The emergence of the Sweetgrass Rod Company has spurred yet another round of interest in bamboo fly rods and each week we answer dozens of questions from folks who are starting to give bamboo a look. With the price of high quality graphite rods climbing higher and higher, a fine bamboo rod is no longer out of reach and to some they are starting to seem downright affordable. So with that I thought it would be useful to create a small primer for those looking to purchase their first bamboo rod. This will by no means be a complete “how-to” but it should point someone in the right direction when they begin searching out a bamboo rod.
First and foremost, don’t believe the myths you’ve heard about bamboo fly rods. They are not all slow, whippy delicate sticks that break easily. Remember, once upon a time all fly rods were made of bamboo and quite a few of them are still being fished today. Bamboo, pound for pound, is stronger than steel and a well cared for rod can last several lifetimes.
Learning a bit of bamboo rod history can be very useful. The so-called “golden age” of bamboo fly rods lasted from about 1920-1970 and the names of the well-known makers come up in nearly every conversation about bamboo rods. Just like today’s Winston, Sage and St. Croix, each maker had differing levels of style, quality, value and performance. Among the company’s and makers you will want to familiarize yourself with are Leonard, Payne, Dickerson, Young, Edwards, Granger and Heddon.
Figure out what you want the rod to do. Are you looking for a “tuxedo” rod? That is, one you’ll pull out once or twice a year for a special outing or do you want something like a solid, dependable 8 ft. 5 wt. that you’ll use every time you go fishing? Bamboo fly rods come in as many lengths and line weights as graphite rods and are just as useful for a multitude of fishing tasks. Unlike a graphite rod, however, a skilled rod maker can custom tailor a bamboo rod to fit your particular casting or fishing style. I promise you, there is a bamboo rod out there that will suit your needs perfectly.
Go out and cast some rods. One of the toughest things to come to terms with, at least in the beginning, is that there are so few bamboo rods available to cast. Here at Backwater Angler we always have a selection of both new and lightly used rods available for your inspection but in most fly shops this is the exception rather than the rule. In our area, the National Capitol Angling Show usually has at least one vendor with a few bamboo rods available to cast and purchase. A little farther from home, the Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, NJ attracts a number of today’s finest custom rod builders who will gladly take time to speak with you about their rods. They may not always have rods to sell but they will always have a few to cast. And they gladly take orders on the spot. Which brings me to another important point: get to know the guy who made or is making your rod.
A few words about price; as John Geirach observed in his book Fishing Bamboo, a good bamboo rod has never been cheap. You will no doubt encounter rods selling anywhere from $700 on the low end to over $3,000 on the high end, with most rods priced in the $1,000-$2,000 range. That might sound expensive but if you weigh the price against the cost of labor (about 70 hours per rod, give or take), parts, materials and wear and tear on equipment the rod maker is only earning between $10-$25 per hour. And don’t always look at the price as the determining factor in picking out your fly rod, an expensive rod isn’t always great and an inexpensive rod can sometimes surprise you with its quality. I will strongly suggest that you avoid buying rods on eBay and any bamboo rod made in China. Finally, use the internet to your advantage. There are dozens and dozens of rod makers out there with highly detailed websites. Do some poking around and you will be amazed at just how many rodmakers you’ll find.
I’m way overdue for an update on the rod so here goes…
Since my last post I’ve run the individual strips (18 in all) through the router-powered beveler, which cuts the initial 60 degree angle into each strip. Then I started working on the tip sections. The tip strips were further straightened and I scraped off the layer of enamel that covers the outside of the bamboo. Taking off the enamel is one of my favorite parts of rod building because it’s the first time I get to see the true color of the bamboo as it will look on the finished rod. It’s like opening a present!.
Then I adjusted the screws on the planing form to the proper taper dimensions and started to hand plane each strip to within .030 in. (thirty thousandths of an inch) of the final taper. A little more very delicate straightening preceded final planing which was completed Monday night. Now the tips are ready to glue. Tonight I’ll re-set the planing form to the dimensions for the butt section and start planing the rough taper. I’ll plane the butt section to final dimensions and I’ll be gluing up the blank Saturday morning. By Sunday night I’ll have the rod sections cut to proper length and the ferrules installed. Then I’ll adjust the fit of the ferrules, assemble the rod sections and give it the wiggle test for the first time. If I’m feeling like a really huge nerd I’ll tape on the guides, tip top, reel seat and grip and go outside and cast it for the first time and the neighbors will look at me funny.
Being that I’m smack in the middle of final planing I thought your readers might like to learn a little about the tools I’m using to do it.
The planing form and Stanley #9 1/2 low-angle plane that are the meat and potatoes of bamboo rod making.
The planing form is an adjustable “jig” that is made of 2 bars of cold rolled steel. The bars each measure 3/4″ x 3/4″ x 6′ and are held together with a number of smooth, steel pins, each spaced 5″ on center. At each pin are two adjustment screws, one on either side, which may be adjusted to either enlarge or reduce the space between the two bars. One set pulls the bars together the other pushes them apart. A finely milled 60 deg. groove runs the length of the bars along the inside edges where the two bars meet. To create the groove the edges of each bar are chamfered at a 30 deg. angle which combine to create a 60 deg. groove. The groove is also tapered so that it is deeper on the “near” side and shallower on the “far” side. The planing form has two of these carefully milled grooves, on on the top (butt side) and one on the bottom (tip side). The groove on the tip side is much smaller than the one on the butt side. By opening or closing the gap between the two bars you can change the taper along the length of the form. I use a dial indicator micrometer with a 60 deg. contact point to measure the depth of the groove at each 5″ “station” where very precise adjustments to the taper can be made. By following a taper “recipe” I can adjust my planing form to reproduce nearly any bamboo rod taper (fly rods, spinning rods or casting rods).
Next time-the joys of urea-formaldehyde epoxy resin!
Not much progress to report on the rod this week because I just got back from a week in the wilds of western North Carolina. I fished a little bit while I was down there but many of the streams I saw were low and warm and the ones that weren’t low turned in to a river of clay-colored slurry as soon as anyone even mentioned rain. I realized how spoiled I am with the Gunpowder River just a 30 minute drive from my house in Baltimore City. Even after a heavy rain the upper river is never more than slightly off-color and the cold water has held out year after year. What a incredible resource this river is! Well, enough about all that.
I mentioned in my last post that I’d talk about some of the tools bamboo rod makers use. So far the pictures have shown my Milwaukee heat gun and wood worker’s vise. Pretty boring stuff. This week we’ll check out my router powered beveler. This is a serious tool! It’s a home made version of a beveler designed by another rod maker named named Al Medved. As you can tell from the pictures the router mounts horizontally and the bamboo is fed through an adjustable wooden bed that sits below the blade. The bed holds the bamboo at the right angle as it goes through the beveler. The beveler helps save time and a lot of hand planing by cutting the initial 60 degree angle in each strip. How much time? About 5 hours worth of planing and about 30 minutes of blade sharpening. Aside from my home-made lathe this is the only power tool I use in the construction of my flyrods. Everything else is done by hand. All of the primary and final planing of each strip is done one strip at a time with my trusty Stanley #9 1/2 black plane which is about 50 years old. In my next post we’ll check out the most important tool for making bamboo planing form.
I just wanted to update all of you on the bamboo rod I’m building for the shop and to lend some insight into the rod making process. There are five major steps in making a bamboo rod:
1.preparing the bamboo for planing
4.attaching the components (guides, ferrules, reel seat) and
5.applying the finish (varnishing).
So far I’ve flamed the culm (pole) of bamboo with a propane torch, split out the 18 individual strips that will become a butt section and two tip sections. A bamboo rod is not made of a single piece of bamboo which has been shaped into a hexagon from the outside, rather, it’s made of 6 individual pieces which are shaped on the inside edges and are then glued together to form a hexagon. This initial process involves, sanding, pressing and smoothing the nodes and finally, straightening the strips using a heat gun and vise.
Next, the strips will be run through my router-powered beveler which cuts the initial 60 degree angle on two sides of the strip. After that I’ll scrape off the thin layer of enamel (kind of like bark) from the outer edge of each strip, exposing what will become the outer surface of the finished rod. After this the strips are ready to rough plane. I usually plane to within 0.030 inches of final measurements and then fine-tune any strips that need to be straightened a bit more. After inspecting each strip for any flaws I then go ahead with final planing. I try to keep tolerances to within 0.001 in. which is not really all that hard with accurate tools and a sharp hand plane. Next comes the sticky job of gluing the strips together to form a blank. After gluing, what was previously just a bunch of long matchsticks emerges as a bona-fide flyrod.
Then I’ll cut the sections to their proper length, attach the ferrules with marine-grade epoxy, shape the cork grip, fit the ferrules and wrap the guides with 4/0 silk thread. After all of this I apply the finish (Minwax spar varnish) to the rod in several stages. The reel seat goes on last. Oh yeah, the reel seat. I make my own inserts from highly figured wood I get from my cabinet maker friend, Fife Hubbard. I usually stick to down locking cap and ring style hardware for trout rods.
So there you have it. From start to finish it takes me about 70 hours of active work time plus about 2 weeks of inactive time (waiting for glue and varnish to dry) to make a bamboo flyrod.
In the next post I’ll discuss some of the specialized tools I use and maybe even have a short movie of me running some strips through the beveler.
I’m proud to introduce the Backwaterangler.com community to our very own Bill Felter. Bill is a Maryland State Licensed Fishing Guide, Backwater Angler Clinic Instructor, and Bamboo fly rod Builder. Bill will be contributing to the site on various topics including fly fishing reports, guide know-how and bamboo rod building, of course. –Theaux
Hi there, it’s Bill. I just started working on another rod for the shop. I finished flaming and splitting the culm that will become a copy of the famous Model 97 taper designed by Jim Payne. It’s a 7-foot, 2 piece rod with 2 tips that casts a 4 weight line. I really love this rod for its smooth action and it’s my favorite rod for fishing those little Brook Trout streams out in Garrett County. It loads up with just a few feet of line out and it has enough power to reach out to about 40 feet before it starts to feel overworked. It really shines in the 15 to 30 foot range, which is as far as anyone would need to cast in most small stream situations. It can handle streamers up to about #6 and turns over long leaders for fishing really little dry flies. I routinely fish this taper on the Gunpowder and think it does a nice job of landing fish in the 12 inch and under range. It’s not the rod you’d take to the North Branch.
The rod is darkly flamed and will have blued ferrules and hardware, an agate stripping guide and dark bronze guides. The reel seat hardware will be the classic down-locking cap and ring style. Wraps will be chestnut brown silk with black tipping. I hope to have it finished and in the shop by October. After that I’ll have 1 or 2 rods ready for the holidays.