Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The International Rodsmith?

I've always been fascinated with bamboo rods, but scared away by the steep price tag. A decade or so ago, John Geirach's "Fishing Bamboo" inspired an impulse purchase of a (relatively) cheap little 2 weight rod on ebay, sight unseen, but never got around to really trying it out until last year. It cast like a broomstick with a 2 weight line, eventually I'll get around to trying a 3 weight and maybe I'll see an improvement. Later that same season, I met a guy fishing on our beat who was invited by one of our members. He had three bamboo rods with him, and after speaking with him for a bit, he gave me a chance to cast all three. I think they were all 5 weights, and I loved the action, one in particular. It took a little getting used to, but when I was done I had a huge grin on my face and he had a leader full of wind knots. He handed me his card and told me he'd be happy to show me how to be build a rod from scratch. After over a year or so of back and forth and conflicting schedules. we made an appointment for a couple of days at his workshop in a small town near the entrance of the Gotthard Tunnel, picturesquely and fittingly situated a short cast away from the milky blue Reuss river.

The rod shop itself met my expectations. Culms of bamboo lay everywhere, and dozens of bamboo rods in various states of completion were leaning in every corner. The smell of heated bamboo permeated the room, a heady, warm, comforting smell that couldn't possibly rub anyone the wrong way. A window in front of one of the workbenches offered a direct view of the chalky freestone river. Walls of cork rings, drawers full of guides, reel seats, a veritable rainbow of hundreds of spools of wrapping thread, a lathe, drill press, saws, a tubular bamboo oven, and countless other things I overlooked or simply didn't recognize. This was a man obsessed. I want to be this man.

First things first. We spoke about bamboo for an hour or two, he showed me the culms and explained the desirable and less desirable aspects of each individual one, introducing me to concepts like power fibers and node spacing. He showed me some of his countless finished rods, many of which I held and inexpertly waggled while listening to him tell a story behind each and every one. Over the next few days I would see the beautiful matching pair of swelled butt rods he made for his wife and himself. His whippy one piece seven foot five weight and his hefty salmon rod. His quadrate and octagonal rods, and his bamboo ferrules. It was a substantial amount of information for an absolute beginner to digest. He wanted to know if I wanted to do everything from scratch and fully by hand, or did I want to use "shortcuts" like Tom Morgan's handmill, and send some of the straightened strips through a machine to do some of the rough planing. I'm pretty impatient, and while I have a very understanding wife when it comes to fly fishing, I also have a young daughter I hate being away from, another kid on the way, and a full time job from which I have to take days off of in order to drive two hours each way to come do this in the first place, so the choice was easy. Get this rod as finished as possible in the next few days, or end up spending another year juggling schedules to arrange a few extra days of planing. I want a fishable, functional rod, I don't need a work of art. There's plenty of time to build one of those when the pace of life slows a bit.

He handed me a culm, and I got to splitting. I made my strips, and then I straightened them as best as I could while gently warming them over a heat gun, bending them, and repeating the process. I also used to the heat gun to flatten the nodes in a vise. After a few hours of this, the straightened and flat strips were fed into a power beveler which gave them a roughly triangular shape, but still no taper. We wrapped the pieces in twine and put them in the oven while we had lunch. The afternoon was consumed with planing. Twelve strips, six for each rod section, had to planed down to an exact taper. Tom Morgan's beautiful hand mill beckoned, and once the proper measurements were set, I got to work.

Tom Morgan's hand mill, top down view.

After I finished the butt section, my hands had blisters, and we epoxied the strips together, wrapped them again, and put them in the oven one more time.
The 6 pieces of the butt section, ready for the epoxy.
When it came it out, it was a lumpy, gluey mess. I removed the twine, scraped the epoxy away, and realized for the first time that I was making something that was pretty nice. The sanded, cleaned butt section, straight and six sided, was more precise than anything I had made before.
The next day, the process was repeated for the delicate rod tip. I was particularly careful while planing when it came to these ridiculously thin strips of bamboo.
The 6 pieces of the tip.

The next day, we finished up the tip section, added and shaped the cork handle, turned the reel seat on a lathe, mounted the ferrules, and prepared the guides for wrapping. It was coming together and I could hardly wait to fish with it.
The partially completed rod with the Reuss river in the background

I started wrapping and made some hideous wraps, finally getting the hang of it after an hour or so, at which time we called it a day. The rodmaker kindly finished up the rod for me and I picked up it a few weeks later when the varnish was dry. He offered me the use of his shop whenever I wanted to make another one, and I know I'll do it again sooner rather than later. I can split the culm and straighten some bamboo strips in my workshop at home, and bring them down to his workshop to fire them up in the oven, and then finish up the blank at home, where I'm planning on making a homemade wrapping jig and cork lathe from a drill. The whole experience was great, and for someone who has to spend the majority of his time in front of a screen, working with my hands and really creating something precise is cathartic, so much so that I'm planning on wrapping some rods over the winter, along with fly tying and making furled leaders. Anything to stay busy in the off season!
The stripping guide, with honey wraps.

The completed rod along with a nice handcrafted lanyard that I won recently.
It matches pretty well, and I find myself reaching for it along with the bamboo
when I head out the door to fish my home river.

I've had the rod for about a month now, and am learning how to cast it. It'll never win any beauty contests. It's not particularly straight, the finishing is utilitarian, there's no second rod tip, the rod tube is a scratched, grey PVC tube, and the rod sock, as soon as I either get around to sewing it or successfully pester my wife to do so, will be a green and white scrap of Ikea fabric. But it's fishable, eminently fishable.


  1. Impressed and ever so slightly jealous... Fly tying is on my list this winter, will send you some masterpieces ;-)

  2. If you don't make it here in time for fishing season, you could always come for an extended fly tying weekend! I'm sure the ladies would find something fun to do while we tie flies on the sofa with an endless stream of shitty films running in the background.

  3. "It'll never win any beauty contests. It's not particularly straight, the finishing is utilitarian, there's no second rod tip, the rod tube is a scratched, grey PVC tube, and the rod sock, as soon as I either get around to sewing it or successfully pester my wife to do so, will be a green and white scrap of Ikea fabric."

    that's really a good description of a fantastic rod, one that will receive much love.