Over My Waders


from The Wise Fisherman's Encyclopedia

ROD BUILDING. Essentially any fishing rod, excepting those used for trolling, is a casting machine. For one reason or another some do a superb job, casting the fly or plug literally hundreds of thousands of times, setting the hook, and withstanding the stresses and strains attending the struggles of the quarry to regain freedom. A favorite rod will stand such use for many, many years. Others, looking very much the same, simply will not perform. Why?

The answer is quite simple. The principal ingredient in a fine rod is fine material. It is virtually impossible to process a great volume of mediocre material expecting to find a certain percentage of first-class rod sections among the products. The inferior material must first be discarded and only first-class material used. Later, after partial fabrication, a percentage of these rod sections will fail to meet the prescribed quality standard and be relegated to the scrap heap. This is true only in the case of the ultra-quality rod made by reputable manufacturers. Other manufacturers wishing to meet the volume demand attending a low-priced item are committed to use every inch of cane, good or bad, that enters their doors; process by the fastest means possible, thereby holding the most expensive element, cost of labor, to an absolute minimum; and incorporate low-grade, low- cost fittings and accessories in the finishing processes. Under these circumstances, only flaws of a gross nature are considered cause for rejection. Fortunately, these latter establishments are in the minority. The leading rod making establishments are manned with qualified personnel and are ever attentive to any suggestion or idea that will improve the quality of their product.

We shall now follow a culm of Tonkin cane through a typical shop. We shall not tarry long to study the details, as they will be covered later within the article. The Culms. Some months before our Visit the factory received an order of bamboo, Tonkin cane. This came bundled in "bales" of fifty. The usual 8-foot-long cane or culm measures about 11/2 inches in diameter. They were removed from their grass mat wrapping and a lengthwise saw cut was made through one side of each culm to prevent splitting during the aging interval.

Heat Treatment. After air-drying for a specified time, the culm is put in a large kiln, or oven, and dried further with heat. Some firms effect this heat treatment during a later stage of manufacture. The purpose is to rid the cells of excessive moisture, thereby stiffening the stock.

Cutting. After heat treatment, the culm is cut to length and is then either split or sawed into strips. Bamboo, which is a member of the grass family, has nodes or ridges at intervals throughout the length of each stem. These nodes mark the positions of partitions inside the hollow tube, somewhat like bulkheads. The partitions are removed from the inner surface of the strip either with a heavy knife of by passing the strip over a rotating cutter. Outer nodes are then removed by filing or sandpapering these protuberances level with the adjacent surfaces. Only the nodes themselves are thus treated, the remaining outer surface is left severely alone.

Node Staggering. Throughout all of the foregoing operations, the individual strips or splines cut from each culm have been kept together on a pegged rack, each "shelf" only large enough to handle about ten or fifteen of the thin pieces. The reason for this is twofold: It makes staggering of the nodes quite easy; and secondly, it keeps "wood' of nearly uniform strength in one bundle. If untidy housekeeping were practiced, i.e., all strips thrown into one bin, sorting stock of comparable strength, weight, etc., would be an extraordinarily difficult procedure at best. Uniform node spacing would, obviously, be virtually impossible.

All this logically leads to the next operation, node staggering. The nodal regions are the strongest part of the bamboo. No one, however, would consider using a rod with them left intact. The filing operation just completed removes enough of the structure to render these areas the weakest-just to realize a smooth sleek appearance on the finished rod. Therefore, these weak regions must be arranged in such a manner that each is isolated as far as possible from the rest when the rod is assembled. All of the strips - four, five or six, according to the type of construction - are carefully inspected for flaws and are then laid down, enamel (hard outer fiber) side up, and parallel to each other. Since all come from the same cane, the nodes of each strip will be opposite those of the next.

In the spiral system of node staggering, the first spline is left where it is, the second is moved an inch to the left, the third two inches, and so on to the last. All of the ends are then cut off flush with the end of the last strip. The other ends are cut flush with the opposite end of the first strip. Now all of the strips are of equal length, but the nodes have a systematically spaced arrangement and are ready to be milled or mitered into a triangular form.

Shaping. When shaping the strips, most firms use some form of milling machine, a long sliding carriage for supporting the strip as it passes beneath a V-shaped cutting wheel rotating at high speed. Other firms use a pair of small circular saws set at the exact angle of the "V", the work being guided between these at a uniform rate of speed. The end result is the same regardless of the method employed. Thus our tour brings us to the milling machine.

The operator clamps a single strip of bamboo with a nearly square cross section to a metal support known as a rail. This has been previously shaped to the exact taper contour desired in the rod. And every spline milled on this rail will exactly duplicate every other made on the same rail whether it be the next, or one produced two years hence. The operator, after securing the work, throws a lever which controls movement of the carriage beneath the cutter.

We are told that this is merely the first, or roughing operation; there are several more, constituting a gradual approach to final size. Bamboo cannot be treated with abandon; an attempt to reduce the rough strip to finished size in one operation would result in a splintered, useless mess.

Naturally, all strips destined for use in one rod section remain together. Immediately after the final cut, the splines are temporarily tied together at the butt ends, care being taken to position the nodes in their proper sequence.

Gluing. The next operation, this is without doubt the most important phase of rod building. Potentially, this is the weakest link in the entire process. Thanks to advances in modern adhesives, a great deal of guesswork has been eliminated from this phase of manufacture. Not only are the joints actually strong than the material being bonded, but the glues-when properly cured - are permanently waterproof, proof against attack by fungus and bacteria, and highly resistant to the softening effect of heat. Curing times for the glue are so short that it is possible to fish at sunset with a rod that was culm of cane at dawn.

The binding at the butt ends is cut, the strips laid on a table, enamel side down, and the glue is brushed thoroughly over every strip. They are then reassembled in their former manner. A specified pressure must now be applied to tightly bind these strips together while the glue is setting. A simple little machine (described later), the brain child of Robert W. Crompton of St. Paul, Minnesota, does this so simply, yet so effectively, that it is difficult to believe one's eyes. This machine accomplishes two operations at once: it squeezes the splines tightly together, and it wraps on strong thread to maintain the pressure. A second wrapping of thread applied in the opposite direction doubles the clamping effort. Loose ends are secured, the section is straightened, and it is then hung by its end to cure.

Scraping. After the glue joint has partially matured - 4 to 8 hours at ordinary room temperature- the wrapping threads are removed. The excess glue is then scraped off together with a bit of the grainless, useless, surface enamel. Only a few thousandths of an inch must be removed to reveal the lengthwise grain pattern beneath. At this stage scraping is discontinued and fine sandpaper employed to remove the last vestiges of enamel. What now remains might be termed "working fiber," and the removal of even a small amount of this can seriously affect the performance of the rod, particularly at the small end of the tip section. Butts, mid section, and tips are processed.

Ferrules. Next on the manufacturing agenda appears ferrule mounting. Some extra length was allowed on the rod sections for trimming to proper size. This excess is now removed. A lathe is used to accurately turn the appropriate ends of the rod sections truly round and to the precise size. This round portion is carefully blended into the many-sided profile of the cross section. An abrupt change from round to either square, pentagon, or hexagon would introduce a weakness at this critical joining point. Diameters are so regulated as to provide a fairly tight (.002 inch) fit into the metallic ferrule members. A bonding cement is then applied to the parts to be joined and the ferrule forced into place.

Straightening. Final straightening is now done. This is accomplished by gently heating the glued section, slightly softening the bamboo, enabling the rodmaker to rectify slight local deviations from true straightness.

Sealing the Surface. Moving along to the next workbench we see a surface sealing preparation being applied. The liquid, we are told, penetrates the surface of the bamboo perhaps ten or fifteen thousandths of an inch, rendering it impervious to the absorption of water through tiny scratches and nicks in the varnish. Some rodmakers dispense with the varnish entirely, taking the attitude that it slows the action of an erstwhile lively rod.

Handle. Following the sealing process, the cork handle is assembled. Cork rings are placed upon the butt shaft and pushed to the large end of the shaft. Each cork is individually glued to the bamboo. The next cork ring is then pressed tightly upon the first, glue being applied between them, and so on until the stack represents the desired length of the finished handle. Ample time is allowed for the waterproof adhesive to dry thoroughly whereupon the entire butt section is placed in a lathe for shaping of the grip. Cork reel seat and handle profile are shaped in one operation. Reel Seat. A reel band is then slipped. on the reel seat and a bridged butt cap bonded to the bottom cork ring. The bridge just mentioned is simply the raised portion of the small cup-shaped cap under which the reel plate or mounting shoe may be inserted. This is the skeleton type reel seat, the lightest possible construction. There are other such as the locking screw type, cam lever, etc., which afford a somewhat more secure (mentally at least) reel mounting.

Oxidizing. Last of the shop operations is oxidizing, or blackening the nickel-silver ferrule. A buffing wheel first parts a beautiful luster to the metal whereupon the oxidizing solution is brushed on the piece. This solution causes the surface to immediately turn black. The ferrule is thoroughly rinsed in clean water and rubbed dry. Thus the bright silver color has been reduced to a glossy jet black. Finishing. Our rod is now taken another room for finishing. Guide locations are marked along the rod shaft and the tip section filed slightly at the corners of the small end to accept the tip guide or tip top. One guide is then temporarily fastened in position by taping down one side or "foot." The opposite "foot" is then tightly bound to rod with silk thread, and the tapes replaced by thread to complete t4 mounting. Each guide is so treated,
Quality ferrules are provided slotted or serrated open ends primarily designed to afford some flexibility at the point of juncture of wood and metal. Windings of silk are applied very tightly over these resilient fingers.
After all windings have been completed, each is held momentarily in a flame to singe off any fuzz that may be present. Several applications of a preserver are then applied to the windings, each coat being allowed to dry thoroughly. The maker's name, mark, and any other identification is then lettered in place. In the case of this particular rod, only the silk windings will be varnished, the sealing preparation being deemed sufficient prote>ction elsewhere.
Six coats of varnish at each winding complete this phase of the work. The rod is then given a final critical inspection for straightness, ferrule fit, etc. Since all is in order, a coat of wax is applied and rubbed to a subdued, satin-like finish. The rod is then immediately packed into its partitioned cloth bags metal case, and it is ready to go to work.

Thus we have sauntered through a typical rod-making shop following the progress of the work from the very beginning. We have seen the step-by-step transition of a quite ordinary looking piece of Tonkin cane to a useful and beautiful example of the rod-making art.
We purposely did not tarry long at any one point along the line of fabrication, for such would defeat its own purpose. Details would have been discussed at length, but meanwhile the continuity of the manufacturing process would have been lost. It is only after the veils of mystery are so removed that we can begin to consider individual aspects of the craft.

Practically any strong resilient material may be used in the construction of a fishing rod. How well it suits its purpose is largely determined by the use to which it is put. It would be as ridiculous to attempt casting a fly with a short, heavy hickory rod as it would be to troll with a fly rod. It is therefore evident that most of the modern rod- building materials have a proper niche, a certain outstanding characteristic that is deemed right and proper for the efficient consummation of one particular purpose. Of course, there is some overlapping of utility, resulting in extensive, and sometimes loud controversy among adherents (particularly sales personnel) to the various schools of thought.
The purpose, therefore, of this article is to acquaint the beginner with the properties of the modern rod-building materials and possibly uncover a bit of worthwhile information for the veteran. There will be no reference made to obsolete woods such as greenheart, bethabara, osage orange, and the like.

A member of the grass family, bamboo is indigenous principally to the Asiatic continent and its bordering islands, having been introduced in South America and the Caribbean region. Some species grow no larger than the pampas grass of South America, while others reach a girth of over twelve inches. All bamboo used for the manufacture of fishing rods is grown on a commercial scale and is harvested like any other crop. Cutting is not confined to any particular season, as fully matured flowering plants and newly planted cuttings, or seedlings, may be under cultivation in adjacent tracts.
Tonkin Cane. Tonkin cane is not the product of a single area or province. but rather a name used to loosely classify the various species useful for rod- making purposes. Bundles received from the exporters are labeled "TONKINS." Usually these are cut to a prescribed length and sorted according to diameter: 11/4", 11/2", 13/4", etc., the latter being the most desirable, and consequently, demanding premium prices.


All content copyright Reed Curry © 2006.
Cartoon by Walter Young © 1961, used by permission.