Wonder what goes into manufacturing the tackle, gear and accessories we all use today? Anglers often take for granted the tremendous effort it requires to engineer, design and build all of the equipment and countless components which combine to enhance our boating and sport fishing experiences. You name it, and somewhere in Florida is a team of professionals investing long hours to produce the assortment of fishing gear we so cherish. We wanted to learn more about these people and about the products they specialize in and know that you, too, will be fascinated with what we discover in our ongoing quest to find out “How It’s Made.”
Depending on the type of rod and action selected there could be anywhere from one to seven sheets of E-glass incorporated into the blank (Image 1).
Let’s face it. When it comes to fishing, either inshore or offshore, your rods are one of the most integral components to your angling success. While a high-quality rod won’t necessarily make you a better angler, an inexpensive rod with poor craftsmanship will definitely be a limiting factor that will greatly hinder your overall catch ratio.
For this edition of How It’s Made, our mission objective was to locate a manufacturer who completes the rod building process from start to finish right here in the state. With so many custom rod makers throughout Florida, how would we narrow down our selection? It was actually relatively simple. Hailing out of Stuart, Florida, Blackfin Rods has most custom rod manufacturers beat. How so you ask? At their 4,000 sq ft. facility they do it all. From blank manufacturing to custom diamond wraps, the entire process is completed in-house. Fabricating blanks from scratch is a very difficult endeavor and, no doubt, requires dedicated and skilled craftsmen as well as high-tech machinery.
A little over three-years ago, Allen and Deborah Winchel purchased dormant equipment in a neglected warehouse and created Blackfin Rods, which has become an industry leader. Don’t for one second think that Allen is new to the marine industry because he has been going strong for the better part of two decades, working with companies such as Valor and Tanner Tackle. Custom rod wrapping is no doubt a tedious process that requires extreme attention to detail, and the skilled craftsmen at Blackfin Rods create beautiful works of art that rival any rod in existence. However, the uniqueness of this Florida based company is that they are one of the few rod manufacturers in the world that makes their own E-glass blanks. Through this time consuming process, Blackfin ensures a product of unrivaled strength, quality and performance that meets or exceeds all of their customers’ expectations.
The lengthy process starts with a roll of E-glass that is cut into predetermined patterns, conditional on the project specifications. Depending on the type of rod and action selected there could be anywhere from one to seven sheets of E-glass incorporated into the blank (Image 1). Blackfin chooses to utilize E-glass fiberglass over graphite because E-glass is more durable and cost effective. E-glass is also the most structurally advanced form of fiberglass on the market and is available for both light and heavy-duty applications. E-glass offers anglers optimum strength and flex, providing a quality product that is well suited for powerful game fish that can put an extreme amount of stress on a rod blank.
Once the E-glass is cut and trimmed to size (Image 2) the craftsman now selects the correct mandrel for the desired application (Image 3). Mandrels are made of steel and depending on the type of blank (push-pole, gaff, trolling rod, tag stick) the mandrel may or may not be tapered into a conical shape. Some anglers often confuse taper with action, but it’s the taper that actually determines a rod’s action. For example, an aggressive taper translates into a fast action. Blackfin has a collection of mandrels that is approximately 200-strong and suits numerous tapers and actions for a wide variety of applications.
The mandrels are essentially blueprints for the blanks and if cared for properly they can be used forever. This means they must be meticulously cleaned, polished and waxed to provide exacting uniformity time after time. To enable a tacky surface for the E-glass to stick to, the mandrels are coated with a resin that acts as a releasing agent. This resin is a proprietary secret and another step in the process that is created in house. While the resin helps the E-glass stick to the steel mandrel, a hot iron is also used to make sure the E-glass is devoid of any bubbles, crinkles or creases (Image 4).
After a skilled craftsman carefully hand rolls the E-glass into place, the mandrels are then taken to a rolling platen. Depending on how many sheets of E-glass are required for the selected blank, this process may be repeated numerous times (Image 5). After the E-glass has been rolled and pressed, a thin sheet of cellophane is wrapped around the mandrel/E-glass (Image 6). When the blanks are placed into the specialized oven, the resin turns into a liquid and the cellophane wrap helps the blank keep its shape. The high temperature of the oven expands the material, while simultaneously shrinking the cellophane(Image 7). After an approximate two-hour baking time followed by a short cooling period, the blanks are removed from the mandrel with a specially designed press (Image 8). The blanks are then trimmed to the appropriate size and the cellophane is removed to reveal the finished product (Image 9 & 10).
Before the guides can be laid out under a template for the specific application, a skilled rod-building specialist must locate the spline or backbone of the blank. The spline is the side of the blank that bends along a particular axis. To find the spline the craftsman must gently apply pressure to the center of the blank. The blanks preferred stress curve will be prominent and relatively easy to determine (Image 11). Once the spline is located the tip-top guide is glued into place. Now the blank can be measured along a template (Image 12) where the location of the guides, reel seat and fore grip are marked. These measurements are essential for a top-quality finished product.
Guide placement is an especially critical factor that will affect the performance of your rod and depending on the specific application and the customer’s preference, either Aftco, American Tackle, Fuji, Stuart or Winthrop components are selected. Also dependent on whether it’s a custom job or a stock rod, nylon thread is selected from a rainbow of color pallets. (Image 13)
After the guides are wrapped it’s now time to coat the rod with Flexcoat resin. Depending on the application, a rod will have two to three coats. Before the resin has had a chance to set, a torch flame is used to smooth out the surface and remove any unwanted bubbles that will mar the blank’s pristine finish (Image 14). The flame is kept about 6 to 8-inches from the blank, and the warmth breaks the surface tension of the resin to smooth out the finish. The rods are then relocated to a following station where they are placed on a rotating lathe for approximately four-hours until the resin is fully cured (Image 15). The last step in the process involves installing the ferrule and butt section. The reason these components are installed last is because the blank will rotate more precisely without them while the resin is curing. If it is a rushed order the ferrule and butt section can be installed at the same time as the fore-grip, however, if not limited by time constraints it is best to install these components last. Once the rod is dry and complete, it is off to a happy angler somewhere for years of trouble free use, and hopefully countless great catches!
With a quick glance at the inside of the Blackfin Rods warehouse, you’ll soon realize this isn’t your average custom rod builder. With both inshore and offshore experience from around the world, Allen Winchel is motivated and willing to design one-off customs for any application.