July 11, 2013 4 min read 3 Comments

Earlier this spring on a trip down to Pennsylvania I managed to get a look at some notes from Tom Maxwell’s personal papers, courtesy of the Maxwell family. One collection was particularly interesting, as it appeared to be Tom’s attempt to distill his thoughts on rod design and on the aesthetics of rod design in particular. As you can see, he was doing this with Leonard rods in mind because he was gearing up to put out a Leonard catalog and so it was very much top-of-mind.

Tom Maxwell at Leonard

There was a lot of material there, much of which I’ll try to write more about later, but I thought it might be interesting to reproduce this part of his notes. Rodmakers, in particular, might find it interesting though hopefully collectors and general anglers will as well. What impresses me most is how systematic he is in structuring his thoughts (as any good former philosophy professor might!) and that there is a kind of underpinning argument that develops. In addition to the photo, I’ve reproduced the text below.

  Tom Maxwell Rod Design Notes


Notes on Rod Design — by Tom Maxwell

Two elements dominate rod design:  (1) the dimensional design of the rod shaft, or function, and (2) the accessories and general layout of the rod, or aesthetics.  Though these elements are in a few ways mutually exclusive, the following notations pertain chiefly to element number two, rod aesthetics.  The only qualification I wish to make before pursing the matter of rod aesthetics is this:  any recommendation in this area will have been preceded by a full consideration of the impact that such recommendations may have on rod function or performance.  If it would appear that function and aesthetics are in conflict and the designer must make a choice of one element over the other, a brief explanation will be offered regarding the logic of the choice.

Aesthetics of Rod Design

Most design energies are channeled into the dimensional aspects of the rod, its taper and action. Such concern is legitimate but should not be done at the sacrifice of aesthetics, for above all else it is the visual impact – the “imagination appeal” – of the rod which will most often first catch the eye of the potential purchaser and cause him to act.

The aesthetic quality of the rod is that single expression of craftsmanship which even the neophyte can recognize and appreciate, and the inference we may draw from this is as follows:  should a rod reflect great beauty, care and attention to detail it reasonably follows that similar concern was given to its shaft design and fabrication.  (Likely the converse analogy is also held true by most fishermen – if it doesn’t look good it probably isn’t.)

When one writes ad or catalog copy the object becomes the capture of the client’s interest and imagination – his “mind’s eye” – and transport him away to his favorite streamside moment, and make your rod an integral part of that fantasy.  Words may well accomplish this end but the burden remains upon the maker to see that the rod itself is consistent with the written word – the copy.  Just as the copy has stimulated the imagination and pleased the “mind’s eye”, so must the rod please the physical eye.  It is imperative that reality match fantasy, that the rod does indeed embody every quality of its description.

Hence, “…the delicate wand, of unparallelled beauty and craftmanship” can be no less than the words – it must have the feel and the appearance of delicacy, it must conjure up the image of a wand and it must somehow reflect the earmarks of quality and craftsmanship.

Now we must turn to more specific considerations. Custom or quality rods are thoroughbreds, highly individualistic expressions of accomplishment. As such, each maker took great pride in his work and great pain, via small details, to set his rods apart from others. Such unique detailing took the form of hardware design, knurl and trim-line type and location, keeper type and placement, wrap colors, etc., and these become fingerprints – the identifying marks of the maker.

Relating this to Leonard rods, regardless the material of which they may be crafted, one point would appear to be paramount:  the rods should draw heavily upon what has traditionally been the “Leonard look”, the rods should noticeably be of a “family”.  When a fly fisherman purchases a rod built by Leonard, he buys a “Leonard Rod” and his feeling of price is reinforced every time he looks at it.  The emphasis, then, is to draw attention to the  [typewriter overwritten]…

What are the qualities of the Leonard rod?

…within the parameters of application, I have always viewed Leonard rods as fine, delicate instruments, but always as rugged as need required.

…handcrafted, bearing all the distinguishing signs of hand work.

…strong traditions and ties to past as witnessed to in their use of fine thread, silver, and conservative appearance.

…simplicity, never ostentatious, their beauty is a quiet statement of fact which invites close inspection and withstands all criticism.

3 Responses

Eamon Lee
Eamon Lee

February 21, 2023

This amazing! Thank you so much for sharing it. Equal parts master craftsman and master marketer, the Gustav Stickley of rod makers, a philosophy that becomes more poignant every day as it becomes harder and harder to find people who embody it. Tom would have been an incredible Shaker craftsman too. “Beauty lies in utility” and “Als Ik Kan,” all in one man. I wish I could have spent time with him at his bench…even for an hour.

Lindsay Lovejoy
Lindsay Lovejoy

October 13, 2022

Tom Maxwell carried out his aesthetic concepts in his work at Leonard. The Maxwell rods express a unified vision of a streamlined and beautiful fly rod, without forgetting the Leonard traditions. Everything from the lovely reel seat, the checks and hook keeper, the tapering grip and the near-naked bamboo shaft has origins in the 19th century rods while expressing modern design values.

Stu Hayden
Stu Hayden

December 16, 2016

Tom’s insight to aesthetics has certainly influenced Marc’s rods to ultimate beauty as well as function and design!

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