Engineering the World’s Best Fishing Lures with Balsa

Rapala sat down with Mikko Rautiainen, Head of Product Development, RapalaVMC®, who, on a cold winter day at RapalaVMC’s offices in Vääksy, Finland, took some time to talk with us about the value of designing and making Rapala lures from balsa wood. If you love fishing with Rapala lures, you’ll come to appreciate that Mikko is just like all of us crazy nuts out there who can’t wait to feel the tug at the end of his fishing line. He’s always thinking about that next catch and how to keep perfecting a lure that will catch more and bigger fish. Enjoy!

Question: Lauri Rapala learned that balsa was an ideal material for his lures. Why balsa? Why is balsa superior to pine, oak, maple, bamboo, or other woods?

Mikko: In the beginning, Lauri Rapala, who lived in Finland, used what was close to him — pine bark. But, he learned the bark was quite difficult to get as more and more people bought Rapala lures. Balsa is super light wood, and the density of balsa is super small if we compare it to other woods. To get extremely sensitive action for lure the lightest wood will be the best. By the way, balsa is actually a difficult material to work with — our tools need to be extremely sharp to get the best quality.

Question: There are probably dozens of different types of balsa. Does Rapala® make its lures with a specific type of balsa?  What characteristics in this material are you looking for?

Mikko: We tend to look for balsa that is both good quality and it’s hard. There are a lot of variations in balsa density, so we sort the wood blocks we receive carefully and use them only in suitable products. For example, for our BX products, we tend to use a balsa that is more soft in comparison to some of our other lures.

Question: Where does Rapala’s balsa wood come from and is it harvested sustainably?

Mikko: Balsa grows very fast. After two years, a balsa tree is about 20 feet tall and after 6-8 years it’s ready to cut. That’s when a balsa tree is about 50-70 feet tall. Most Rapala balsa comes from South America. All the wood is grown in 5 to 6 different plantations and when the last is cut, the first is ready to cut again. Rapala balsa follows the EUTR directive, and it’s needed if you import balsa to Europe. All of our suppliers are working under sustainable development and replace every tree cut year after year.

Question: What other products would consumers know that come from the same Balsa wood?

Mikko: The biggest use for balsa is for windmills. They are making windmill blades from balsa. Also, some hobby airplanes use balsa wood.

Testing new Rapala lure designs is an essential part of Mikko’s job at Rapala.

Question: When you create a new Rapala lure with balsa, how does that process begin? Lauri Rapala just carved wood. It’s probably a lot more complicated today than when the first Rapala lures were made. But do you still carve prototypes?

Mikko: We don’t carve and whittle lures anymore like Lauri did. We use premium CAD programs for shape design. When we’ve created a desired shape, our designer will use a 3D printer to print up the first mock-up. It’s easier to check dimensions and shape from the actual part and to get approval for that. After we get approval on the shape and size, we will make the first balsa bodies with a fully automatic lathe. And that’s when we start to add the other components that go into a lure to create our first prototype – stainless steel wire, zinc weights, and a PC plastic swimming lip. From there, we start testing those first samples to observe their action in the water. There are many steps before a new balsa bait arrives in an angler’s hands and it typically takes at least a year from the first drawing.

Question: Are Rapala balsa lures still tank-tested and hand-tuned at the Rapala factory?

Mikko: Yes, all Rapala balsa lures are tank tested and if needed, their action is fine-tuned.

Question: Rapala lures always run true right out of the box. How do you do that? Do you have a stringent quality process to make sure Rapala balsa lures always perform at their best?

Mikko: This is part of the Rapala quality. All balsa lures are tank tested to guarantee they work as promised. There are several working steps in lure production and all of those are also quality checkpoints.

Question: What are the key manufacturing steps for a Rapala balsa lure?

Mikko: Let’s take a look at the legendary Rapala CountDown in the gold pattern. Starting from wood block. Body from the lathe. Making slots for wire and weight. Making metal parts, weight, and wire. Assembly body. Aluminum foiling. Dipping and spray-painting colors. Painting eyes. Making slot for swimming lip. Gluing swimming lip. Putting rings and hooks. Tank testing and packaging. As you can see, there are a lot of steps involved.

Question: As a Rapala lure designer, do you get to go “test” your lure projects out on the water?  In other words, is spending time actually fishing an important part of your job? We hope that’s part of your job!

Mikko: Of course! First, let me say that we use test tanks during the design process. This is called technical testing. We need to check casting distance in different wind conditions and we need to check swimming depth and measure it. Also, trolling speed, how fast you can drive, etc. But, there is also field testing, too, in which we take the lures out on a lake to see what happens in real life. We have pro testers all over the world and we rely on their knowledge and opinion during the process. This is the best part of my job because when you catch that first fish with a new lure you’re designing, you smile and say to yourself, “It works!”

On behalf of all of us die-hard Rapala fans, thank you Mikko for sharing your thoughts and insights about how Rapala lures are engineered and for your passion to keep trying to figure out how to make Rapala lures even better.

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