OK then….next instalment.
Having now worked out the main dimensions of the rod the final tweaks are carried out. This, as alluded to in the previous post is where Richard Walker says angling knowledge and a “sense of proportion” take over.
By knowing what the rod was required to do from the outset it gave me the insight to adjust the taper in areas which I thought it needed be changed. I plotted each increment on scrap paper and as you can see it isn’t just a case of sticking a wet finger in the air and guessing. I had to take into account any hollow building, also the fact that when a rod is heat treated it shrinks by approxiamately .004 to .008 at which it later settles back as the moisture is reabsorbed. If you plane a rod straight from the oven it will have shrunk by this degree so for example in a fly rod you may think you have planed it to a #4 weight but in reality it is a #5 once settled.
Adjusting the tapers
I had decided that the rod would be a mid brown coloured rod. This also tied in with the fact that I also wanted it to be as stiff as possible but not brittle. Saying that though, due to the type of fishing it was to be used for I didn’t want it to be floppy and slack. Cosmetically although a mid brown tone was desired I also wanted a few areas of more or lesser tone to add interest when varnished.
Now, do you remember at school when learning English grammar we were taught i before e except after c? This was a device to enable us to spot that i came before e until the letter c was involved then the rule changed. Having learnt this parrot fashion much to our dismay we learnt later on that this rule is then subject to about a hundred exceptions. The only way around it was to physically know these exceptions as there was no rule governing them.
Rod building is very similar, in that there are agreed practices and definitions but they also sometimes contradict themselves.
When building rods in the darker cane hues there are two ways of doing this.
Toning. This involves applying a direct heat source to the enamel of the bamboo and carefully heating up the surface until it changes colour.
Baking. This involves some sort of oven or enclosed area where the air is heated up to a specified temperature and the radiated heat is absorbed into the bamboo to drive out the moisture thereby making the bamboo more tensile or “springy”. Absorbsion takes place throughout the strip.
Generally speaking toning is for just colouring or decorating the blank and baking is for stiffening the bamboo. Here is our first i before e moment. Although this is true you still have to take into account that although the primary use of toning is for cosmetic reasons, it will drive out some moisture thereby changing the composition of the bamboo fibres to a degree, just as heating in an oven for strength and flexibility can change the colour. But by and large the two definitions stand.
On the back of two pieces of research in the USA by Wolfram Schott who is a doctor of mineralogy and author Bob Milward, dark coloured rods are out of favour at the moment in the USA. They have painstakingly researched the subject and their findings are out there for all to read and draw conclusions. Now notwithstanding these two meticulous experiments by these extremely clever gentlemen there are a few things that don’t sit quite right to my mind with regard to UK coarse style rods.
The first is that the research was conducted where the bamboo strips were heated in the oven at high and prolonged temperatures to brown the strips to varying degrees for the trial, which I agree will cause more degradation of the bamboo fibres as the temperature or timings are increased to get the desired tones, whereas in the UK toning is usually used for colouring the bamboo. In the complete article by Prof Schott toning is only mention once, in one short sentence, after the bamboo strip has been oven baked.
Similarly in Bob Milward’s excellent book he tested some bamboo strips to destruction and came to the conclusion that a dark cane blank (darkened in an oven) started to degrade when compared to a blond cane blank after 40,000 flexes in a machine. A mid toned caramel brown blank started to drop off at 100,000 flexes. It is apparent here that he is looking at the effects on a fly rod which is constantly being flexed after being extensively baked in an oven. He also states that he has done no research on rods of 12’ or over, mainly looking at 7 or 8’ fly rods. I always say that when reading books on rod building you must take into account what those rods are built and used for as most of them are directly related to the USA style sport fishing ( fly and lure) and not general UK coarse fishing.
If you then take a look at a couple of well known UK professional rod builders who both make dark blank rods with no ill effects you have to draw some conclusions that one size doesn’t fit all. I also added into the equation that I own a late 1940’s early 1950’s rod of exceptionally dark cane (which the on balance of probabilities is Southwell) and it is very dark indeed and performs admirably after 70 years with no sign of degradation. I also own Priory rods which are all very dark cane. One of the primary uses for Priory rods was (and still is) the pursuit of the UK’s hardest fighting fish – the barbel!. I’ve included this as my take on the subject and to show why I’m not overly concerned about dark toning coarse fishing rods. I am not trying to impugn the findings of the above two gentlemen and if I was building a 7 or 8’ fly rod I would follow their recommendations to the letter, but for a 12’ course rod for carp fishing I’ll interpret the findings in a different light. Of course if I’m wrong I’ll be the first to hold my hand up and admit it (my other hand will be holding a soft or broken rod!)
Priory Rod in dark cane
A dark cane Avocet blank under repair. Although delaminated the actual strips are very strong and springy - Over 70 years on!
Ok back to the actual build.
The bamboo culms when delivered already had expansion cuts in them to stop the cane splitting under differing heat and humidity changes whilst stored. The first cut to do then was 180 degrees opposite this to give two half culms. These were then gently heated up over an open flame to start the toning process. The flame I use is from a large calor gas bottle and a home made adjustable nozzle which gives a very soft flame as per the rod builders of yesteryear. It is a perfectly acceptable practice to soak the bamboo prior to toning but because this flame is so soft I settled for a bucket of water and a wet cloth to cool down the cane as I pass over it. I don’t try to get the cane dark in one go but pass over it many times, each time it gets a bit darker until the desired colour is reached. This can seem a bit drastic at first but it’s just the surface enamel, the cane is much, much lighter underneath. Time and care needs to be taken to ensure there is no scorching. I don’t mind with the odd variation in toning as once the finished rod is varnished it gives it character and focal point.
A nice soft flame
Toning the half culm
Once the culm is toned I then split out the strips that I require. Again there are many ways to do this but I prefer to use two chisels to do the job. The culm is placed on a firm, flat surface. A point midway between the first and second node is selected and the chisel is given a sharp whack and it will penetrate and split the bamboo for about a foot. Depending on the particular piece of bamboo it may stop at the node or go through it, it matters not in either case. Next the chisel is gently twisted to open the split and the second chisel placed in the split behind it. Another twist with the rear chisel and the spit will go to the end of the culm and open out. Now it is a simple task to place the rear chisel above the first chisel, twist and the split travels up the culm. Nine times out of ten it will be dead straight with no wandering. If there is any wandering it will be very slight and the rear chisel can be brought forward up the culm to a suitable place and driven into the culm. The split will now open up afresh, dead straight and the previous split will join this one. Repeat the process up the culm. It really is that easy and simple.
Next comes the straightening and node dressing, which a lot of people don’t really like due to its long and time consuming nature. I don’t mind too much and make sure that I don’t rush it to get to the more fun parts of the build. What you do at this stage has a far more important bearing on your rod than whipping on a few rings.
The nodes are heated and flattened in a vice using a smooth surface to avoid marking the bamboo. Prior to this the underside of the strip directly below the node has a concave section filed into it so the displaced fibres from above have somewhere to go. This step is really a practice makes perfect scenario. Too much and it will weaken the strip at the node, to little will result in possible gaps in the joints when assembled later on.
Heat treating the nodes
At this stage the strips are also straightened horizontally and vertically ( left and right, up and down). This is important as the bamboo is springy and if planed whilst in this state it will just bed in when the plane goes over it in the former and just spring up again. Your taper will be correct but the strip will be as bent as a dogs hind leg. This could come back to haunt you as a kink or set much later on when the rod is in use.
The strips need to be straight. Here you can see the strip is sticking up in the form which will cause problems if not addressed.
The finished strip - nice and straight.
Once the nodes are pressed as flat as can be obtained the slight ridge of bamboo on the top on the enamel side is very carefully removed. This can be done with either a very sharp plane or a fine file. If I use a plane I have a small American palm sized plane designated number 102 which I think is a Record model.
The next stage is to rough plane the strips to a 60 degree triangle. A lot of people use some sort of automated device based on milling cutters or vee sanders to obtain the rough 60 degrees. I actually hand plane my rods from start to finish. This is not for any esoteric principles but my vee planer was built with a too high a revving motor and spent most of it’s time trying to take my fingers off so the spiteful thing was flung in the corner of the workshop where it still resides, glowering at me. So I plane my strips at this stage with a Stanley No 4 or a lighter No2 plane and a very sharp blade. Just in case anyone missed the inference from the previous post, I’m building 3 matching rods so that is 36 strips to hand plane into shape. After planing with the Stanley No2 plane the final few passes are carried out with a Stanley 91/2” block plane with a hock blade which is the staple of the rod builders armoury. You can pick up modern versions of this plane but don’t – they are rubbish. Buy a good vintage version and buy a hock blade from a specialist supplier. With a vintage one you actually may get a good blade with it anyway. The best maxim is – if you want to build old style rods, use old style planes.
This is the bit no one mentions…….lots of wood removal along the way.
Oh by the way. With regard to the pic above those are the shavings from the rough planning which is why they are straight. The last few passes with the 91/2” plane are very fine and curly in appearance. I mention this as a contact from the other side of the Atlantic picked me up on my shavings for not doing it correctly!
The strips are now bound together to form a hexagon section but still with no taper. For the heat treating, this can be carried out at any stage but this is the most logical place for most builders as it helps to straighten the strips in situ and also makes the final planing easier once the strips are tempered. I’ll mention more about binding up and later.
I have no pics of them in the oven as I inadvertently deleted them but there’s not much to see anyway. Most builders will heat somewhere between 170 and 190 degree C and the timings will vary as to what the builder is hoping to achieve.
Once the cane is baked we can now set the formers to the correct taper and start to plane the strips. As I am making 3 rods, the first rod ideally will be made in an advanced state to the other two so as not to replicate any cock ups, but with the making of the strips I will do them all together to avoid having to adjust the former three times, so I started with the tips making 18 strips. These were all planed with the 9 1/2” Stanley plane, each pass taking off about 5 thou initially then fining down to about one thou as we get near the end. Each side of the strip is planed alternately but never the enamel side. With a good hock blade sharpened well, the plane will glide over the strip effortlessly. I don’t constantly measure at this stage as I happy to follow the former but I do check often to see that the strips are an exact 60 degree angles.
The forms are set for the taper required
9 1/2” block plane with an adjustable throat plate - the rod builders staple tool.
Once the strips are finished I assemble them and check for good seams and general fit, rotating strips around to get the best fit where they naturally bed into each other rather than being pressed into place. These are then marked in their correct line up. I repeat the process three times, plane, fit, mark. As I’m making three rods, each set of tips is colour coded as well as the individual strips numbered ie – red 1-6, blue 1-6, yellow 1-6.
The strips are then bound with tape at about every 8 inch point. After a careful check once again that they are all lining up nicely the tape is sliced through in the same place each time and the sections are opened up. The tape holds them together and allows them to fan out for glueing. The glue is applied evenly with a toothbrush making sure every face of every strip is covered. It’s important not to rush this bit. The fanned out strips are then closed, checked for alignment and then bound up. There are many ways to do this. I had in the past built a Garrison type binder but I found it imparted twist into finer sections so stopped using it. I have a large fixed spool sea reel attached to my workbench which I sometimes use also, but my two main ways of doing this are manual. My wife also has hobbies and sometimes I’m called on to assist when she needs more than two hands, so I like to reciprocate. Letting someone share your hobby helps with understanding when you vanish into your cave or workshop for hours on end. My wife holds the binding thread under tension with a pencil through the spool as I rotate the blank. A simple “”tighter” or “slacken off a bit” request gives me a voice activated tension device far superior to anything else! If I’m doing it on my own I simply use a bare foot to trap the thread and once again it is infinitely variable by sense. One tip I did once get from a pro builder is to wet the thread beforehand so as it dries it tightens against the blank. Once the strips are fully bound they are then rolled over a flat surface to bed them in and yet again a visual check is done to ensure they are all lined up correctly before hanging up the now built blank. I hang mine in the attic where the heat rises and leave to dry and set.
Strips fanned out for glueing
Bound up and hung up in the attic for the glue to set
The two other tip sections followed this path. The forms were then reset for the butt sections. The same system was followed for the 3 butt sections. These sections had a parallel butt of 30 inches at the bottom end. Again the same actions were carried out and then hung in the attic to cure.
The last of 36 strips and a celebratory glass of red stuff!
Two tips.you can still see the binding marks and glue residue. The other strips are for the butt sections
Two tips and butts glued up waiting for cleaning. You can see the compound taper on the right hand tip, about two foot from the end.
In the pic above you can see the raw blanks with the gunge and glue still stuck to them after removal of the binding thread. It is possible to spot the top compound taper on the tip though. These were then carefully cleaned up with a hand scraper blade to remove any glue residue and also the remaining enamel. For doing this I used a very strong magnified light to see every inch of the blank. I finished with a very light sanding with very, very well used fine sand paper. At this stage I also ever so slightly rounded of the extreme edges of the hexagon shape to aid with the varnish adhesion for a stronger bond without sagging.
A good magnifying light for the sanding and enamel removal.
I now had 3 butts and 3 tips. All was looking good. Number 1 rod blank was put on the lathe and the ferrule stations addressed. As stated earlier this rod would now be a trial rod for the subsequent build and be a couple of steps ahead of the other two to avoid replicating any mistakes. I fitted the ferrules temporarily with tape once the blank was prepared and also whipped on a tip ring with fishing line and taped over it. I could barely conceal the eagerness I rushed outside to put together the two sections for the first time and gave it a tentative waggle. It felt very, very nice so I gave it another couple of more vigorous waggles followed by a couple of make believe casts – even nicer. I then tied a piece of line between the tip and a fence post and gave it a nice long slow pull round. The rod arced around in a lovely curve, even, graceful, no flat spots or more importantly no cracking sound either. As I increased in confidence I applied more pressure and the smile grew bigger. A rod was born. It has a strong but mellow action, much more forgiving than I thought it would be.
So that’s where we will leave this instalment. I now have 3 sets of blanks onto which I can build my new rods. I have quite a few ideas rattling around in my head to make this rod with several individual bespoke features to make it unique to myself, which is the really fun part. Next instalment things start to get a bit weird