The name “A.L. Swanson” is well known to you if fly fishing is your passion. And speaking of passion, A.L. Swanson has that for designing and producing some of the most sought after fly boxes in America.
Swanson grew up in Maine, He had streams, lakes and of course the Atlantic – all within minutes of his hometown. The Swanson family lived on seventy acre farm with a brook flowing through much of the
property. As young as eight or nine, Swanson and his brothers would spend their summer days spin-casting for various types of fish. As he got older, he discovered fly fishing and was immediately hooked. He has not turned back since then. If anything, he has accelerated his interest in fly fishing and applying an artistic ability to extend the depth of his hobby.
Growing up a farm, the young Swanson learned to make things and use the required tools out of necessity. The family farm had a bounty of hardwood trees on the property. His dad and his brothers we would often convert the hardwood into workable lumber. Swanson loved working with my hands, being creative and making beautiful objects out of wood.
After college, Swanson began apprenticing with some of the best cabinet makers in the region. Being in the shop and in the field was the best experience someone that age could have asked for. At that time, the Shaker aesthetic began to influence Swanson’s design and style. Swanson visited a nearby Shaker community to gaze at the simple lines and complex joinery of pieces crafted a century before. At that point his career began to unfold and was soon making high-end pieces in the Portland, Maine area. That Shaker-inspired look is still very evident in his work today.
As a professional furniture maker and entrepreneur, A.L. Swanson is constantly thinking of new products to create. As an avid angler, he saw the opportunity to take a simple utilitarian, plastic fly box and turn it into functional art. Last May the wood designer noticed a convoy of drift boats lined up in front of a hotel nearby. Anxious fishermen were awaiting their day on the water. This scene inspired Swanson. There had to be a sensible, usable and affordable item that was made in Montana for those fishermen to pack with them. He started making prototypes that day and the first two boxes completed were soon sent to the Orvis Company for review. The Orvis Company was very interested in selling the Swanson-designed boxes. Needless to say, that turned out to be a brilliant move for Swanson – one that changed the course of his business.
Swanson says, “We use all kinds of hardwoods here in our Helena studio. But, I do have my favorites. Tiger maple, figured black cherry and Pennsylvania walnut are among those. We do however use exotic species too, if their colors and grain textures lend themselves to the perfect outcome. We source our
materials from several suppliers throughout the country, but much of the finest American hardwoods reign from northwest Pennsylvania – an area not far from where my father grew up.”
Where does A.L. Swanson get his inspirations for the various box designs? Living and fishing in Montana is pretty special to the designer. He says, “The rivers that serve us so well are iconic. A fly box, first and foremost has to work, and not only that, be named after these iconic Montana waters. Many folks do similar things in wood, but ours have reached a level that we feel is unmatched by any others – period.”
His company’s two newest series of boxes are called: The River Series, and the Expedition Series. The River Series contains (for now) five different boxes, with three sizes per edition. Each of those is named after Montana waters: The Missouri; The Yellowstone; The Smith: The Blackfoot and The Madison. Each box is made of a different combination of woods whose colors remind Swanson of the landscapes surrounding these waters. The Expedition Series contains two boxes: The Lewis and The Clark. These boxes are named after the two gentlemen that pioneered many of Montana’s waterways, and are left unadorned to appeal to a lower price point.
How long does it take to complete a “simple” box and a “complicated” Swanson box? Rarely (if ever) does are standard lines produced in batches of less than a dozen. Under normal conditions, since he is a busy furniture makers too, his company makes a dozen boxes a day. Regarding production of custom boxes Swanson notes, “We do, however, get a significant number of requests each week to craft “customized” boxes. Often, ones that have special selections of materials, monogramming or specific types of inlays, making them one-of-a-kind, usually requires two weeks for delivery. These boxes are generally “rolled into” a batch of standard boxes, as their sizes don’t change. We do, however, pay a lot more singular attention to said “custom” boxes.” The number produced ebbs and flows with holidays. On average, several dozen are made a week.
Swanson’s creations are now a team effort with assistant Jacob pitching-in making the boxes. However, with the significantly increasing demand in direct sales, and a substantial contract with Orvis, his team will grow larger very quickly.
The A.L. Swanson line of fly fishing boxes are considered in a class of their own. Like the Shaker adage he learned decades ago, “Do your work today, as though you will be here 100 years from now.” The wood designer says his boxes are designed to last while at the same time embodying beautiful lines and functional attributes. Fishermen are generally very proud of the equipment they’ve amassed regardless of what species of fish they are fishing for. Often, fly fishermen spend countless hours tying their own flies deserving more than a plastic container.
Swanson says even though his fly boxes don’t necessarily hold flies any more differently than their plastic counterparts-there’s no comparison between the two. “The high quality Swanson boxes are finished with several coats of a water-resistant varnish, and then polished by hand for a butter-like feel. We’ve added a solid brass lanyard post in one corner and a subtle cut away to allow slippery fingers to open the box with ease. I feel a level of pride is evident when I see people handling boxes we made for them,” Swanson explains. Testimonials speak for themselves: “This is the only piece of fly fishing equipment my wife will allow in the house. To say it is functional art is an understatement.”- J.T., Washington D.C.
As a fine furniture maker from Maine, Swanson understands how wood works and how it should be worked. He says he can never claim to be the only studio making wooden furniture, fly boxes or any other wood item. Swanson continues, “However, with my twenty plus years’ experience as a professional furniture maker, attention to detail, dedicated staff and passion for fishing, I think these will be the finest boxes your flies will ever land in. We’ve also just released a landing net that is made up of mixtures of woods similar to their fly box cousins – complete with inlaid flies and a rippled grip for a better hand hold when wet. I want all anglers to have the opportunity to get their hands on our products just once – they will not be disappointed.”
A.L. Swanson says he is committed to continue to introduce new lines to his “fleet” as time passes and occasionally offer limited release products that are numbered. The “Al Swanson” signature and “Helena, Montana” accompany every fly box, net, table or chair they make. This is the testament to the pride he takes in creating his works – right there at the foothills of the Rockies, in downtown Helena, Montana.