The Elusive Quad Guide

I’ve been sitting on a half-conceived ramble about making quadrate guides for a long while. Simmering. Cooling Off. Cogitating.

Please take this ramble as I intended my original emails within this post to be taken. Take the words as helpful, as informative, as well-intentioned, and as an honest summation of why it is completely impractical for Golden Witch as a company, or for me as an individual craftsman, to offer quad guides. If you’re patient, if you read to the bottom of my longest email located near the end of this post, you might learn something worthwhile about tackling craft-oriented problems. Or not.

Here is Matt’s imaginative rendition of the elusive quad guide.

If you’ve taken the time to read the fine print on the Golden Witch terms and conditions page, you’ll find that there’s a section devoted to ‘quoting.’ That section basically says that if you write to the company through our contact page form, by email, or by handwritten letter, we reserve the right to quote you. Often, following a quote, we provide a first name and last initial, both as a way of indicating authenticity for the quotes, and as a way of tipping our hats. In this case, I’ll assure you the quotes are real, but I’m not going to share the gent’s name.

This all starts out pretty nicely. Bear with the conversation. It gets more involved, and eventually my craftsmanship is called into question, apparently because I use task specific tools to accomplish the various steps of making guides at a financially rewarding pace.

Hello. I saw that you have some very fancy stripping guides for sale, some of which are hexagonal. That is a great option for those who are putting together a standard shaped fly rod, but I don’t see a shape that I would really like to use for my first project rod, which is a quadrate. Could the company that makes your hex guides, make a run of square stripping guides? I’m having a hard time finding one. I’m sure these would be a big hit with those who own or are making/building quadrate rods. A square-shaped one with your rope twist wire would look terrific. Have a good weekend. Best regards, -(Anonymous)

My response:

Hi Xxxxxxx,

Thanks very much for writing.

My son, Drake, and I make the Hexagates here in the shop; he actually did the initial CAD design work as a project his senior year in high school.  Full disclosure: I do sub out the lapidary work to rough cut the hexagonal stones.  That’s where the problem arises when it comes to other stone configurations, like squared stone rings for quadrate rods.  The minimum order for us to have the jigging made to create the hexed stones was, as it turns out, irrational.  I thought we’d sell more of the Hexagates.  They sell, but it’s taken us years to break even just on the 10mm size, so we won’t ever make Hexagates in 9mm or 11mm, which had been our original plan.  Suffice to say, so few fellows make quad rods compared to hex rods, that we’d never recover our investment if we cut a batch of square stones (literally thousands have to be cut to justify the initial tooling and CAD programing expenses).  To give you a sense for potential sales volume, I get a request like yours a few times each year…I’d need a few requests every day for a year to want to make the investment in square stones.  On the flip side, an enterprising maker could, with relative technical ease, make their own square agate as a one-off project.  It would be ghastly expensive if you were accounting for your time, and all the lapidary equipment (slabbing, core drilling, polishing, etc.) you’d have to purchase to make the ring, but if you were doing it for fun, it is doable.

I’m sorry I don’t have a more positive answer for you.  If there were a hundred thousand makers working on bamboo rods, as opposed to a small fraction of that figure, a world of possibilities would open up to the manufacturers who earn their keep selling into this niche market.

I sincerely hope Drake, Nikki, Matt, & I can be of better service in some other regard.  I’ll be back in the office on Monday if you have more questions.

My best,

Russ

He responded:

No, Russ, thanks for the information. I’ll have to learn another skill set to make my own. [name of a non-commercial maker deleted for privacy], makes them (as well as hexagonal ones), but he wont make one for me. He says they are labor intensive, but after looking at all his pics of how the round ones are made, it appears that the square ones are actually easier to make. I’ve seen a pentagonal one, also. I’ll have to do it my self, I guess. Mike at Snake Brand guides, told me that Joe Arguello might make one for me, so I sent him an e-mail yesterday. I appreciate you taking the time to explain all this to me, instead of just blowing me off with a very short e-mail. Have a good weekend. Best regards, – (Anonymous)

Oh, by the way, I will be buying some of your fancy ( I forgot what word you used to name them) parts, like the rope-twist hook keeper and when I do a hex rod, I’ll buy one of your hex stripping guides, too. I’ll go ahead and buy them both at the same time.

Couldn’t have been more polite. I responded:

Hi Xxxxxxx,

Thanks for both your reply notes.  I always try to give a fair response when fellow rodmakers shoot me an email.  Even though I’ve been at this for several decades now, I remember when I was hunting information in my early days and I ran into more blank walls than responses.

If you haven’t already discovered this:  http://www.rodmakers.eu/  – it’s worth discovering.  There are one or two articles in all those on-line issues about making guides, and lots of other interesting articles.

When you’re ready, I’ll look forward to making some parts for you.  Drake & I always appreciate the business.  It’s what keeps GW ticking along.  As general FYI, be sure to watch the front page of the GW website for note about upcoming closures, lead times on making custom items before closures, and the dread “Patience” slider (the Amish horse & buggy image) which generally indicates that we’re backlogged more than usual.

Have great fun on your quest to make quad guides!

-Russ

Then this showed up:

Russ, thanks for the reply. What parts could you make for me? I know you said you can’t make a square stripping guide a commercial success, but could you or someone you know, make a square stripping guide? Have a great week. Sincerely, – (Anonymous)

Hi Xxxxxx,

I’m sorry, but a quad guide is just not a project I can get involved with personally.  Running GW, Peak Bamboo, & Arcane Component Works already eats up more time than I should be spending on business endeavors.  Joe [Arguello] would have been the first person I’d suggest for a project like this, but in the same breath I say that, I believe he wrote an article talking about how one-off agate guides (of any sort) are something like a $500.00 or $600.00 prospect…and that’s why everyone selling the things has found various ways to incorporate small-scale production techniques into a limited range of product configurations.

While I could certainly be wrong, I suspect that making a square guide will be something you’ll have to tackle on your own, start to finish – a winter’s project of reading & experimentation.  Depending on where you live, you might have someone nearby who offers classes on lapidary work in particular and jewelry work in general (which is great for learning how to bend wire, weld, solder, and more).  Kind regards, Russ

I’m sorry but this is a bit damned ridiculous. Anyone who makes a round one, can make a square one with very little change in how they shape the agate. It doesn’t take genius or rocket science to put one together. I saw where someone had a 6-sided one made I think for $65. or so? I’ll just have to settle right now for a round one. One company, maybe yours, makes a hex stripping guide. Anyone willing to pay $500.-$600. for a stripping guide is a complete LOON. The person charging such a usury fee is EQUALLY crazy and dishonest. Sorry. I know what is a rip-off in this world and what is not. Thanks. – (Anonymous)

Side note: Joe Arguello mentioned that $600 guide in a post on The Classic Fly Rod Forum, which you can still find if you bother to hunt for it.

I really dislike leaving an email string when my client or potential client is unhappy with events. At this point, I stopped work and spent a couple hours mulling over and drafting a response. This one:

Hi Xxxxxx,

I want to address what seems to be a misunderstanding of my previous note.  Please pardon typos – I was typing fast.

I never said Joe ACTUALLY charged $500-$600 for a single guide.  He wrote an article or post indicating the rough outlines of what goes into a crafting a single guide – a task very much opposed to crafting guides in batches, assembly line style using uniform parts and uniform procedures – and he indicated his estimate of the time value invested in crafting that one-off guide.  No-one is charging that amount and no-one is paying that amount for a standard agate guide mounted in a nickel silver frame (guides made with precious stones, precious metals for the bezel or frame, or using ornate casting methods, e.g., the Mayfly guide you may have seen pictures of, might easily sell for those prices, but that’s another matter entirely).  Joe’s point, and one that I echo, is simply that designing and manufacturing a truly custom guide…custom in style, size, etc., as opposed to a minor variant using pre-made parts….is a time consuming endeavor and his talented time is worth quite a bit.  Further, and speaking only for myself even if I may hit on a notion common to other craftsmen and women, there’s simply a limit to how many hours a person can work.  If you’re making a sufficient living doing what you do, you need to spend time away from work – with your spouse & kids, hunting or fishing, reading, writing, whatever.  Not every opportunity to make a buck is appealing, even if you love the craft and have devoted your life to the craft.  Time away from the craft revitalizes your drive to keep at what becomes a rather repetitive series of tasks when measured in decades.  What is probably a hobby for you and so many thousands of my clients, is a matter of earning my daily bread.  For you, rodmaking is most likely recreational, even if you  sell some rods.  This is a wonderful thing.  It’s what you do to de-stress from your day job, or, if retired, to get some alone-time, meditative craft time, in the shop apart from whomever you may live with.  I could be wrong about you, but this describes the vast majority of our clients.  Very few of our clients make fishing rods, make parts, teach, or are otherwise involved in tackle-craft 70 or more hours per week as a means of paying their mortgage.  I strongly believe that all the hobby makers – among them the most talented of all rodmakers – are the lifeblood of the craft.  Serious non-professional rodmakers – and by ‘non-professional’ I do not diminish their craft output or quality, I only mean that they do not rely on rodmaking for their income – perpetuate the craft.  If there weren’t thousands of interested makers, there wouldn’t be books, videos, and classes on the subject, nor would small businesses survive by catering exclusively or partially to these craft-anglers.  If bamboo rods are still made in two hundred years when ‘humanity’ has merged with machines (my son is a fan of Elon Musk; I’m not), it will be because of the continued interest of a few thousand folks, an ever-shifting affiliation of interested parties that spans generations, who take satisfaction by partaking in a centuries old craft and an outmoded method for putting protein on the table.

I can make guide frames all day and I can make them fairly quickly, but only once I have the frame designed and the jigging made.  Making a new frame, one with a different wire diameter, a different height, different geometry in terms of all the curves and angles, different foot length and foot style – this can easily take two days of shop time.  I’ve done it several times and it’s a fun (& maddening) challenge.  You wind up making many guides, each with a frame that’s tweaked this way or that, until you get one that suits the eye, and the eye – my eye often combined with my client’s eye – is everything.   I made a large salmon guide for a friend using a vintage stone that I reground and polished, along with a custom designed & welded frame.  Had I charged him for my time on this project, and I didn’t even cut the stone from a raw slab of agate, $500.00 would have been undercharging relative to the effort invested (picture attached).

 

The tooling it took to make that single frame cost the shop around $15,000.  Among other tools, I purchased a large hydraulic press, a rolling mill, and a TIG welding set-up.  These are tools that I learned to use by making that one custom guide frame, and which are now in regular use in the GW shop.  I bought all that equipment to speed up my day to day operations, but I was ‘forced’ to get off my duff and buy them to make that one particular guide because my hand tools were not sufficient to form the stiff wire required for that heavy wire frame.  Suffice to say, these small-scale industrial tools make quick work of lighter material.  In another year, I’ll have that round of tooling paid off, something that’s taken a portion of the nominal profit from thousands of guides to accomplish.  That’s another reason one-off guides can be very, very expensive to make: tooling costs.

Allow me a brief, related, example.  I am NOT a master of the lathe, but I can turn simple objects.  Winding checks, even the most ornate, are fairly simple.  The time it took me to make one single Broad Winding Check…something I used to do for every rod I made… was significant even after it became almost routine, in part because I’m slow, and in part because my lathe is ancient and not the least bit automated except for spinning in circles.  I could never sell my own shop-made winding checks for a price that would be acceptable to other makers when I was making them one at a time.  However, I took a single shop-made example to a designer, had him CAD render it as an exact match to the sample at 25/64, then he scaled it to be proportional with bores ranging from 16/64 to 30/64.  We churned these out by the thousand, in a run on a fully computer controlled lathe, and now each individual part is affordable – the production run itself, and the design work before the production run, was still expensive.

Same goes for stone cutting.  I sub out my lapidary work because I haven’t invested in the tooling to make most of the stone rings we use.  I’ve dabbled, but dabbling  in making donuts out of agate was enough to convince me that hiring a professional lapidary craftsman is the way to go.  I don’t have time to do everything, and that’s one piece of everything I don’t care to mess with.  There’s still time and large expenses involved in using lapidary folks.  Designing stones for a lapidary team to cut is – just at the visual stage – a multi-day task for two people since I’m not computer savvy.  Once the stone is designed, it can be scaled with relative ease, but getting a stone to look right in terms of proportion, angles, bevels, bore, thickness, fluting, and such, is momentarily time consuming each time a new design must be rendered.  It’s one thing to sketch an idea on paper, which is the best my drawing talents afford, and it’s another thing entirely to have a fellow work from that rough sketch and some initial dimensions and create a CAD rendering that suits what is inside my mind.  You’re right, it’s not rocket science, but it’s hours and hours of mixing concept art with computerized drafting, and that’s just to get a precise drawing for the lap team so that the expectations are clear, down to the thousandth of an inch, before the first ring is cut & polished.  There’s very little room for error at this stage, because once the contract is signed the money is as good as gone and you really want to get useable parts for that investment.  The lapidary team has to do the set-up, or even manufacture the jigging, to craft a particular stone ring – donut, hex, or what have you – and that takes time and money.  Then they cut thousands and thousands of rings, a fair portion of which are rejected for various reasons…internal fissures, outright cracking, stone porosity, etc.  The bill for having one ‘single’ new ring made is exorbitant, because designing and manufacturing rings the way we do takes a purchase of thousands of specification-identical rings, differing only in the raw material used, i.e., several hundred red agate, several hundred onyx, several hundred moss agate….several thousand total for the initial order to justify the set-up expenses by splitting it over a large number of rough-cut rings.  When I retire or die, the most important bit of inventory someone might want to buy from Golden Witch is the collection of agate rings in our safe.  I have enough rings for at least two lifetimes, yet to earn a living I’ve had to pay them off in a fraction of one lifetime.  That’s a lot of completed guides.

Yes, one fellow can make one or two agate rings start to finish as a one-off project, but you can’t do that and earn a living if you’re offering the parts for sale at a price the market considers reasonable.  This is precisely why no-one making guides professionally (at least no-one I know of) wants to make a one-off.  It’s also why there are articles & posts you can find on how to make these yourself – other makers have succeeded.  The fellows with the Italian Rodmakers group I sent you the link to did a nice job of showing what can be done with agate guides in a non-production shop.  Amazon is loaded with books on metal forming, wire bending, welding, soldering, & stone cutting (I’ve bought and read most of them, as have other ‘jewelers’ in the rodmaking world I’m sure).  Books and articles are a fine place to start.  Classes are a good compliment to reading.  Nothing, though, will take the place of buying raw materials – agate and nickel silver wire – and starting to cut stone and bend wire.  Weeks at the bench will yield positive results if you remember that every failure is one tiny fraction of the learning curve – you learn, bit by bit, what does not achieve your goal and at the same time you become increasingly adept with your tools.  The moment you put your mind, and your hands, to the work of making a single guide that suits your eye in terms of proportion and quality of finish, you’ll realize how much intellectual effort and accumulated craft know-how goes into this seemingly simple task.  This doesn’t make the pro guide-makers into heroes of any sort, but it does make them, more or less, a valuable part of the craft environment which allows bamboo rods to be made in a relatively straightforward and affordable manner.  If every maker had to craft guides from scratch, or make ferrules from scratch, there’d be far, far fewer makers who would suffer through the additional learning curves, and make the additional investments needed, to build rods in small shops.  The division of labor is immensely valuable for the continuance of the craft, but it should never stop a motivated individual from learning how to solder tubing into fine ferrules, or how to bend wire to form guide frames.  The craftsmen and women in this tradition are all temporary vessels of knowledge & experience – sounds a bit hokey, but it’s perfectly true – and as each of us passes away from the craft, for whatever reason, it is important that new minds, new hands, will replace ours.

Please don’t be upset that I’m not making this guide for you (and, it seems, no-one else is jumping at the opportunity either).  Rather, take it as a fair challenge.  Make your own Quad Agate…make a lot.  I’d sell them through GW if you could make them affordably enough to warrant selling them at wholesale.  In two or three decades, perhaps you’ll write a similar note to someone asking you to make a single guide that is decidedly different from all the guides you currently make, perhaps the elusive Octagon. (I’d love to read that note if I’m doddering around in an old folks home.)   Whether so, or whether not, I hope you’ll respect the time I’ve spent trying to give a reasonable explanation for why a maker can’t expect other makers to jump on the chance to make a part that is unusual relative to their particular craft oeuvre.  It’s difficult enough – not impossible by any means – to make a fair living serving a niche industry by making what we do make, repeatedly, well – and offering it at a price that enough other makers find reasonable.

With sincere & kind regards,

Russ

I’m sorry, but I didn’t read most of your e-mail. It is just too long. You don’t need 15K worth of tooling to make a stripping guide. You don’t need mills, tig welders, etc. The master from the past and even today, just need some simple tools to make a nice stripping guide. I get it, you want to produce beau coup guides to make a profit. I don’t know what you feel is an appropriate per hour charge, but I’m sure it is way too high. Never mind. A butane torch, some wire-working materials, your agate and some files, that is all you need.

And here’s my final response:

Xxxxxxx, you’re absolutely right, you can make this guide in a home shop.  That’s a portion of what I was trying to get across in my too-long email.  A dedicated maker can do this entirely on their own, with a relatively light investment in terms of tooling and materials, but even this maker is going to invest scads of time.  My goal was to inspire you to make this guide, not put you off your quest. My best, Russ

And that’s where it ended, at least as an email exchange. I’d love to share Matt’s response to reading this email chain, but it’s not fit for publication. His sketch of the quad guide at the top of this ramble was his other response. That drawing is intended as caricature. If you were serious about wanting to make the elusive quad guide, I would suggest making an ‘ocatagon’ but with four major sides (the quad) and four very minor sides to ‘break’ the sharp corners of the quad. Or, make a hex with four major sides (the visual ‘quad’) and two minor sides…truncated flats that would be hidden inside the completed guide; within the two minor sides, or flats, would be the weld joint, where you tack the ends of the wire bezel around the polygonal guide and where the bezelled stone is fixed into the frame with solder joints. This could be a stunning agate stripper, as I see it in my head, but until you’ve done the CAD work, tooled up with jigging to cut, groove, and polish the stone, turned and hardened a custom mandrel to use as the form for wrapping the wire bezels jump-ring style, sorted out the frame geometry, and all the rest…well, I wouldn’t do it for $1200.00. If you wanted to buy a thousand quad guides, same size, different stone colors, then we could talk, and the price per guide would be much more reasonable. Or get out your butane torch, make a wire bending jig with some finish nails and a 2×4, grind your way through an agate slab with diamond-coated blades, bits, and burrs, form a bezel with jeweler’s pliers, and I bet you could make one guide for a lot less money, exclusive of the hours. It’s all a matter of how you value your time and how you choose to spend your valuable time.

That’s it for now. Keep tabs on the website. We are tooling up to make some new and interesting agate guides. We should have the new (old/traditional) frame style – along with custom variants – available by mid-summer of 2020, and by fall, we should have an entire new line of agate guides in more sizes than we currently offer. Drake and I are working to fill a currently empty niche in the ecosystem of guides. We’ll be adapting a design intended for a proprietary guide project that was initiated, but not followed through with, by a commercial fiberglass rod company. The sketches for these guides have gnawed at me for about two years. It’s time to make them These will be exceptionally durable guides which rely upon traditional materials and craftsmanship. They’ll range from a standard grade up to an elite grade featuring the most finely patterned stones and precious metal construction for the bezels. I’ll have a lot to say about these guides, when the time is ripe. Don’t get too excited, though…they won’t be quad guides.