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Dick Kantner
by Andy Dear


Over the past year I have had the good fortune to interview many of the great fishing rod designers of the past 50 years. And although they all share minor differences of opinion about action, taper, construction etc. most of them have one thing in common; they were fishermen that learned the art of working with composites as a byproduct of their passion for the sport of angling. Dick Kantner however is not your everyday rod designer, nor did he learn the trade as so many others have. Having cut his teeth in the composite industry at NARMCO on programs geared primarily for the U.S. Military, Dick was there when the early carbon filaments were first introduced to the aerospace industry. Not only was Dick involved in the construction of some of the early composite missile structures; he was also involved in several "classified" military projects as well.

After leaving NARMCO in the late sixties and starting his own company aptly named Composite Development Corporation, Dick became involved in pioneering the use of Carbon/ Graphite Filaments and Boron Fibers in the sporting goods industry. In addition to building Rod Blanks, CDC built some of the first composite Tennis Racquets, Bows and Arrows, Golf Shafts and Bicycle Frames as well. Throughout the past three decades, Composite Development Corp. has not only been an OEM for several of the major fishing rod manufacturers, they also continue to market their own line of rod blanks under the trademark name of Graphite-USA.

Although Dick Kantner has sold CDC and retired from the composites business he remains one of the true pioneers in the field of Graphite Rod design. Having seen the evolution of carbon fiber from it's earliest stages of military usage to it's present day multi-industry applications make Dick one of the most knowledgeable composite Rod designers of our era. I hope you enjoy the unique perspective he brings to this series of interviews.

Andy Dear: I was wondering if you could tell me a little about how you got started in the composites business?

Dick Kantner: Well, you see my parents met at the Curtis Wright main office in New York City. I came along a couple of years later in 1926 in Miami Beach. My father was an early aviator...an "early bird" they called them. I kind of grew up in an aviation surrounding. In 1940 we were living in Pennsylvania and my father got an offer to come out to San Diego to work at Consolidated Aircraft Co. My mother and I followed him out a couple of years later. I volunteered for Naval service the day before I would have been drafted into the Army. So I went off into the Pacific for a while, came back, went, and started college. Then the Korean War started and I got recalled into that. After I got back from the war I did some more college work.

AD: Did you study engineering?

DK: NO, I started out as an Art major, but later on I got into the business end of it. So I have a business degree. I had been skiing in Pennsylvania, and when I came back out to California I found out that California not only had snow, but it had mountains that you could ride up on a lift, not climb like we had to do in Pennsylvania. So I got involved in skiing out here. One of my skiing buddies named Lowell North was an Olympic yachtsman, and when he wasn't sailing we were skiing. We didn't like the way the skis we had were performing. Lowell was working for a company called NARMCO, which was really an adhesive company and he was one of the only engineers there.

AD: Oh Yes, NARMCO, so he worked with Dr. Havens at NARMCO?

DK: Yes Dr. Havens started the company; actually there was a sporting goods division and a research division at NARMCO. So Dr. havens had a company called NARMCO Manufacturing, and then he had the company my friend Lowell North worked for called NARMCO Research and Development. It was run by people who had retired from the Air Force, or had been in the Air Force during the big war and had been involved back at Wright Patterson in some of the early advanced composites that were coming along, such as building an AT-6 wing out of fiberglass instead of the conventional aluminum and rivets.

AD: About year was this?

DK: I'd say NARMCO came into existence around the late 1940's or early 1950's. The R & D laboratory was comprised mainly of chemists. And the fiberglass fishing rods, they must have come along about the early 1940's.

It was all basically an outgrowth of developments that came out of WWII. People were building fiberglass antennas for boats and airplanes and things like that. The plastic reinforced structures were the result of developments of structures during the war both in this country and in Germany. So anyway, my friend Lowell and I didn't like the way the ski's performed. And he had gone to Caltech and was a graduate engineer. He and I decided that he wanted to have some better downhill skis than were available on the market. These were recreational skis that were an aluminum sandwich. So, there are formulas for stiffness, the formula for stiffness for a bending beam is Young's modulus...are you familiar with the formula for Young's modulus?

AD: Yes sir.

DK: Ok, so a structure that is ½" thick it will have a certain bending stiffness. If you double the thickness of that section using the same amount of material it is going to be approximately 8 times as stiff. So we applied some of those principles to some skis and we built aluminum faced skis that were stiffer than the ones that were commercially available. They had a black plastic top and bottom surface with steel edging...it was quite an undertaking.

At the laboratory, it was really a Rube Goldberg thing! (Laughter). The ovens that they had in the devolopnment laboratory weren't big enough to put skis in. So we would open the doors and clamp 2 x 4's on the doors when they were at 90 degrees to the oven and hang canvas over it. Then we would put our molds with our ski's laminates ply's stacked on top them and held down with a vacuum with the adhesive in there. We would run the cures with the oven doors open at night after everybody had left. They often wondered what some of those smells were! (Laughter)

AD: It was probably a good thing OSHA didn't show up and shut the whole thing down.

DK: (laughing) Yeah...that's right! So that is how I got started in the bonding business. At the time I was working at Consolidated Aircraft (General Dynamics) doing drafting during the summers while I was going to college. Lowell had gotten a contract from Wright Patterson AFB to build a section representing a missile fuselage, he said, " I have got this project, why don't you come over and try and work at NARMCO". So I thought that was a pretty good idea and joined Lowell at NARMCO and started working on these Air Force programs. That was about 1953. NARMCO had a sporting goods division, and the sporting goods division was building fiberglass fishing rod blanks. I believe it was called Conolon at that time...does that ring a bell?

AD: Oh yeah, Garcia Conolon!

DK: Yes, NARMCO sold the fishing rod operation to Garcia. You see I never got involved in Fiberglass fishing Rods. NARMCO worked very closely with the Air Force Materials Lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and got a lot of their contracts for what they called "advanced programs" Lowell had gotten this contract for a 5-foot diameter Intercontinental SNARK Missile body test section for the first Intercontinental Missile. That was followed by a missile fin wherein we were substituting fiberglass reinforced high temperature laminates for the aluminum or Titanium skins for some of the missiles that were in the conceptual stages there. These were some of the first intercontinental ballistic missiles. So that was the sort of thing that we did.

At that time we also got involved in some of the classified programs. One of them was called project VISA This program was classified, but has since been released. It involved putting a one-inch layer of RAM (Radar absorber material) on a T33 Jet. It was one of the first attempts to hide an airplane from radar. That program led into another program, which has recently been declassified which was called "project OXCART" which was the development of the Lockheed A12, which was the predecessor to the SR71 Blackbird. It was a very very "black" program. My family never knew what I was working on. This was completely classified and way above Top Secret, it was a "need to know" sort of thing. We were involved with taking our technology using high temperature adhesives, reinforcements and processes and building parts. We couldn't tell anyone what we were doing, we had cover stories, and for 10 years my wife thought I was doing something else...it was an interesting time.

While we were doing all that good stuff we did several other little programs that weren't applied the "bird". So, new materials were evolving, the Boron fibers were coming along and meter lengths of Carbon were becoming available from England. Wright Patterson would send the stuff to us and get us to classify it and characterize it's properties and see if we could use it any place on the "bird" So we were introduced to all the reinforcing whiskers and filaments such as S Glass, Quartz Glass and of course the newly evolving Carbon filaments. That was in about 1963 when I was first introduced to those materials. Then in 1968 I got out of Aerospace. I consulted for a year then incorporated and formed my own company to apply the technology to commercial products principally sporting goods. At that time Aerospace was the main ...well let's just say that without aerospace the funds would have not been spent to develop those filaments. My family happened to be involved in Tennis, so we started developing Tennis Racquets.

Back in 1969 the Air Force put on a symposium down in Miami Beach for the Aerospace Industry. The people that were building the fibers back in those days were Celanese, Monsanto, Whittaker-Morgan and Hercules. Celanese had heard that we were working on Sporting Goods at Composite Development Corporation and told us that this symposium was coming up and would we be interested in building some products representative of the sporting industry for their booth. And we built...let's see, Tennis Racquets, Bows and Arrows, Golf Shafts and Skis, that was pretty much the product line at the time. So we built the products and they were displayed in the Celanese booth. In the published review of the symposium our products were referred to as the "Gems of the show" From that the word kind of got out and the people who built the "burnt string", which is what we call Carbon Fiber came to us and contracted with us to build prototype sporting goods.

Back in 1975 we made a commitment to look into the market for Carbon Fiber bicycle frames. We had some success there and the word got out. Several of the European companies called over and got in touch with us, and we contracted to build sets of frames for some of their riders for the Tour de France in 1976. Lucian Van Impe who was a Belgian racer riding for the French Gitan team, he is an excellent mountain climber. He is of small stature, so we built a small frame to his specs. And he won the Tour de France in '76. He used the Carbon Frame in the mountain section, starting one minute behind the leaders and finishing three minutes ahead of the peleton. On the following three days into Paris, the other riders just were not able to catch him.

So anyway in 1977 a young fellow who was working for Fenwick found out that we had the capability of building carbon fishing rods. He came down and we worked a Saturday and half a Sunday designing 5 different casting rods for him. So the offshoot of that was that we decided that we would get into Fly Rods. At that time I had designed a line of about 18 fly rods and while I was working with Phoenix Rod Co. which had sold from the original developer to another fellow, he asked if I could put Boron in the casting rods, and we happen to have access to a bunch of Boron. In the latter years at NARMCO, they had been instrumental in developing the processing lines for building Boron filaments for the Air force.

AD: That is quite an extensive process isn't it?

DK: Yes, it is a complex vapor deposition process. You have a gas called Boron Tri Fluoride that is condensed on a 1mil tungsten filament. You are pulling this tungsten filament through a seal into a vacuum chamber that has the gaseous BTF and it condenses on this tungsten filament. On top of the 1-mil tungsten filament you end up putting close to 2 mils of Boron in this deposition. So you end up with a filament that is close to 5mils in diameter, which is pretty large as filaments go. The filaments in carbon are way down around 14 or 15 microns; you know 1/100th the size of the Boron filament. So it didn't take many Boron strands to significantly affect the stiffness of a fishing rod. The outgrowth of that was that I incorporated Boron strands into my fly rods to improve stiffness and sensitivity. It was shingled through the butt section meaning there were more layers at the big end than there were up toward the tip of the rod.

In the mid seventies, there was an East Coast company called RODON. They have since gone away, but they had a Rod Designer named Ted Simeroe who came from Leonard. Then he got involved with RODON and they were advertising in the Fly Fishing magazines that they had some good hardware. So when I decided to get into the fly rod business I called Rodon and talked to Ted Simeroe and asked him if they would be a source for my components for my fly rods...reel seats and guides and that sort of thing. They said yeah, they would put me down as a manufacturer. So I decided I'd pursue that. About a half hour later they called back and said, "You don't realize that we are in the rod building business as well. We build all of the 3M's fly rods for them. We have just put out our catalog on our carbon rods and blanks. You tell us that you've got a Boron Carbon...can we get some samples?" So we negotiated that, I sent them samples, and they decided that there was merit in what we had done. They said, "don't get in the business, we'll buy everything you can build, we'd like an exclusive" So we had an ongoing agreement with Rodon for a while. At that time, Erenie Schweibert wrote an article in the Nov. issue of Fly Fishing Magazine on Salmon Fishing in Iceland and it pretty much featured the new Rodon Boron/Graphite blank. That was in '75 or '76, and that kind of kept us out of the finished fly rod business.

AD: How did you guys go about designing a blank?

DK: Well as I told you I had first been introduced in the mid sixties to carbon filaments, and we were characterizing it for the Air Force back at Wright Patterson. There are formulas for stiffness. Young's modulus that's the method that we used, we didn't reverse engineer anything. Reverse engineering is where you copy another manufacturers blank by taking it apart. What you do is cut it every 10" or so and measure the wall thickness, but we don't do things that way. Our method was more of an engineering design. Obviously there are some people that have some pretty good actions out there, and you look at them and see what they can do. Walton Powell was one of my mentors. When he found out that I was building blanks he came down and spent 10 days here really educating me into the requirements of fly rod action. Whether it was a progressive action or a regressive action...he had all sorts of names for actions. He and a couple of other designers, Simeroe had some good ideas back when he was with Rodon. Our actions are what I would have to refer to as a crisp action. It had quite a bit of authority for fly rods. I might just add back in those days a lot of our activity was involved in the UK where they were using big Salmon rods.

AD: Long Spey Rods and that sort of thing?

DK: Yep, multi piece, mostly three piece, but up to around 13 feet. They would send over a cane model and we would flex it and see what kind of action it had. I can remember an 11.5 foot Salmon Rod that they sent over. I am sure it weighed 28 ounces. They said "would you please duplicate this in carbon?" We said, we would duplicate the action, but we'd do it at 1/3 the weight. That was pretty much the case; it came out at around 9 ounces.

AD: How much time did you spend with Walton Powell learning the intricacies of fly rod design?

DK: About 1978 Powell got in touch with us, came down, and mentored me. He told me about his father, E.C. Powell who was the original cane flyrod manufactures In California. SoWalt was telling me everything he wanted. So we'd build it, and then make variations in it. I told you we used formulas for doing that sort of thing, well you do but don't recalculate every time you make a minor change in a rod.

AD: So you would use a formula to calculate the general attributes of a rod, but not necessarily the subtle details?

DK: We'd use the formula to tell us the wall thickness and the fiber orientation necessary to get a certain action. Then if somebody said, "That's great, but it's a little slow in the butt." You don't go back in and recalculate, you just extrapolate and add enough material to get the stiffness and action we needed.

AD: Did you work pretty close with Mr. Powell in developing the tapers for your fly rods?

DK: We worked very close together in developing the actions. Our tapers are all slower tapers. We wanted to maintain a small diameter, and we had a couple of practical rules of thumb. In keeping a small diameter you have to make slightly heavier walls to carry the same load, which also improves rod buckling properties and damage resistance. We never got into the "weight race" that a lot of fly rod companies did.

AD: Lighter and lighter and lighter....

DK: Yeah, lighter and lighter and more fragile. Our thought was fly rods don't break from fishing; they break from collateral damage, whether it's a big fly hitting it or something else like those electric tailgate windows! (Laughter)

AD: How did the Graphite-USA line come about?

DK: Well most of the fishing, I'd say 99% of the fishing rods that are built today that are called graphite fishing rods, aren't really graphite, they are carbon. Some place around 70 million modulus some Carbon is converted is graphite. All carbon is carbon, but all carbon is not graphite. Graphite is a continuation of the process at higher temperatures to make an extremely stiff material. I selected the name Graphite-USA instead of Carbon- USA because as advances were made in the carbon filament processing, the product got closer in strength and stiffness for the same weight. We had assumed that sooner or later all carbon filaments, at least the stuff in sporting goods, the properties would advance to the point where we were using graphite rather than Carbon. So Composite Development Corp. was the company, and Graphite-USA became the Trademark, which is still in use. In 1981 I had assisted Marty Johannsen in New Zealand in establishing Composite Developments NZ. They built for Redington down in Florida.

AD: Just out of curiosities who were some of your other customers?

DK: Lets see, Rodon, and then there was Phenix Rods in Anaheim that was formed by Mike Henry who had worked with Fenwick. Russ Peak...

AD: Oh yes, Russ Peak?

DK: Yes.....I don't think Russ is with us anymore.

AD: That's right he isn't, he passed away several years ago. I have heard so many good things about Russ. So you built blanks for Russ? DK: Yeah, he did all sorts of call it "pioneering" type work. He would combine carbon tips with glass butt or carbon butts with glass tips, and he was a super rodmaker and an excellent salesman! You know if you wanted one of Russ's Rods you were going to wait 18 months.

We were also building blanks for another fellow who is no longer with us named Al Ellis of the Al Ellis Rod Co. over in Phoenix Arizona. Let's see, we also built for a gentleman named Hanada who was up in the Seattle area at a company called Liberty designs. We built for Rudy Hagar who was from Germany who liked our stuff tremendously a fellow named Milan Halanar who was in Stockholm.

AD: Did your company ever build finished rods at all, or was it strictly blanks?

DK: Actually in 1990 we decided that we would build finished rods. It didn't work because my marketing manager tried to go head to head with advertising against Sage...and that can be prohibitive (laughter).

AD: I am assuming you mean financially prohibitive?

DK: Oh God yes! (Laughter)

AD: Why do you think it is that Boron never took off to the extent that graphite did as a blank a material?

DK: Boron is a very expensive material to make, plus there were only two companies in the U.S. that were making it one of them was AVCO back in Connecticut. They were using a process that we developed at NARMCO for the Air Force. The military was really the only customer, most didn't even know that Boron filaments were available unless you were involved in the building of it. Fly Rod maker Don Phillips worked for AVCO, well he had the ability to build tapers by taking these filaments and shingling them. The problem with Don Phillips's blanks was that there was no hardware scaled to fit on them. His rods were small; I doubt that they ever got over 7wt. Most of his rods were known for being extremely short I believe. So on a rod like that, even using the smallest guides

available, you're loading that rod with hardware. One of the reasons for using 55 million modulus Boron is that the sensitivity was improved. You see Boron is not lighter than Carbon, it is heavier, but you didn't have to use nearly as much of it as you do carbon. Using it with Carbon, you would use a couple of filaments that would spiral around the blank. When you get out to the .050" tip with this 4.5 to 5-mil fiber it contributed significantly to the stiffness of the blank. We used it because it was superior in strength and stiffness to any of the generally available Carbon's in the 33 million to 40 million modulus. Some of the graphite fibers in the 70 million modulus weren't suited because they didn't have the strength. They were only suited for stiffness critical applications. So the answer is that Boron just got too expensive and the Carbon filaments with a superior modulus became available at a much lower price.

Last time I purchased Boron in 1983, I think we were paying close to $180.00 per pound as compared to $50.00 a pound for carbon. Last time I priced Boron in 1990, it was only available from a Japanese source, and it was something like $1000.00 per pound!

AD: After having been in the composite industry for over 40 years now, how do you feel about the current state of composite technology as it relates to fishing rods?

DK: Well, I don't really see any revolutionary new fly rod materials coming along. Designs are in the ability and mind of the beholder. I remember when people started coming out with square fly rods and other shapes in the early 80's, which were supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. A round tube is probably the most efficient shape, now having said that, the cane rods which are principally hexagon...those are beautiful pieces of art and craftsmanship. Years ago I said that the epitome of a carbon fly rod would be when some craftsman takes the same technology that you use in cane rods for cutting the tapers, and make it out of graphite. On the positive side there have been a lot of improvements in the design, materials and processing carbon fiber blanks. This has resulted in 100% carbon blanks with require no glass reinforcements.

AD: Well from a rod builder's standpoint, it's a shame that the technology and equipment for making graphite rods is not more financially accessible and user friendly as it is to make cane rods. It sure would be fun to have a rolling table and a couple of mandrels in my garage and be able to play around with different tapers whenever I wanted.

DK: Well, your wife would have to have a longer oven (Laughter).

AD: What do you foresee as the next generation of materials used in the fishing rod industry? How much further can Carbon filaments be pushed, and after that what is next?

DK: Well, the polyethylene filaments are being used in a lot of ballistic applications whether it is vests or sides of personnel carriers or that sort of thing. The problem with polyethylene is that it is so hard to get the fibers to stick together. Of course that is one of the advantages in a vest or something is that it will absorb a lot of energy as it breaks down and comes apart. Hhhmmm....other than that, I just don't know.

AD: Well Mr. Kantner, I want to thank you for spending some time to speak with me. I really appreciate you candidness and generosity, and it has been a pleasure hearing your story.

DK: Thank you, Andy, if you need anything else be sure to let me know.

 

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