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A Beginner’s Guide to Bamboo Fly Rods by Phil Monahan

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

Although the bamboo fly rod fell out of favor in the 1950s—as a result of an embargo against products from China, which limited the availability of the raw materials, and the introduction of Shakespeare’s newfangled fiberglass Wonderod—some anglers continued to prize the slow action and delicate touch offered by “sweetgrass.” And dedicated craftsmen never stopped turning six-foot “culms” of bamboo into fine fishing tools. In today’s world of lightweight, fast-action, high-modulus graphite fly rods, more and more anglers are returning to the old-school rods produced by traditional shops, such as those built at the Orvis Rod Shop in Manchester, Vermont.

Most cane-rod buffs know that Samuel Phillippe of Easton, Pennsylvania, built the first six-strip rod in 1845, but bamboo had already been in use for nearly a century and a half by then. According to historian Andrew Herd, British Army officers may have brought the materials back for rod-making as early as 1700, but the early solid-bamboo rods were heavier and stiffer than the ash, hazel, and lancewood rods widely used at the time. Split-cane was first used for tips on wooden rods in about 1801, in the form of glued, four-strip sections. By mid-century, rods made completely from strips of bamboo were probably being manufactured, in three- and four-strip configurations, although some probably had wooden butt sections. But once Phillippe established the benefits of the six-strip rod, that became the standard. Although eight-strip hexagonal rods are now available, six strips remains the standard today.

Bamboo-rod builder Charlie Hisey shows off some strips of Tonkin cane, as well as some impressive calluses, at the Orvis rod shop in Manchester, Vermont. Photo by photo by Tim Bronson

A Simple Stalk of Grass

A split-cane fly rod begins with a stalk of dried bamboo, known as a “culm,” whose walls are made up of three parts: a thin outer wall called the enamel, the dense power fibers that give the material its strength and recovery rate, and finally the chalky pith. Each culm can be up to 12 feet long and about 6 inches around, and the rod maker will split it up to two dozen times to make the tapered strips that will be glued together to form a blank section. There are more than 1,000 species of bamboo, and although the first fly-rod makers used a variety from India—the original “Calcutta cane”—most eventually settled on Chinese “Tonkin cane” (Arundinaria amabilis) because it features denser layers of power cells, less pith, and well-spaced nodes (the raised rings around the culm).

Tools of the Trade

Turning a culm of bamboo into a fly rod requires some specialized tools. The knife used to split the culm into strips along the grain is called a froe, which is hammered with a mallet or a club. Each strip must be transformed into an equilateral triangle that will fit snugly with five others to create a hexagonal blank, a process that requires planning by hand or a mill. (When H.L. Leonard developed a beveler that sped up the production process, the machine was treated as a valuable trade secret, and only two employees were allowed to even see it.) To taper the finished strips, most rod builders use a grooved “planing form” and a handheld block plane.

From Culm to Fishing Tool

Creating a split-can rod is a many-step process that requires many different kinds of precise skill—from carpentry to joinery to engineering. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of how a tall stalk of Chinese grass become a fly rod.

Once the rod maker has chosen a culm of Tonkin cane—taking into consideration its straightness, the regularity and size of the nodes, the presence of blemishes or other marks—the next decision is whether to flame the bamboo or not. Rods made from the natural bamboo are called “blonde,” but those who want a darker, richer color must apply heat evenly across the entire culm.

Next, the culm is split into the strips, using a froe, knife, saw, or cutting jig. A culm with a 6-inch circumference will yield 16 to 24 strips. The rod maker then chooses the best strips and sets them up so the nodes will be staggered along the finished blank. Then each strip must be straightened and the nodes flatted, using heat and a vice.

Now the shaping of the strips begins, with rough planning to make the six strips of each section fit together. The strips of each section are then bound together with cotton thread, and the sections are put in an oven for heating, which removes excess moisture.

Now the real rod-building begins, as the enamel is removed from the outside of the strips, and they are put in a planning form to create the proper taper. The strips are then taped together to ensure proper fit, and if all is kosher, they are glued together to form the blank and bound again with thread. After the glue has set, the thread is removed and all excess glue is removed. Heating the blank sections can the help to make any tweaks or to remove twist that may have developed. You now have the basis for a fly-rod blank.

Next up are the addition of ferrules (which is not as simple as it sounds here), reel seat, and guides, and then it’s time for the cosmetic touches that will make the bamboo rod unique and something to treasure. Of course, we have skipped over many important details, but these are the basic steps in the creation of a split-cane rod.

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