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What's all the Hoopla about Cane Fly Rods?

By R.L. "Bob" Nunley, Rodmaker

Of late, there has been a lot of discussion about bamboo fly rods, what they are, why people like them and how they are made. Well, I've got my bulletproof vest on and ready to make my opinion known, so fasten your seatbelts, and get ready for the ride!

First off, there have been questions about what a good cane fly rod actually is. Well, in my opinion, it's a finely tuned casting machine that looks like a million dollars. A cane fly rod, as I've mentioned in a previous article, is not only a fine fishing instrument, but also a potential heirloom.

Bob using a hand plan and planing form

Now, what makes a fly rod an heirloom? Part of it is who makes it! I mean, a rod made by Joe Rodmaker who nobody has ever heard of may fish well and it may be a beauty, but that doesn't mean it will be collectable someday. What makes collectability? First, the maker has to pay his dues. By that, I don't mean he has to work through years of apprenticeship or have been tutored by one of the past or present day Masters of the craft. I mean he has to commit his life to the making of a fine cane rod. Much has been said about the heart of the rodmaker, but in my opinion, heart has nothing to do with it. Relationships to cane rods may be an affair of the heart, but the making of a fine cane rod, while it may be a passion, has more to do with talent, perseverance and commitment. I know there are very few rodmakers out there who can just quit their "day job" and start making rods for a living, and that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about being committed to working into the wee hours of the morning to make the perfect rod. I'm talking about not being able to accept an uneven or gapped wrap. I'm talking about not being tolerant of even the slightest flaw in the varnish. I'm talking about committing your life to your craft.

These flaws, or lack of them, are what sets the trade rods, or even inferior custom rods apart from a true custom fly rod. Many of the production companies of the past, such as Montague, Horrocks-Ibbotson, the companies that mass produced rods in Occupied Japan after World War II, and a few others, did make inferior rods, but not all of their rods were inferior. For instance, Horrocks-Ibbotson had three very fine casting, very finely outfitted two-piece rods, the Tonka King, Queen and Princess. Montague, after acquiring the Thomas Chubb Rod Company in 1890, continued to make Chubb rods in their Post Mills, Vermont factory until 1932, and these were considered some of the finest rods of their time. From time to time you'll even fine one of the Occupied Japan rods that casts like a dream. Did these compete with the better rods of the day, like the Leonard, Payne, and F.E. Thomas rods? Bob with Morgan Hand Mill No, they couldn't compete with the Leonard's whose rods were made on more 'finely tuned machines' than those "trade" rods were. Oh, there's that word that has seemed to become an evil uttering! MACHINE! That's right . . . Machines. Hiram Leonard, to the best of my knowledge, introduced the first machine to rodmaking in the 1870's. This machine was a beveller that would produce perfect strips to make the perfect rod. Contrary to what many believe, Hiram Leonard only hand planed for a few short years before he saw the obvious advantage of using machinery and there IS an advantage to using quality machinery. Think about it! If handwork were really all that accurate, then the makers of finely tuned racing engines would be using files and hand reamers instead of surface grinders and lathes. As for the old milling and beveling machines of the trade rod company's, Thomas and Thomas still uses the old Montague machines, and makes some of the finest rods in the world on them today!

Please don't misunderstand; I have nothing against hand planing. I hand planed well over 200 rods in my life. I've since moved to a manually operated machine called the Morgan Hand Mill. Why? Because it offers both ease of operation and more consistent results. Even though I was very proud of my hand planed rods, I quickly found I could produce a more consistent and better quality blank with the Hand Mill than I could with a hand plane and a set of forms. Now, I'm making the move to a powered finish beveller. Why, because, even though I'm proud of my hand milled rods, I know the powered beveller will produce a more consistent stick than either my planing forms or my hand mill. Sure, it costs a lot of money to put something like that into operation. If you started from scratch, a good bamboo miller or a good beveller could cost thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. Spending that money is what part of the commitment is all about. Putting your checkbook on the line to make better rods.

Morgan Hand Mill

Now, I know up front I'm going to be challenged about hand planing verses machining, but like I said, I've got on my bulletproof vest, so fire away . . .but before you pull the trigger, remember, the rods that the hand planers, even I when I was hand planing, are doing their best to copy are Jim Payne's machine built rods, Paul Young's machine built rods, The H.L. Leonard Rod Company's machine built rods, H.L "Pinky" Gillum's machine built rods, Thomas and Thomas's machine built rods, Winston's machine built rods, and the list goes on and on and onů The only maker I can think of that the majority of rodmakers who hand plane will try to emulate the tapers of, is Everett Garrison. Well, guys, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. In his later years, Mr. Garrison's health was failing, and he was making regular trips to the Leonard Rod Company's shop. When there, he stated to an employee that if he were to ever try to go big with his fly rods he would make a machine to make them. Yes, even the man who all consider the ultimate hand planer, the one who most in the craft consider the King of Rodmaking, dreamed of having a power driven finish beveller. Mr. Garrison was a brilliant man, and he knew and understood that the machines that turned out such fine rods were "the way to go" if a man were to commit himself to rodmaking as a living, rather than as a hobby.

Please, don't get up in arms too much! I'm not attacking hand planing, I'm not attacking the Hand Mill (I will always keep mine for doing my Quadrates) and I'm not attacking anyone who will take the time and labor required to making a finely crafted cane rod. All I'm saying is, just because someone wrote it in a book, don't take it for granted that it is "THE" way to do it. Hand planing is probably the best thing that ever happened to hobbyists or low numbers production rodmakers, and I have a lot of respect for hand planing. I've done a lot of it. I've done a lot more of it than most rodmakers out there today. I've also been a huge proponent of Tom Morgan's hand mill. It IS superior, if one uses it properly, to hand planing. I'm also a big believer in bamboo millers and bevellers. If used properly, they are superior to hand planing and the Morgan Hand Mill, and in a discussion on this subject, my friend Tom Morgan, former owner of the R.L. Winston Rod Company (a company that has ALWAYS milled their rods), and maker and marketer of the "Hand Mill," agreed. He said that when he owned R.L. Winston that the machine they used there, when properly tuned and adjusted, would turn out perfect strips, with edges like razor blades.

Again, I don't want anyone to misunderstand, because I don't feel there is a right way and a wrong way to make a rod. What I feel is that there are easy ways and hard ways to make rods, and some methods, by nature, are more precise than others. So, what do I think about the different methods? In a nutshell, some hand planed rods are great, some suck. Some hand-milled rods are great and some suck. Some machined rods are great and some suck. Not everyone can become a good rodmaker, not every rodmaker can make a good rod, regardless of his methods or how many rods he's made. You have to depend on a maker's reputation, his product and his commitment. Know your maker; know more about bamboo fly rods in general. Find a source for good bamboo fly rod information and educate yourself. Find out what a good rod is all about! Find out what a good rodmaker is all about! Find out if that maker has made a commitment to his rodmaking and to the quality, or if he's just trying to drag down a few extra bucks turning out a few fishing poles. Bamboo fly rods are expensive, so be sure you're making a good and wise investment. Be sure your rodmaker has a commitment to the craft that insures YOU are going to receive a quality rod.

Tom Morgan, in a telephone conversation that we had during the writing of this article, told me that a rodmaker should ask himself two questions . . . If this rod were being built for you, would you want it? And if this were the only rod that you made, that anyone would ever see, would you want everyone to see it? If every rod turned out were put under the scrutiny of those questions, there would be a lot less bamboo fly rods floating around on the market today.

Beveler As for Hand Planing vs. Hand Milling vs. Machine Milling, a very good friend of mine recently wrote that planing forms were the wave of the future for rodmaking and I'm sorry, my friend, but I must respectfully disagree. Hand planes were the predecessor of the Milling and Beveling machines. They came first, and until the "book" about Everett Garrison came out, they were considered to be the "old way" not the wave of the future. As much as I was, and still am, proud of my planed rods, I knew from the time I planed my first rod that this was how it was done back in the 1800's, not the way it would be done in the future. There are probably more bevellers and bamboo mills running today than there ever have been in the history of rodmaking and I would bet a nice shiny new 5 weight that in 10 years, there will be a lot more of them in shops around the country. Sure, there are more hand planers out there too, I can't help but think that after a hundred or so rods, they will sit in their recliner after a long day in the shop and daydream of that magical machine that would allow them to more efficiently make better rods. Not make them faster, not make them prettier, but make them better. ~ R.L. "Bob" Nunley, Rodmaker

About Bob:

Bob Nunley is a full-time cane rodmaker who lives in Poteau, OK. You can visit his website at: , or by email at:

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