I don’t remember the first bamboo rod I saw, but I do remember the first one I ever cast. It’s a little 6′ 4wt J.S. Sharpe’s Featherweight Scottie, built in 1981 over in Scotland. It’s a surprisingly crisp, lively piece of cane, and I’ve landed brown trout up to 20 inches on it.
I’ve always had a penchant for woodworking, and it wasn’t long after I cast that first bamboo rod that I decided to make my own. Of course, as with any project, it’s never that simple. But the process is fairly straightforward, and it takes more patience than anything else.
Before diving into the nuts and bolts of how to build bamboo fly rods, I want to mention that I largely follow the process set forth in A Master’s Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod by Everett E. Garrison and Hoagy B. Carmichael. This book is often referred to as “the Bible” in rod making circles, and it’s been the single-most useful learning tool as I’ve set about building my own rods.
Also – building rods isn’t reserved for old retired guys. While most builders tend to be older, there’s no reason to not build if you’re interested. I started when I was 22. The initial investment is a little steep, but I’ve found that folks are plenty generous with discounts, payment plans, and the like, to help a young newcomer get started.
And with that, let’s dive right into what it takes to build one of these rods.
Selecting and Splitting Cane
Almost all bamboo rods are built from Tonkin cane, a species of bamboo that only grows in a small area in China. This bamboo is the best for rod building because it tends to have the biggest distance between nodes (the rings around a bamboo stalk) and the highest density of power fibers.
To quote directly from Garrison and Carmichael, “The density of the (power) fibers along the outer rim of the stalk results in great strength per unit of area, which gives the rodmaker a material combining almost unbelievable tensile strength with elasticity in a way which cannot be duplicated in any other natural fibre (sic)” (3).
To put that in layman’s terms, Tonkin cane is what you want because it has incredible strength and flexibility – something any good fly rod needs.
So, you want to get your hands on some Tonkin bamboo. You can buy it from a few different brokers in America, and across the world.
Once you have the bamboo in hand, then it’s time to split it into quarter-inch strips. This is best done by first splitting the bamboo in half. I mark the halfway point and use a chisel and hammer to start the split. Then, I use my hands to pull the rest of the stalk apart.
From there, you split the two pieces into thirds, then split those thirds in half, and half again. The end result should be 18-24 quarter-inch strips of bamboo. This video below will help illustrate that process.
This is my least favorite part of the rod making process. Bamboo is a finicky material, and so much of bamboo rod making is an exercise in patience with this natural material. Nodes are the areas in bamboo where the fibers don’t grow straight, and form discs inside the bamboo itself. This helps ensure the integrity of the plant, but it gets in the way of rod making.
Before starting on this step, sand off whatever is left of the nodal dams on the pith side of the bamboo strip. I usually use a belt sander for this step. Then, I take a mill bastard file and file the node on the enamel side completely flush with the rest of the bamboo.
Nodes have to be pressed flat, usually in a machinist’s vice. I use a combination of heat and compression to get the nodes as straight as possible. If you want your rod to be straight when it’s done, you can’t skimp on this step.
Apply heat to the node, and bend the bamboo in the opposite direction of the kink. Then, press it in a vice for a few seconds to ensure the cane holds the new shape. You have to take great care here to not burn the bamboo, or to heat it up too much. Doing so will result in damage to the power fibers, which compromises the integrity of the final rod.
Once you have the nodes straightened, you’re well on your way to getting to the heart of rod making – planing. But first, you need to put an initial 60-degree bevel into each strip that will make up your final rod.
As a review – bamboo rods are generally made from six strips of cane, planed into triangles, and glued together. A few builders out there make quadrate rods, and I’ve even seen a three-sided one before. But the vast majority are six-sided.
To make sure you have the proper fit, you want to plane the bamboo so that each of the six strips you’ll use for each rod section has a 60-degree bevel. You should never plane the enamel side of the cane. instead, you plane the two sides of each strip.
I use a rough planing form I built myself, and they’re fairly simple. A 60-degree router bit and a piece of hard wood is all you really need to make a good roughing form. Don’t worry about making the strips look pretty on this step. You’re focusing on just getting the strips planed to 60 degrees.
If you choose not to flame the bamboo, you’ll need to heat treat your rod. Most of my rods are flamed, which I do to the entire culm before splitting. But if you want a blond rod, you’ll need to find some way to apply significant heat to the rod sections. I built my own oven, and they’re fairly simple. It’s powered with a heat gun – the same heat gun I use to straighten nodes.
The purpose of this step is to make sure that each strip has as little moisture as possible in it before moving on to final planing. This reduces the likelihood of the rod developing a “set” down the road. While it’s common to see some rods with a fishing set (where a tip section is permanently bent from so much fishing) you don’t want a set in your rod before it even gets finished.
This is the heart of bamboo fly rod building, and it’s where your rod blank starts to finally take shape. It’s also the step of the process where you start to need specialized tools. Planing forms aren’t cheap, but you can usually find used ones for sale at a decent price.
You’ll also need a sturdy block plane, sharpening stones, a depth gauge indicator, Allen wrenches, a machinist’s screw gauge, and some trigger clamps.
I got most of my tools at the local hardware store, with the exception of the machinist’s screw gauge and the depth gauge indicator. The screw gauge is used to ensure that each strip maintains its 60-degree bevel through the final planing process. The depth gauge indicator is used to set the depth of your planing forms, thus creating the taper of the rod itself.
Setting the planing forms is an endeavor unto itself, but it’s not too hard once you get the hang of it. You set the planing form based on the taper of the fly rod you want to build. For example, I build quite a few Garrison 201E rods. These are 7′ 5wt fly rods, and the taper calls for them to be 0.0625 inches in diameter at the tip, and 0.302 inches in diameter at the butt.
Since you’re planing one strip that only makes up half of the rod diameter, you divide those numbers in half, and use your depth gauge indicator and Allen wrenches to set your planing forms to the correct depth. For example, to build that fly rod mentioned above, I’d set the tip section of the planing form to 0.0315 inches deep.
This is where attention to detail and exacting patience are required. Also, skimping on the tools for this part of rod building isn’t a good decision. You need precise cuts and measurements – so get the tools that will do the job well.
You can watch this video here to get a better idea of what final planing entails.
Binding and Gluing
Once you’ve planed all the strips in your rod, you’re read to bind and glue them into a rod blank. At this point, all the bamboo will start to look like an actual fly rod.
Most builders use a binding machine to make sure the strips are glued together tightly. Others bind by hand, and that’s what I did for the first few years of my building career. Either way, you need to make sure you have enough tension to apply pressure to all the strips of bamboo, so they’ll adhere together as best as possible.
For glue, I use DAP Weldwood Plastic Resin glue. The most popular glues these days are either Unibond or Nyatex, both of which can be bought online.
Take a look at this video for a more in-depth view on how to glue and bind a bamboo fly rod.
Hardware Mounting and Varnishing
Once the glue has dried, you’re ready to start the final process of rod building. Bamboo fly rods are renowned for their exquisite beauty, and it’s this step where you’re able to add your own personal touch to the rod.
For my bamboo fly rods, I use classic components. This means nickel silver ferrules, chrome double-foot snake guides, an agate stripping guide, and a downlocking reel seat. I’ll also use silk thread to wrap all the guides in place, because that’s long been a staple on bamboo fly rods. And, it’s hard to find a material better than silk for wrapping guides.
Guide spacing is dictated by each maker, and everyone has their own take on how to space guides. I usually default to the spacing recommended by the builder whose taper I’m using.
You can either buy or make all the other components, including the cork grip, reel seat insert, and reel seat hardware. Garrison built his own sliding band cork reel seats with aluminum that he knurled himself. While that may be beyond what most of us can do, it’s not entirely out of the question.
Once all the hardware has been mounted, you’re ready to varnish the rod. A good bamboo fly rod has a thick, glossy varnish that’s uniform and doesn’t have any air bubbles or dust trapped in it. To achieve this, most builder will “dip finish” their rods. What this means is that you dip your bamboo fly rod into a tube of varnish, and slowly pull it out, coating only the blank and guides in varnish.
This process is repeated multiple times until you get a coat of varnish that you’re satisfied with.
This is an incredibly broad overview of what it takes to build a bamboo fly rod. And while I’m far from an expert builder, I can promise it’s easier than you’d expect to build a rod you’re proud of. My second bamboo fly rod was arguably the best I’ve ever build, and making these fishing tools is one of the most satisfying things you’ll ever do.
There are a ton of other details in the building process, but this is a good high-level overview of what it takes to make a good bamboo rod. The key is, as I’ve said all along, patience, and a willingness to settle for nothing less than your best. Rod building is so satisfying, I think, because it demands so much of the builder. When a rod leaves my shop, I’m always a bit sad to see it go. I feel like I’m saying goodbye to something personal, and in a way, I suppose that’s exactly what I’m doing.
Finally, to help you visualize the entire build process, I’d recommend watching this video. It’ll really make things clear, and it’s a video I referenced a lot when I started building.