How to Make Bamboo Fly Rods

By David Barnes

A split bamboo fly fishing rod is the Holy Grail for dedicated fly fishermen all over the world. A well-crafted custom bamboo rod is a functional piece of art that can take more than 100 hours to complete. It is prized for its beauty, flexibility, sensitivity and durability. Antique rods made by past masters now sell for thousands of dollars. With patience, skill, the right tools and attention to detail, you can build your own.

Select a Tonkin culm that is relatively straight and free of blemishes with nodes 18 to 24 inches apart. Split the culm with the splitting knife (froe) down the middle to get two halves. Flame the inside of each half carefully to strengthen and temper the bamboo fibers. Keep water handy to put out any flames quickly.

Split the two culm halves into 18 blank sections for a two-piece rod and two tips.Clamp each section, one at a time, into the vice. Rasp and file the raised interior nodule dams and exterior nodule lips down. Use the heat gun and vice to press the dams flat and even with the rest of the rest of the surfaces, straightening the blank sections as you go.

Set each section into the rough planing form; set for a 60-degree equilateral triangle. Use the rough planer to take material off the raw sections of the blank sections. Never plane the glossy outer side. This is where the strongest bamboo fibers grow. Be patient and work slowly, taking a few thousandths of an inch off at a time. The goal is to plane each section into a uniform equilateral triangle a quarter inch wide on each.

Check the width and uniformity of the sections with the calipers and the machinist's gauge. When each section is rough planed to the required dimensions, bind six sections together into three pieces to form three hexagonal rod blanks. Place the blanks on a flat surface and gently roll them back and forth to straighten them.

Place the bound blanks into the curing oven. You can use a length of iron pipe and heat it with a blowtorch, or you can make or buy one. Bake the blanks at 375 degrees for 7 minutes, turning each blank over after 3 1/2 minutes. This relaxes the bamboo, drives out moisture and stiffens the blank.

Remove the blanks after they are cured, cut the cord and separate the sections. Place each section in the tapering form, and plane and scrape the full lengths to the desired taper for the butt section and the tip sections. Match the smaller diameter of the butt section to the larger diameter of each tip section.

Fit the sections together again after the final planing and scraping. Once the strips are evenly matched up, tape each section together with a wrap at each end and one in the middle. Then slit the tape along one joint so you can lay each section out flat again to expose the sections' interior surfaces. The tape keeps the sections together on the flat surface.

Apply glue to the interior surfaces. Roll the sections back together to form the hexagonal blank sections and bind the full lengths with twine. Wipe off excess glue and gently roll the sections on a flat surface for the final straightening. Work quickly. You only have about 20 minutes before the epoxy sets up. Hang the blanks to dry for 8 hours in a dust-free area.

Remove the binding twine, gently sand off excess glue, then rebind the sections by hand and hang them for another 8 hours until the resin is completely dry. Cut the binding off and complete the final sanding.

Measure and cut each section blank to the finished length, making sure the diameters of the cut ends of the butt and both tips match exactly. Measure and fit the female ferrule onto the tapered end of the butt section and each male ferrule onto the butt end of each tip section. Once they are properly fitted, remove the ferrules.

Find the rod's spine. This is a line along the natural curve the rod will take when casting or fighting a fish. Hold a section with one hand on each end. Bend the section and turn it in your hands. You'll feel the natural bend as your turn it, because the section will try to twist back to its natural curve as you turn it away from that point. Mark the top of spine on each section. Later, you will set all the guides on the underside of this curve.

Finish the rod by attaching and gluing the ferrules in place, attaching the reel seat and cork grip, and attaching a rod guide 1 foot apart along each section. Measure and fit the tiptop to the end of each tip section. Wrap the ferrule ends, each end of the rod guides and the tiptop ends with fine silk thread, then Spar varnish the rod.