February 09, 2010

Cork Trees being Harvested (credit: Wikipedia)

Finding the right materials to make a good cork grip is a more laborious process than it might seem. Every year or so, when we purchase our cork, Junior and I sit down with the entire shipment and devote a good chunk of the day to sorting through it. Out of a batch of say 1000 cork rings, we probably weed out close to 40-60% of it. Pitting is easily the number one reason, though there are other issues (like discoloration) which can make the rings unfit to use in fashioning a good, high-quality grip. We do it piece-by-piece, looking over each ring to see how many (or often how few) of them pass what Junior calls the “swiss cheese” test.

While somewhat tedious, this process doesn’t bother me a whole lot. For one thing I find the material fascinating, for many of the same reasons that I think bamboo is so interesting. First, cork is sustainable, since it’s stripped from Quercus Suber tree at roughly ten-year intervals, without doing any real harm to the tree itself. Secondly, there’s just no substitute for patience, since cork is sort of the ultimate in slow-growth — when you turn over a cork grip in your hand you know that a lot of time has gone into it, a feeling that I really enjoy. Lastly, I like the fact that it’s a traditional craft, and that Europe’s cork forests and the people who tend to them are essentially doing the same thing that they’ve done for centuries.  As you can probably guess, I have a real fondness for traditional materials that still do the job better than any synthetic or man-made ones. Cork — firm, water resistant, and with a good bit of friction — really is ideal.

Harvested Portugese Cork (credit: Carsten Niehaus via wikipedia)

What does bother me, however, is that it’s getting harder and harder to find quality cork. This never used to be the case. Early in my career, when I was working at Leonard and T&T, and then for a while when I first started out on my own, the yield of quality cork wasn’t that bad. I think a bag of 1,000 AAA rings ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $350, and the quality was exceptional. If you sorted through a big batch of it you could find pretty consistent numbers of premium stuff — AAA meant exactly that.

These days I’m a lot less confident then I used to be in the usefulness of those grades. To be perfectly honest, I’ve had a harder and harder time seeing big differences between “premium” quality cork and more standard material, which is problematic when you’re paying for the difference. And of course you can’t really build a high-quality rod with mediocre material.

The reason for cork scarcity? (credit: wikipedia)

I’ve talked with a lot of other rodmakers about this, and I think there’s a fairly strong consensus about the plight of cork. What there doesn’t seem to be quite as much consensus about is the reason for this decline, and as you can imagine, theories abound. One of the most compelling, at least to me, is the rise of the wine industry in the last two decades. While some wine-producers have shifted to using different substitutes for cork–plastics and screw-caps in particular–it’s hard to stack the growth of the wine industry, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $120 billion, next to the necessarily slow growth of something like cork, and think you’re going to come out of it without having a major supply crunch.

The second part of this story is the proliferation of bamboo rodbuilders in the last decade or so. On the whole I think this trend has been exceedingly positive. More people are interested in bamboo rods now than probably at any time in recent memory, and I think it’s great for the tradition. Every year it seems that a few more bamboo rodmakers sprout up at shows or on the internet, often, it seems, having embraced the calling in order to put fly-fishing a little more central to their lives, and I love the general level of enthusiasm and respect for the craft. The unfortunate downside to this though, is that it has made it harder to get the quality cork that many rodbuilders need.

All of this, of course, might change in the current economic climate. I’m guessing that the demand for cork is probably going to take a hit as fewer people have the money to pay for a nice bottle of wine or a new fly-rod, though where the cork industry goes from here is anyone’s guess. While it would be nice to see more high-quality cork available to rodbuilders and at more reasonable prices, I’m not holding my breath. It’s hard to predict anything in these economic times, so I’m just glad that Junior and I have all the cork we need for the foreseeable future. It’s a real pleasure to keep building them this way and I really can’t imagine a material more suitable to the job.

A Finished Spring Creek Grip

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