By Tom Morgan
I wrote this
dissertation to a Hand Mill user who was asking me about
whether or not he was being too critical in his rodmaking.
He also asked about how to choose a rod design. I may have
gotten carried away but decided to share many of my thoughts
about rodmaking and some of the difficulties involved in
selecting a design.
You say that you are
building your rods to a .001" tolerance. As I see it there
are two areas of tolerance and I will discuss both of them.
One is the flat to flat tolerance and the other is the taper
tolerance. I do agree, as you will see later in my
discussion, that the flat to flat tolerance is easier to
achieve than the taper tolerance. I also believe that flat
to flat dimensions that are close demonstrate good
workmanship. And it is worthwhile to achieve good results,
but not absolutely perfect results, because of balance and
In reality, isn't
.001" an arbitrary figure? Why not build them to .000" or
even .0000" since all good micrometers can be read to that
dimension. There are several reasons, in my opinion, why
even .001" isn't practical. To cut strips that end up with
.001" accuracy, when glued into sections, you have to cut
your strip to .0005". I don't even know a way to measure
strips that accurately. If you are sanding them to a
predetermined dimension I will discuss this in more detail
later. When I used to make ferrules it wasn't easy on one of
the best lathes available, a Hardinge tool room lathe, to
consistently achieve that accuracy on metal much less bamboo
unless I was using a dial indicator reading to .0001"
accuracy. I have never seen a bamboo cutting machine,
including the milling machine at Winston with high precision
bearings that would consistently cut to that tolerance.
Another factor that
greatly influences section accuracy is sanding. Using 320
grit sandpaper you remove approximately .001" of material
with three very light strokes. Therefore, you must be
extremely vigilant in order not to remove too much bamboo
particularly on the ends of tips.
Where are you
getting the dimensions for your rods? If you are getting
them out of a book forget great accuracy. I have personally
miked a substantial number of the old "Masters" rods and
have experienced everything from an occasional miking that
is nearly the same on each side to as much as .020" variance
from flat to flat. It's very uncommon to have the rods at
each station within less than .004 from flat to flat and
often it's greater than that. So when you read a taper in a
book did they take the high, the low, or the average? What
if you have two sides that mike the same and one that is
.008 different? How did they deal with that when publishing
the taper? Also if you read different tapers published in
different books the same rod model sometimes have different
tapers listed from each other. Which one are you going to
choose? Also, rodmakers would improve or change the tapers
over time yet keep the model number the same.
I have discovered
over the years there are so many variables to trying to
replicate a published taper exactly that it's extremely
difficult to do. To give you just one example we did a test
on a butt recently in our shop. It was a typical solid butt
that was glued using Urac then coated entirely, including
the ends, with four coats of Man O War varnish. We marked
the place on the butt where the dimension was .250". During
the winter when we did this test the humidity in the shop
was about 25%. We have a humidity cabinet where we hang
sections prior to gluing in order to increase the moisture
content to the level recommended by the glue company. At the
time of the test the humidity in the cabinet was about 75%.
We left the varnished section in the cabinet for10 days and
carefully "miked" the section at the point it where it had
previously measured .250". It now measured .262" or a growth
of 4.8%. We then left the section out of the cabinet and a
couple of weeks later measured it again. It was back to the
.250" dimension at the measuring point.
The reason I mention
this is that if you are using a published taper what might
the humidity been when a certain rod was measured and the
taper recorded? I have never seen this reported along with
published tapers. This is just one of the variables but it
illustrates the difficulty of reproducing someone else's
taper. A taper can certainly be a worthwhile guide but how
the rod feels, casts, and fishes to the builder are, in my
opinion, the most important elements.
You often see that
the rod was miked over varnish and they subtracted .006 for
its thickness. Was the varnish really that thick? Or was it
that thick everywhere? Another consideration with varnish is
that different varnishes are harder or softer than others
and will affect how a rod flexes. What type of varnish was
They used to use hide glue
on virtually every rod because it was the best available.
Are the characteristics of rods glued with hide glue
different from modern glues? What about the variance in the
physical properties of bamboo? Everyone that has dealt with
bamboo knows that the deflection varies some between strips
from different culms. How can that be taken into account?
What about heat treating? I have never seen tapers given
with light, medium, or heavy heat treating as one of the
parameters. Anyone that has worked with different heat
treating knows that the deflection and resilience changes
with different amounts of tempering.
What diameter of
bamboo pole was used? Particularly on butts the diameter of
the pole and the resulting radius on the outside influences
the volume of bamboo in a given section.
What about the
guides that are used? I have extensive knowledge of
designing rods in fiberglass, graphite, and bamboo and know
that different guide weights will GREATLY influence the
action of the rod as will different tip tops. I don't see
that listed as a parameter. What about the wrap length, wrap
coating, and varnish on the rod. The action can be greatly
affected by the weight of these items. What about guide
spacing? How many guides were on a rod? The size and weight
of the tip top can greatly affect the action. Did the rod
have a heavy wire loop or a light wire? Was the tip top tube
heavy or light or was it long or short? If you don't believe
that a tip top makes a huge difference in the action put
just a tip top on a rod blank and flex it then remove it and
flex it again and see the difference. It's remarkable.
What about the
length and style of ferrule? The difference in weight can be
substantial and affect the action of the rod.
Was the old Master's
rod really that great? Might it have been better with a
slightly different taper in the butt or tip? Who's to judge?
You say that you
flatten the flats on your rods. Think about the quad
sections in particular. You are removing a substantial
amount of the best fibers that are located on the outside.
You go from removing no fibers near the corners to
substantial in the middle. Doesn't that matter? I think so.
Isn't this a compromise to the bamboo just so you can try to
keep the dimensions the same?
I have discussed
many of the variables that should be accounted for when
choosing a published rod taper. Perhaps you design your own
tapers. At least that eliminates many of the variables that
I have described above because you can keep the bamboo rod
dimensions and the components the same. However, are you
confident that you are a good designer? Have you cast lots
of bamboo rods? Can you make all kinds of loops during your
casting to determine what the rod will do for different
casting styles? If you don't like the action do you know
where to change the dimensions of the rods to achieve the
action that you do like. This is knowledge that, from my
experience, is difficult to learn and I have found very few
who have this ability.
One way that I have
used is to try and get a consensus of rod action and to
understand different angler's perception of what is the best
action is to have several different casters and fishermen
cast and fish different rods. This does give a good cross
section as long as they are competent casters and fishermen.
I have also cast a
great number of rods from rodmakers where I thought the tips
and butts were poorly matched resulting in rods that felt
odd or weren't smooth casting. Most bamboo designers never
make enough tip and butt combinations with interchangeable
ferrules to allow them to adequately test different actions
to come up with what they like the best. To give you an
example, in the series of bamboo rods that we are making now
we have three models: 7' #3, 7' #4, and 7 1/2' #5. Among
these three models we had over 40 combinations of tips and
butts that were interchangeable to try and get the very
sweetest casting and fishing combination. Even though the
differences were subtle because I had a good idea of what I
was looking for I still thought it necessary in order to end
up with what I thought was three great designs. Was this an
over kill? Perhaps, but the rods have been cast by some very
knowledgeable bamboo anglers and they think that they are
some of the sweetest casting and best fishing rods they have
tried. I think a good record. This is not to say that I have
all the answers but to point out that it's a difficult task
to come up with really good designs.
As a general observation I
believe that the tip determines the action more than the
butt does but as previously mentioned having the proper
balance between the two is critical for great designs.
I have always had
the philosophy that I wouldn't criticize a designer who
spent a great deal of time working on his designs because
that is what he likes or he wouldn't be building the rod.
However, most rods do fall within a fairly narrow range of
design because anything outside of that range doesn't feel
normal and isn't acceptable to most anglers.
I certainly haven't
cast many of the bamboo rods that have been made but I've
cast enough to give me a good feel for action. In my
opinion, and that of another designer that I greatly
respect, the rods of E.C. Powell were the best casting
bamboo rods as a group of any that we have cast. As a matter
of interest his rods were some of the worst for variation in
measurement from flat to flat. In fact, the one that I
mentioned above that was .020" off on one flat was his and
was a great casting rod. I certainly don't advocate that
lack of precision but it goes to show that he was a great
designer and new actions despite the lack of accuracy of his
E.C. Powell used one
of three different mathematical taper designs to make his
rods. Following the B9 taper pattern certainly would be a
good place to start to design trout rods. A great many
bamboo advocates, particularly from the Midwest and East,
have never even cast one. So there are lots of rods out
there that many have never had the opportunity to
Does this all mean
that you shouldn't make bamboo rods because there is much
that is unknown and a lot of things to consider? Of course
not! There are lots of things that go into a quality rod
that can be defined and many of today's rodmakers, and many
from the past, have made great rods. They have also made a
lot of poor casting rods and you shouldn't forget that. Just
because it's a bamboo rod doesn't mean it's a great one. You
can be careful in your bamboo selection to make sure you
have good fiber quality, that the bamboo is free of
structural damage, cosmetic blemishes can nearly eliminated,
and the workmanship can be carefully done. Good glue work
can be done without seams, they can be glued without torque,
the sections can be very uniform, and they can be very
straight out of the binder. Those that aren't can be
CAREFULLY straightened using heat as long as they don't
begin very crooked.
You can choose
quality guides, relatively clear cork, beautiful wood, and
cosmetically beautiful fittings that are properly polished.
Your varnish work can be of a very high quality and
blemishes polished out if you desire. The end result can be
a beautiful rod that is a wonderful fishing instrument. And
one that would make an angler proud to own and fish.
But, in my opinion,
you need to take a realistic view of what is practical. To
begin with, look at lots of rods. I don't believe that you
can know what makes a great fishing rod until you see a
number of them. Cast lots of rods to help determine what
constitutes a good action for the situations you are trying
From my experience
you want to settle on a basic taper for a rod and then you
want to replicate it for others that you produce in that
model. The things that are most important are the general
taper and the consistency between rods. I don't think that
anyone can tell whether or not a rod is off a thousands or
two here and there but they certainly will know if they are
expecting one type of action and get one that's completely
I believe that the
important dimensions are based on percentage. Try to keep
the rod in the area of the last 12-15" of the tip within
+/-.001 or, preferably, less. If the tip diameter is .065"
then .002" is 3.1%. Keeping the same thoughts of percentage
the typical butt at .325" would be off .010 ". Naturally, a
butt would typically be easy to keep within +/-.002-.003"
which is a smaller percentage because of the size. I do
think that it's important to have the area in the tip
extremely close to your proven taper. If it doesn't come out
perfectly you can always slide the sections slightly one way
or the other to get it very close to your dimensions without
changing the basic "feel" of the rod. That may cause other
dimensions to be slightly off but it will tend to keep the
overall action and the line sizing very close to what you
Now I do think that
it is important to keep the flat to flat measurement close
because that does help keep the rod in balance and without
spine. In this area you should be able to keep the rod
within the +/-.0015(.003 total) or, preferably, a little
less with good equipment and technique but, here again, I
would think of it in percentages.
Another thing to
consider in rod design is the difference in line weights
between sizes. Here is a chart measured in grains which are
1/7000 of a pound.
surprising? This was a set of standards based on grain
weights developed in the '60s to replace the old line
designations of HCH, HEH, GBH, etc that manufacturers used.
The reason they changed was that there weren't consistent
standards between manufacturers as to line weight and
variance tolerance so customers weren't sure of what they
were getting when they purchased a line. However, with the
new standards there is a substantial percentage difference
between the lower weight lines and the heavier ones. I've
never liked this dramatic difference, particularly in the
lighter line sizes, but that's the way it is. Also, don't
forget that line manufacturers have about a +/- tolerance of
5 grain on lines so the weight varies from this chart and
can affect what a rod feels like by as much as 1/4 line size
in some cases.
In designing rods I
have always gone by the cross sectional area rather than a
linear chart of the dimension. I think that it's a lot
better way to do it. If you graph out the cross sectional
area you get a very good visual picture of how the rod
looks. It's always some form of a half parabola shape.
What are the
important things in rod design? First, they must be great
fishing rods. The most important is that on a trout stream
they must deliver the line well, protect tippets, play fish
well with the tackle being used, and be comfortable for the
angler to use. Second, the rod should be smooth to cast
without any hinges or kicks, it should come alive in the
hand, and it should have that sweetness that's hard to
describe but that you instantly know when you make a cast.
It should easily become what I would call a thought rod
where it becomes almost an extension of your arm and you
Then it should be
beautiful and the workmanship impeccable. The overall design
should be pleasing to the eye and have unique features that
define your sense of design. The fittings should all be of
the best quality. Things like the outside of the ferrules,
winding check, and reel seat components should be perfectly
polished showing no tooling marks. Your action between rod
models with the same style should be similar so that
customers know what to expect.
You certainly can
make a progressive style model, or a parabolic style, or
some variation of other basic actions to accommodate
different philosophies to please your design philosophy or
that of a customer's individual thoughts on good design.
The last thing, and
probably the least considered but maybe the most important,
is that the rods should reflect your philosophy of life and
living. I believe strongly that your life and what you do
should be in balance so that you are at ease with the rods
that you make, there is harmony in your life, and when you
are enjoying time on the stream with one of your creations
you have a warm feeling about it and the environment. The
rod should have a harmony that others will feel when they
cast and fish it.
rods that other anglers enjoy has brought me tremendous
satisfaction throughout my life and I hope that it does for
I hope that I have
given you some insight into my thoughts and philosophy on
rodmaking. Hopefully, this will also be a start of you
developing your own.
Tom Morgan 2011