen and the color remains somewhat vibrant under the finish Chris uses. He's used several preservers and feels that Al's Color Preserver, sold through Angler's Workshop, is the best product for color preservation when using the dip finishing method which tests the efficiency of tread color preservation to its fullest. Chris' typical fly rod has unpreserved wraps. He attains transparency through the use of marine spar varnish over the silk. Spar provides the best clarity. Sealing of the guide wraps is followed by two to three finish coats, applied through the use of a dip tube assembly, with sanding performed between coats. Chris says that the finish is important in selling rods and is an important part of his making. "Cosmetics are important," he reiterated for emphasis. He acknowledged he has many things to learn about bamboo rod building. The learning never ends; but the most important part of learning is the basics. He repeated again and again that A.J. Thramer emphasized the basics during his apprenticeship. Since he had a rod out on the table with his graphics in plain view, I moved the "How do you serial number?" question from end to now. Chris McDowell identifies his rods with a four-digit year number and then the number of the rod built in that year, i.e. 200209 is the ninth rod he built in 2002. Prior to the turn of the century, he was using just a two-digit year number, but decided to change in 2000. After all, 0001 doesn't really make a lot of sense. He also inks the length and weight of the rod on the blank and if it is a taper of his own design, he notes the model, in addition to his name. That is always consistent.The Steens Next, Chris placed a diminutive rod on the table. The rod was still a blank and at first, I looked upon it as a novelty item, but it certainly was not. The rod is a 4'9" 3-piece, 4-weight. He had especially designed it as a pack rod for the majestic Steens Mountain area in far southeast Oregon, a desert land of mystery, no water and misery to most people. To the folks that can make a living down there, it is heaven on earth. For about the last eight years, Chris and his friends have spent a week of vacation traveling to and fishing the Steens in August. Hot? He says of course, but not particularly when they camp at about 9,000' and then hike down into the canyons to fish. They wear shorts and no waders. They simply watch for the rattlesnakes. They have learned where and when the breezes blow cool. Mainly, they are alone. Not many people go into the Steens Mountains that time of the year - hunting season is the big time for the Steens - so they are alone in the high aspens, by themselves, refreshing with iced tea in the evening. Nothing else is needed at those elevations and times. The Steens are Blitzen River country. Chris loves that river and adopted it for the name of his company. With true pleasure in his voice and his eyes far away, he called them out: the Blitzen, the Little Blitzen, Indian Creek, Kiger Creek and McCoy Creek. Anyway, the little rod was for packing into the canyons. He wanted a rod with severe mobility capability for certain "holes and stretches" he had seen and not been comfortable approaching with a full-length rod. Since it was a delicate little thing, I asked him about tips. He said he or a customer has never broken a tip on one of his rods. The reason is problematic. They are beautiful, practical things, why hurt one unless it is really an accident? If fished properly, the tips should never be subjected to the kind of stress that would result in a break. He said it's really the preference of the buyer as to one or two tips. To me, the final thought about the dark little rod was the reel. Obviously, it would not support a standard 4-weight reel. Chris said that a small reel would do fine. It didn't need to hold much line. The holes were not long and the creeks were narrow, especially in the late summer. Chris said one thing that was rather interesting. Often, even in August, they could find snow patches on the very high north slopes of the Steens on or near which they could cool themselves. From personal experience, I can only say one thing about the Steens Mountains. When we moved to country Oregon in 1962, two of our near neighbors were native Oregonians. He was an old logger, out in the woods full time. She was a logger's wife. They lived on the edge of forest, as did we. Each year, until they could no longer go, even with the help of their children, they went to the Steens Mountains for hunting. Tapers and Other Matters Briefly, Chris talked about rod makers and selling. He alluded to marketing, but only in an indirect manner. It was fairly obvious to me, that to Chris, the actual acts of marketing and selling were a bit of a nuisance that simply had to be contended with in the business. He said he works a little with dealers, trading a few rods and helping a little with advertising copy. Chris is especially interested in dealers with catalogs. He says people keep and refer to them. That cuts down on the selling work. He also said that print leaves a record of a maker's existence, a history. He said that there were many makers that built one or two rods a year, mainly to keep active in the art or to try out various tapers or both. He said that level of maker might make a considerable number of rods over the years, but couldn't incur the expenses that higher volume makers do on an annual basis. He said that when a maker builds 15-20 rods a year as he does, he must sell. For one reason, components are too expensive to just give them away. Why make about 20 rods a year? He said in a sense, the process becomes an addiction. A man can get lost in the many detailed actions required to make a rod. In that sense, it is also a relaxing hobby. He said it also allowed him to stay home with his family. As he carefully made us each a really good latte, he talked about tapers from the open kitchen. Another reason is to try tapers. He would like to try at least one of everything. He wants to see and feel the difference in tapers. Chris says, "There are so many to try!" Primarily, he has focused on the work of the old masters, Dickerson, Garrison, and to a lesser extent, Payne, Leonard and Young. He also says he occasionally will design and make his own taper. He likes tapers that flex deep and full into the rod and can be described as medium-fast. He admits that Dickerson in particular, often influences his own tapers. Chris said he tried one really fast taper, a Phillipson Peerless pattern that only flexed in the last two feet of the rod. It was a stiff, fast rod and not to his liking, although it does throw a flat, tight loop and is efficient in windy conditions. He says customers, and dealers, ask about tapers and he wants to know a good answer. It takes time to learn. He says that understanding what customers mean when they describe actions is fundamental in making them a satisfactory rod. "So many people have so many opinions" he said. "They talk about medium-fast, slow, parabolic, semi-parabolic, full flex, tip-action and all the rest." He said most customers want a proven classic taper, mainly because they have heard them discussed or read about them, so for now, that is his direction. Ultimately, he would like a line up of his own tapers. He said that would help keep consistency in his rods. He repeated the part about consistency. He said that then, dealers and customers would know what they were getting. In turn, that will make his work easier. "It is important to give them what they like, what feels good," he says. In addition to tapers, he said he wanted to make other features consistent on his rods. The previously described flaming is one example. Others that he now includes on his stock rods are Maiden wood or stabilized spalted maple reel seats; down locking sliding band reel seats, blued hardware and forward swell cigar grips. The forward swelled cigar grip is an excellent example of Chris' thinking about the why and what of his rod making. He showed me a standard cigar grip and then contrasted it with the forward swell. He reasoned that the grip is better because like the hand, it is more open at the top and smaller toward the lesser fingers. Using the forward swell reduces the implied thumb pressure needed to cast a standard cigar grip. The position of the wrist becomes more fluid and the connection to the rod more efficient and secure. Before we went out to his shop, Chris wanted me to see three unique rods that he had for restoring. One was quite unique to my eye. He said a neighbor of his father had bought it at a garage sale for $1. It was labeled "Tonka-Glass" and had a cane butt and early fiberglass tip. Another was a Phillipson "Premium" 9' 3-piece for a 5 5/8 HCH line. It was original in its cloth bag and had a "hammer" grip. The interesting wraps were black with a gold band insert. The third was a little used 9' Heddon model 37 LT, s/n: 1631 with a swelled butt. The rod dates from around 1927 and has a small label on the grip that reads 4.96 oz, probably placed there at a casting tournament. The varnish had gone soft and Chris wasn't sure what to do to refinish it. He wanted to keep the original black and gold wraps. They were still in perfect shape and there were many of them as it was 1" wrapped in the old manner. He said that the action was medium-slow and that it beautifully cast a silk line. There was another label on the rod, which leads Chris to believe it had been used in a casting competition and that was possibly its only use.Chris' Shop While I'm repeating myself, the shop was a clean and well-lighted place. In fact, it was the cleanest shop I've seen in years. The planing bench stretched along one wall. Appropriately, above the planing bench was a framed picture of the Lord. At the far end of the bench, were crisp recycling sacks full of shavings. Chris mentioned that a floral arranger used all the shavings he could give her, so waste was minimal. Chris manually planes his splits, which equates to a lot of movement over the course of a year. He said he is thinking about raising the bench several inches so he doesn't have to bend over so far. He told me that sharp planes are the key to rapid, precise work. He took a split from the reject stack and placed it in the plane form for a short demonstration. He made several strokes with one of his planes and a long, continuously curling wisp of cane fiber silently rolled from the blade in a practiced, efficient movement. For leveling the dams found on the pith side of the culms, Chris uses a large bench plane, which makes quick work of material removal. To flatten the nodes on the enamel side of the strips, he uses a Lie Nielsen #212 scraper plane. For initial planing of the beveled strips, he uses a Stanley 9 ½, which was acquired from the estate of Texas rod maker Douglas Duck. For final planing, he uses a Stanley 12-020 plane, which is the contemporary equivalent of the model 9 ½. Next, Chris showed me a bottle of "Payne Bluing Formula" that he uses for his fittings and hardware. Occasionally, per customer order, he said he would use "Brass Black." Both metal dyes require practice and good technique to apply. If he over blues, the finish will flake off and he has to take fine steel wool and strip down the fitting and try again. He was getting ready to package a rod for shipment. He showed me the rod bag that his wife makes for him. She makes them from brown tone and olive green tone heavy cloth. They are slightly tapered and feature a nifty little pull-tab for easing the cloth out of the case. Chris said he has always used 3" PVC drainpipe for shipping boxes and that he also uses insured Post Office Priority mail. So far, he has had no shipping problems and that's just the way he wants it. Then, in his shop, he talked a little bit about technique. "Mostly, if something goes wrong in rod making, someone has hurried the process or tried a shortcut," he said. Chris went on to say that craftsmanship was the key and that doing it over time should make a builder better and more efficient. He said that it was amazing that six little pieces of cane could make such rods, which are really tools for fishermen who love what they do. We talked about fishing for a little while. The interview was winding down and the kids needed their lunch. He said he would have to fish the short rod carefully. It could become a classic example of overstressing a cane rod, given its short length and three piece design. We both laughed, but just a little. Some noise came from inside the house. We said the usual departure things, he went inside and I went to my truck, my head full of thoughts of bamboo rods. I checked the clock. Three hours! To contact Chris here is is current information: Chris McDowell
The Blitzen River Rod Company
4135 Berrywood Drive
Eugene, OR 97404
541-689-3614 Well the old coffee pot is empty, as Bob Corsetti always says at the end of his catalog, and I'm packing one of my pipes to await your questions and comments. Thanks for asking for the Cracker Barrel and I hope this segment meets with your approval. Until next time regards….


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