Unpacking material scarcity
Have you ever experienced a time when one of your key materials became nearly impossible to source? A recent New York Times article, “When Fashion Meets Fishing, the Feathers Fly,” chronicles how the explosion of a new trend for women to use fly-tying feathers as hair accessories has left fisherman without an essential material. “Demand for the feathers, before now exclusively the domain of fly fishermen, who use them to tie flies, has created a shortage, forcing up the price and causing fly shops and hairdressers to compete for the elusive plumes.”
John Cameron, cabinetmaker by profession and fly fisherman by hobby, explains that these especially long hackle feathers come from chickens that have been selectively bred over generations to make fly tying really easy. “When I was a kid, you couldn’t find feathers that long. Now, 30 years later, you’ve got these selected roosters that can produce these feathers.” The feathers were adapted for a specific purpose, and now they’ve been co-opted for another. And there’s only a finite supply.
What would you, as a maker, do if all of a sudden a material that was crucial to your production process was no longer attainable?
In keeping with the theme of fishing, John, who’s been crafting custom Split Bamboo fly rods for twelve years, shared another tale of material scarcity, but this one came about due to a political issue and not a fashion trend…
Politics affect international trade, which can directly impact both the cost and the supply of any materials you source from overseas. So when U.S.-Chinese relations shifted in the middle of the last century, fishing rod makers had a problem. “The bamboo that’s used in fly rods comes from a plantation area in southern China,” said John, “and the same river valley has been producing this plant for ages. It grows quickly but a scarcity came about from the 1950’s through the 70’s…now, it can be gotten from China again. That particular material weathered the scarcity.”
In the 1950’s, when fiberglass became available as an alternative to bamboo, many rod makers switched materials. Modern graphite fly rods are superior in terms of distance when compared to traditional bamboo rods, and they take far less time and skill to make, but John claims that there’s something unique about fishing with a handmade bamboo fly rod.
“One of the differences is the spirit of the thing. Each one has a deeper, more subtle level of…soul,” said John with a chuckle. “A bamboo fly rod has got soul. If you’re an engineer, it’s a little bit slower, there’s some false casting, when you actually lay the line down to entice the fish. But I think that with a slower more sensitive rod you can ‘guide the plane down on the final strip of the runway’.”
So social trends and political trends impact material availability; however the key limiting factor when it comes to sourcing natural materials for your craft is the environment itself. Unlike the bamboo used in the fly rods which is a grass, trees grow very slowly, and many trees require very specific ecological conditions. Mahogany typically needs a tropical forest to get its nutrition. And this kind environmental resource scarcity, the most prolific of all, won’t pass like a social or political trend. It’s food for thought for all of us who create things out of natural materials: what do you use, where does it come from, and what could you substitute should the material become scarce.
Tips on making Split Bamboo Fly Rods, by John Cameron
I have been fishing split bamboo fly rods for three decades, and making them for twelve years. I am self taught at this craft, although it is an extension of my woodworking career. Each rod is completely made by hand from the cane splitting process to the finishing. Many are decorated with hand engraved metal parts. Constructing a bamboo rod is an exacting process. A culm of bamboo is split, straightened, the nodes reduced, then heat tempered to remove moisture and stabilize the material. Each of six strips is then hand planed to a triangular cross section and a specific taper, deviating by not more than .001 inch, then glued together. They represent the epitome of non-synthetic fly rod construction, featuring strength, elasticity and supple delivery. Most anglers find bamboo slower than synthetic rods. I feel that the reduced tempo allows for a more nuanced and delicate presentation. One is able to steer the final approach, arriving at a more accurate cast.