Apprenticeships: Second Step to Mastery

I wrote this a long time back and it wound up being published in RodMaker Magazine.   Maybe it’s worth reading if you’re curious about these sorts of things.  Beneath the article is a scan of the magazine cover, showing one of Daryll’s rods.


Apprenticeships: The Second Step To Mastery

by Russ Gooding

If an apprenticeship is the second step to mastery, what is the first?  Passion.  I’m not talking about puppy love or crash & burn fireworks.  I mean an enduring passion that has already survived several years’ trials and travails.  Just as you’d be wise not to marry at the first flush of lust, you’d be well advised not to seek an apprenticeship after only building one rod, or even ten.  Remember that whether you fall by happenstance into an apprenticeship, or politely pester a craftsman into letting you visit his shop, you are requesting of the master rodmaker a gift of time and resources so demanding that it cannot be given but on rare occasion over the course of an entire lifetime.  Be certain of your commitment before engaging their’s.

If you build rods in your free time to the detriment of your time spent on the water, if you read tool and component catalogs on the john, if you read this magazine when it arrives rather than attending to pressing business or personal matters, if you have memorized a couple rod making books, and if you bore your significant other to tears with talk of “fishin’ poles,” then you might be committed.  Rather, you ought to be committed.  If your obsession borders on a medical condition, you’ve gotten there.  By this point you’ll have built enough rods over a long enough time period to think you’re pretty damn good.  Now it’s time to have a master evaluate your rods, put your ego in check, and teach you the most important lesson:  you still have a few tricks to learn – and you always will.

Though there are stories about young men walking into a rod shop, intent on making a purchase then getting back to the stream, who wind up staying on and mastering the craft – Doug Merrick of R. L. Winston fame comes to mind – this is the exception.  I think more apprenticeships come about by sheer persistence.  Mine did.

A fly shop owner, for whom I made custom graphite rods and did cane restoration work, urged me to start building cane rods from scratch.  Though I’d read a number of books on history and technique as I taught myself how to restore rods, my predominant thought was, “Where to begin?”  I gave voice to the question.

“If you can get into his shop, Daryll Whitehead lives close,” was the response.  “He’s a real bastard, and a slave-driving taskmaster, but boy can he build rods.”

That night I found Mr. Whitehead written up in several books.  His reputation for quality was obvious.  After some hesitation, I wrote a letter requesting an apprenticeship.  To all appearances, it was ignored.  Months later Mr. Whitehead posted a note on the Rod Maker’s Listserver.  I emailed a private query regarding the letter I’d sent.  Very shortly the phone rang and the interrogation began.

In the time between my two letters, Mr. Whitehead had visited the shop owner I’d given as a reference and had looked over my graphite rods and a pair of cane rods I’d restored.  I was grilled for over an hour, but I passed muster and was invited to the shop.  For nearly two years I was privileged to work in a real master’s shop.  I learned by observation, by practical work, and by generous answers to a never ending flood of questions.  I won’t claim to have mastered cane rodmaking.  There is still a lot to be learned about tapers and more exotic construction techniques and that will take the rest of my life, but I left Mr. Whitehead’s shop able to make and finish a rod with the best of them.  More importantly I earned a valuable friend and ally in the industry.

Enter a master’s shop and you can expect to accrue a number of benefits.  Friendship excepted, the most important thing you’ll take away from a man who’s been in the industry for years is a sense of tradition.  Whether you’re making cane fly rods or fiberglass tuna rods, there is a history and a historical aesthetic that your clients will expect.  My sales improved noticeably when I stopped pushing all my potential clients toward hyper-modern rods and developed a respect for the builders and styles that preceded me.  Undersized grips and snake guides sell more fly rods than larger, more comfortable grips and cutting-edge, single-foot guides with ceramic rings.  When I started the apprenticeship Daryll complimented my wrapping and finishing abilities, but not before condemning my modern aesthetics.  I’ve finally found sound commercial success by building classically styled rods for all but the few clients who are willing to experiment with more radical (non-historical, non-factory) rod designs.

Growing up, I was the kid who put my hand on the hot stove rather than trusting my parents’ prior experience when they warned me about the pain of second degree burns.  In my early rodmaking, I got burned a number of times by not heeding the good advice available in print.  And on occasion I benefited from my obstinacy by discovering some new trick.  In Daryll’s shop, despite his warnings that bamboo froes aren’t near so good for splitting cane as a dull, fixed-blade hunting knife, I tried the froe I just spent good money on.  This was my second visit.  I now agree with Daryll.  The handle of a froe is just an extension of the tang and has no scales (grips) to lend control to the froe.  I slipped and the keen froe split my left pointer finger to the bone, severing 90% of the extensor tendon and putting my left hand into therapy for several months.  After apologizing to Daryll for the blood puddle I’d left for him to mop up when I took off to the hospital, I also promised to take his advice more seriously.  Through this extreme example I learned the second benefit of an apprenticeship:  mistakes have already been made; knowledge has been distilled.  Take advantage of this knowledge.  When Daryll told me how to fit a ferrule or straighten a blank, I didn’t argue with him.  This allowed me to benefit immediately from his years of trial and error, saving me an immeasurable amount of time.

Corollary to the previous lesson which Daryll later put to me more pithily when I asked about an alternate technique, “My shop, my methods, or get the hell out,” is the notion that along with delivering over his perfected methods of construction he delivered information on a wealth of tools and materials that suit his methods.  I was to use this plane, this silk, and this varnish.  Low and behold, they worked.  Daryll saved me years of searching and thousands of dollars by telling me exactly what to buy and who to purchase from.  As some of you may know from reading through my web site, I was also sent on a few wild goose chases – alcohol lamps being foremost among them – in order to provide Daryll with a chuckle and to emphasize the value of the knowledge he passed to me on a daily basis.  With rare exception, the other tools I purchased to try in my own shop when Daryll wasn’t looking now collect dust.  I have a well ornamented shop.

In the same breath that I say I saved money by purchasing the right tools for the job, I can also say that the apprenticeship was financially exhausting.  I was given fair warning before I started that my first year would be an expensive one.  Was it ever.  At nearly every meeting I was given a tool or list of tools to acquire for the next.  If I wanted to continue the apprenticeship, there was no choice.  You think your wife or girlfriend thought you crazy before you started this wonderful ordeal, well, forget cuddling, she’ll be ready to cudgel you when you begin forfeiting dinners out and romantic silks in favor of rod whipping silks, $100.00 planes, and $70.00 cans of varnish.  Do yourself a favor and bulk up your bank account before beginning an apprenticeship.

Like any relationship, the apprenticeship should benefit both parties.  Make the master respect his decision to allow you into his shop.  Take your reprimands with decorum, try not to make mistakes twice, and do justice to the master rodmaker by keeping a notebook so that you needn’t ask twice.  Practice previously demonstrated techniques on your own time so you don’t waste his.  Ask intelligent questions because the truth is, by the time you’ve committed to an apprenticeship, your dumb, i.e., supremely basic, questions should have been answered by all the books and articles you’ve read.  But how does this benefit the master?  He’ll be proud of you, proud that his accomplishments were sufficient to draw your devoted attention, proud to have you leave his shop as a “Protégé of….,” and proud to have passed down his skills to another generation.

The ancient Greeks have a term that is most apropos: Kleos.  Kleos is a man’s legend, his immortal remains.  Someday, fifty years hence, I may be a great cane rodmaker, but I owe a good portion of who I become to Daryll’s tutelage.  If I do justice to Daryll’s methods, it is his kleos that will be enhanced because I will always remain a product of “The Whitehead School” of rodmakers.  About a dozen men and one woman share this distinction.  Most are serious hobbyists, but a couple answer, or have answered, to the job title of “Rodmaker.”  All of us are responsible for Daryll Whitehead’s kleos and he did not give us that responsibility without due consideration and training to the best of his ability.  Kleos, even if never mentioned by a modest master, ranks a close second behind friendship in accepting an apprentice.  Honor that and you’ll do well.

I hope that the second step to mastery sounds appealing to a few of you.  There are a lot of older men out there, and a few women too I’m sure, who have decades of experience that they’d be willing to share with the right student.  Avail yourself to a local master, practice your craft rigorously,  and you will not regret your efforts.  In the end I learned that the master I chose wasn’t the bastard he was reputed to be, but a perfectionist whose high standards and hard earned secrets were waiting to be passed along.  Someday I hope to continue the tradition.

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