Bamboo Bonzai

Building A Cane Rod, Part 2

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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 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 'superior.'

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 some fashion. ~ J.D. Wagner

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