Ok, some time back I wrote an article about the various types of bamboo rodbuilders. It was all tongue in cheek, but some folks took offense, apparently thinking I was making fun at their expense. I promised I'd write an article about my own rodmaking stupidities so that people could laugh at me, and here it is.
No, this isn't an article about minor shop errors like cutting sections too short(done that!) or dropping sections into the dip tube(ditto!). This is about colossal stupidity. Stupidity on steroids. Stupidity so profound and egregious it will make you wonder how I function in the world. I'm a veritable Thesaurus of stupidity. My tale begins when I decided to first get into bamboo rodmaking...
Stupidity- The Early Years
This all started when Casimira bought me a table saw for Xmas, thus beginning the long slow descent into Norm Abrams-type madness. After I got the saw, she brought home a videotape from the library by Taunton Press. It was titled something like ' Making Small Boxes'. One of the projects was a 6-sided wooden rod tube. I remember thinking, 'that looks kinda neat' and set about building one for myself. My brother saw it and wanted one, so I made one for him. A friend of my brother's saw his case and wanted one, too! The next thing you know I'm making and selling these rod cases to local fly shops. I printed up business cards and tags for my 'work' and consulted with an attorney to draw up Articles of Incorporation. I was now 'official' and officially losing money. Not content to lose money only on rod cases, I decided to make nets, wooden fly and reel boxes and other crap no one wanted to buy for the sake of having a 'well-rounded catalog' of items.
So why did I do this? Looking back on it, I can say without a doubt that my regular job left me without a tangible work product at the end of the day. I liked the smell of sawdust. I liked learning new things. But most of all, making and selling a little of this stuff(at a loss) allowed me to rationalize the growing list of tools I was buying.
For instance, the table saw Casimira bought me was a pretty basic Craftsman tabletop model. I was never really satisfied with the miters I was cutting for my rod cases, and rather then blame myself for defects in craftsmanship, I decided it was the fault of the blade. So I bought a $140 Forrest ripping blade. It cut cleaner and better. But after reading an article in Fine Woodworking(I was now a subscriber...Look at all this cool stuff!!) and buying a tape on 'Tuning Your Tablesaw', the fence on the saw began to bother me. I could never get it set juuuust right. And there was 'wobble' in the spindle. And slop in the miter tracks. It became obvious the saw would have to be upgraded. So, I did the logical thing and spent about $1,200 on a new Delta. Since I was a 'pro' I felt no guilt in buying the best fence and the biggest extension table. As this saw had to be movable so we could park our cars in the shop/garage, the mobile base was another must-have item.
It only took a matter of months before I had acquired a whole shop full of tools to make my money-losing angling accessories: a $1,500 Powermatic jointer, a $350 thickness planer, a $150 Shop vac, various chisels, a couple LN planes(I really needed that tiny bronze low angle block to true up those still-untrue miters!), various sanders, saws, burnishers and scrapers, measuring tools, a dial indicator set to test my tablesaw blade for runout, a $350 Delta Hollow Chisel mortising machine to cut mortises for the fly tying tables I never built (I think that is what it was for but I honestly don't remember), a $1,000 Delta 13" bandsaw(with riser block, because you never know when you're gonna be resawing stock taller then 12"...come to think of it, I still don't know). I could go on and on, but you get the picture: I spent literally thousands of dollars on tooling to make cheesy wooden crafts there was no market for, even at money-losing prices. If you think I took the hint or learned a lesson from this, you'd be wrong. My Stupidity is terminal.
Stupidity: Gaining in Intensity
So one Saturday I drove 40 miles to deliver some of my money-losing dreck to a fly shop. Once I got there I saw a book on the shelf about building bamboo flyrods. I had fished with a bamboo rod since I was in my teens, and was always drawn to them for some inexplicable reason...probably because they were expensive and at the time I had no money. The lure of the unattainable! Or, maybe it was because I got off on being different then others. Or maybe I was just dumber then a sack of hammers. Self-awareness was not something I was burdened with.
I bought the book and drove home in a frenzy of anticipation. On the highway I had it propped open on the bench seat and I'd glance down to see the little charts and diagrams. Luckily I got home in one piece, and I just couldn't wait to read it cover to cover. I had seen just enough of it in the store and on the way home to realize I already had many of the tools I'd need. Coupled with the 'skills' I'd acquired making dreck, crafting bamboo rods would be a cinch! Now I could make a rod to put in my case, and along with my poorly crafted net, flyboxes, reel boxes and wading staff.(forgot to tell about that!) I'd be the epitome of the well-appointed amateur craftsman/angler.
From reading the book I found there was a newsletter about making rods. I Had to have that, and every few months waited in anticipation for the tiny gems of knowledge contained therein. There were also catalogs put out by people that featured old and new bamboo rods! Had to get those. There were books on makers past and present that I Had to buy. There were more books on building rods, all of which seemed out of print and therefor expensive. I Had to own those too. I devoured this stuff. Swallowed it whole. Hook, line and sinker. And all the bullshit that came within it.
I can distinctly remember several aspects of my 'thinking' at this point in time:
#1) I had a decent paying job and two usable but pretty lowbrow cane rods. I figured at some point in my life, I'd splurge for a couple nice bamboo rods. A T&T. Maybe a Payne. I wouldn't get carried away, but a couple of those could easily set me back several thousand dollars! But...but...If I learned how to build rods, and just invested in a couple more tools I needed, I could make all the rods I'd ever need! And they'd be free!
Of course I wasn't an egomaniac. Not me. I'm just not like that. I knew my first rod wouldn't be up to T&T or Payne standards. But perhaps my fifth or sixth would! I'm a Special type of Stupid.
#2) There was a growing annoyance with my job. It was keeping me away from rodbuilding.
#3) From the books and catalogs I was reading, I came to know that cane rods were very desirable and very expensive. Therefor utilizing my understanding of supply and demand, I saw at once that there was a huge, untapped market for new bamboo rods! People waited for them, which could only mean there was a shortage of makers! I paged through a book on builders, making mental notes on each: dead, dead, very old, near dead, not building anymore, in treatment, disappeared, dead, in jail, dead. Almost everyone was either dead, near dead, or for all intents and purposes, Deader then a Doornail.
This could only mean one thing. Bamboo rods, bamboo rodbuilding, and bamboo rod collectors needed me!
This was proven to me time and time again! Casimira and I went to a rodbuilder's gathering and I got to meet all of the big names that weren't dead yet. A guy gave a talk and mentioned during his talk (strictly in passing, of course, it wasn't like he was being a blowhard) that he got $1,500 for a rod and was one year behind! Aha! More proof of an unmet supply/demand curve! More proof that bamboo rods needed me! I turned to Casimira and raised my eyebrows in a silent signal to her- "see, there's big bucks to be made here"!
And there were a few bucks to be made, only I didn't realize those bucks were gonna come from people like me! You know, the people that had real jobs and real income. Today, you couldn't get a buck outta me if you squeezed me like a grape.
Casimira and I went to dinner with two other rodbuilders. One of the builders had sold me a set of planing forms. He was sitting right next to me, and in hindsight I shoulda stabbed him repeatedly with a salad fork, because what he sold me was dreck. Was I mad at him? No freaking way! I was too excited about all the new stuff I was getting educated in, and boy was I getting an education! Over dinner, I mentioned the troubles I was having with my rodbuilding, some of which were related to these very forms. The other rodbuilder told me if I just came to visit him for some paid guidance, he'd fix my forms and all would be right with the world. That's all I needed to hear.
So we made plans. I'd take off work and get a hotel room. I'd get an education, and get my forms fixed. I was so excited!
I got to the guy's place and he asked if I brought the forms. I brought them in from the truck, and we placed them on a bench. He looked them over, ran his hands up and down the steel of my precious tool-de-art. He mumbled something. Then- before I could react- he reached under the bench and pulled up a hand-held belt sander loaded with 80 grit paper, turned it on and ran the sander back and forth down my precious forms. Sparks were flying! The motor was smoking and whining! I freaked out, but I was paralyzed, stunned, dumbfounded, enthralled by the flying sparks and the smell of burning sandpaper against cheap metal. After turning off his 'form truing tool' he ran his hands down the bars. I felt a pit in my stomach. It ended badly.
But I did learn how to split cane and was mighty happy to get back home and in the shop knowing I wouldn't waste so much money on badly split bamboo. My instructional fee would therefor 'pay for itself' over the long haul. But this still left me without a good form. I made many desperate calls. I consulted within the exhalted poobahdom of rodmaking arts, and I was told of a mysterious and elusive source for a good set of forms.
After many twists and turns, and another $1,500 dollars spent, I finally got a usable set of forms. Not happy with those (despite the money I had spent) I spent even more money to develop a set with the help of my dad, a machinist. This is what I should have done in the first place. But you know how it is when you start something new and unknown. I wanted to trust the Experts. I didn't know anything about rodmaking, but as it turned out, neither did the guy that made my first set of forms. It never occurred to me to ask. My Stupidity is so vast, it has its own Zip Code.
Stupidity Reaches New Heights
So I built a few rods. I even sold the first one I made for $275. Of course I lost money, but that wasn't the point, was it? This encouraged me to build more rods and I lost money with each one. But I was having fun and each one got a little better then the previous one.
Casimira and I were on vacation, enjoying a little fishing trip to western PA. We were nearing the end of the week and that old familiar feeling of dread was coming upon us. Soon the vacation would be over, and we were already bummed out about going back to our jobs.
We took a break from fishing and stopped at a little diner for lunch. After the waitress took our orders, I flipped over the paper place mat and proceded to tell Casimira that the answer to our disenchanted work life was a career change. We would build rods. We would work together in marital bliss. We'd be like the Dette's. It was so romantic. Our work would be in great demand. The money would be great. On the back of the place mat we would formulate a Business Plan. We have it to this day. There beneath the hamburger grease and french fly gravy is record and testimony to my stupidity. Every so often I take it out and look at it. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry, sometimes I do both at the same time. When I see it, I feel like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies.
Here's how it would work: Casimira would keep her job until I got things up and running. This would take a couple months, tops.
At the time we were considering moving to a more rural location and were looking at property in Vermont. It's cold in Vermont, and the winters long. There ain't nothing to do if you don't like winter sports(especially if you are broke!). Possessing the substantial level of experience I now had accrued by building a dozen rods (more or less), I knew I could build one in 40 hours. One rod a week. That meant two people could build two rods a week. We could work hard the 40 weeks from fall through spring, make 80 rods, and take off 12 weeks in the summer to fish! Boy that sure sounded good, but not as good as the money!
Remember I had heard that builder bragging he got $1,500 a rod? That was about the going rate at the time in a lot of the catalogs that waxed so poetically and spoke of long waiting lists. So I figured 80 rods times $1,500 equals $120,000. Simple as that! Casimira rolled her eyes and reminded me that there were taxes, materials, incidental costs. Humbug! Don't be so negative, I told her. We'll get stuff like parts cheap because they'll be wholesale because I'm a pro. People might even pay me to use their parts for the sheer endorsement value I'd represent.
Sure, there might be a few minor details I hadn't thought through, but the plan was solid and based on fact. So what if we made a little less money the first year or two? Pretty soon we'd be selling rods for $2,000 each, and $2,000 x 80= $160,000!
Of course, I gave no thought as to how we were going to sell those imaginary 80 rods per year. I had visions of people lining up at my door(calling politely ahead of time, of course). Seeking me out like a prophet, a guru, the missing link. And why did I believe this? Because of the books and catalogs I was reading! I'm so Stupid I could write a book: Being Stupid for Dummies.
I was especially pleased that almost no one else in the entire country had thought of being a full-time builder. This was surely confirmation I was a genius. I thought back to that book and all of those dead and near-dead builders. Here I was, young and in my prime. I would corner the market, but I had to act quickly before anyone else got the same idea. It was time for decisive, bold action. It was time to be fearless. And if there's a name for decisive, fearless, bold action, it's J.D. Wagner. (Ok, it was slightly easier to be bold and fearless when Casimira still had a real job, but nonetheless ) As Forest Gump said, Stupid is, as stupid does. And I was Stupidity in action.
Stupidity Turns Pro
I quit my job and turned pro. I was now professionally Stupid, a Master. I had about 10 grand in the bank that melted away faster then I thought possible. There was the week I spent planing 5 butt sections and then accidentally burned them to ash in the oven. I cried like a baby.
I took council at a flyshop to learn the mysteries of 'the business'. I had no idea how to price my work and asked them for help, which is sort of like helping the hangman place the noose around your own neck. Much to my surprise, they told me that even though I was now a pro, I had to sell my rods cheap to 'pay my dues' and 'get my name out there'. I never thought about what 'out there' meant beyond some nebulous mental image of people using them on the stream and having other people come running up and asking where they got that beautiful rod. I did notice they were selling rods as fast as I could make them. The owner of the shop called all of his friends who bought rods for about $500 each. I did succeed in 'getting my name out there' in the sense that everyone now knew I was terminally Stupid. I recently saw one of these rods in a catalog with glowing praise and selling for $1,350. I not only paid my dues in the club of Stupid, I'm a Charter Member.
And what about the 80 rods a year we were gonna easily make and still have 12 weeks off to fish? Well, the first year I made only about 20 rods because I neglected to think about all of the other things you need to do to establish and run a business. Do the math: 20 x $500 = $10,000 before costs. I'd estimate I was easily working 60 hours a week, every week. 60 x 52 = 3,120 hours a year divided by $10,000 gives you an hourly wage, before taxes and material costs of $3.12/hour. I have an MBA in Stupid.
So, what happened to the plan of having Casimira quit her job so we could make those 80 rods? Well, the three-month plan turned into two years. In the interim, over much objection from the store, I had raised my prices a bit and was now probably making $5 an hour as a rodbuilder. I remember one phone conversation with a rod dealer after Casimira came on. I had sent a few rods out to this West Coast dealer that waxed poetic and ordered more. I raised our prices by about $50 and when I informed him of this, he refused to buy any more rods, telling me my wife should get a better job. Asshole.
But I figured that having Casimira around would double our production. And it did. We were still losing money on every rod we built, but now we were making it up through volume! Did I tell ya I'm Stupid?
Each time I made a new rod model, I'd keep one rod for myself as a demo rod. But as I got better I didn't want to lay those rods out at a show because the new ones looked better and different. I had changed reel seats, wrap colors, etc. and these weren't indicative of my improving work. A smart person would have just stripped them and redid the wraps and mounted a new reel seat and used them as demos, or sold them 'as new'. But I didn't think that was honest because I had fished the rods. Nor was it worth the trouble, I thought, so I sold a bunch of them. I remember bargaining with a guy over one at the Somerset show. He tried to talk me down, but I was getting 'smarter' and held firm. It was a tense negotiation and I rejoiced when he paid me the full asking price. Boy, was I getting to be a shrewd businessman! I pocketed the $300 bucks and later saw this rod on Ebay as an early, 'unfished' Wagner. It went for about a $1,000.
And what about the closet full of 'free' rods I'd have if I just spent a little more money and learned how to build them? After a decade of building rods full time, I now own exactly 3 cane rods, and one of them is the lowbrow rod I had when I started! I don't fish with it because why in the hell would a rodmaker fish someone else's rod? The other lowbrow rod I owned I later had to sell because I needed the money. Two of the rods are of my own hand, and one of those was a reject that I could not in good conscience sell but had already put so much time into I couldn't bear to throw it in the scrap bin.
Of course I could write paragraph after paragraph of my other rodbuilding stupidities, but for now I have to close. I must have 10 emails here from people who want to sell my rods in Nigeria. Prosperity is at hand!
This essay is just scratching the surface, and I hope that those offended by my previous essay now feel better. Maybe sometime I'll tell you about some more of my Stupidities, but there's one thing for certain: in the meantime I'll be racking up more and more of them. I'm the Energizer Bunny of Stupid. I just keep going, and going, and going ..
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