Craftsmen Fly Rod Engraving

By Michael Sabbeth

Posted on 2015-08-20 12:25:35

I was somewhat educated on fine gun engraving when I sauntered into the M. W. Reynolds shop in Englewood, Colorado, a few years ago. I had visited and interviewed several engravers in Italy. I’d attended two Grand Master Engraving Programs in Emporia, Kansas, and met engravers Ken Hunt, Winston Churchill, Alain Lovenberg, Philippe Grifnée and Giacomo Fausti, a founder of the prestigious Creative Arts engraving studio in Gardone, Italy. That day Mark Reynolds, the proprietor, showed me three or four stunningly beautiful bamboo fly rods. Both made by Darryl Whitehead, the rods boasted ferrules and real seat furniture elegantly engraved by Paolo Barbetti. The hallmark of all art is the leap of imagination, where combinations not previously contemplated are realized and craftsmanship is elevated to artistic expression. Engravers before Paolo Barbetti experienced that leap of imagination when they visualized that fly rod hardware could be engraved, analogous perhaps, to Pablo Picasso visualizing that a bicycle handlebar and seat could be shaped like a bull’s head.

Michelangelo once opined: “The genius of the artist is to free the angel locked in the marble.” I noted how Barbetti had ‘freed’ trout and intricate scroll and ornamental patterns locked in otherwise banal bands of metal alloy. Telling a story or crafting something considered beautiful by engraving is as ancient as mankind, beginning with the images of beasts and humans in various caves in Altamira, Spain and Lascaux, France, most of them created some 15,000 to 10,000 years ago. The engraving art has come a long way since then. It’s now executed on surfaces as diverse as wine and champagne jewelry, leather, Harley Davidson motorcycles and, new to me, fly rods.

arryl Whitehead’s rod-making career began improbably with an act of carelessness. He was living in Seattle in 1987 when he broke the tip of his Granger rod. Deciding to repair it himself, and inspired by the book A Master’s Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod (1977) by Everett Garrison and Hoagy Carmichael, he enrolled in a seven-month class given by local rodmaker Dawn Holbrook.

Whitehead made a rod and then a few more, motivated simply by the pedestrian impulse to find a hobby. His early career was influenced by Harold S. “Pinkey” Gillum, who had attained an exalted position among classic rod-makers and was known for building exceptional casting rods.


Before he began making rods, Whitehead had grown up among guns and shooting. His dad was a renowned gunsmith, and Darryl was a member of the U.S. International Trap Team from 1979 to 1984. After his competitive career, Whitehead served as the team’s general manager for several years. Recently, he was inducted into the Oregon Trap Shooting Hall of Fame.

Born in Florence, Italy, Barbetti attended the Institute of Art and then the Academy of Art in Florence

Born in Florence, Italy, Barbetti attended the Institute of Art and then the Academy of Art in Florence, where among other disciplines, he studied engraving before attaining a teaching degree in art history. Later he would travel to Gardone, Val Trompia to study firearms engraving at the prestigious Bottega Giovanelli and spent time with the legendary Giulio Timpini, then director of the Beretta engraving studio. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1974.

While in Holbrook’s class, Whitehead saw an advertising brochure for Oliver’s Auction House, a high rollers’ angling and collectibles firm in Kennebunk, Maine. An engraved Leonard rod was featured on the cover and other examples of engraved rods were illustrated in the brochure. Whitehead showed the brochure to Barbetti. With roots in the gun world, Barbetti was attracted to engraving rods because he knew that engraved guns demanded the highest prices. He told Whitehead, “I can do that. Give me the hardware.”

Whitehead made a few Barbettiengraved rods and was stunned at the high prices they fetched at auction. Paraphrasing Humphrey Bogart’s words to Claude Rains in the movie, Casablanca, Whitehead essentially said to Barbetti: “I think this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And so it is to this day. Barbetti now engraves almost all of Whitehead’s rods.

Mark Reynolds had seen a few of Whitehead’s fly rods before he opened his shop about seven years ago. “I know quality and his rods appealed to me immediately,” Reynolds told me. He contacted Whitehead, told him he wanted a couple of rods since he was starting a fly rod and high-grade gun business and wanted to establish a dealer relationship.

“Reynolds gave me a substantial order,” Whitehead told me. “I got the rods to him about a week before the store opened. And he paid me! He’s a man of his word.”

About six months ago one...

of Reynolds’ clients commissioned him to orchestrate the building of seven Whitehead rods to be engraved by Barbetti. Six of the rods would be representative of Whitehead’s existing tapers and lengths, but one of them, a massive spey rod, would be an original model.

As the project gained traction, Whitehead encouraged his client to commission renowned reel-maker Joe Saracione to build a reel for each rod. Barbetti was selected to engrave the reels with patterns that matched each rod. Talented craftsman Arne Mason was then recruited to craft leather cases for each rod and reel.

Whitehead encouraged his client to commission renowned reel-maker Joe Saracione to build a reel for each rod.

Considerable challenges confronted Barbetti. Engraving fly rod hardware is notably different from engraving firearms receivers and sideplates. Instead of working on large chunks of nickel molychromium steel alloys, the metal pieces of a fly rod are thin, soft, circular and tiny. One challenge, Barbetti explained, was crafting tiny plugs to fit inside the ferrules and rings to maintain their shape as the chisel or burin cut into the metal. This procedure was even more difficult because the interior diameters and the wall thickness of the ferrules and rings were not consistent.

Push too hard or chisel too aggressively and the burin penetrates the metal. If the cuts are too shallow, however, the engraving patterns cannot be seen or will appear unsubstantial. A technical challenge not initially obvious was the seemingly trivial yet critical issue of holding the delicate ferrules and rings steady. Barbetti’s solution was to use pads of thick leather that could be squeezed against, but wouldn’t scratch, the metal.

If the cuts are too shallow, however, the engraving patterns cannot be seen or will appear unsubstantial.

Another technical challenge arose because the pieces are round and of small diameter. Each touch of the graver was on a curved surface. The engraved patterns continuously moved in an arc, requiring more demanding chiseling and more difficult angles of incision than would be required when engraving a flat surface.

Engraving a fly rod is not all negative. Mistakes will be made, of course. Barbetti, who has an earthy sense of humor, said, “That’s where the cookie crumbles.”...

However, the loss of time and money resulting from a mistake on a ferrule is trivial compared to the losses resulting from a mistake on a high-grade firearm.

Three Engraving Rods

In some aspects, engraving the reels was less daunting than engraving the ferrules and rings; the metal on the reels is thicker and heavier, and some of the surfaces are flat. However, the delicate, round crossbars and narrow circular sideplate bands on the reels presented challenges as great as engraving the rods. Because each reel had to be engraved before it was assembled, devices to hold the awkwardly shaped pieces had to be designed and constructed.

The parts for each reel had to be segregated from other parts, a tough organizational task when working on several reels at the same time. More than one year was needed to engrave the seven reels.

“It’s a lot of work and it’s expensive,” Barbetti said.

Whitehead and the client gave Barbetti full artistic freedom for the engraving patterns and techniques. The only restriction was that all work had to be done by hand, which is the only process Barbetti utilizes. He criticizes the use of engraving machines. His paramount concern is fulfilling the wishes and visions of the individual client by offering his originality and unhurried attention.

Customers from around the world seek out Barbetti to work on firearms, jewelry, fly rods and other items. He has engraved fishing rod hardware for former Vice-President Dick Cheney. “Whether it is jewelry or whatever, it has to be done perfect. There is no place for second best,” Barbetti emphasized.

ortuitously, the lives of the four artists intersected. Whitehead met Joe Saracione in 1988 at Al Bellinger’s shop in Salem, Oregon, and thereafter introduced Barbetti to Saracione in the early 1990s. Saracione had made a name for himself by crafting top-quality reels with black sides and nickelsilver bands.

Darryl Whitehead called Arne Mason of Ashland, Oregon, to make the set of rod cases, explaining they were for a Mark Reynolds customer. Mason acquired a batch of the best American vegetable-tanned English bridle leather from the Hermann Oak...

tannery in St. Louis, Missouri. When Reynold’s client first saw the glistening black rod cases, he commissioned Mason to make cases for each of the reels.

The rod cases are unique, Mason explained, because the lids fit over the top of the body of the case as opposed to fitting over the metal interior tube, flush with the body of the case.

“My work was honored by being associated with craftsmen of the quality of Darryl, Joe and Paolo.”

“This was my biggest project,” he told me. “My work was honored by being associated with craftsmen of the quality of Darryl, Joe and Paolo.”

I am optimistic about the growth of the art of the engraved fly rod. Rod-maker Glenn Brackett of Sweetgrass Rods in Twin Bridges, Montana, said that demand is increasing for engraved pieces.

Engraver Lee Griffiths of Hyde Park, Utah, who I met at the Master Engravers Programs, has engraved a fly reel or two, although he works primarily on firearms.

“This is a way to memorialize an event or a memory or to make an object truly personal, that it belongs to who actually owns it,” said Griffiths.

Bill Oyster, of Blue Ridge, Georgia, might well be the only bamboo fly rod-maker in the world who handengraves his own hardware. Oyster was outsourcing his engraving until 2004 when ex-president Jimmy Carter asked him to build a rod and engrave it with the presidential seal. He said he’d do it and began mastering the art.

Oyster has expanded his repertoire to crafting fly rods and guns with matching patterns.

“This is a way to memorialize an event or a memory or to make an object truly personal, that it belongs to who actually owns it,”

Mark Reynolds spoke about “that creative moment when a tool becomes art; when form and function are elevated to the highest level of craftsmanship.” He moved his right arm in an arc sweeping toward the gun racks.

“Do you need a Purdey or a Holland & Holland or a Stephen Grant side-lever to bring down a pheasant? Obviously not, but they stir the soul. We all know you can catch a trout on a hundred-dollar rod. But we made history with this set of rods and reels.”

In my interview, Reynold’s client said he was “honored to be a part of this process, to bring attention to these artists, to keep the art alive at the...

highest levels of perfection and to recognize Mark for sharing his knowledge and experience.

“Without Mark,” he maintained, “this project would not have happened. There was a lot of anxiety at times in creating this set, but all those folks got it done.”

Candidly, the notion of waddling over the slick-as-Vaseline grassy rocks in the Colorado River with one of these creations churns the stomach,yet people do it. And they should.

I share a maxim with my estate planning clients: “There’s no luggage rack on a hearse.” The noblest part of the human spirit is the ineluctable quest to create beauty. Enjoy the art!