Brasstown Creek’s Bamboo Fly Rods
About Bamboo Fly Rods
Bamboo makes beautiful and functional fly rods, and we would like you to know more about the process. The topics and comments below are intended to provide some background relating to bamboo fly rods and share some of the techniques and procedures we use making and finishing our rods. We will continue to add topics and techniques. Your comments and questions are welcomed.
Reference Materials for Bamboo Fly Rods
First, I would like to mention several reference books I own and have read. There are many more than I mention below, and each book offers a unique view on the construction of bamboo fly rods, but these are mine.
Fundamentals of Building a Bamboo Fly Rod, by George E. Maurer and Bernard P. Elser.
The Lovely Reed, by Jack Howell.
Cane Rods – Tips and Tapers, by Ray Gould.
Handcrafting Bamboo Fly Rods, by Wayne Cattanach.
Constructing Cane Rods – Secrets of the Bamboo Fly Rod, by Ray Gould.
How to Make Bamboo Fly Rods – Basics
The preferred bamboo for making bamboo fly rods is Tonkin bamboo (Arundinaria amabilis ,recently reclassified as Pseudosasa amabilis). This cane is generally accepted to have (relatively speaking) the greatest spacing between nodes and the best density of power fibers. It’s the power fibers, not the pith, that give bamboo fly rods their strength and flexibility. Tonkin bamboo is harvested from a small area in Guangdong Province, China. There is an excellent documentary DVD by James Duncan, Trout Grass, that describes how Tonkin Cane is grown, harvested, selected, and used to make bamboo fly rods. Andy Royer is featured in this DVD and there is even a short section showing a maker turning the bamboo culms into bamboo fly rods. Available from www.amazon.com, this DVD is quite enjoyable to watch.
You may enjoy looking at our Tips and Techniques which contain some helpful ideas on a number of subjects.
Making Blanks for Bamboo Fly Rods
Brasstown Creek makes bamboo fly rods to fish with. All are of superior quality, but the cost will vary based on the time we spend making the rod and the quality of the components.
Brasstown Creek uses the Morgan Hand Mill to make our Custom Rods blanks from culms of Bamboo. These rods take upwards of 80 hours of hands-on time to make and we use only the finest components to finish the bamboo blanks into bamboo fly rods. We have a 4-6 month wait time for these rods. Custom Rods will be signed with
- Our Company Name
- Maker’s Name
- Rod Length and Weight
- Serial Number
There are about as many techniques to making a bamboo fly rod as there are bamboo fly rod makers. But there are certain steps that need to be taken, regardless of how those steps are executed and, to some extent, the order in which those steps are done.
In general, the steps to make a bamboo fly rod blank include:
1. Select a Bamboo Culm
For small quantities of superior bamboo culms, we buy from Peak Bamboo. Peak Bamboo offers select, high-graded culms of Tonkin bamboo for discerning rod makers. Peak’s team in China grades the Tonkin they harvested three separate times, rejecting more than 50% of the harvest. Thus only the most select culms are shipped to the US. Peak Bamboo provides powerful and resilient culms that which make them a great choice, especially if you are building a small number of bamboo fly rods or if you are looking for a near perfect culm.
We have also bought bamboo culms, by the bundle, from The Bamboo Broker in 12 ft lengths. These are shipped by freight and you pay a premium if you don’t have a business address. The Bamboo Broker also sells some culms that have been cut into two 6 ft lengths for easier shipping. Since there are generally more power fibers in culms of larger diameter, 2 in diameter culms (usually measured at the butt end) are the minimum (if you buy a bundle of 2 in culms, you will get some of greater and lesser diameters but they will be close). They also sell some larger diameter for an appropriately higher cost. Bundles are not “select” culms and if you pick them up at the warehouse you do not get to cherry-pick your bundles.
Dave Serafin started Anglers’ Bamboo Company , located in Montana, in 2016. He goes to China himself and selects the Tonkin Bamboo which he ships to his headquarters. We have not yet purchased bamboo from Dave, but saw his samples at the 2016 Southern Rod Gatherers meeting and his bamboo looks very good.
2. To Flame or Not to Flame
Brasstown Creek makes both blond and flamed bamboo fly rods. We use flaming to color the rod, if that is what our customers prefer, but we use an oven for heat treating both blond and flamed rods.
We cut our 12 foot culms in half before flaming, that way as the propane torch generates steam in the culm section, it has less distance to travel before exiting. The torch we use is equipped with a wide nozzle and a long hose connected to a propane tank (like used with a grill).
Six foot culm sections are placed on two wood saw horses (wood is used since plastic, of course, will melt). Starting at one end of the culm, we apply the torch rotating the bamboo to make sure the flaming is evenly done and slowly moving the flame down the the far end of the culm. Steam will escape the culm. You can color as dark as you want, but don’t char the power fibers unless you want to start over with a new culm. After you scrape off the darker enamel, you will see that the power fibers underneath are more lightly colored.
3. Splitting Culms
The first thing to do is select only the best culms for splitting. All natural products have variations, but we carefully avoid any culms with worm holes, Planter’s Marks, etc. By this time, our culms are already cut into two 6ft sections (unless we are making three piece bamboo fly rods).
The culms can be hand split or machine split; each of these methods have their own advantages. We use a Froe for manual splitting or a band saw (14in) in combination with a jig from J. E. Dempsey (Heritage Band Saw Jig) for machine splitting.
4. Rough Strips to 60 Degree Triangle
Before we take the bamboo strips to their final taper, we “rough” each strip to an equilateral triangle with no taper to it. We use a powered beveller from JW Fly Rods. It takes multiple passes through this beveller for each strip; alternating which pith side is up, in order to end with a proper triangle. Once this is done, we heat treat the bamboo strips.
5. Heat Treat Strips
Heat treating bamboo is almost universally accepted as a necessary step to properly temper bamboo in making fly rods. However, the temperature, duration, and heating method differ widely among makers. We heat treat our bamboo strips after rough planning and before any tapering – this is so that the strip is uniform (an equilateral triangle of the same dimensions for the entire length of the strip). Having the same dimensions assists in getting a more even heat treatment for the strip than could be obtained if a portion of the strip had significantly less mass.
A very useful article, Bamboo in the Laboratory (by Dr. Wolfram Schott) can be found In Power Fibers Online and viewed at Power Fibers’ download site at http://www.powerfibers.com/html/downloads.html. This article provides a scientific approach to heat treating.
What I have distilled from Dr. Schott’s data leads me to the following:
Over time, Bamboo tends to regain most of the moisture driven out of it during heat treating. Rapid gains take place during the first month following treatment and slow gains continue through the next 9 months (10 months being the duration of the data). It appears that the heat treated Bamboo stabilizes at approximately 1% weight loss relative to weight prior to heat treatment. See Figure 8 page 11 of Bamboo in the Laboratory and associated findings. Note that varnish (any sealant) is no permanent barrier to reabsorbing moisture (although some retard the process better than others). See page 17 of Bamboo in the Laboratory.
Heat treatment (at 302 degrees Fahrenheit) causes an initial dimensional shrinkage in the Bamboo of a little more than 1.5%. Within 20 days (concurrent with reabsorbing moisture), this shrinkage has reversed and becomes relatively stable at a shrinkage of slightly less than 0.5% of the original dimensions. See Figure 9 page 1 of Bamboo in the Laboratory and associated findings.
At Brasstown Creek we place our bamboo strips in heat treating fixtures from Harry Boyd (www.canerods.com) which assists in keeping the strips straight during the tempering process. The oven we used was purchased Bret Reiter at www.greenhighlanderflyfishing.com. In order to obtain a more accurate measurement of the temperature inside our Bamboo Oven, we drilled small holes and inserted two very accurate high heat temperature probes, each one 18 inches from opposing ends of the oven. Digital readouts enable us to control the tempering of the bamboo strips.
Accurate digital thermometers indicate that the standard oven thermostat can vary significantly in temperature during its on/off operations, so we purchased an InkBird ITC-100VH PID (Proportional-Integral-Derivative) controller to keep the temperature variations in the oven to within a few degrees. The PID maintains our desired 162.8 degree Centigrade temperature control to +/- 1.25 degrees Centigrade. I’m happy with that!
6. Plane to Final Taper
We hand plane our roughed strips to final dimensions using the Morgan Hand Mill. With careful adjustment, we can plane the bamboo strip by 0.001 on an inch per pass. The Morgan Hand Mill has a “stop screw” that allows you to lock in the final setting for a strip (take many careful measurements first to be sure you are happy with the taper) so that subsequent strips can be cut with the same end results.
7. Glue and Bind Blanks
We have recently switched from Epon Glue to Unibond 800, a modified urea formaldehyde 2-part adhesive to Unibond 800. Unibond 800 has a working time (best at about 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit; it will not set up properly below 65 deg and sets up too fast above 80 deg). A major reason we changed to Unibond 800 is this adhesive cures at room temperature and does not require further heating in an oven. We do however, cure for 24 hours in our drying cabinet at 90 deg Fahrenheit.
Originally we used a Garrison Style Binder, but have recently begun using a motorized (on/off/reverse) 4-String Binder. This produces the necessary counter-torque on the rod without having to pass it through the Garrison Style twice. We also added a dead-man-switch style foot pedal which allows two free hands while binding rod sections. This small addition is amazingly helpful.
8. Cure Glue, Clean and Scrape Blank
As mentioned above, we allow our glue to cure for about 24 hours at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, although anything over 4 hours is more than adequate. After curing, we remove the binding string and then scrape and/or sand off the residual glue that inevitably squeezes out from the bound strips onto the Butt and Tip rod sections.
This is a long and careful process as the excess glue must be removed, but not to the point you remove much (or any if you can help it) of the power fibers.
9. Quality Check before Finishing the Blank into a Fly Rod
Be sure you have removed the excess glue. Then check the rod sections for twists and bends. There should be no significant problems that should have been handled immediately after binding and before the glue sets up. But no matter how careful you are, you may find a slight bend in the rod sections.
Not to worry, this can be corrected with the judicious use of a heat gun. Look down the rod section and if you see a curve, gently heat that section until the bamboo becomes a bit pliable (use caution so that you don’t de-laminate the section, if you heat the section to the point you can’t hold it, its probably too hot). When properly heated, you can bend the section of the rod in the opposite direction of the curve and hold it until the section cools. With some iterations of this, you should be able to end up with a straight rod section.
Making Blanks into Bamboo Fly Rods
Taking bamboo blanks and turning them into a bamboo fly rods takes about 90 steps (some of which require multiple iterations). Some of those 90 steps are discussed below. A lot of the things you do making bamboo blanks into bamboo fly rods must be done sequentially, but there are a few things that can be done in parallel (particularly if that action involves drying time). Below are some of the steps we take as we finish our Brasstown Creek Blank into a finished fly rod. If you are finishing your own blank, some of these steps may be useful to you.
For example, you can begin working on the finish of the wood insert for your reel seat. Common finishes include varnish or Burchwood-Casey Tru-Oil; both look excellent.
If you finish with varnish, check the insert’s fit into your reel seat skeleton after each coat has dried; the varnish buildup can cause the insert to no longer fit the skeleton. Should you find this to be a problem, sand the varnish on the insert somewhat aggressively (you have to scuff the varnish with 0000 steel wool between coats anyway to improve the adhesion of the next coat) – the aim is to get the pores in the wood filled so that your final coat is essentially only slightly more than a single coat thick even though you may have applied varnish three of four times.
If you use Tru-Oil, you will apply multiple coats (maybe as many as 5 or 6 – note the manufacturer suggests waiting at least 12 hours between coats), but you may want to finish it with Minwax Paste Finishing Wax.
Another thing you might want to do at the start is prepare your grip. You can custom make cork grips (from individual cork rings) for your bamboo fly rods, or you can buy pre-formed grips. Either way, you will need to ream out the hole through the finished grips to fit onto the butt sections of your bamboo fly rods. You want a nice tight fit so the grip doesn’t wiggle on the butt section. There are a number of cork reamers available on the market that allow a degree of tapering to give you a better fit.
Dry fitting (and leaving it there) the cork grip onto your rod section BEFORE you epoxy the ferrules in place is very important. Trying to make the grip fit over a ferrule will usually crack the cork at the end furthermost from the butt (yes, I have done that). Mud Hole has a good video clip about fitting a cork grip to a rod (it is a graphite rod, but the principle is the same for bamboo fly rods).
Lay out your Taper on paper with the flat-to-flat measurements (taken at 5 inch intervals), and determine where you need to make your cut marks. There is a LOT more involved in this than it sounds, and the old adage “measure twice, cut once” applies. You can always trim a section down some more, but you can’t add bamboo back once you cut it off. If you are really, really good with measurements and calculations you can make final cuts from the get-go, but I am not that good.
I make initial cuts slightly oversize and then trim down (I use a Work Sharp 3000) a tiny bit at a time to get the right length. My approach is to mark and cut for the ferrule at the butt end of the Tip section, turn the ferrule station, then dry fit the ferrule. I then very, very carefully sand down the tip end of the Tip section (while constantly dry fitting the tip top) until I wind up with a tip section that is exactly the length required. Once this is done, the tip section can serve as your template for getting the right final length for the Butt Section (and Mid Section if you are making a three piece rod). Here is a good tip – if you plan to use winding checks on your bamboo fly rods, select the correct size (dry fit it first) and place it onto your Butt section BEFORE you glue on the ferrules.
On some two piece rods, it is possible the inside diameter of your winding check is greater than the outside diameter of the female ferrule on your Butt section, but that will almost certainly not be the case if you are making a three piece rod. If you glue the ferrule on first and find your desired winding check will not slide over it, then you either replace the ferrule (not fun) or you use a larger winding check. Yes, I did this TWICE. So, once I put the winding check onto the Butt section, I wrap some masking tape over it to keep it from sliding around as I continue work.
Now might be a good time to mention preparing and fitting ferrules (for more, see Tip Information on Nickel Silver Ferrules). First things first – always check your female ferrules for burrs. This should be done regardless of whether the ferrules are made from drawn tubing or are made from bar stock. I use blind hole laps from www.acrolaps.com with fine garnet lapping compound (garnet is preferred as it much less likely to embed in the nickel silver of the ferrules than some of the more abrasive lapping compounds such as diamond), but you can also use 0000 Steel Wool wrapped on the end of a Q-tip or small dowel.
When you are through polishing the inside of the female ferrule, clean it thoroughly with alcohol or acetone (we use Q-tips). Remember you want to be sure the inside of the female ferrule is free of burrs, but you do not want to appreciably increase the inside diameter of the female ferrule else your male ferrule slide may not fit. This is another reason for prepping the female ferrule BEFORE you lap the male ferrule slide.
OK, once you are happy you have de-burred your female ferrule, lap your male ferrules to fit. You can do the lapping before or after you epoxy your ferrules onto your bamboo blank. For a long time I glued the ferrules onto the blank and then lapped the male ferrule to fit. This takes a LONG time if you do this by hand using fine grit sandpaper. It goes a lot faster if you mount the blank section in a lathe (I use a Sherline 4400 lathe because it has a hole through the spindle to accommodate the bamboo fly rod section).
While faster is good, it also has its drawbacks. At least two things can go wrong, and I have done both of them. One is you can lap too much off the male ferrule slide (it has been said that the difference between a good fit and a ruined ferrule is the thickness of smoke). Once your male ferrule has been lapped too much, there is really nothing else to do other than remove them from the blank (not easy), throw them away, and start over (you CAN electroplate nickel onto the male ferrule, but that is another story).
Another problem (and MUCH worse) is the risk of snagging and destroying the tail end of your blank as it spins in the lathe. I was turning the rod blank (at a fast clip) and had the tail of the section resting on soft cloth as I held sandpaper on the ferrule. Suddenly, an imperceptibly small splinter in the bamboo snagged on the cloth and in a quarter of a second my rod tip looked as if it blew up!
Since that time I have lapped my ferrules BEFORE I epoxy them to my blank sections (I would rather throw away a ferrule set than a section of my bamboo fly rod). I use drill rods (which I cut to length) and two-piece collars to hold the ferrules onto the drill rods and turn them on my Sherline. Although I buy the drill rods and collars from McMaster-Carr in Atlanta, GA (www.mcmaster.com), you can accomplish the same thing much cheaper by turning some wood dowels to fit.
A good time to identify the spline/spine (if there is one) of your bamboo fly rod sections is after you have glued your ferrules on but before you glue the tip tops or guides (naturally you need to place your tip tops and guides on the flat identified by your spline). Mud Hole has a good video clip showing how to find the spline/spine of a rod. Similar to the cork grip video above, Mud Hole does this for a graphite rod, but the principle is the same for bamboo fly rods. Some makers place their guides on the inside of the spline of their bamboo fly rods, some on the outside of the spline. But the important thing is, if in fact you have a spline (sometimes you do not) your guides need to me aligned with the inside or the outside – otherwise your casting could be off-balance.
Care of Your Bamboo Fly Rods
Bamboo Fly Rods have a reputation of being fragile. They are expensive, but they are not necessarily fragile. High-end/high-modulus graphite can shatter if a bead-head nymph strikes the rod on a back cast, a similar accident with a bamboo fly rod will, at the worst, make a small “ding” in the bamboo. But like any fly rod, keep it out of ceiling fans, car doors, confined spaces smaller than the rod length, and the like.
Bamboo fly rods are made to fish with so they will get wet. But they aren’t meant to be submerged and left to soak. Dry the rod off when the day’s fishing is done and place it back in the rod sock and tube for transport in your car. When you get to your hotel or home, be sure the rod is dry before leaving it in the tube for any length of time.
Nickel Silver ferrules are made from an alloy of Copper-Nickel-Zinc (sadly no silver). Over time the alloy can oxidize/corrode and you will need to clean them. You can buff out the oxidation by lightly twirling the ferrules between your fingers while holding 0000 steel wool against the ferrules, but remember that although the steel wool (don’t use anything more abrasive than 0000) doesn’t remove much of the alloy, it does remove some. Also you can use 1000, 1500, or 2000 grit sandpaper (same comment regarding removal of some alloy applies).
For a long time I have heard that you should not put any form of lubricant on a ferrule as, depending upon the lubricant, it can promote corrosion or attract dust and grit. But I have recently seen where some very well known rod builders use a small amount of beeswax or soap on their male ferrules. I have begun carrying a small chunk from a bar of Ivory Soap (99.9% Pure!!) and rubbing a tiny amount on the male ferrule slide. It works GREAT! And, since it is soap, it is water soluble and therefore cleans up easily. Of course, it can also unintentionally clean up if you dunk your ferrules in the water.