Welcome to this series on how to make your own custom cane or bamboo fly rod. In this series we will cover all the basic steps needed to build a cane rod. Everything from turning your own custom grip to the final finishing.

Before we start making our rod, we should first know at least a little about Bamboo the material we are working with.

Bamboo Poles Also called culms

The more I work with bamboo the more impressed I am by it because of it’s unique properties and characteristics. Bamboo cane truly is an amazing natural building material. It is resilient, tough, strong, flexible, malleable and very easy to work with. There are many varieties but only a handful are suitable in rod making. The One you will hear of most often is Tonkin cane named for it’s place of origin and prized for it’s size and long strait dense power fibers and long sections between nodes. Tonkin is the bamboo of choice for most rod makers. Other varieties of cane suitable for rod making are Mandake {meaning common bamboo } and Hadiku. Each possesses it’s own unique properties making it suitable for a specific type of rod or style of casting.

On the left side is Mandake cane, in the middle Hadiku and on the right is Tonkin.
The easiest way to describe them would be fine, medium and coarse. You will notice the Mandake has many more small but heavily concentrated power fibers near the outside edge than both the Hadiku or Tonkin cane. This makes Mandake a good choice for a very ultra light weight rod. Depending on what type of rod you want to build, Tonkin may not necessarily always be the best choice.
Japanese have used both Mandake and Hadiku cane in rod making for centuries built in the old Mandake style using whole one piece selected cane shoots in various diameters compared to the complex multi splined split cane tapered rods made around the world today.

Cross cut cane sections of different types of cane showing difference in power fibers

There are many people who have never worked with bamboo and are under the misconception that bamboo is a type of wood. When they think of a bamboo fly rod, they naturally think you are making a wooden rod. This is not the case. Bamboo is not wood. In fact it is a type of grass or reed. Where wood is made up of different patterned grains and always covered with a protective bark, bamboo is a hollow tube made up of long straight cells called Power Fibers that run between sections from node to node at which point they cross over each other and intertwine much like re-bar used to reinforce concrete. Which makes bamboo the ideal material for building a fly rod.

Cross cut section of a planed spline showing cell structure of power fibers.

Each section is separated by a nodal dam. The nodes or nodal dams are an ingenuous example of natural architecture that act as a foundation making a base for the next section of bamboo to grow on. The nodes are what allows the bamboo to grow forty to fifty feet straight up into the air without collapsing and toppling over. Bamboo also has no bark. It has only a paper thin layer of enamel to protect it from the elements.

Inside of a split cane pole showing nodal dams

One other misconception held by the masses is that bamboo makes an inferior or weaker rod than a fiberglass, composite or a graphite rod. I assure you nothing could be further from the truth. In fact it is much, much stronger.

Here is a strength test I conducted on a 60o planed scrap piece of a bamboo spline . Notice the extreme force being exerted on my finger tips. It takes six of these laminated together to make to make a rod section. I defy anyone to try this with a six inch section of graphite.

Here is the same piece with the pith side removed and only the strongest power fibers remaining.

One thing that has led to this misbeleif is that cane rods come with an extra tip section and that quite often when we see some of these older rods for sale or up for auction one of these sections is sometimes broken or has been repaired leading us to believe they are weak and prone to breakage. What we need to take into consideration is that in almost all these cases the rod is very old and has not been properly maintained or has been misused and abused. Most of these older rods came from a post war time when they where being mass produced in factories and you could buy a good South Bend or Heddon cane rod from a catalog or your local hardware store for under $20.00. There was no monetary vale put on them. They where simply a fishing tool nothing more. People did not take care of them. They threw them up on the rafters of the garage where they froze in the winter and cooked in the summer, or left them down in a wet moldy corner of some dark dingy basement where they where left to rot and corrode. With that said, cane rods are actually very tolerant and forgiving. There are also many very old cane rods that have been very well maintained over the years and are highly prized by collectors who pay top dollar and are just as sound today as the day they where made. Cane rods can be easily repaired or restored. Even a cane rod with a crack, slight delaminating or actual chunk missing out of it can be fished for years without any further problems occurring but a graphite rod with the slightest nick in it will have it’s structural integrity compromised. It is a ticking time bomb. A disaster waiting to happen. Bamboo is an organic material and is subject to erosion and decay and requires at least a little care. With a little proper maintenance as simple as wiping down your rod and storing your rod in a proper bag and tube and placing it upright in the corner of a nice clean dry closet will assure a long life for your cane rod.

Part # 2 Selecting, splitting and preparing a bamboo culm for your rod.

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