Building A Cane Rod, Part 2
In our last column we discussed in
a general way how cane rods are built, and ended with a
discussion of flamed vs. blond rods. Today we will go
into more detail about how the cane strips (splines) are
formed from the raw bamboo.
Prior to forming the tapered splines that compose the blank, several
operations must take place. First, the culm of raw bamboo is either split or
sawn into individual strips. Cane can be split into strips using a variety of
methods. In the days when all rods were made of bamboo, mass-producers used
large 'battering-ram' type devices that could split an entire culm into a
predetermined number of strips in seconds. Small, hand-held versions of this
type of tool can still be acquired today.
Another hand method involves the use of a tool called a froe. The froe can be
thought of as a combination knife and splitting ax. Like a knife, it has an
edge that is pounded into the cane to begin splitting the longitudinally
oriented fibers. The froe is also beveled from the edge to provide a fatter
surface that acts as a cam to lengthen the split ahead of the blade. The cane
literally pops open along the grain much the same way that wood can be split
for the fireplace.
A rodbuilder will lay out and split a culm into a desired number of strips.
The ultimate yield in terms of how many strips are produced from a culm is
limited by a number of factors such as the circumference (size) of the culm
and the width of each strip needed to produce a particular rod taper.
Typically, rodbuilders will split a culm into either 16 or 24 strips, each
about ¼ to 3/8 of an inch wide. Although the split strips do follow the
natural grain pattern of the bamboo, the strips themselves are not straight.
Unfortunately for the rodbuilder the strips often exhibit kinks through the
node areas and long sweeps and bends in between each node. For the strips to
be processed further each node and strip must be straightened by hand - a
tedious and time consuming process.
In the past some rodbuilding shops used a circular saw to saw the strips
instead of splitting them. The advantage to using a saw was that the strips
thus formed were almost absolutely straight and could be taken directly to
further processing without further straightening. Because rodbuilding has
always been a competitive industry, companies that split their cane were
quick to point out that 'rip-sawing' the strips sometimes cut across the
grain and claimed the companies that did so were producing an inferior
product. Over the years this type of hogwash has come to include the use of
machinery in rodbuilding, claiming that hand planing the taper into the
strips produces a superior product over that produced by machine. We will
address this bunk in greater detail in coming columns, but I would defy
anyone to cast two rods, identical in taper, but one produced from sawn
strips versus split strips. Do this test blindfolded and tell me which rod is
If the strips are split by hand, the next step involves straightening the
strips. The strips are heated and upon reaching a certain temperature the
cane becomes soft and pliant and can be bent into the desired straight
configuration. If the strip is held in this position until cool it will
remain straight. Each node area and sweep must be straightened in this
fashion. Today most rodbuilders use an electric heat gun to supply the
necessary heat to straighten the strips.
At some point prior to further processing, rodbuilders will lay out and cut
the strips to the approximate length of the rod section they wish to build.
At this stage they will also choose a method to stagger the placement of the
nodes so that when the rod section is complete no two nodes will be next to
another on adjacent strips. The idea behind staggering the nodes rests upon
the supposition that the node represents a 'weak' spot in the cane, and
staggering the strips keeps these 'weak' spots from being concentrated in one
area. How this idea came about I do not know. If the growing cane did not
possess the reinforcing properties of the node, the culm would simply
collapse upon itself like a straw and could certainly not grow 40 or more
feet tall. The nodes give the hollow grass hoop strength to keep this from
occurring. I've examined and cast many old rods that had nodes lying together
on adjacent strips and they've felt fine to me and have apparently held up
well over the years.
There are many possible node spacing configurations and each one has its
proponents. Some manufacturers used a random node spacing because it allowed
strips from one culm to be easily inserted into strips from another, thus
saving material and time. But bamboo rodbuilding has evolved beyond the
simple consideration of producing a fishing tool as quickly and cheaply as
possible for every economic niche of the fly fishing market. Today, one would
be hard pressed to find a cane rodbuilder that didn't take the time and
effort to manually split and straighten the strips and stagger the nodes in
~ J.D. Wagner