As I continue connecting with some of the personalities in the fly fishing community that I respect, one of guys I wanted to include was Zeb Tonkavich. Some of you may know him as the guy behind Snowman Custom Rod Works. Over the last year or so Zeb and I have been trading messages about rods, talking about different blanks and I've been in awe of his ability fabricating metal, visualizing rod designs and doing some awesome things with glass and graphite.
As we roll out number three, learn a bit about what's behind some beautiful rods and an extremely talented and knowledgeable builder.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Zeb Tonkavich but some still call me by the brand name that may not know me, so some call me “Snowman”. I grew up local to what is my home of area, for convenience I say, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania but in reality I am located about 45mins south of the city from a very small town called Fayette City. I work inside of the city limits and have been at my current job for 12 years now.
I worked in the snowsports industry from the age of 15 till about 6 years ago. I taught skiing, coached race, raced, and was actively pursuing my Dev Team as a certified level 3 ski instructor with PSIA. This is why I elected to use the name Snowman when I started doing all things rod building publicly. I really didn’t think the name would be that well received and would turn people off because it may be a bit cartoonish; but I have been quite wrong, or so I would think.
What do you do for your normal 9-5?
For my not so 9-5 job I work in a flat roll galvanizing mill. I work 12hr days rolling shifts from 5 to 5, my hours range between 36 and 60hr work weeks. That is without meetings and the always fun commute. My official job title is material handler, basically a overhead crane operator and responsible for a laundry list of other tasks. I enjoy the dynamic nature of the environment but the days can be long and exhausting. When my weeks get long that is when I get behind on builds, and fall behind. Proof I am not getting any younger, is the fact I do run out of energy.
How did you get in to fly fishing?
I got into fly fishing on a whim some years back. Andrea was looking to transition from spin fishing to fly fishing. I helped her get her first set up and I was fascinated immediately by all thing fly fishing. That was the beginning of the end. Around about the same time I lost two discs in my neck and had to be fused, that really slowed down the skiing and working in the snowsports industry to the point that I quit. That is when the rod building came into play. Now I am extremely fascinated by high end reels and tuning rod builds.
What’s your favorite type of fishing (dry fly, nymph, streamer, worm and bobber)? Favorite fish to target?
I personally love the diversity of all aspects from the extremely small dries up to the 5’ streamer. I guess it ultimately comes down to what the water and time of year permit as to what I enjoy the most. But, there is something special about watching a dry fly being sipped by a rising trout. I prefer trout because it is easy access for us, specifically brown trout. We have great water in PA and some great unknown wild trout waters that we keep secret. I will admit that I do need to step up my nymph game this year though.
When did you make your first rod? Why not go buy one from the local fly shop?
When was my first fly rod made? Honestly not as long ago as most would believe. I think I built my first rod about 6 years ago. A large book as a thread tensioner, and empty coffee cup as a spool retainer, and my knees was used as my rod bed. I think I practiced wrapping rods for months before I ever wrapped a rod with intent. By that time I had built my first rod wrapper that I used up until about 8 months ago.
Why build my own? I don’t want this to come off as being conceited but we travel for salmon and steelhead in New York and met a lot of builders and became fascinated with rod building. I thought it would be fun to give it a try and thought I could do better. Plus factory rods are just plain and boring. I think a lot of people progress this way - learn to fly fish, learn to tie flies, want more of fly fishing, start casually building rods, want more out of it, assemble a rod building cave, want more, get a wood shop, want a little more, add some metal working equipment, then you look back and wonder how the hell all of this happened.
You’ve got a great understanding of the intricacies of the science behind rod building, where did this knowledge come from?
I was fortunate that the guys who helped me when I was getting started were well educated rod builders and most where bamboo guys. All had a deep level of understanding of “when, where, and why”. So from day one I didn’t really ever do a “kit” build. I read a lot of the in depth bamboo books as well at the same time the Wayne Cattanach and Hoagie Carmichael books. These guys are methodical and get down to the science of the build. I wanted to apply the same thing to my own builds even if it wasn't cane. So you will find plenty of Moleskin notebooks in my shop and pack with all my critical numbers about every build I have done, things like ERN, AA, guide profiles, guide spacing, CPM, coats of finish, reel seat weight, all that fun stuff.
How long does a rod take from start to finish?
Typical time at the moment is about 4 to 6 weeks, the only thing that is costing me time at the moment is my travel schedule.
With this being done in your free time, how many rods are you doing per year?
Last year I did 48 rods. I have no intention of doing that many rods again this year. If I do that many this year, I did something wrong.
What made you want to start building out all your own reel seat components?
I guess for me it is a control thing. I get the finish just the way I want it, maybe I want something a touch more industrial, or I cut my cap a little thicker to throw some weight out the back. Also, I can match up my winding check and ferrule rings. Also slide band seats seem to be in short supply these days. However I do still use stuff from Joel Lemke, Chet at Bellinger, and Russ at GoldenWitch.
Where do you find inspiration for your work? What drives your designs?
I have a pretty good idea of how I would like every rod to look before I get started. First I figure out if it will be dark or light finished guides then I start pulling wood billets I have an idea of where it is going. High contrast or subtle matched build and let it all come together from there. Then sometimes things are changed on the fly to have everything blend together better.
We’ve talked a bit about your “style”, how would you describe your work?
Style is hard to describe, I think what would sum it up best is modern classic. I like to blend the old with the new especially when it comes to trout weight rods. Occasionally drifting into more classic rods. The best way to say it is there is a reason why the greatest rod builders from the golden age of bamboo’s aesthetics hold up today, simple, timeless, clean, and elegant designs.
When you build a custom rod, does the customer bring the blank to you, or do you source that for them? If you source, how do you choose the blank for the customer?
I work off a list of builders and source the blank over 75% of the time. If the customer is providing the blank I ask that they inspect the blank prior to sending it my way. As far as choosing a blank it is a lot of back and forth to find what is going to work best in their environment. Other things will help determine what profile will be selected, but every case is different.
Do you have any recommendations for someone looking to have a rod built?
Find the right builder for what it is you are after. Do your homework, map out what it is that you are after, set a budget, and have a list of questions worked up. When it comes to high end glass the TFM (The Fiberglass Manifesto) rod loan program is a great way to get hands on with profiles that may be otherwise hard to get a hold of in a lot of regions.
What are your favorite characteristics in a rod? Your favorite blank models?
I like a rod that is a work horse not a one trick pony. I enjoy something that I can fish all day in multiple scenarios. That is not to say I don’t love a good specialty rod. I like a composed rod that is nimble and light in hand, but has some down low reserve power for that just in case fish.
I am a fan of the Epics (476, 686, and 990), Ijuin Yomogis, Steffens, Winston B3x, Winston B3 LS, and RB Meiser.
Snowman Custom Rod Works – what inspired the name?
Given my career in the snowsports industry I thought it was kinda fitting.
Any big plans for 2015?
I have a couple charity rod builds for a couple great causes, the CFR 480 and the soon to be finished Orvis SFG 764-3. Andrea and I will be hosting a Art & Custom show at Yellow Creek Trout Club on March 21. We will also be over at Schultz Outfitters for Demo days early in June. After that I am not 100% certain what my year holds. I am looking to do some work on some new blanks here soon and see where they fit into my line up.
To anyone out there looking to learn a bit more about you or Snowman Custom Rods, where can they go?