One on One - Zeb Tonkavich

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.


Whats 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 dont 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. 


Youve 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 didnt 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.  

Weve 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 bamboos 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 dont 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?

The Facebook Page, Instagram, and a website that needs updated badly. Hopefully I can get around to that later this month.


One on One - Christian Horgren

As I was first beginning to discover fly fishing and all it entailed, I found Cameron over at the Fiberglass Manifesto and fell in love with his blog.  I loved the detail in the rods he was featuring, from all over the world.  From custom stacked bamboo reel seats, hand made hardware, and the reel collections many of the beautiful rods featured made me envious and excited to try and start my collection.  

One of the builders that Cam often featured was Christian Horgren.  From the first rod of his I saw, I was enamored with his clean designs, hand made reel seats, and really liked the way he presented his builds.  His set up, bright backgrounds, macro shots - all highlighted his talents.  With our second installment of the monthly interview, Christian was kind enough to pull the curtain back and tell us a bit more about himself.  


Tell me a little bit about yourself.  

I grew up in the countryside on a small island in the biggest lake in Sweden. When I was 20 years old, I moved to Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, where I now have lived for 22 years. I consider myself a blend of my rural background and the pulse of city. I did a lot of fishing when I was a kid, but it all came to an end when I was a teenager. I spent all my free time playing cello and jazz guitar, and didn’t pick up fishing again until I was 30 years old. I’m 41 years old today, and I live with my family in the center of Stockholm.


What do you do for a living?

I work as an architect, mainly with office interiors, but I work in all scales. I’m a trained house architect, but I work a lot with furniture, fittings and details. I have always been interested in architecture and design. It surrounds us which is an important notion for me. That’s why I love the city - almost everything is man made. I’m not a fan of ambitious design, of artifacts that scream out ”hey, look at me!”. The world that surrounds us is most of the time functional and silent. I like that.


What led you to fly fishing?

My grandfather was a fisherman. My uncle is a fisherman. I grew up on an island. It’s part of my heritage. But I have never considered myself as being a fisherman. My claim to this sport is more related to the craft and theory around the artifacts of fly fishing.


What’s your favorite type of fishing (dry fly, nymph, streamer, worm and bobber)? 

I’m a pragmatic fisherman. I use the flies that works best for the moment. I believe in presentation rather than imitation.  Most of the time, I end up using general patterns that can be fished both dry and wet. I would love to learn more about nymph fishing, but when it comes to sub-surface fishing, I prefer streamers.


What would you consider your home waters?

I’m involved in a restoration project north of Stockholm. We are working on a stretch of flowing water, trying to restore an old brook trout habitat. This is where I spend most of my fishing time. But my heart is where I started to fish with my father 30 years ago, in Femundmarka in Norway. It’s a national park in the Norwegian mountains with great fishing for trout and grayling. Unfortunately it’s seven hours drive from where I live, so I don’t spend much time there nowadays. 


What led you to rod making?  When did you make your first rod?

I started to build fly rods during my first parental leave in 2007. I have always been working with my hands, building architectural models in balsa wood and doing mock-ups and prototypes. In the beginning, rod building was like armchair-fishing, but very soon I understood that I have the same mover in rod building as I do when I’m playing a musical instrument or designing a house: curiosity and the urge to master a box of tools. I’m haunted by the search for perfection.

What was the first rod you built?  

My first rod was a Sage SLT 696-4. It had a preformed grip and a Struble reel seat. I remember my difficulties with the finish work. It takes time to master epoxy.


How long does a rod take you to build a rod from start to finish?

It depends on the level of custom work. A typical Fine Tackle rod has my own reel seat hardware, which adds a couple of hours. I would say 8 hours is what it takes to make a presentation grade fly rod.


When you begin building a rod, how do you select and source your components?

I have a large stock of materials in the work shop. I’m always looking for new materials that can be turned or blued to fit my style. I’m using brass and nickel silver tubing for most of my hardware, combined with different kinds of wood and polymers. It’s fun to find new applications for different and unexpected materials. I like to use cheap materials on my builds, like rubber for example.

How much of a rod is hand crafted by you?  Components and seat etc?

I make my own reel seats and turn my own grips. I make the rod socks from scratch, and I cut and fit and finally label the tubes. I take great pride in all this. In every manual step throughout the process, you add personality to the rod.


Where do you find inspiration for your work?  What drives your designs?

I can get inspiration from basically anything. Other builders and old rods, of course. Different materials and how to join them is a very basic approach and strategy for a trained designer, and it applies for me as well. New finishing techniques and color combinations are important as well. If I should mention a few traditions or styles that has been extra important to me, it would be vernacular Japanese craftsmanship and contemporary Swedish silver design.


How would you describe your “style” or design aesthetic?

I like understated and functional design. Some call it minimalistic and Scandinavian, but I prefer not to label it such. I like it when it’s silent and self-explaining. I sometimes even find myself nodding positively towards things that are suffering from obvious mediocrity. Good design doesn’t have to claim itself all the time. Sometimes it’s nice to just function and exist. 

Do you have any recommendations for someone looking to have a rod built?

Have patience and don’t hesitate to redo things. Think twice before you make a move. Don’t believe all you read on the internet. Try to add somehting personal instead of copying someone else. Stay true to your personal style. Keep it simple. Have fun.


What are your favorite characteristics in a rod?  Your favorite blank models?

Most of my rods are 3-6wt trout rods in 7’-8’ length.  I love parabolic tapers, they are so fun to cast and play fish with. My favorite tapers all have a deep bending curve combined with a fast recovery. Most of my trout rods are progressive tapers, and many of them are on the soft side of medium. As long as they are crisp and responsive, I like them quite soft. Two of my favorite tapers are the Larry Kenney 7’9’’, 4wt rod (progressive), and Mario Wojnicki 227P4 (semi-parabolic 7’4’’, 4wt). I’m also a big fan of the Tom Morgan fiberglass rods. He has a very consistent line-up, all recognizable and very capable tools. If I’m allowed to include impossible-to-acquire rods, I would like to add the fiberglass tapers from Dennis Franke made in the 90’s. I love his theoretical approach and sparse builds. Mark Steffen rolled some of the blanks for Dennis, and Mark once told me that ”Dennis thought that perfection was possible”. I love that quote.


When you’re not building rods or fishing, what are some of your other hobbies?

To be honest, I consider myself more of a musician than a rod builder. Making fly rods is just the logical conclusion of all my different personalities. Music is more complex and a very emotional thing for me. It’s sublime and subliminal, beyond all languages. Rod building is more like a really nice job…

To anyone out there looking to learn a bit more about you and Fine Tackle, where should they go?

I have a blog and a Facebook account where I post news on a regular basis. If you are interested in purchasing a rod, don’t forget to keep an eye on my international vendor in the UK. New builds are listed every month.


One on One - Vince Huttley

As we get 2015 underway, I wanted to get to know a few more people that are doing some awesome things in the fly fishing industry.  I'm hoping to post some interviews with rod builders, reel makers, and hopefully a few artists.  If you think there's anyone we should be talking to, drop us a line.  

When I first saw what Vince was doing, it immediately caught my interest and I found myself looking forward to seeing more of what he was kicking out of his shop.  I've been a sucker  for click pawl reels since I first got in to fly fishing and bought my first to pair with my first glass rod.  Hardy, Lamson, Orvis, Pflueger, JW Young - all have some great classic reels that look great and balance out glass very well.  Vince's reels follow the tradition of the Hardy Perfect reels and he makes each by hand.  His new stuff is unique and already proving to be popular within the interwebs.  After an exchange of messages and emails he was kind enough to take some time, sit down, answer some questions and shoot some photos for me.  Give it a read to learn a bit more and keep your eyes peeled for what he comes up with next.  


Tell me a little about yourself…. Where are you from? 

Vince Huttley is my name, will answer to pretty much anything though... Reside in tropical Townsville North QLD Australia. 

Do you make your living in the fishing/fly fishing industry?  If not, what’s your 9-5?

The daily grind, I'm a fitter and turner by trade.  I help run a machine/fab shop, which keeps me busy. Quoting, planning, drafting, keeping the apprentices attitudes under control etc, etc. Rod/reel building is something I started as a project for myself, but it's slowly progressing into something more.  But I will stress that I'm keeping tight reigns on it as I'm extremely fussy on quality and I won't release any of my work until I know its going to last a lifetime of use. So basically once I'm happy with it, I will start selling more gear.  

What got you in to fishing?  When did you start fly fishing?

Fishing has always been a big part the family, ever since I was able to walk Dad would take me on trips hunting and fishing. But the fly is something I picked up on my own.  Mostly due to a TV show that aired here in Australia called " A River Somewhere" in the late 90's and the saltwater scene that was kicking on pretty hard.  My parents bought me a 10wt graphite set up for my 10/11th birthday plus a how to VHS with a few saltwater flies.  I cast the shit out of that rod for years!  Every once in a while I'd fluke a fish but I just loved bagging out loops.  Fishing took a back seat for a few years when I started work, in-between wake boarding, partying and girls or lack of - the fish had to wait.  Back into it now for several years and I try to get out to the reef whenever the weather is good for some spearing and bottom bashing.  But I definitely need to spend more time with with my Epic 990 out there.  An hours drive up the range I have a few good spots chasing sooty grunter on foam hoppers and cicadas with the three and  four weights. Plenty of variety here from freshwater, estuaries, saltwater flats, reefs and good blue water to throw in the mix, the closest trout stream is about 1000 miles south though.

I see you’re a rod builder.  How did that start and how long have you been doing it?

This is a long and annoying story for me so I will keep it as short as I can.  The local tackle stores don't really cater for fly and we are really isolated from the whole fly community here. Pretty much the only decent rods available locally are Sage or G.Loomis which are hellishly over priced and very little range. While both those brands are very reputable, I cannot stand the sight of another boring ass olive green, zero contrast rod. That drove me into searching online and rather than go down the easy sensible path of just buying a rod, I figured I would build my own and have been since, for about 4 years now. With the introduction to glass I think my days of building graphite will be very limited.  Glass rods just seem to have more sole in appearance and feel.

How many rods do you build per year?  Do you do custom builds to order, or is it only for friends and fishing buddies? 

Built several rods for friends and family but I tend to stick to myself locally so and I haven't really chased any work on building customs.  I'm in the process of building several Epic 580's and Bandits, and once they are completed I will offer them out for grabs.  So I can do it at my own pace then with no deadlines.  I don't want to turn this project into a chore.

I know we’ve talked about your reels before, but what inspired you to get in to reel making?

The exact same reason I started building rods - always had a thing for classic designs, plus we had a holiday booked to Canada and California, plus I had the time to whip up a few glass rods and reels to take with me. The gear worked and got solid feedback from the online community.  After building the first few it seemed quite feasible to continue building more so I just kept running with it.

How many different reel designs have you created?

As for designs I have 2 different completed reels in use now, a Hardy Perfect inspiration and a Can style of my own design.  On paper and in my head I have a drag system that I've been working on that I hope I can scale and fit to pretty much any shape reel I want to make. I've been putting an immense amount of effort into keeping it an original design but still keep it simple - less moving parts, less to go wrong. Once I settle with the design I hope to introduce some heavy hitter saltwater reels.

From start to finish, how long does it take to machine a reel?

All my reels are made manually, no CNC in my workshop yet.  So I will do a batch of each component to save on set up time. But a Can style reel, from start to finish, is about 25 hours each.  The Perfects are about 35 hours each.  Time consuming little buggers for the size of them, as I machine every component except for the balls in the thrust bearing.  They are quite satisfying to hold in hand once complete though.

When you look to the future, how do you see reel making fitting in?

In honesty I would love to kick the day job and do this full time.  But in reality I will just let it take it's own corse. If the demand is there I will look at going down the CNC path, but most importantly I'm making sure I have fun with it.

What are your favorite things about rod building and reel making?

Having the freedom to create something unique to what is available on the market, plus the buzz of catching fish on something I've built not bought.

If people wanted to learn more about you, your reel making or rod building, how can they? 

I mostly run with dirty old Facebook and Instagram or the old fashioned email.  One day I hope to get a web page up and going but for now these do job for now.

Instagram - tailor_made_85