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Building A Cane Rod, Part VIII.

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In our last column we discussed the mounting and turning of the grip. All that remains is to varnish the rod and wraps and seal the guides. The good news is that today it is possible for a beginner to achieve better finishing results then the vast majority of all 'classic' rods if they wish to pay attention to the details and invest the time and effort necessary. A major reason for this is that most people dip-finish their rods. Although dipping is by no means foolproof, it does substitute for the years of experience necessary working with a brush and the results are as good or better then hand methods. Indeed, many of the classic rods that were finished with a brush fall far short of the quality that can be achieved today. This may seem to be heresy, but it is true and in no way denigrates the skill that it took to finish a rod as well as some makers did in the past.

Dipping, however, is not a foolproof method to achieve a theoretical 'perfect' finish. The more you work with varnish, the more you realize that it can be finicky and seemingly have a mind all it's own. In addition, the manufacturers of varnish will, from time to time, change their formulations. I have had the experience of opening a can of an old favorite finish to find that the color and odor (which is a reflection of the ingredients) has changed despite assurances from the supplier that they have not tinkered with the formula. Right!

Today, most makers are finishing their rods with a polyurethane varnish. I have heard cane aficionados turn up their noses at the use of polyurethane rather then spar varnish, declaring it to be a form of plastic! Well, guess what? All spar varnishes made today that incorporate alkyd or phenolic resins are also forms of plastic! The choice of what's 'best' is entirely up to the maker, both spar varnishes and polyurethanes are widely available and produce excellent results. I would however, when restoring a classic rod, always choose a spar varnish as the finish. This is probably more out of a respect for tradition then any practical reason.

Regardless of what you choose to use you stand a good chance of producing a superior finish if you have a quality dipping setup and are willing to experiment with different types of varnish. The components necessary include your finish, a dip tube placed in an enclosed area, a reversible motor to withdraw the sections and a means to keep the temperature of the enclosure constant. It is not necessary to spend a ton of money on special dip tubes, DC motors and rheostats, or HEPA filters to achieve great results.

A dip tube can be inexpensively constructed out of a length of PVC tubing with an end cap cemented in place. A simple reversible AC motor is easy to find and the withdrawl speed can be governed by turning an arbor to the proper diameter. Most people seem to favor a rate of about 4"/minute.

Enclosing the setup will allow one to accomplish two things: keep the temperature of the varnish constant and eliminate problems with dust. The viscosity of the varnish and its cure time is a function of temperature. It is not necessary to varnish at high temperatures. It should be remembered that most varnishes are formulated to work at room temperature, and thus they will perform best at the recommended application temperature range. A few ordinary light bulbs can serve as a heat source for the booth. The enclosure also functions to seal out drafts. It is obvious that dust is heavier then air, so if drafts are eliminated dust will settle to the floor. As long as the rod sections are clean before dipping and the varnish is kept free of contamination your dust problems will be minimal, and any minute problems can be safely removed by rubbing out the finish after the varnish cures.

I've spent hundreds of dollars experimenting with different types of varnish-both polyurethanes and spar varnishes. Virtually all have produced very good results right out of the can or with a little thinning. The differences between types can be very subtle, and for a builder the decision of what product to use can be a matter of availability and personal taste.

Two possibilities exist for the dipping process: varnish the blank first without the guides in place, or wrap and seal the guides first and then varnish the rod. There are advantages to both methods. On one hand, varnishing the blank without the guides in place can be a little quicker. As each section is withdrawn from the dip tube, one must stop as each guide clears the varnish surface to allow excess to run off the guide. So dipping a section without the guides in place means that the section can be pulled out without stopping. On the other hand if one wraps and seals the guides after varnishing, more coats will be needed on the wraps to build a sufficient film thickness and more care is also necessary to do a neat job.

Small imperfections that might remain after the last coat is applied can be removed with fine abrasives. I start with 1,000 grit wet-and-dry automotive sandpaper, followed with an automotive rubbing compound to remove any traces of scratching from the sandpaper. In the old days, rods were frequently rubbed down with rottenstone (a very fine abrasive) to a semi-gloss appearance that produces a nice warm look and also helps to hide small dust problems.

In our next column we'll wrap and seal the guides, and then we'll finally be ready to go fishing! ~ J.D. Wagner ~
1999, J.D. Wagner, Inc.


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