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Buying Used Cane Rods:
What to Look For

By Ted Knott, Maker, Ontario, Canada

I receive an inquiry about an old cane rod at least once a month. The rod is usually a gift from an acquaintance or family member, or was purchased at a flea market or other sale, and the owner want to know what he has. The questions are always: "What have I got?"; "Can, or should I fish it?"; and the inevitable, "What's it worth?" If the rod is a gift from a friend or a relative's estate, it's sentimental value may far outweigh its cash value.

Cash value is determined by the condition of the rods, who made it, and which model. For example, Payne rods are usually worth more than Leonard rods, and short rods are worth more than longer rods. A 7 foot Payne model is worth more than a 7 foot Payne model. North American rods are generally valued more highly than British rods, although there are exceptions. Any Payne in poor condition, such as short sections, missing guides, or poor finish, loses much of its worth. If the owner plans to fish the rod, some of these concerns are not relevant. Short section lengths, replaced guides, or a poor varnish finish may not affect the rod's fishing performance.

Better split bamboo rods always have the maker's name inscribed somewhere on the rod. Payne and Leonard rods have their name engraved on the reel seat metal work. Orvis, Heddon, and Hardy have an inked inscription on the bamboo in front of the cork grip. Some makers (Orvis or Hardy) also have a serial number. Some of the low-end rods have a decal on the rod shaft (such as Horrocks-Ibbotson, Montague, and South Bend). A few makers also identify the rods with a label on the rod bag. Unfortunately, some of these identification marks get destroyed or damaged with age or refinishing. An experienced rod historian or rod renovator can sometimes determine the rod's origin by other features such as thread wraps or grip and reel seat styles.

The following list of rodmakers and their desirability is arbitrary and based on my experience. I've probably left a manufacturer out. In descending order: Garrison, Payne, Leonard, Orvis, Granger, Heddon, Phillipson, Shakespeare, Montague, Horrocks-Ibbotson, and South Bend. In a recent E-bay auction, I saw a Garrison rod with a reserve bid of $12,000 US. In Canada, we see a lot of British rods. In my experience, the most common are Hardy, Farlow, and Ogden Smith. Although there are exceptions, British rods are generally viewed as softer, more full-flexing rods than their American counterparts.

If you suspect that the rod has some historical significance, or was made by one of the premium makers, then the best thing to do is nothing until you can find out more about the rod.

Collectable Rods

If you have decided that the rod is of sentimental or historical significance to you, the best abvice I can give you is do nothing to it. Simply put it on display someplace where you will see it and enjoy what it represents. Collectors and historians want their rods 'as found', so that the methods of the rodmaker are evident, without the alteration or masking of later refinishing or restoration.

Restoration or Refinishing

There is a distinction between refinishing and restoration. To refinish a rod is to bring it back to fishable condition. No effort is made to replicate the original methods or components of the maker. Restoration is much more detailed. The same silk thread and finishing method must be used. Original snake guides or replicas must also be used. If ferrules are replaced, they must be accurate replicas. Every effort is made to restore the rod to its original condition. For a high-end rod such as a Payne or Leonard, restoration may be the best choice. You should seek some advice on this. You don't want to spend a $1000 on restoration if the end value of the rod is less.

On the other hand, if you find an old Montague or Heddon that needs a little work, then a refinish will provide you with a relatively inexpensive cane rod for fishing.

Purchasing a Rod for Refinishing

Let's say that you have your eye on an old split cane rod. You want it to fish with but you haven't made a commitment on it yet. Here are some point to check.

First, what is the general condition of the rod? Are there any obvious faults such as varnish deterioration, damaged cork, or missing guides? These can all be easily repaired. Delaminated sections, fractures, and hook 'dings' can usually be repaired, but get an opinion from a rod restorer first.

Check the length of the rod sections to see if they are all the same lengths. On North American rod, 3 piece, 2 tips, every section should be the same length. If they're not, it means there's been a breakage and the section shortened in the repair process. The most common breakage on bamboo rods is just behind the ferrule or the tip guide. The ferrule can usually be refitted to the rod, but the result is a short section.

On the other hand, British rods were often made with the bamboo sections of equal length, but when the ferrules and tiptop guide were installed, each section (butt, mid, and tips) could end up different lengths.

The next step is to assemble the rod sections. Sometimes the ferrules have oxidized and will not fully engage. Modest cleaning with a mild abrasive such as silver polish will usually clean them up. If the ferrules are a loose fit, an application of candle wax may tighten them up sufficient to get a few more season's use from them. While the rod is assembled, flex it and listen for loose ferrules. You can hear a loose ferrule and feel it through the rod. Some of the older rods were glued and pinned. You can sense if the ferrule glue has failed and it's just the pin that keeps it from coming loose. Loose ferrules need to be removed and reglued. Sometimes the only way to correct this condition is to remove the existing ferrule and replace it with a replica. This can be expensive.

While the rod is still assembled, sight down it to see if there are any severe sets or bends in it. All bamboo rods get sets if they are used much. However, sets can be removed easily with moderate application of heat and hand pressure. This is best done by a rodmaker with some experience with this work. While you are looking, check the condition of the guides. If the guides are grooved with wear, they should be replaced. Guides used on today's rods are much larger to accommodate thicker modern fly lines. Also check the thread wraps for deterioration. The silk thread used on older rods tends to deteriorate and fade with age. If rotted, it and the guide must be replaced.

There seems to be an increase in interest in split bamboo rods. Anglers are rediscovering the pleasures and performance of a material that has been around for over 100 years. In lengths up to 8 feet, bamboo rods are forgiving and pleasant casting tools.

Bamboo Rod Restoration Handbook, by Michael Sinclair.

The Fine Bamboo Fly Rod, A Master's Secrets of Restoration, by Stuart Kirkfield. ~ TK

Credits: This article appears in the January/March 2004 issue of The Canadian Fly Fisher. We appreciate re-print permission from them and Ted Knott!

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