Inside the Gibbs Plug Factory – Aubrey Theall

In the writing of a prior entry for the Edge Blog on darters, I spoke with a number of prominent saltwater lure manufacturers, including Gibbs Lures. Dan Smalley Jr., one of the co-owners of Gibbs was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time and explain the hows and whys of their well known darter plug. He also graciously offered me a tour of their plant in the future if I was in the area.

Being a known plug nut, I decided to take them up on the offer one afternoon early this summer when I was in Rhode Island on business. I’m appreciative that Dan and his son Matt (who handles sales) took the time to show me around.

Logically we started the tour around a pile of raw wood stock, which for most of the Gibbs plugs is sugar pine. There are a couple of exceptions (notably the darter), which are made of harder and tighter grained birch. Birch is easier to turn and holds screw eyes better I am told. All Gibbs plugs are made from one of the two woods.

These wood blanks are first ripped from larger pieces and then loaded into a very impressive automated lathe. The lathe, in just a couple of seconds spits out what more or less looks like an unpainted surf plug. The tooling used with the lathe controls the shaping of the plug. This machine, as well as some of their other customized equipment, allows for high volume production (60,000 + plugs per year) with a great level of consistency. The blanks are hand inspected for quality before and after milling. I’m told any blanks that make it into the lathe with significant knots tend to explode pretty spectacularly so its rather important that the blanks are visibly knot free right out of the gate.

Next the plugs are drilled. A customized drilling machine is used to drill through for the through wire and custom jigs are used to locate the other holes needed such as for the belly hook(s), for weights, etc. After drilling, the plugs are sanded with two different grits to get a smooth surface. The insert weights are made to specification for each plug.

The plugs then travel next door to be finished. The first step in finishing is to seal the plugs, which is done using a proprietary process. Weights are glued into place. Next they receive another sanding and then are painted in either one of the trademark Gibbs patterns or one of a few newer patterns including a cool silver/black/orange, blue mackerel and a nice new pogy pattern. I’m told our man Steve Cook had a hand in the latter (and also that his dad cooked up the design of the Stan Gibbs popper way back when!). Final assembly includes items such as installation of the metal lip (if there is to be one), installation of grommets, hooks, through wiring (for those plugs that are through wired) and quality inspection. In all there are 50 to 55 steps depending on the plug from the blank until the plug is stapled inside a Gibbs plug bag.

I was very impressed with how professional the operation is. I had developed a mental image of wood plug making as basically a garage industry but the Gibbs operation is serious industry. Despite being “tucked” away within a plastics plant it occupies a significant amount of floor space in two factory buildings. To give you a sense of their manufacturing volume, they are stocking between twenty and thirty thousand plugs in their warehouse at a given time! They claim they are able to ship 90% of orders within a day thanks to this large inventory.

Dan and Matt tell me that they have continually improved the manufacturing operation over time since taking ownership both to facilitate their high production volume but also to increase the quality of the product. Improvements over the past several years include thicker and stronger metal lips, improved sealing, new paint colors, wiring closed eye hooks into the plug when possible rather than using open eye hooks, through wiring on more plugs (like the 3oz darter) and more. The commitment to quality is obvious when you tour the facility and see how the plugs are made.

Some plugs are intentionally not through wired, though, in those cases the reason is to stay true to the original Stan Gibbs designs. Through wiring plugs like the small and medium sized darters would require a significant re-design of a plug that has been a fish catcher for longer than I’ve walked the earth. The angles of the plug do not lend themselves to a through wire (I’m told). I can’t say I argue with that logic.

Like many of you I sometimes anxiously wait around the Edge website for a tiny delivery of the hottest low volume custom plugs, but one of the best things about a large operation like Gibbs is that you don’t have to. They are selling into nearly 400 tackle shops from the Carolinas to Maine. The best part about this is if you’re on Martha’s Vineyard or in Montauk and you smack your darter on a rock and take a chip out of the lip there are several shops nearby that are very likely stocking its replacement. I like rare custom plugs as much as the next guy but I know the pain of having your only specimen snap off thanks to a wind knot or having it clipped off by a blue when the bite is on and it can be rough. The pain is even more acute because you know you likely aren’t going to be getting another without scouring the earth and paying way too much or trading some of your other choice items. I do have bins of very expensive custom wood but do a good chunk of my fishing with a handful of bread and butter plugs including several of the Gibbs models like the Polaris popper, the stubby needlefish and their darters.

I was also pleased to learn that the company, founded way back in 1946, has a clutch of new lures just out of the oven. A few years ago they brought out a “Pro Series” that included improvements such as VMC hooks, split rings and more intricate paint patterns but that is mostly stuff I’d characterize as incremental improvement. This year, however, they have some truly “new” stuff including a line of tuna lures that are very impressive and a new round nose Danny plug for those of us that would rather chase linesiders than Charlie Tuna.

In the “Tuna Candy” line there is a 3oz plug that looks to me like a “spook” type lure but lacking a belly hook. Its actually a stubbed off pencil popper flipped around backward. Eyes have been added, its loaded and built for long casts and a fast, frantic retrieve. I REALLY like the new blue mackerel pattern, I think its a better pattern than their traditional green mackerel and would like to see it regularly on store shelves on some of the non tune plugs. Maybe the Gibbs guys will whip up a blue mackerel batch for the guys at the Edge. Put me down for a few. I also suggested they produce a squid patterned darter (and maybe a popper), if you’re interested in seeing them I’d suggest you drop the Gibbs guys a line as they do respond to the feedback they get from the fishing community.

The second in the Tuna Candy line is a 2oz stubby needle. This plug also has eyes unlike the traditional Gibbs stubby needle (although the pro series does) however it sinks unlike the existing Gibbs needles. While this is a new development, I think its a desirable one.

Both share heavy (600 pound test) through wire and come rigged with 300 pound test triple split rings and very expensive 7/0 Owner big game hooks. They are seriously heavy duty plugs!

Although the stubby tuna needle was not intended as a surf plug, I was licking my chops as soon as I got my hands on one. A quick pit stop at the Saltwater Edge on the way to the rocks in Newport and I had re-rigged it with a little smaller split ring and a 5/0 VMC siwash tied with green hackle. As luck would have it the weather that afternoon was gusty and the water choppy and loaded with weed. The loaded needle was just what I needed to punch through the wind, to get down under the chop and mostly slip the weeds. The fish were kind enough to cooperate with my little experiment and I think its safe to say this plug is more than suitable for surf duty. This bluefish (seen below), for example, didn’t care that the plug was designed with tuna in mind. I expect this could be a go-to plug in the early stages of a Nor’Easter, kind of along the lines of the Hab’s Night N’ Gale of years gone by. I know this isn’t precisely the sales pitch the Gibbs guys would give you for the plug, but its putting bass and blues on the beach for me. I’m sure it will put Charlie in the boat as well.

The new round nose Danny plug is big wood at 3.5oz and comes rigged with VMC hooks on Wolverine split rings and has an extra heavy metal lip. I expect it will be handy when bass are on large bait like pogies, shad, scup or snapper blues. I’m told this plug is new in some respects but also borrows from some of the older Stan Gibbs plugs in its design and that a number of surf sharpies weighed in on the design.

Speaking of the old standbys, I was not aware that they actually hold patents on many of the plugs they make, including ones that many other plug makers knock off. Its true! they have over time generally chosen not to defend those rights but they own them all the same. The Gibbs company has a very rich history and they’ve inherited a pile of relics. This includes the biggest pencil poppers I’ve ever seen (north of 5oz), an archive of photos of tremendous catches on the Gibbs plugs, articles, prototypes and more.

The Gibbs plugs are entirely assembled in the US, of US made components, with the exception of the hooks. I’m told they’ve at least given some consideration to switching totally to VMC hooks but that there are fans of the Mustads out there (I know Don Musso is from having spoken with him and he’s pretty astute). That and the availability of open eye hooks and longer shanks are advantages that the Mustads offer. I personally cut them all off and replace them with VMC’s, I just don’t trust the Mustads and find them to be brittle. While the VMC’s will bend a little at times, the Mustads have broken on me in the past and it has cost me fish. I don’t really mind changing the hooks, though, I probably wind up doing it with half of the plugs I buy.

The Gibbs company is keeping a piece of saltwater fishing and surfcasting history alive and you can tell that its a labor of love for them. It would obviously be easier to outsource the manufacturing overseas or produce the plugs out of plastic, but it just wouldn’t be the same and they understand that and intend to keep things just as they are. They understand because they fish their product and enjoy fishing it as much as we all do. I’m glad for that, as otherwise the bluefish would eventually destroy my stash!

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