Bamboo Bonzai

Necessity is the mother of invention. - 16th c.
A Brief History of the Bamboo Flyrod, Part I

J.D. Wagner Logo

In this column I will attempt to give a brief history of the split cane flyrod. This overview will be truncated but I hope to illuminate readers about how cane flyrods came into being, their place in our angling heritage and their evolution to today's status. For readers that wish to delve much deeper into the evolution of flyfishing tackle I heartily recommend Classic & Antique Fly-Fishing Tackle by A.J. Campbell. This book is by far the most definitive and exhaustively researched on this fascinating topic.

Cane flyrods came into existence out of the desire to improve on the previous rodmaking material of choice: wood. As is still the case today, rodbuilders have always searched for a building material that is lighter, stronger and with a higher modulus of elasticity. Prior to about 1834, American flyrods were made of wood and were typically at least 11 feet long. While wood rods were very easy to manufacture, they did have their drawbacks. Wood rods were subject to warping and their tips very susceptible to breakage. In addition, you can imagine the work involved with casting such a long wooden flyrod with it's attendant weight.

In attempting to solve the problem of broken rod tips early rodbuilders substituted wood for more flexible materials such as whale baleen. The next idea was trying laminated strips of wood, followed by the use of laminated bamboo strips. The first 'rent and glued' bamboo rod tips originated in England and they were composed of a bamboo species imported from India, so-called 'Calcutta cane.' This started an evolution towards substituting cane rod sections for rod sections other then the tip until rods were made entirely of bamboo.

The cane rod sections were originally made from two strips split and glued, then progressed to three strips, followed by four-strip sections. There is controversy over who can claim to have built the first rod using cane for all sections of the rod as well as who originated of the idea of using the familiar six-strip design. It is generally agreed that the first person to make six-strip sections was Samuel Philippe of Easton, Pennsylvania. The first entire rod of six-strip construction is attributable to Charles Murphy of New York and rods utilizing this form of construction were fairly accepted by 1870.

In addition, the reasons for evolving from four-strip to six-strip rods have been muddled with time. It has been postulated that it was easier for builders to split six usable narrow strips from Calcutta cane. Calcutta cane was prone to damage by boring insects and was also often damaged by the practice of scorching the bamboo with fire. This practice was apparently used to either straighten the culms, kill the insects, or for cosmetic ornamentation. In addition, Calcutta bamboo had a relatively thin layer of outer 'power fibers' and a very pithy interior. Because the four-strip design utilizes proportionally larger strips then the corresponding six-strip design, four-sided rods had a larger amount of powerless 'pith' in the middle of the completed rod sections. The problems associated with Calcutta cane as a rod material were obviated when the Charles Demarest company began to import a new species of cane ('Tonkin' bamboo) for rodbuilding sometime prior to 1900.

Many early rodbuilders were trained gunsmiths. This is a natural fit as many of their gun clients were also anglers. Gunsmiths learned their skills in working wood and metal to fine tolerances by virtue of apprenticeships under master builders and these skills and tradition became part of the rodbuilding craft. One such gunsmith, Hiram Leonard, was soon to revolutionize cane rodbuilding by utilizing a machine to manufacture the six tapered cane pieces that when glued together, compose a rod section.

The importance of the Leonard machine cannot be overstated for it wedded the craft of building rods to the industrial revolution. As a result cane rods could be made more efficiently and therefor widely available for angler's to use. The craft of cane rodbuilding progressed from the tedium associated with fashioning strips by hand methods to the principles of mass production. Leonard was fully aware of the business advantage that his machinery gave him, and kept his rod -forming machine under lock and key with the threat of firing any employee that dared to enter the room where it was housed.

Although today there is a wealth of information available in every medium to learn how to build rods-books, videos, internet chatrooms, rodbuilding classes- this was not always the case because rodbuilders guarded their building methods as proprietary. It was as essential to guard against divulging trade 'secrets' as it is today in competitive industries, and for the same reasons. Having worked through a period of apprenticeship to learn the craft, these men derived their very livelihoods from rodbuilding.

As I close this first part, you can see that many hurdles were overcome in a roughly forty year period in order to bring cane flyrods from their infancy to the standard of the industry. Born out of necessity to replace an inferior rodbuilding material, rodbuilders experimented with bamboo in various geometric configurations to finally settle upon the common six-strip hexagonal section. In order to make rods available for the angling public Hiram Leonard had to find a way to produce rods efficiently in this new material, and so was the first to use a machine to produce rod sections quickly. Finally, rodbuilders had discovered a new type of cane to build their rods that held numerous advantages over the 'old' material. ~ J.D. Wagner

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