BREWER, Maine — It is a pairing made in outdoor-retailing heaven: A Brewer bamboo rod company with more than 100 years of history is teaming up with Maine’s best-known purveyor of outdoor goods to celebrate that company’s 100th birthday.
And Steve Campbell, owner of the Thomas Rod Co. since 1999, couldn’t be more thrilled.
“It was something that I had said for 20 years,” Campbell said. “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have rods in L.L. Bean? The most famous outfitter in Maine and one of the most famous rod-making companies from Maine, together. A perfect match.”
Officials at Freeport-based L.L. Bean agreed. When the company began planning a line of “heritage products” that would commemorate its 100th anniversary celebration in 2012, they began discussions with Campbell.
Jeff Miller, L.L. Bean’s senior product developer for high-end fishing, said he eventually spent a day in Campbell’s Brewer shop, shared his company’s vision, and listened to the rod-maker’s suggestions.
“It just seemed to make a lot of sense that we work together and have this great project. It’s been a lot of fun,” Miller said.
The project calls for Campbell to craft 25 numbered bamboo rods specially designed for the L.L. Bean 100th anniversary. Each is a 7-foot, 3-weight model that bamboo enthusiasts and rod collectors are likely to love.
“These ones are a fancy, fancy kind of a nightmare,” Campbell admitted with a chuckle. The rods all feature full intermediate wraps — four turns of silk, over a hundred on a single rod — that modern designs don’t include. The wraps originally provided strength to the rod, but as glues became better, the wraps were no longer necessary.
And while they’re not needed on the L.L. Bean rods, they’ll be there just the same.
“It’s a long process putting them on. It was my idea to do it, which I’ve questioned several times,” Campbell said.
Miller said the goal was to produce a rod that could have existed back in 1912, when L.L. Bean was founded.
“It is a true 1912 circa fly rod,” Miller said. “I still felt that it needed to be [representative of] where the company was. When the company started, that’s the rod that you’d find on the market. And it just happens to take a ton of labor hours to produce that rod today.”
With all that labor going into a rod — Campbell estimates that he can build only about 25 in a year while still holding a second full-time job — the price on the Bean rods will be eye-opening to those unfamiliar with the bamboo rod business. Miller said L.L. Bean plans to market the limited edition Thomas rods for $3,495 each.
“I know a lot of people will see that rod and think maybe it’s overpriced because it can be, but it isn’t, actually,” Miller said. “It’s a fair market value.”
Campbell’s other Thomas rods — which are made without the labor-intensive intermediate wraps, other Bean-specific additions, and with different reel seats — retail for between $2,495 and $2,295, the rodmaker said.
Miller appreciates the craftsmanship that goes into fine handmade products, and said that Thomas rods serve as fine examples of that trait.
“For Steve to have anywhere from 50 to 80 hours into a single rod, that’s pretty impressive,” Miller said. “There’s not many things you or I own that has that kind of single input from an individual.”
Campbell said that he recognizes the boost his business could get from selling rods through L.L. Bean. And he said he hopes business will increase enough that he can eventually make rod-making his sole job.
“I’d have to have a pretty good idea that I’m going to be able to consistently sell 50 rods a year to quit my other job, but that’s what I’d like to do,” said Campbell, who figures he could double his output to 50 rods if he were able to spend all of his working hours in the shop. “I’m pretty excited to see what happens. It’s hard to tell. The possibilities are endless, really.”
Campbell said the reason he’s optimistic is because he understands the worldwide reach that L.L. Bean enjoys. And Miller said the rod-maker’s optimism is understandable: When the L.L. Bean line of heritage products is rolled out in catalogs, Campbell and his company will gain an enormous amount of global exposure.
Miller said a complete media plan for the 100th anniversary products hasn’t been completed, but said Campbell can expect his bamboo rods to be seen by millions.
“Between one and two million [fishing] catalogs, I’ll just leave it at that,” Miller said. “And that’s just the one catalog that I have control of and [know] it will be in. We’ve got 50 or 60 catalog titles and some catalogs have 30 million [circulation]. I don’t know which book they will be in, but it’s potentially a very big number as far as exposure for that brand, which is obviously pretty neat for Steve. And I think it’s great for him.”
Four years ago, during L.L. Bean’s 95th anniversary celebration, the company sold a limited edition of another manufacturer’s bamboo rods. Miller said it took almost a year to sell them all, partially due to more limited interest in a 95th birthday. Also, the fly rods were created throughout that year and were largely sold as the company received them.
For the 100th anniversary, Campbell has already completed and delivered 10 of the rods to L.L. Bean and is working on his third batch of five rods. L.L. Bean will have all 25 rods in hand by November, Campbell said.
And when they go on sale on Jan. 1, Miller thinks sales will be brisk.
“It should be a matter of minutes rather than months” for the rods to sell out, Miller predicted.
If that turns out to be the case, Campbell said he’ll gladly accept more orders. Even if it means — like it does this year — that he has little spare time of his own.
“Hopefully I’ll run into a big problem with time here in another year,” Campbell said. “If things go the way I hope, like [legendary reel-maker] Stan Bogdan, I want to have all kinds of orders and all kinds of invitations to go fishing places. If I end up like that, I’ll be a happy guy, for sure.”