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Rod Making in the 21st century - by Roger McCourtney

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In response to the interest shown by a number of enthusiastic BFW members I have embarked upon what is, to do the subject justice that is, quite an undertaking. I believe that it will be better for myself and hopefully the readers of this work, to split the whole into parts, we could call it chapters if you like.

There will be some issues that are personal viewpoints and these whilst they may be at odds with traditionally held views are not meant to offend anyone. I will also mention various companies and individuals to help reinforce some points. Where appropriate, permission to quote these people and companies will have been given. I will stress that I do not know everything but what knowledge I do have has been acquired by, in the main, hands on experience. I will get "technical" only if I think it will help the thread being written about at the time. I will write about materials that I either have used or do use. This will be, if nothing else, a completely honest resume of the subject and hopefully I will not lose sight of the fact that this work is aimed at "informed amateurs" and not other professionals.

It is a fact that almost anyone could make a serviceable rod given that materials are easily obtainable, as to the quality of that rod will depend upon a number of factors. In a nutshell it is about quality of components selected and care taken over, in not just the making of the rod but time spent in practicing the various techniques such as "whipping".

I think a little bit of history would not go amiss at this point.

The sport of "Angling" goes back many years, in fact as many of you will know that the first book published on the sport was way back in 1496 by Dame Juliana Berner. Thomas Barker made reference to rods in his book published in 1651. This book not only mentioned rods but for the first time reels. These devices were called "wyndes" quite quaint really. In 1653 one Isaac Walton, first published what is probably the most widely known book on fishing of all time, "The Complete Angler".

Walton made much of rods in the book describing the properties of various timbers used during his life.

Tying lines direct to the "rod" was a practice in place really for a very long time and not until the 19th century did rods with rings appears. These were tied still, to all manner of timbers and not until the late 19th century did real rods come about. Often made from timbers such as Hickory, Willow, Ash etc. And it was roughly at the turn of the twentieth century that Bamboo was discovered as a suitable material for rod making. It did not take long for someone to realize that by splitting, re-shaping and then gluing, laminating in fact, sections back together produced a stronger more pliable rod.

Why do I mention all of this? Well some of you will be interested in history and as this thing progresses it will be seen that modern carbon composite actually mimics the properties of split bamboo! How many times do we see modern man mimic nature? Also, it is a fact that the widespread use of Bamboo has influenced the whole rod making industry, even to the present day, especially when we get onto the sub-subject of "Test Curves" which started all this in the first place!

Chapter One - THE BLANK

For those that do not know, The Blank, is the main shaft of the rod without any fittings attached. It is quite obviously the most important component. In view of this, there is more to write with regard to the blank than any other component. For example, how blanks are made and from what materials. I will write about "Test Curves" and "Spines" in fact everything that I believe to be relevant.

For the purposes of the article I am assuming that the reader will be mainly interested in carbon fibre rods. If we go into the realms of Bamboo rod construction I will be at this keyboard for ever!

I will say here that I am a rod maker, I do not make rod blanks, however, my understanding of blank manufacturing is pretty good as I have been privileged to have visited Harrisons factory on a number of occasions. I will add that over the years Dr. Stephen Harrison has very kindly helped me in my business by imparting information not normally accessible to the general public and has helped me to develop "special" blanks.

The raw material from which carbon fibre is made from is a by-product of the petro-chemical industry called "Polyacrylonitrile". This material is put through a series of heat treatments and at a critical stage is suddenly starved of oxygen. The resulting material crystallizes and is then extruded into very fine fibres. Carbon Fibres in fact. There are many different types of fibres and I do confess to not knowing how these fibres differ nor in what way they affect the end product, it seems a closely guarded secret, but I will find out one day!

Generally speaking the average carbon fibre is approximately 16 times less than the diameter of a human hair.

The fibres are extruded to a length of 100 feet. On their own they are quite useless for blank making. To be usable the fibres are laid up into what the trade call "pre-preg". This is short for impregnated.

Pre-preg in laymans terms, is a loose laminate or cloth if you like consisting of a base of scrim. Scrim is usually a cross weave of very fine glass-fibre or woven carbon fibres. The purpose of this scrim is to enable the carbon fibres to lay longitudinally without falling apart. A resin system is then applied and then a layer of paper tape on top to hold everything together. The pre-preg is usually made in rolls 30 m x 1 m. The rolls are stored in refrigerators to prevent degradation.

There are numerous types of carbon fibre and not all types are suitable for the rod making industry. Much is made for the space and automotive industries. Generally speaking, and this IS a generalization, there are three types of carbon that is used in rod making, High Modulus, Intermediate Modulus and High Strength.

It is quite possible for a blank maker to use all three in one blank! Each type of carbon has its own properties that of course will have an effect on our finished blank.

So then onto how a blank is made. The operative in the factory will take the appropriate pre-preg and cut from it in most cases a long, thin, blunt ended elongated triangle using a template for accuracy. This will then be rolled around, lengthways, a chrome steel mandrel that has been ground to the taper required. This operation has been described as like rolling a giant cigarette! The whole thing is then further rolled in what looks like a giant trouser press to about 1tonne psi.

Once rolled the still soft malleable "blank" has to be held in place prior to firing. This is achieved by wrapping the whole thing in a cellophane type tape. A specially designed machine does this. The purpose of the tape is to not only hold everything together but also to form a shroud to prevent any resin to leak out whilst being fired.

The whole thing is then stood in an oven and the temperature is brought up to between 250 and 300 degrees centigrade. The whole heating process takes about 2 hours or so. During this heating process the resin system turns liquid and permeates through the fibres and scrim so that when it cools the resin,fibres and scrim have been "soaked" right through to the steel mandrel the cellophane tape keeping it from running away on the outside of the package. At some point however, most of the tape does burn away leaving the characteristic "spiral of ridges" present on the "un-ground" blank.

As it all cools down the resins hardens and we are left with a now hardened blank. The mandrel is the hydraulically withdrawn and there is now a carbon blank. At this stage the blank is, if required sent for "linishing". This process is basically where the blank is precision machine ground to remove the tape ridges. Then finally the blank is, as they call it at the factory, "painted" You might refer to this as varnishing!

Anyway a nice glossy finish is applied to the blank in the colour of your choice.

Now that is the blank making process revealed in a nut-shell. There is quite a lot more detail that I could reveal; however I feel sure that you will get the idea from this.

Obviously, one blank will not cover all fishing rod designs so choosing tapers and materials to get the required action have to be thought about. The fact is that choice is infinite. To arrive at the right blank the designer must consider firstly, the type of action that the finished rod must have. Is a fast action rod required, or will it be a through action rod. If for example a fast action rod is required the blank will be made with a fast taper. In other words the blank will appear to look more "needle" like, whereas the through action blank will have less of a steep taper, and of course there are many, many options between the two examples I have used.

Generally speaking, the faster action blanks are made from quite stiff, by stiff I mean "greater resistance to bending" Often referred to as High Modulus Graphite. Rods made from HMG are less forgiving when it comes to playing fish but are generally good casting rods, whereas Intermediate Modulus or the High Strength carbons feel better when playing fish and unless one is fishing at long range they will cast well and this type of blank is more "user-friendly" in my opinion.

Now it must not be assumed that all through action rods are "soft" action rods, that is simply not the case. Likewise a slim, light test curve , moderately fast taper rod, could be very useful indeed especially for touch legering, but a high test curve, fast taper rod will be brute, the sort of thing that long range carp fisherman might go for.

Then there is the question of length of blank to consider. It is a fact of physics, that the shorter the length of rod the more leverage (power) can be applied So for example a 10 foot rod of 1 ¼ LB t.c. is capable of applying greater leverage (power) than a 12-foot rod of equal t.c. e=f+d for those of the mathematical persuasion!

In chapter two, I will expand on rod "action". Hopefully impart information that might enable a potential buyer of a suitable Barbel rod or blank/kit to make a more informed choice.

Chapter two - ROD ACTION

In my introduction I inferred that carbon fibre had similarities to Bamboo. Why is this you may ask? Well, it might have been pure chance rather than some boffin deliberately trying to mimic a natural product, but that is how it has turned out! You may be wondering what the blazes this has to do with rod action and I suppose in truth I need not write about this at all, but surely, the purpose of writing is to educate and inform and besides which I find it quite fascinating myself.

Bamboo is a type of grass! There are over 1000 species of the stuff but there is only ONE suitable for rod making. If you look at a piece of bamboo, a garden cane for example, you will see that nature has arranged things so that itcan bend considerably. Just what we want our rods to do! The structure of bamboo is as follows, an outer "shell" of hard weather resistant "enamel" This equates roughly with the cellophane on our carbon blank! Then the majority of the remaining cells are made up of "Unidirectional" fibres. Wow! Now can you see the connection? The inner "pith" acts in the same way as the "scrim" in our blank. OK there are a few things in the natural make up of bamboo such as knots or nodes as we call them , which are irrelevant for comparison purposes.

You can see now the amazing similarities between the two finest rod making materials ever discovered. One natural the other man made. I wonder if it was merely coincidence, somehow I suspect not!

Now on to rod actions proper.

It is generally accepted in the trade that rods are designed with four types of action. These are extra-fast, fast, medium and slow. What does this mean then? Well we can immediately disregard the extra-fast action. Quite simply this type of rod has no place in Barbel fishing and is very specialised. Fast action means that the top 33% bends, medium action means the top 50% bends, and slow means that the whole rod bend in a progressive curve all the way down. Read that again and understand. These are the basic definitions that I will refer to from now on.

For a blank to be of the fast taper type it requires that the carbon tape is cut into what is called a "compound taper". You will for sure, have heard of that expression! So what does it mean?. Simply put, it means that instead of a straight taper of material that I wrote about earlier, the blank maker cuts the tape wider to start with thereby introducing more material, to stiffen the blank, he will then make a gradual "step down" more in line with the original triangular shape. I have to say that I have found it very difficult to put into words a description, which one simple sketch would reveal all! Another way of describing a compound taper in simple terms, hopefully, is that a compound taper is one in which there is at least one change in the overall angle along the triangle of tape. If you can understand that you can then appreciate that wherever along the tape that the change is built in will affect and determine the action of the rod. For example, a fast action blank/rod will have comparatively less material in the top 33% of the total length than the remainder.

For a blank to be made with a slow action it requires that the carbon is cut using the elongated triangle, to which I have previously referred. This is often a slow taper, but could be a fast taper, in any case it will be a straight taper. This will allow the blank to bend in a progressive arc from tip to butt. In fact a "progressive action"

As with all things in blank making there are so many variables. If one were to use carbon fibre of the high modulus type the resulting blank will end up being of a stiff progressive action, actually quite a useful Barbel blank! Use an intermediate modulus carbon and the blank will be much softer, possibly even "floppy"! Please note that these comments are as I have said before generalizations to try to illustrate the overall picture.

The amount of carbon tape used has an enormous effect on the blank. For example, if we were to wrap the tape for say, two and a half turns around the mandrel and go through the whole process and then do exactly the same but using say, three and a half turns, the resulting blank will be heavier and stiffer or to put it another way, requiring a heavier weight to load the blank. In other words it will have higher "test curve". The blank will also be stronger.

An excellent example of a stiff progressive action blank is one made by Harrison. He calls it his 11 foot 1lb. 6 oz. Avon. I have written before that I use this rod a lot. As a general purpose Barbel rod I have to say that in my opinion it has few equals. You would not believe some of the things I have done with this rod!

To enable the angler to choose the most suitable rod, he should carefully consider the three jobs that he will require the rod to perform. These are, casting, striking and playing fish. If distance is not your main criteria, then any rod action will suffice. We all want a nice positive strike, regardless of the distance we are fishing, so perhaps a medium action rod is the tool. We also need to play a hard fighting fish, so a soft rod isn’t a lot of good unless we are fishing big snag-free water and are happy to play the fish to a standstill. If we were to use a fast action heavy test curve rod we will surely suffer more hook pulls and breakages and will also inflict more damage to the fish’s mouth. So beware.

How can the action of the rod be tested in a shop environment you ask? Well, it is possible, get the shop assistant or friend to hold the very tip of the rod and you gently lift against his or her hand. Watch the top third of the rod, is it flexing easily long before the rest of the rod starts to bend? If it does the rod is a tip action. Does it require a real heave to make the whole rod bend long after the tip has been pulled around beyond 90 degrees to the butt? If it does it is a tip action rod.

Look at another rod. Never mind the test curve at this stage we will deal with that next. Do the same thing again. If the rod flexes relatively easily up to the joint on a two piece, and needs a bit more of a heave to make it bend to the butt, the rod is a medium action.

Look at another, God they will be getting fed up with you by now! If again the tip is held and the rod starts to flex immediately all the way to the butt, it is a through action rod. We are not evaluating sheer power here; we are trying to ascertain the action.

There is an enormous amount that I could write about blanks and action but as I said from the start, this will be a resumee not a work of science. I have deliberately not gone into the types of carbon available nor have I written about many of the highly technical facets of making carbon fibre. This will involve the examination of molecular structure etc. and do you really want to know anyway? Will it help you choose the right rod, I think not!

Chapter Three - TEST CURVES

In many ways "action" and "test curves" are so closely related that inevitably there is an overlap regarding blank design. To try and get to grips with the subject, it is important to understand the basic principal from which a general rule of thumb has been used by the industry for a long time.

The phrase "test curve" is a description that is used to calibrate how much weight is required to pull a given rod blank tip 90 degrees to the butt. The blank would be fixed horizontally and weights fixed to the tip until the 90 degrees are reached, Whatever total weight, in pounds and ounces, that is required to achieve this, is the "test curve".

The problem is that nowadays there are so many different types of carbon being used that there isn’t a level playing field. If only one material were to be used by everyone in the trade, and only one length of rod, evaluation would be very uncomplicated, but there are so many variables.

In addition to the variables in materials and length, blanks DO vary from one to another for a whole host of reasons. One example is the difference between an un-ground blank and a ground, "painted" blank. This does not necessarily mean that a painted blank is weaker than an unground blank, because the makers actually allow for this. There is quite often a difference between the two though. Not withstanding that, in my opinion, there could be a variance of plus or minus 10% in the performance of a batch of blanks, caused not just by this difference, but by other potential factors that the blank manufacturers find impossible to control. Please understand that these variables are not usually enormous, quite the opposite, but they do exist and they do have effects on the overall performance, including test curve.

Another example worth considering is this, the mandrels used are always longer than the pattern of carbon tape which will be wrapped around them, and it does happen that blank makers wrap a little higher or lower on the same mandrel sometimes creating a variance. Likewise there could be variations in the wrapping pressure. These and possibly many other examples will have effects on the overall performance of the blank. Once again I have merely touched the subject of variation of the blank, it would be quite possible for me to cite many more examples of variation.

If we are to use "test curve" as the criteria to gauge the suitability of a blank or rod we must decide on what length of rod we want. An 11 foot 1 ½ lb. t.c. Rod will feel stiffer (more powerful) than a 12 foot rod of the same test curve that has been built using the same materials and assuming that the handle position is more or less the same on both rods. But because we have changed the position of the fulcrum the whole dynamic has changed, so the longer rod will be slower to reach it’s test curve, this gives the impression that it is "softer" or less powerful. It isn’t in fact; it just takes longer to reach its test curve potential. This is why "snag" or so-called "stalking " rods are short. The short rod enables the angler to exploit the power of the rod really quickly.

If we are going to order a blank to build a Barbel rod on, I believe the first thing to decide is, which length is preferred. I have to say that I would not want a 12-foot rod. In my opinion, and once again this is a personal viewpoint, I honestly believe that I can fish more efficiently with an 11 foot rod. I can hold the shorter rod for longer and it will be better balanced. Even if I put my rod in a rod rest, I can strike utilizing the power potential quicker, and get in control faster too. Again it is a fact of dynamics that it is easier to move a shorter stick quicker through the air than a long one!

Having made the decision with regard to the length of rod that is required, how do we decide what test curve blank to choose. This depends on a number of factors. For example, "where will I be fishing?" Will it be a big deep river with a real "pull" to it, or a shallow narrow river possibly overgrown with lots of snaggy areas nearby. Two very different rivers and therefore two sets of circumstances that will dictate or at least have a great influence on the final choice of rod or blank.

Let us now consider another aspect of the test curve rating system. I am sorry but again the following comments are slightly less valid than they were a few years ago, but it is all we have to go on.

The stated test curve, by applying the following, easy to understand formulae, will enable us to match the right line range for the rod. Example, if a rod is rated at 1 lb. Test, multiply that figure by five (1 x 5 =5).

Then add or subtract 30%, (5 + 30% = 6.5) or (5 – 30% = 3.5) we can see that the rod will handle lines from 3 ½ lb. b.s to 6 ½ lb. b.s. So if you are using a rod of 11/4 lb. t.c. With 10 lb. b.s. line you are in fact overloading the rod by 1.88 lb. Does it matter? Well it would if carbon were not as strong as it usually is. If you leant into the rod in the days of fibreglass or even bamboo, you could easily have broken the rod if the line had not broken first! These days our rods are very much stronger size for size. However, if we are intent on getting our presentation dead right we may well have to consider the range of lines suitable for our rod. Fish too fine and we will surely be broken, fish with a line to heavy and apart from possibly overloading the rod, we will loose some presentation advantage. Once again lots of variables!

So how do I choose the right rod then you ask? Well this is not an easy question to answer. This is how I go about it. I have previously stated that a rod is expected to perform 3 jobs. To recap these are, casting, striking and playing fish. I will now add another that to me is of equal importance, bite detection. I want to, in most cases FEEL the bite, and I want to SEE the bite. So I want a certain amount of tip flexibility. I want to strike quickly and positively. And I want to be able to control, to some degree, the Barbel that I hook.

My rods then will be on the moderate side of "fast action" but with a power reserve requirement that is adequate to subdue the biggest Barbel that I might realistically hook. I will also give thought to what size of lead that I might have to use. If a 4oz. lead was the requirement (God forbid I hope it never is!) then I would have to look again. And we would be getting deeply into "very specialized" rods now. Another two pages at least would need to be written, to do THAT subject justice and I don’t think I want to do it – yet!

So for most Barbel fishing, rods of 1 ¼ lb. t.c. To 2 lb. t.c. 11 foot or twelve foot, that must be your choice. But do consider a moderately fast action rod/blank. Although I have stated, more than once that my favourite rod is a Harrison Avon, the best all-round Barbel blank available is the 11 foot GTI Carp 2 lb. tc.by Harrison. There I have finally said it!


What follows is my description of how to go about the work so that the end result is a fishing rod to be proud of. I have agonized about how to approach this subject as the whole subject of rod making can be written about in two ways. A stage by stage, "how two" type article, or a "general idea" type. I have decided to keep it as a "general idea" type as I am sure many readers will never attempt to make a rod but may still be interested in the process

Having taken delivery of the blank and assuming it is the right one and is not broken! (Yes it does happen). I will first wrap a small amount of masking tape to the bottom of the top joint and the same at the bottom of the butt section. I am assuming the blank is a two piece.

Holding the tip section very close to my nose, I will look along the blank. It pays dividends to point the section at a natural light source. I will be turning the blank so that the "natural" curve that is present on virtually every blank section is pointing upwards. I will also be looking very carefully for, with that curve uppermost, a straight plane. Some blanks are worse than others in this respect and sometimes this apparently simple process can take quite a while! A line is drawn on the tape that we fixed earlier, on the very top of the rod along what is now the blanks straight axis. I call these marks, line up marks! I then do the same with the butt section. From now on, the marked axis will be referred to as the top of the rod.

Pushing the two sections together using the line up marks, I will then look at the whole, now joined together blank. Hopefully, the blank will look straight. If it "kicks" off, then I will twist the butt section until the blank does look straight. In reality it may be an awful lot more difficult than I have made it sound.

At this point I will offer my opinion as to which joint system is the best. Is the over-lap, sometimes called over-fit, system or spigot best. Some say that the over-lap is stronger. My view is that so few rod actually "fail" these days with either system it doesn’t matter which type you choose. There are advantages as far as blank manufacture is concerned but again I would need a lot of space to explain why. Furthermore I would not wish anyone to develop hang-ups about ferrules, for that is what they are collectively called. Similarly, the various effects, or otherwise, that the two types of ferrule may have on the finished rod is not worth worrying about. It would be if we were designing a blank! But we have the blank in our hands and it will give us the action that we want, that’s why we ordered it in the first place!

But, he hasn’t mentioned locating the "spine" you would be rod maker’s shout, but I am going too!

The spine, or "spline" as the Americans call it, is the "stiff" side of the blank. Of the 360-degree total circumference around the blank, there is one point that appears more rigid, or stiff. This is the spine.

How is this "spine" found? The easiest way to do this is to hold the tip of the blank in the palm of your right hand, if right handed, whilst holding the section at about 45 degrees on a hard surface. With the left hand, press down, quite firmly, roughly in the middle of the section, so that it is well bent, then with the same hand, roll the blank across the hard surface, keeping the tip in your right palm. You will feel a point where the blank appears to jump or produce increased resistance against your right hand. That point is the spine. In case you want to rush off and check your rods, don’t bother, it doesn’t work with made up rods because the rings will affect the action too much!

How is the "spine" formed? It is created as a result of production deviations present in all blanks. Interestingly enough the "spine" is not consistent along one axis and migrates throughout the blank. What we find by our attempts to locate the spine is in fact an "average" of the many deviations that are inadvertently created during production. The main reason is that, when the carbon composite is wrapped around the mandrel, there is obviously a start and an end. The rolled composite has been likened to a Swiss roll in its make up!

To use the spine as a means to decide upon which axis to tie our rings is flawed. Firstly, it will been found that by rolling the blank against the hand, it is difficult to hold the blank on the spine axis, it wants to jump off all the time. In fact that axis is dynamically unstable. It may offer greater resistance to bending, but that does not make it stronger. What it will do, unless the pull of the line in the finished rod, is always exactly opposite (180 degrees) to the spine axis, and is kept that way, is to make the rod prone to twisting. Now who on earth can fish like that? Well there is one group of anglers that do fish like that, the deep-sea anglers that winch fish up from the deeps. For the rest of us, the angles of pull are all over the place.

To use the so- called spine as our datum point surely implies that the other 359 degrees of the blank is "weak". This simply is not the case, If it were then a huge amount of rods would fail and the rod making industry would quickly go bankrupt.

How do I align my rods then? Well in my view, customers in the main are oblivious of the spine thing but they do want a nice straight rod, and so do I.

There is a better way to determine upon which axis to tie the rings. This usually coincides with the natural curve mentioned before. It is called locating the "preferred plane of bend". I have previously mentioned how bamboo rod making has influenced modern day rod making, this is another example. Locating the PPB was and still is practiced by bamboo rod makers. Bamboo blanks do not have spines as such because the splitting and joining process is done on a hexagonal section blank and not on a round one. The PPB is found by holding the section absolutely upright on a hard surface and by pressing down with the hand, it will be noticed that the section will bend in a certain plane. Even if the section is rotated and the process carried out again, the section will bend in the same plane- the PPB. Well it so happens a carbon blank will do precisely the same thing! The rings can be tied on either the convex or concave side of the bend created by the pressing down process. The final choice is made by selecting the side where the natural curve bends upwards as previously mentioned which more often than not will be a straight plane!

I appreciate that this is a lot to take in, however it should demonstrate that to make a good rod is not quite as straight forward as it may appear, it is within the capabilities of a fairly practical person though.

In the next chapter, rod assembly proper will commence, at last!

Chapter Five - ROD ASSEMBLY

We now have to decide which fittings to use and I will assume that the would be rod maker is going to make a Barbel Rod. We need to decide what type of ring to use. We need to decide on the type and style of grip to fit.

Rod rings first. These are the things that carry the line from reel to the tip of the rod. These generally fall into two categories. Single Leg and Double Leg. Let us consider some of the properties of them both. Again for the sake of convenience, I am assuming that no one these days will use wire rings!

All lined rings, regardless of what name is given to the lining, are made from types of ceramic. The two most popular seem to be SiC and Alumina Oxide. (That is not a spelling mistake) It is a fact that SiC is harder than Alumina Oxide, it is also lighter in weight, however, it is also more fragile. In either case diamonds are needed to tool both so rest assured they are hard and very, resistant to wear. So if braided lines were used on the finished rod, fear not, the rings won’t wear a groove. There are other materials on the market such as Zircon Carbide. I have handled rings containing ZC and I have to say it doesn’t appear to be much different to the others, so I will make no further comment on the ZC rings.

As Barbel rods do take a bit of a battering I usually opt. for the Aluminia Oxide because they do seem to stand up well to the odd knock. My preference again.

Single leg rings are lighter in weight; they are also more flexible than double leg. So are they better? Well, not necessarily. It is easier to knock these rings out of position and this could damage the rod.

It makes sense to use lighter rings on the rod surely? Consider this. All rings add to the weight of the rod, therefore because of the added weight the rod will feel a little softer. So in theory the single leg rings are the best option surely? Wrong, for the following reason.

When any ring is tied to the rod the wraps of thread and the finish also add weight to the rod. However, the wraps etc. actually have the same effect as a splint. At the points of tying and varnishing the blank is effectively stiffened, thereby, to a degree, canceling out the weight factor. Regardless of by how much, the action of the rod will change. If we now consider using the two leg ring things change again. There are approximately twice the wraps and twice the varnish and the two leg rings are less flexible than their single leg counterpart. This has the effect of stiffening the rod to a much greater degree. It can be derived from this information that we really CAN fine-tune the action of a given blank. If we built two rods on identical blanks but using single leg rings on one and two leg on the other, the finished rods will feel quite different. As a custom rod maker I have to use all of this information to give my client exactly what he wants.

We have decided on the rings required. Now using Araldite Rapid glue the tip ring on the blank. Make sure it is fitted 180 degrees from our pre-marked top of the rod. Always look along the top of the rod. Look for equal amounts of ring showing either side of the blank; do not be tempted to turn the blank up the other way!

Having fixed the tip ring in position at this stage, rather than leave it until last, does two things. 1/ it gives the rod maker a permanent line up point. 2/ Puts me at odds with most other rod makers. Most do this job after tying the intermediate rings on.

Setting aside the tip section, we must now consider the grip, or handle that we will use.

Again for the purpose of getting the point across, I will assume that we have a straight choice between a full cork handle and an abbreviated handle. Yes there are all manners of options but I really do not want to still be at this keyboard come next Christmas!

Dealing with cork first. One must now choose as to what method of reel attachment is required. Will you want sliding rings; will you want a Fuji style locking reel seat?

A point to bear in mind about reel seats. If a Fuji style seat is your choice, look carefully at how you actually hold your rod. If you hold the rod by gripping the reel seat, why do you want a cork grip anyway? Seems a bit pointless to go to the trouble of building a cork grip that you will end up not holding. However, if that is your choice, so be it.

Give some careful thought about the very end of the rod. This part of the rod gets some quite rough treatment. You could plug the end of the blank with a piece of nice hard cork. The cork from a bottle of Glenmarangie is ideal; it is a real pain getting hold of one though! Failing that a wine bottle cork will suffice. I don’t think it matters whether it is red or white! Give it a good wash, let it dry, sand it to a nice snug fit, set aside ready for gluing into the end of the blank.. The cork grip will now be built to the very end of the blank.

My favoured method when building a full cork handle is to use what is known as a Wye Button. This is a rubber button fixed to an alluminium "cone" that is glued with Araldite to the end of the blank, after the cork handle is built.

If one chooses to use a Wye Button, the blank will need to be cut back a bit as the button will add about an inch to the butt of the rod making the section longer than the tip.

To build a good cork handle takes a lot of time; it also requires good materials and tools. I would suggest only use good quality cork. Not all cork is the same!

Roughly speaking cork is graded from "A" down to "E" There are other grades at the top end of the scale such as "Flor Grade" (pronounced flour) Extra Specie and others. What determines the grade of cork is basically how many flaws, i.e. pits fissures etc are present. Cork free of these faults might be graded extra specie. The next down would be flor grade and so on. I would use AA grade for a full handle. I would use rings of cork called shives, these measure about 1 3/8 diameter are ½" thick and are bored out to 6mm.

A little information about cork if anyone is interested. Cork is the bark from a species of Oak tree. The Cork Oak grows mainly in Portugal although some Cork Oak also grows in Spain. The bark is harvested by stripping a spiral from the trunk. You will probably know that if a full circle of bark is stripped from a tree of any species it will die! Hence the spiral cut.

Cork is harvested at approximately four yearly intervals. If a drought occurs, this will put it back. If the drought is prolonged then gross shortages of cork is guaranteed. Quality will suffer. The end result for rod makers is difficulty of supply and higher prices. Cork is used in many industries and is one of those natural materials that cannot be successfully replicated by man.

On we go! Drill out the holes in the shives to a snug fit on the blank. Push them on dry for the time being. Do enough for either the total length or enough to finish where the Fuji grip will go. The quantity will depend on the finished length of handle that you prefer. Once you have decided, start gluing. I use an adhesive especially designed for the job. There are a couple of brands that are available from woodworking centers such as Bison woodworking adhesive and Forbo. These are both waterproof Polyurethane glues and neither requires any mixing. They are flexible and they gap fill too. In fact they expand as they cure. Do not be tempted to use Araldite for cork. It leaves unsightly rings between the shives. Neither should you use Resin W. PVA glue. PVA will sometimes break down.

Start gluing the shives. Build up the rough handle. Set aside to cure. If using a Fuji reel seat you will need to build some "arbors". These are rings of masking tape wound onto the blank to make up the difference between the blank and the reel seat. Use three rings of 1" wide tape spaced out evenly on the blank. Build up so that each ring of tape creates a snug, not tight, fit. Using standard Araldite, cover the arbors of tape completely with the adhesive, and push on the reel seat. Line up the reel seat with the line up marks on the rod. Next glue on a couple of shives in front of the reel seat. These will be used to form the top end of the handle to the shape required.

I have seen it advocated that 2" cylinders of cork should be used to build up a handle. I would agree that it would be quicker rather than to use ½" shives, however, to actually buy cylinders of the right bore is very difficult. I have seen it suggested that using masking tape to make up the gap between blank and the cylinder bore is recommended. My reply would be, "Do you want a masking tape handle shrouded in cork, or a full cork handle?" It is possible to buy pre-formed cork grips. It is almost certain that if you did find a source, the grip bore would be either too big or too small. Which is why, although it takes more time, a better grip can be built using shives.

When all is dry, take a Surform plane and start planing. I have been using the same plane for about fifteen years and they cost very little. Use nice long strokes. When the rough shape is achieved. I would put my work into a lathe of sorts and finish using a coarse file and various grades of glass-paper. I would then fill the pits and fissures with cork filler. This can be made using the finest cork dust and a mixture of equal parts water and waterproof PVA. Mix into a stiff paste. Apply liberally. Leave overnight to dry then sand to a nice finish.

Using the file, shape roughly, the corks in front of the reel seat, sand and fill with a final sanding after the filler is dry. Job done

If using an abbreviated handle, all one needs to do is choose the reel seat and Duplon tapered end cones and Araldite into the position chosen. There are a number of options but they all require the same treatment. I will add that when ordering these components, do get the sizing right, Duplon is not the easiest material to work. A tapered end grip and nylon end button completes the handle.

Frankly, I always use abbreviated handles on my own rods and unless you actually do want to use sliding rings I suggest you do the same.

Rod Assembly:

Now we move onto rod guides. Some people refer to these, as "eyes" I suppose the correct name for this most vital of components IS guides. Most professionals call them rings.

Right then, you have selected your preferred ring pattern. You will remember from earlier, about the effects that different ring patterns have on the action of the rod and have made your choice accordingly. I am going to assume that for the purpose of writing, we will refer to MY favourite choice of ring, which is the Seymo 247s. The pattern actually has three "legs" going into two feet! It is a very stiff ring and very strong. This pattern stands off a little too.

There is a small amount of preparation needed before we can start to tie the rings on the blank. Firstly, gently grind the ends of the feet so that there is a nice "feathered" leading edge to the ring. Then rub the ring over a fine oilstone to remove any sharp edges or burrs. Use a black marker pen to colour over the exposed steel. This is well worth doing, as this will prevent the bright steel showing through the varnish.

The correct size of ring is important too. For a Barbel rod I would start off using size 6 rings. Again things are not that easy in the trade regarding sizing of rings. The catalogues sometimes use the internal bore and sometimes the overall ring size. Experience has taught me to check the list and make sure that the supplier understands where I am taking my measurements from! The size 6 is the OD size – sort of!

Generally speaking, Barbel rods should have smaller rings than a carp rod, but larger than a match rod.

Now we come to the trickiest part of rod making and design; where to put the rings, for there are no hard and fast rules, nor is there a formula that works for every rod! What follows are MY suggestions as to how YOU might arrive at something sensible, given that there are so many different rod actions available.

One rule of thumb that might be applied is this, "The faster the taper, the closer together the rings should be placed on the top section" This applies to Barbel rods, NOT long distance carp rods or beach-casters!

I have seen various formulae published, mainly by American publications, but none of these seem to work for British style rods. Speaking personally, I have made so many different rods over the years that I need nothing. I can look at a given blank and get it right, usually first time. How then should you go about ring positioning? There are a couple of points that I always bear in mind and these act as datum points in deciding where to position rings. The first is in fact the butt ring! I tape this ring on the blank at approximately 20 inches from the top end of the handle, or 24 inches from where the reel stem will end up on the rod. It is not written in tablets of stone, this ring can be moved to suit the end user. However, none of my clients has complained yet! This position seems to be acceptable to both fixed spool reel and centrepin reel users alike.

I like my first ring to be quite close to the tip, closer than most rod makers. My first ring might be taped at say 4 ¾" possibly 5", rarely much farther away from the tip. If the blank were a slow through action, I might start at 6". Then regardless of where I start, my next ring would be that distance PLUS 1" (making say 5 ¾" assuming my first ring position of 4 ¾") Then my next would be, that distance PLUS 2" and so on using two inch increments all the way down the tip section. I hope this is easy to understand!

In an attempt at making ring spacing suggestions easier to understand, as it is not easy to put the whole thing into words, I have come up with this formula. Please remember that the tip ring does not count as a ring as such.

And for the purpose of simplicity I will use "round figures" The first number is the ring number the second is the distance from the previous ring. The first being 5" from the tip ring.


2=5"+1" total distance from ring no.1 = 6"

3=6"+1" " " no.2= 7"

4=7"+2" " " no.3= 9"

5=9"+2" " " no 4= 11"

6=11"+2" " " no 5= 13" and so on.​

As for ring sizes, I suggest 4no. size 6. 2no. size 7. 1no. size 8 For the tip section. And for the Butt section 1no. size 12. And finally 1no size 20 for the butt ring.

Having written that lot. I now suggest that you tape your rings on firmly using good quality masking tape. Use strips of tape approximately 1/8" wide. Then using a piece of string or something quite thick. Thread the string through the rings and tie it to something fixed. It is only necessary to do this with the tip section first, no need to put the whole rod up at this stage. Then turn the section upside down and pull against the fixed object to bend the rod. Look at the string. If it touches the blank between any ring, move the lower ring up the blank until the string clears the blank. It doesn’t have to be by very much, as long as the string does not touch the blank.

There is no other magic formula. The whole issue of ring spacing is an absolute minefield. For the would be rod maker; I would suggest that he asks the supplier of his blank to suggest spacings.

For the butt section. The butt ring is allready taped on, all one needs to do now is tape on the other butt section ring. This will probably be about 15" or so from the butt ring. Fit the sections together and look at the rings now taped to the rod. They should look as though there is a nice even graduation all along the blank.

Now make sure that all the rings are in perfect alignment to the tip ring. Make sure too, that they are taped on both feet really tightly. Now the rod is ready for tying.

If the rod maker is going to use a modern "High Build" rod finish on the wraps, and in this day and age I cannot think why anyone would not, select a thread colour. Bear this in mind, whatever colour thread that is chosen, it will darken considerably when the finish is applied. This can be avoided if a colour preserver is applied to the wraps. Very few rod makers bother, as we allow for the darkening when selecting thread.

Here we go again! Not all thread is the same! As far as I am concerned there are only two brands of thread that I will use. My favourite is Gudebrod. This is an American thread and is very good indeed. The best of the British, is Talbot. Whilst they have similar colours, they do not match. However, they both cut well and accept varnish readily. I made a big mistake a while ago when Gudebrod became difficult to obtain, I bought a load of Fish Hawk thread in the colours that I use frequently. It turned out to be horrible! It is hard to get a really good clean cut, regardless of how sharp my scissors are, the thread tends to fray and that is bad news when trying to thread the end through a small gap. The other really big problem that I have with it, is that it refuses to take the rod finish well. What happens is that instead of a nice even colour left after applying the finish, it goes blotchy. I can’t live with that.

As with so many things there are different sizes of thread. For the sake of simplicity, choose "A" thickness. I use nothing else for freshwater rods.


Part 1 Ring Tying

The handle having been fitted we can now tie on the rings of our choice that have been taped firmly to the blank. In addition to the actual rings it is a good idea to consider tying a hook keeper to the rod just above the handle. Most fly rods have them fitted, but why so few coarse rods have them remains a mystery to me. Many anglers when moving from swim to swim or whatever, will put their hook into the butt ring. If this is done, sooner or later the ring insert will either crack or get chipped resulting in having to get a new ring fitted.

If you have not learned to tie rings, now is the time. I suggest for the beginner that he practices on a piece of old rod or garden cane. Use string to practice with until you feel competent to attempt the real thing.

Tying by hand is a lot easier to actually perform than it is to describe the process in writing! I will have a go!

You will need a pair a sharp pointed scissors, a Stanley Knife blade and some 8-10lb mono. Cut about 10 inches of the mono and fold in half. Sit in a comfortable upright chair. An easy chair is not a bit of help.

I suggest that one starts on the butt section, being more rigid, it will help the learning process.

Assuming that one is right handed, hold the rod in the right hand and the spool of thread in the left hand. Trap the end of the thread under the right hand index finger; we are working from left to right. Take the thread over the top of the rod and trap the end that you are holding with that turn. You need to repeat this "starting" process for three turns. Now transfer the spool of thread to between your knees. This frees up both hands and makes it easy to keep good tension on the thread. You can now move the first turns with your left hand index finger nail to both push up, so that they are touching each other and also to straighten those turns.

Carry on by turning the rod. If you keep the thread so that it is coming off your spool nice and straight, the subsequent turns will lie alongside each other with little help from you. After you have made a couple of hundred rods, it will amaze everyone how quick you can do this!

When there is about 10 turns left to complete the tying, lay the mono on the wraps so that the loop of the fold is pointing to the right. Tie over the "loose" ends of the mono. Add the remainder of the wraps thereby wrapping over the piece of mono. Hold what you have just tied by pressing the thumb of your left hand down onto the rod. Now you can release the tension and cut the thread. Take the cut end and thread through the mono loop, take up the tension using your right hand. With the left hand slowly pull the mono through the wraps. This will pull the tying thread underneath the wraps thereby trapping the thread and of course preventing it from unraveling! Pull it all the way through and cut off the tag end with the knife blade. I use a fly fishers nipper tool for this. It is possible to use nail clippers, but because they have a curved blade, great care is needed or you might cut through the wraps as well as the tag end, not recommended!

That’s that then. Part two will be varnishing and final finishing.

Part 2 Varnishing

Although I have referred to this the last part of rod making, as varnishing, the process ought to be called "Sealing the Wraps". This is because nowadays blanks are finished at the factory, therefore needing no further finishing by the rod maker.

Many rod makers refer to the varnish used today as "epoxy". This is not strictly a true description of the various finishes available but it is one of those terms that has crept into the rod makers vocabulary. I prefer to call the stuff "rod finish".

As ever, there is number of different brands of "High Build rod Finish" to give them the correct title.

Most professionals seem to use "Flex Coat". I certainly do and have done for ten years or so. There are a number of other brands some I have tried, some not. I have used Gibbs Rod Wrap Finish and recommend it.

Seymo Quikpro is often suggested. I have no experience so cannot recommend personally. I have used "Hard and Fast" This product has a tendency to take on a milky bloom sometimes long after the rod has been finished. Therefore I would not recommend.

As this is the final stage of rod making any mistakes made now are costly. I hope that the following tips will help prevent the would be rod maker from making mistakes.

In addition to the finish, you will need a size 6 artist brush. Buy a good one. My favourite brand is Windsor & Newtons. A clue to look for when buying brushes is, look for lighter coloured bristles. Dark bristles are often cheap and nasty. A good brush will last for years, so invest wisely!

You will need some cellulose thinners for cleaning your brushes. Do I need to warn you about thinners? OK then. It plays havoc with skin. It destroys plastics. It will take the finish off your rod! It is harmful to breathe the vapour. Be warned

Beg borrow or steal a couple of china eggcups. These are for mixing the finish and for the thinners to clean the brushes.

You will need lots of kitchen roll. I use cocktail sticks for mixing and other things. And finally get a cardboard box, any size will do. You need to cut some "vee" grooves in both ends for the rod sections to sit into whilst the drying is taking place. The stronger the carton the better. If you intend to make a few rods I suggest that you make a wooden drying rack. The purpose of the carton is to enable the rod to be kept off the workbench. You will be required to turn the rod through 180 degrees every few minutes for at least two and a half hours, so do allow yourself plenty of time for the whole process. You cannot leave it once started! Tell "er indoors" to answer the phone, you are not in!

Again a good upright chair is preferred. You need a well-lit room that also needs to be warm.

If you intend to make rods regularly, make yourself a revolving rod drying rack. I have two. I do not know if these can be bought in this country. Certainly all the ones that I have seen have been hand made, mainly by Heath Robinson I suspect! The one I use the most runs off a microwave motor! These can be scrounged from any electrical repair shop for next to nothing. One of mine cost me a brace of trout! I cannot go into exactly how to make a drier here but if anyone wants to know they can contact me direct. My other one is much bigger. This machine was made for me by an engineer friend and will turn sections up to nearly 7feet long. This runs off an old washing machine motor! The whole thing cost me a new fly rod!

Making a start

During cold weather it pays to warm the finish. I place mine on an electric convector heater. You want it warm not hot. This really does help to ensure good mixing of the finish.

Take one eggcup and place this on something so that it leans towards you (?) The idea is to make sure that the mixing takes place in as small an area as possible. If the two components are mixed in a larger area there is a good chance that it will not mix well. It has to be well mixed. I cannot over emphasize this. All of the finishes have two packs, usually pack "A" and pack "B". get used to using these in the same order all the time. It is quite possible to forget which one you might have put in the cup! Especially if you get interrupted.

Drop into the cup 20 drops of pack "A". That really is plenty for now, any more and it will "go off" before you can use it! Now drop exactly 20 drops of pack "B" on top of the "A". With a cocktail stick, start stirring. Keep the mix in a tight area. Hence the tilted eggcup! Make absolutely sure the stuff is well mixed. It will take at least two minutes to achieve a perfect mix. When the streaks have gone from the mix, it is ready.

Start at the tyings on the top of the butt section. Have the butt supported on something so that you can keep the rod level whilst applying the finish. If the rod is not kept level the finish will migrate downward resulting in a great blob of finish right where you do not want it! Fill the brush and apply to the left-hand part of the tying. You now need to make a decision. Do you want to take the finish over the wraps creating a small bead of finish onto the blank, or do you just want the tyings covered? I always take the finish onto the blank; this completely encapsulates the tyings with no steps. This bead of finish need only be about 1mm. Make sure that the little "tunnel" between the ring and blank is filled, you might use a cocktail stick to push some finish into the gap. Put plenty of finish onto the wraps, it is not called "high build" for nothing! When you have finished all the tyings on the butt section. Keep turning the section. Now for a trick! Get a hair drier and blast the wet finish with hot air. Keep turning the rod. The heat from the drier will make the finish very runny; it will also blow out any bubbles that may be forming. Keep turning!

Put the section into the vee previously cut in the carton. Keep turning the rod! Turn through 180 degrees. This will need doing every few seconds to start with but gradually longer periods between turning will be needed. Keep your eye on it!

Do all the tyings including covering the writing on the butt. Keep turning! Do the tip section starting from the tip. Job done. Keep turning! Also keep the room warm for 24 hours. The finish will be touch dry then.

Clean the brush in thinners. Then run the brush under a hot tap and rub in plenty of washing up liquid. Rinse and set aside to dry. Do this every time and your brushes will last for years. Clean out the eggcups with thinners and wipe dry with the kitchen roll. Keep turning that rod!

Should the finish still be tacky after 24 hours you have not mixed the finish properly! It might also be that exactly equal parts of the two packs have not been mixed. I told you, mix well!

If this is the case, you will need to apply properly mixed finish over what you have already done. This will set it "off". If you get it right" Keep turning that rod!


To do complete justice to the subject of rod making would require a book to be written. I hope that what I have written will be of use to any would be rod maker.

If anyone would like me to impart any further information I will be happy to hear from individuals.

I said at the outset that anyone could make a rod. That is a fact! I run rod making classes during the winter months, have done so for quite a few years now, many of my class members thought that they couldn’t make a rod: they all have! So can you. Go for it. I am here to help.

Roger McCourtney
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