Antique Guides

The Longest Post Ever on Antique Guides

Here’s another ramble from the Golden Witch website.

antique-guidesAs much a curse as it is a blessing, Golden Witch may own the largest collection of European-made vintage guides in the world.

It’s a blessing because vintage guide sales comprise a small but steady bit of background income, because rummaging through these classic components informs and inspires our own guide making efforts, because we can sometimes help a restorationist find that one, utterly obscure guide that they need to perfectly restore a rod using an appropriate, vintage, new old stock (NOS) piece of componentry. It’s a curse because the collection is massive – it takes up an immense amount of valuable warehouse shelving space; it is unwieldy – the boxes are heavy – and partially disorganized – there are boxes that have been opened once, then never opened again once they were sorted into the wire-guide group as opposed to the agate & agatine group; and because it bears a weight of obligation: when a maker or restorationist needs a guide, someone in the shop, usually me, spends time looking through the bins, measuring instruments in hand, trying to find a part of the style and size requisite to the project at hand.

At one point we were going to offer a print catalog – going so far as to commission a painting for the cover (now scanned and on the website), but that catalog never materialized; the cost to print and distribute the catalog, not to mention the labor hours that would have been invested in mapping out the content, would have overwhelmed all possible revenue we could ever hope to derive from these parts. The gold mine Golden Witch bought, paid for through a decade of slogging through week after week of auction listings on eBay, turned out to be just that: a mine. Like anyone who staked a claim and began to dig, I learned that the digging is most of what you do. There’s relatively little gold, and set against the labor, it’s barely worthwhile from a dollar perspective. Levi Strauss and C.C. Filson made their money the saner way, selling necessaries to the miners. In the same way, the folks who made their easy money off of my claim were the firms selling shelving, inventory bins, warehouse space, and insurance. But there is some money, which helps to justify keeping the collection, working this mine. Mostly though, it’s a labor of love. I enjoy handling the old parts when I go hunting for that Goldilocks “just right” part that will help to improve, perhaps even define, another rodmaker’s current project.

I don’t identify so much with the actual makers of the individual parts – these were mass produced, although at a time when ‘mass’ production meant thousands of parts over a period of weeks, not hundreds of thousands of parts at a piece per second or several seconds (go watch some CNC wire-bending machines in action if you doubt this statement). No, the fellows I identify with are the designers. These pieces, many of them, have an intrinsic beauty despite the fact they were envisioned and made, ultimately, as one small part on a larger tool designed to catch fish in a relatively inefficient manner. The designers were classically trained and had wonderful eyes for scale and proportion, for the ratios of height to width, diameter to thickness, for color harmony and contrast, for aesthetics amid functional tasks. I think of them when I’m sketching out guide designs, or other component designs. My son, Drake, the one who can convert my rough sketches, my tables of prospective measurements, into CAD drawings, must contend with my eye which itself is informed by these early component designers. I make him re-do his computer renderings again and again, tweaking, adjusting, setting visual options side by side. Now, approaching two years into his formal Project Lead The Way education as a budding engineer and, by dint of being my kid, a designer of fishing rod components, he’s getting the knack. He has come to me with parts I never asked him to design and said, “hey, dad, look at this winding check…how would that look?” And it looks good. In the coming years you’ll get to see more of our collaborative efforts. Right now, the first showpiece of our joint efforts is the new Hexagate ™ hexagonal agate guide offered under our Arcane Component Works brand. We have dozens of other components already designed, years’ worth of slow introductions.

This collection has yielded some gems. The Silver Snake Hook Tenders are one of those items. I kept passing by those boxes on the shelves, wondering why I kept them. They were nickel silver – worth more money simply melted down and recycled than sitting there, year after year, taking up space. But they were gorgeous, at least to an eye attuned to the curvature of a fine snake guide, the splay of well-formed paddle feet. Yet they were not functional as guides. They were formed of relatively flat stock, not round stock, so they were edgy, not curvaceous in cross-section….not ideal for fly lines to be shooting through. And, again, they were made of nickel silver, a fine metal for making guide frames, but too soft to endure the long term abrasion of direct contact with a line. And they were never intended to be used as snake guides, despite appearances. They were the frames that snapped shut around small, fluted, porcelain rings. In other words, they were the first attempt I know of at creating lined guides for fly rods. Some designer took the venerable snake guide and mated it conceptually with the brand new synthetic rings – the porcelain rings – that were intended to outperform (at least in terms of price) the traditional synthetic rings, agatines, and their forebears, the natural stone rings. Now, decades later, the most cutting edge of the modern flyrods use ceramic lined, albeit single foot, guides. The ceramics have improved vastly, the guides are light and functional, but the looks, the visual allure, have been tossed by the wayside. So, here I was sitting on boxes, one size per box, of half a guide – the frames. Beautiful frames. And what good were they for? Then, re-reading the book on Dickerson one day, I got the urge to re-introduce his fancy little hook tenders, the twisted ‘loop the loop’ tenders that were apparently his original concept. As I made more and more of the prototype twisted tenders, I started thinking about those boxes of snake-like frames on the warehouse shelf. I took a flashlight to help me find them – the shelving is closely spaced, so even with overhead lighting, a flashlight helps. Pulling out several in each size, I walked them to my bench and set them down. Beautiful! That’s when I realized they could be re-imaged as ‘loop the loop’ hook tenders, but with the loop perpendicular to the axis of the feet, contra Dickerson, yes, but only by ninety degrees. And since they were already made, I could sell them much more affordably than the twisted tenders I was making by hand – each sale just had to help cover the expense of warehousing the collection, hangtag design & printing, a small plastic bag…you get the idea. There’s a bigger idea here, too. If you – YOU – immerse yourself in the world of fishing tackle, or knife making, or bow making, if you open yourself to historic influence within the bounds of your chosen craft, you will have vastly more opportunity to be productively creative. Now I make and sell over a dozen variants of the Dickerson-inspired Twisted Hook Tenders….several sizes each in plain nickel silver wire, sterling silver, 18k Yellow Gold, plus options in rope silver and rope gold, the latter of which become twice twisted visually. However, in part due to price point, in part due to the old perfection of design, we sell vastly more Silver Snake Hook Tenders. This is pleasing to me – the parts were intended for rods and now they’re being used on rods. An entire generation of rodmakers, ours, is using these tenders on an increasing percentage of their rods – admittedly, a teeny percentage compared to the tens of thousands of rods being made with cheap, plated steel, inverted U tenders, but none-the-less, in fifty years or a hundred years there will be tackle historians looking at these rods and seeing, with noticeable frequency, these re-purposed guide frames standing stead as hook tenders, honoring an earlier history and being both beautiful and functional in their assigned task. That’s pretty cool.

So what else lurks in this collection? Just wait…you’ll see. The new website is giving me the platform I need to publish information about the collection, as well as being a sales tool that makes it possible to offer these items for sale in a manner that is affordable for the company given the sporadic needs of rodmakers…permanent listings on auction sites, coupled with all their fees, made it increasingly unpleasant to operate in that fashion. This new site is something else again. Bear in mind that I don’t always wear a watch; I never carry a cell phone; the graphics designer behind the site and all our hang tags, Matt, calls me a Luddite. But, amazingly enough, I can function within the background of the site that he created, so the company can afford to present obscurities for sale and keep them listed until you find the one you need for that once in a lifetime project.

And now I need to discuss other aspects of buying and selling vintage parts because there are some common misconceptions, most centered around money, that need to be cleared up.

I started buying component collections when I was in my early twenties. It’s sad to say, but many folks I bought from, or have made offers to, but who have refused those offers, are grumpy about the dollars involved. Not in all cases, so if this shoe fits, wear it. Otherwise, don’t. There is a very general misconception that each and every part has a dollar value close to the potential resale value of a single instance of that part. In other words, if I can sell a vintage agate guide for $35.00 or more, then every such guide is worth that much. A fellow might offer me a collection of 100 guides, and hope to get something like $2500.00 for the parts, thinking this allows me to earn a thousand dollars as I sell them. No thanks. By the time the company – that’s me, or one of my kids, or a staffer – has taken the time to inventory the parts, catalog them into bins according size/style/material, take photos and measurements as appropriate, get them listed for sale, given them warehouse space for years on end, insured them for years on end, we need much higher margins to even hope of staying in business. The actual value of most vintage parts is zero. Less than zero, actually, if you consider the expenses in inventorying an essentially valueless item. They sit here, collecting dust, until that one fine moment when a particular rodmaker needs a particular part, or two. At that moment, the parts sold – and it can be none in a given week, or dozens – must cover all the current overhead expenses associated with the collection, and generate a few bucks for a paycheck. The miner finds a flake of gold.

That first substantial collection I bought through the company was owned by a cantankerous old rodmaker here on the U.S. east coast. He drove the collection to the shop expecting me to be overawed in the presence of his vintage parts. Visually, I was. But thank goodness I’d seen bigger collections and had a sense of what these parts offered relative to what was out there in the wider world. It was a nice batch, but not an exceptional batch. After much talk, some with the rodmaker, some amongst my staff while the rodmaker patiently waited outside the shop, I made an offer. He was appalled. I think he fumed. I know he glared. And he grabbed his boxes of parts and stormed out. But he didn’t drive away. He wanted that check. He came back into the shop and tried to sell me just the agates for the same figure. I said, no thanks. I wanted all the parts – the little carbide guides that I might sell for five bucks each – alongside the agates. He left again. He returned again. He was absolutely sure I was screwing him over, or that’s the impression he tried to give off. The truth was, he was trying to screw me over. He thought I’d be naïve enough to help fund his retirement by overpaying for a dusty collection that was serving no purpose in his little-used shop, a collection I knew it would take years and years to sell through. Finally he relented. I got the collection. But it was a pyrrhic victory.   Before the deal, he was – or acted as – a perfect gentleman towards me. His early rods were lovely, and I told him as much, though he didn’t need to hear that from a kid. He was, within our curious little angling sideshow, famous. But he liked hearing the praise enough that he showed me more of his rods. They influenced my own work in positive ways, mostly in terms of grip design. After the deal, it was nasty. Everyone was frustrated and there was bad blood. I don’t need that crap.

I didn’t purchase another big collection until I bought the beast, the huge European collection. It was presented to me as good deal for my company. The sum was overwhelming, but I had ten years to pay it off, interest free. The per-part price was infinitesimal, which would allow me to earn some good money once I’d worked the collection hard enough to pay back the debt of acquisition. My company paid the debt off in a timely fashion. To the best of my knowledge, everyone was happy. Now, within the industry, more and more folks know that I have this collection. And they don’t want to buy it, they want to sell me their collections. But almost without fail, they’re approaching this like that first, famous, rodmaker, trying to retire – or at least take a fine vacation – by selling a huge number of parts at close to retail. It just doesn’t work like that. These parts aren’t gold. They are not fungible; they are not liquid. They are not a readily exchangeable commodity. They are an obscurity, imbued with value only when needed. Almost like knowledge (says the bookworm, trying to justify that other collection of obscurities). That’s why owning a collection of these parts is like owning a gold mine, not like owning a safe full of gold. If I had a safe full of gold, I could retire when I wanted to, exchanging that gold for a small house on a favorite island, and the leisure to go hiking, sailing, and fishing. Instead, I own a gold mine. I work it every week, and for my work I earn a bit of pay, which allows me to provide, partially, for my wife and kids. Someday I might sell this gold mine, or pass it along if one of my kids is interested. Even with fewer guides in the collection, i.e., smaller by the thousands I’ve sold over the years, it will be worth more because of my investment: the shelves, the bins, the organization, the sales tool that the new website will become, the simple fact that folks know the collection exists and can be made use of. But no-one will offer to buy the lot for even $3.00/part. This stuff isn’t gold. It’s work. The work, hunting for parts, maintaining the collection in a low-humidity atmosphere, is what translates the collection into some money, slowly, over a long period of time.

Now I do my very best to be up front with folks, to set their expectations in line with reality when they send me pictures of their component collection. First, I’m a guide guy. I do have some old ferrules, seats, and winding checks, but those I see as stepping off points for component design. I generally don’t sell them because it’s not worth my time to get involved in that stuff. If the parts are guides, or parts of guides, I’m substantially more intrigued. Second, to a buyer in bulk, old parts that don’t come with a sales mechanism built in, and none do, are worth pennies, not dollars. You could get me to write a check for thousands of dollars, but only by presenting me with tens, or hundreds, of thousands of parts that I think I can resell in my retail lifetime. And that lifetime is shrinking. I’m not ready to retire, but my kids are soon going to be in college and retirement is a reasonable thing for me to consider, so I’m not that interested in purchasing so many iterations of a single part that my kids and I won’t sell them in the next 100 years. It just doesn’t make sense, unless the price is so low that I can recoup my investment selling a few hundred of them over the next ten years; that, I don’t mind.

In some senses, watching over this collection is like curating a museum’s artifacts. But rather than subsisting on donations or, worse, grants (remember, grants are largely derived from tax money, money taken from our fellow citizens and used to support specific projects which, likely, do not benefit the folks from whom those dollars were extracted), this collection subsists through attrition by purchase. As the collection is diminished by the sale of this or that part, it is enhanced in the sense that it persists over time as a collection available to rodmakers and restorationists; it even grows when the funds it generates justify buying other, smaller, collections. There’s another way it grows – more on that below. It’s always exciting when I can delve into the bins and emerge with a part that suits some particular maker’s needs. As I spend more of my time, and more of the company’s funds paying for website work, this collection needs to pay its own way forward. You can help. Not by donating, but by purchasing one nice guide – an agate or agatine – or a set of relatively inexpensive wire guides, and then put these guides to use on one single rod this year. If all the GW and ACW clients built a single rod that relied on, say $35.00 to $50.00 worth of vintage guides, this effort to manage the collection, to get it posted on-line in increasingly larger portions, would be entirely justified. There are thousands of you out there, so a little bit is magnified substantially when everyone, everyone who can find a way to benefit, participates. For those of you who make rods, let your angling clients know about the collection. Urge them to select a guide or guide set from the site. For those of you who stumble on the site and are not rodmakers, find a rodmaker who will utilize parts from the vintage collection and commission a rod. I know one maker who makes large scale bamboo flyrods, rods designed to catch salmon and steelhead. He’s using prong tiptops out of the collection. Over time, they might come to be one signature element of many that define his tackle….they function for him because they’re relatively affordable and they’re flexible in that one little stash of tiptops can fit a range of rod tips, unlike tiptops that rely on tubes of a fixed diameter.

We’re also going to list a variety of guide components. Vintage rings, vintage frames. I’ll write up a little bit of instruction. You might be able make guides for your own rods from these loose parts. You can even creatively destroy parts to make new parts. The big victim of creative destruction is old tiptops. Very few rods need large vintage, agate or agatine, tips. But we have thousands and thousands of them. All those glorious glass and stone rings, nearly all with bezels wrapped snugly in place, are sitting in the bins. With the judicious use of heat, you can de-solder the rings from the tiptop frames and reinstate these rings in guide frames. This is not unlike re-imagining old frames and repurposing them as hook tenders so that they’ll see use on tackle, which was the original intent under which they came into existence. Tiptop rings repurposed as stripping guide rings opens up the field of guide making to vast creativity. Believe me: to produce fresh-cut agate or agatine guides affordably requires an economy of scale which is not accessible in the larger sizes. With new production, I don’t want to stray much beyond 8mm – 12mm rings, though over time I may slowly work my way into a couple larger sizes. I’ll never make something larger than 18mm – 20mm. There simply is not enough demand to justify a production run of rings and bezels beyond a certain size. But when your next project demands a larger guide, they can be made. Sacrifice a tiptop. At least the ring will live on, helping to catch fish.

Actual Donations. No, we don’t accept cash donations. We do, however, accept donations of parts. Yes, we’ve had folks mail small to moderate packages of parts, at no charge, to the shop and so the collection has grown in this fashion, too. The expectation is that we’ll house the parts and make them available to rodmakers. And we are happy to do this. Guides get ‘cataloged’ into the bins. Other parts await a more fortuitous time, but at least they’re stored in a controlled environment so they’re not decaying, corroding. Over a period of decades these parts will slowly filter out of the shop and into the hands of new talent, becoming one critical tidbit of some maker’s next masterpiece. For some folks retiring from the business, this is worthwhile. It provides a nice counter to the folks who are unrealistically looking to get rich quick off the treasure trove of chrome plated ferrules in their basement. My advice, always, if you want to maximize your personal return on old parts is to sell them individually, over time, on eBay or Etsy. You’ll invest a lot of effort, but you’ll get the highest dollar; only you can judge the value of your time. Please, whatever you do, don’t throw the old parts away. Send them to a sporting auction house, or to one of the fellows who runs a list of vintage tackle. You’ll be dealing with these venues on a consignment basis; don’t expect cash until after the sale. If you’ve read this far into my rambling post, you know these parts aren’t worth a lot of money, so you won’t make a lot of money, and you’ll give up half the sales price to the consignment fees, but at least you’ll be preserving the parts for future generations. If you’ve got really unique pieces, consider a donation to one of the bona fide fishing museums. This way, at least, you’ll get a tax write-off and that might provide a more substantive benefit than you could get from a sale; there’s also the wonderful, intangible, benefit of helping the museum to expand their collection. So many options – none of which are the dumpster. Do your part, whatever that part may be, to help preserve and enhance the history of our craft.

The End.