Transparent & Translucent Wraps

Written by : Posted on March 19, 2016 : No Comments

Finishing For Transparent/Translucent Wraps – Let’s make one thing clear….

There is a difference between transparent and translucent. We need to define terms. Yes, I know this is rather elementary, or, worse, pedantic, but considering how often I see folks writing about “transparent red wraps,” the difference between transparent and translucent is worth exploring. In addition to being a Luddite (really, I’m not – it’s just that I appreciate the high art of old fashioned technology as much or more than I appreciate new-fangled things, like websites and my kids’ dueling nano-drones), I’m also, according to my tech-addled children, a word-nerd. The most prominent book in my library is the Oxford English Dictionary…not the eye-numbing “Compact” edition with its micrographically reproduced text and the reading glass in the slip-case, but the twenty volume second edition that takes up two shelves within my largest barrister. Every single school day my homeschool girl, Alex, is forced to trudge into my gloomy office, brush away the fresh-spun cobwebs, slide open one of the creaky barrister doors, and withdraw a volume of the OED in quest of her “wod” as she calls it, the Word Of the Day. This might be a word she stumbled over during her assigned readings, or it might be some cromulent lexical obscurity, such as replicary, that I’d like added to her repertoire. Where the OED fails, there’s always the Urban Dictionary (with close parental oversight). By the way, “replicary” is, I believe, my own nonce word, an occasionalism, intended as a term of venery for any collection of robots, artificially intelligent or entirely programmatic, which eliminate the charms of human, individual, handicraft manufacturing by pooping out scores of iterable and indistinguishable objects. A replicary of robots is the very antithesis of a craftsman or craftswoman whose every attempt at uniformity will invariably bear the traces of their humanity in the imperfection of their created objects when compared, piece by piece, to some unattainable, Platonic, ideal (cf. product text for the Hexagate hexagonal agates, somewhere on this website). [And that’s an improper use of cf., according to the Chicago Manual of Style, so if you caught that, just know that I did, too, but I’m following common usage, not the pedant’s manual, on this one; not to mention, most of this should be footnoted, but I’m not bothering. While I’m actively not footnoting, the “I believe” above refers to the live possibility that I’ve suffered a bout of cryptomnesia and actually picked up this term, replicary, from an outside source, suppressed the memory, and, like a buffoon, decided to parade it around as my own word; crytomnesiacs should be kept on a short leash.] But to the point…

Referencing the reference, here are the terms in question. And if you look these words up in your copy of the OED, you will discover I’m choosing my definitions carefully from among those provided, paraphrasing a tad, with direct quotes set inside the marks.

Transparent: “Having the property of transmitting light, so as to render bodies lying beyond completely visible; that [which] can be seen through; diaphanous.”
Translucent: (in current parlance of our times; and this is important because early usage did have translucent synonymous with transparent) “Allowing the passage of light, yet diffusing it so as not to render bodies lying beyond clearly visible. Synonymous with ‘semitransparent.’”

I would argue that a wrap so pellucid that you can see, clearly, the grain of the bamboo along with the natural color of the blank, “without diffusion or distortion” (to borrow from Merriam-Webster), is a transparent wrap. Concomitantly, a wrap that you can see through more or less clearly, but which obscures, diffuses, or distorts some of the details of the grain pattern and/or alters the color of the blank (which is to say the natural color of the blank is failing to pass through the intervening membrane of silk & varnish), is a translucent wrap. Ergo, unless you’ve dyed your bamboo blank red, you’re not going to experience a “transparent red wrap.” The fabulous array of graphite and glass blank colors, however, when coupled with white silks and spar varnish, might allow you to exclaim, “My transparent red wraps are flawless!” without making an inaccurate statement. Context is paramount when analyzing the truth of statements.

What do you want to achieve? If it is transparent wraps, then you need to start with the right silk thread, one with no added color. In theory, that’s “white.” However, even white silk has had color added or removed because there are two sorts of white silk, natural & bleached. The former, natural white silk, is the slight eggshell shade of silk as it comes off the cocoon of Bombyx mori, the domesticated mulberry silkworm you know and love in death, if not in life. Every silk-wrapped rod becomes a memento mori, the silk and the bamboo severed, but preserved, and functional, for a time, reminding us to enjoy our time, and to pass along our knowledge so it is preserved before the fates snip our own lustrous but terminable thread. The latter, bleached white silk, which includes most silk sold as “white,” is natural silk that has been chemically bleached to remove all color; in its dry, reflective, form we perceive this silk as white because it is returning the full spectrum of visible light to our eyes. When “wet” permanently with an oil based finish, the pure white silk loses its reflectivity and becomes passive in the face of light, permeable both coming and going – invisible. Transparent. The truth is, “natural” silk is slightly less invisible because it does bear traces of pigment which lend it the slightly off-white hue. Further, because natural silk is natural, and thus variable, most “natural” silks probably have a bit of added pigment to equalize the apparent color from spool to spool, lot to lot. And this is pure speculation. Functionally speaking, within the limits of human perception, the natural silks make for exceptionally clear, “transparent,” wraps. For this same reason, the very pale off-white or yellow silks, too, are perfect for near-clear or all-but-transparent wraps because the faint residual color is “lost” when you’re peering through the silk and seeing the surface color of the straw, golden, or honey tones of a bamboo blank. Not because this faint silk color isn’t effecting things, it’s just that you can’t tell (unless, perhaps, if you’re a tetrachromat) especially when your normal, trichromat, sight is fuddled by the varnish on the wraps, the varnish on the blanks, the type & intensity of ambient lighting, and so on.

If you want to achieve translucent wraps, you’re going to follow the very same steps, but you’ll use silks with discernable color. Bear in mind, the darker the hue, the more resistant the translucent wrap will be to the penetration of light. Also, remember that medium to dark silks, when “wet” only get darker. A light olive silk will become a medium olive; a medium olive can become dark olive; a dark hunter green can appear nearly black, though bright sunlight can revive the color to some extent. Because these silks are translucent, the underlying blank color modulates the apparent silk color. A bright blonde blank will reflect more light back through the wrap, brightening it. A deep, dark browntone rod will subdue even the most vibrant silks. Apparent wrap color is an empirical multiplication problem and there is only one way to discern the product: do it. Wrap that silk onto that blank and apply your sequence of finish. Watch what happens. Decide if you like it. Eventually you’ll develop a sense for these problems. Light blank crossed with pale silk = diaphanous wraps. Dark silk crossed with pale blank = dark, but color-discernable wraps. Pale blanks crossed with medium intensity silks = luscious wraps that look like you could wring color from them. Dark silk x dark blank = mud. There’s a reason why so many dark blanks rely on color preserved wraps. But experiment, please. Sometimes an unexpected crossing produces a harlequin of immense beauty…go ask an orchid monger.

The key to getting that level of clarity that you want for transparent or translucent wraps is driving out the microbubbles that cause silvering inside the wraps. You need to thoroughly soak the silk with a natural, oil-based finish that has been thinned so it penetrates fully. Soaking the silk does not mean building up any depth on the first coats…you just want the silk fully dampened, not heaped up with varnish. It also helps if the varnish for the first coat or two doesn’t cure quickly. This is one reason the Alchemist brand amber varnish works so well – it has no cobalt driers, so it doesn’t cure quickly and remains liquid so it can fully penetrate the silk (and you can thin it as needed….I don’t have one of Donald Fels’ new bottles, so I don’t know what the consistency is these days). Just as FYI, another benefit of not having driers in the mix is that the amber varnish doesn’t set up in the jar, so it remains viable year after year. We used to sell the Alchemist varnishes until the company moved to Europe. If you’re after some of this stuff – angels’ tears in terms of its expense, but also in terms of finishing value – search for Alchemist Amber Varnish Europe and Donald’s site will pop up. Or copy this link into your browser: . My preference is for the walnut oil based amber varnish; walnut oil is more expensive than linseed oil, but is also more stable and less susceptible to UV degradation and consequent yellowing.

For a while, after Donald left the US and before folks noticed his new site in Europe, there was no amber varnish, so guys were using straight walnut oil for the initial coat or two. Many still do. You could use the food grade stuff from a nice grocery, if you filter it through coffee filters to remove any off-bits. Far better, I think, to just spend the money and get artist grade oil from Daniel Smith or one of the other fine art paint companies. Like the amber varnish, walnut oil isn’t kicked – it contains no cobalt driers – so it penetrates well and cures very, very slowly…until you apply an overcoat of Sutherland Welles, which does have driers in the mix, at which point everything will start to kick.
Another key is to be sure the varnish on each coat – until the threads are fully penetrated and then sealed – is exceptionally thin. When you’re working with Sutherland Welles, you can pour out a small amount of varnish into a little Pyrex dish. Thin this by a maximum of 10% by volume using a compatible thinner – natural turpentine is my thinner of choice. Also, use heat. Boil up a tea kettle full of water. Set the small Pyrex dish in a pie pan and fill the pie pan with freshly boiled water, being very careful not to spill any water into your varnish dish. Stir the varnish gently with a metal stirrer…not wood because a wood stirrer will introduce air bubbles due to the porosity of the wood. While the surrounding water remains hot, that varnish will be “water” thin.

Just in case you’re wondering, yes, you can skip the step that involves un-kicked finish (Amber varnish or walnut oil) and go straight to the heat & thinner thinned Sutherland-Welles varnish. The difference is marginal. If you’re interested in exploring the margins, then go all the way. If you’re using larger diameter, darker threads, at some point all the extra effort becomes unnecessary – deep greens, deep browns – usually won’t show microbubbles if you use thinned spar with care. Medium tones generally, and most super fine silks, are more prone to showing off their flaws if finished poorly, but if well finished, they reward the maker. Practice wraps will tell you everything you need to know. Practice on the butt of the rod blank you’re making….it’s the same color as the rest of the blank; it’s going to be hidden, so it doesn’t really matter how you muck about down in the final nine inches or so. Wrap guides, varnish them, cure the finish, cut the wraps off. Try again. Experiment.

Not only does thin varnish penetrate the silk better to help drive out micro-bubbles, it naturally goes on as a thin coat and thus allows you to apply a single coat with very little bulk. Good varnish is finicky stuff. If you apply a too-thick coat, it will not cure evenly and this will cause alligatoring, a wrinkled texture on the curing surface with a gummy underlayer. If this happens, most likely you used too much varnish in a single coat, or you applied your varnish coats without sufficient cure time between coats. Don’t try to fix an alligatored wrap – just cut it all off, clean the blank, and start over. For the Sutherland Welles coats, I like to go at least three days between coats, with the sections curing in a room that is set at 70*F or higher. My varnish room is usually in the high 80s when I’m working. The Alchemist Amber instruction sheet has the details you need for the first “three part” coat, which will be two of amber or plain walnut oil, following by the first coat of spar varnish. After that cures, then you’ll just be adding more spar varnish, in supremely thin layers, until the texture of the thread is buried in the varnish; with fine silks like Pearsall’s Gossamer, this doesn’t require too many coats (3-5 usually). And, of course, if you’re dip finishing, you don’t have to fully bury the thread in varnish with your initial finishing because the 2-3 dip coats will help to build finish over the wraps.

While I apply the above steps almost exclusively to Pearsall’s Classic Chestnut silk, it will work with any colored silk to achieve translucent wraps, or if used with pale & white silks you can achieve, more or less, near-clear wraps, the transparent wraps so many fellows like. Also, you might want to experiment with silks other than the ones you already have experience with. There are some fellows who swear it’s easier to get clear wraps with YLI size #100, color #212 Natural White. Speculation on the subject goes this way: the bleaching process alters the more purely white silk in such a way that microbubbles cling to the fibers more tenaciously. Perhaps. So much of nailing this process is practicing, and trying to do every single step the same way each time; changing just a single variable in each stage of experimenting if you’re not getting quite the results you’re after. Take notes. This seems obsessive, but it’s the only way to know you can repeat your good results a year later. Notes should include materials (silk & varnish by brand), environmental conditions (temp & humidity in particular), and all the details of your process…thinning, heating, cure times, everything that could possibly matter. Oh, and that makes me think of another detail: clean hands. I cannot emphasize this enough…you MUST wash your hands before handling silk threads and wash regularly as you’re wrapping, especially if you sweat a lot (I do, so I speak from experience); any oils from your hands can effect varnish penetration and the smallest amount of grime, which you may not notice on a medium or dark silk while you’re wrapping, will glare at you after you varnish (again, I speak from experience…in particular, the waxy black residue from polishing guides is a killer if it gets on silk). So you know: in our shop, we handle your silk spools by the paper on the spool ends, and drop them into plastic bags immediately after pulling them from the main storage bins, before putting them into the picking bins – the goal is to minimize the chance of human touch and so preserve the integrity of the silk we’re selling. Another detail…if you use water to help snug up delicate tipping wraps, please use distilled water because the water you choose will inevitably dampen your main wraps and if you use tap water, you’ll leave mineral residue behind when it evaporates which can lead to odd mottling. Again, details matter.
As another note, transparent or translucent wraps demand good wrapping & burnishing skills. That’s a subject for another ramble, but just think about this a little. The visual impact of your wrap depends on its constancy, its evenness of color. If you cross threads once or twice, you have doubled your thread, doubled the color, and made a dark mar in the finished wrap. If you don’t pack and burnish your wraps well, you leave gaps, which equate to missing thread, lost color, and a light mar in the finished wrap. Don’t mar your own work. Practice towards perfection. They say, wrongly, that practice makes perfect…I don’t think anyone achieves absolute perfection, but you can get darn close. Yet this is true only if you’re paying attention, critiquing yourself, and always striving to improve. Mere repetition is not the same as practice. There are some unfortunate souls who have done a shitty job of wrapping their whole lives, and they either don’t know better, or they don’t care. I once took a sales and marketing class and the prof was giving a lesson on the value of self-evaluation and consequent improvement. He emphasized that when he was hiring salesmen in the business end of his world, he had to be very careful when evaluating resumes and prospective hires. The salesman with “fifteen years of sales experience” was often a guy with one year of experience, repeated fifteen times, and this fifteen year veteran of the sales world knew far, far less about being an effective salesman than the fellow with five years of dogged effort aimed at improving his techniques. I want you to be the rod wrapper who masters wrapping in a year’s worth of rods, maybe two if you don’t wrap too many. Don’t be the guy fifteen years on who is still crossing threads and leaving gaps in the wraps.

If you’re unsure about wrapping, hunt down L.A. Garcia’s book, Handcrafting A Graphite Fly Rod. The pictures are great. Then, consider our DVDs. I think most rodmakers are pleasantly surprised by the value of watching a maker make things. Several folks have commented over the years on how detailed the DVDs are. That’s got a lot to do with the videographer, Tim, who was fascinated by the process and kept having me do things over and over again, for his own edification, and so he could shoot a given step from another angle. His curiosity benefits the viewer.



The end of the ramble. Excepting the endnote, below.



(1) I decided to add an endnote since I didn’t use footnotes. Here are the instructions we used to pass out with the Alchemist Amber Varnish when we sold that. There’s some repetition relative to the main text you just read, but also some details I didn’t mention, most importantly the bit on directional varnishing. Though written for amber varnish, the same basic rules apply if you’re starting with straight walnut oil.



1. Practice. Your ambient atmospheric conditions will differ from ours, thus the timing requisite to perfect wrap finishing will be likely to change. Discover the ideal timing for your shop by practicing. Note that your practice should mimic your intended application. Don’t make your practice wraps with 2/0 silk if you intend to use 6/0 silk when making rods. Don’t practice on un-finished scrap blanks if you intend to work over pre-dipped blanks when making rods. You’ll learn little from your practice if you practice under one set of parameters then attempt to put your methods to use under another set of parameters.
2. Apply Amber Varnish at temperatures above 70º. Use this in a cold, damp basement and it will not cure.
3. The first coat should be very, very thin. Apply a drop with a stiff bristled brush like our Detail Master Brushes, working from the end of the foot toward the center of the guide. This directional application pushes air out from alongside the guide foot reducing the number of wraps with large trapped air pockets. Allow the first coat to soak the silk entirely, and then wipe the brush on the lip of the jar before re-brushing the entire wrap in an effort to wick off all the excess varnish.
4. After the first coat has been applied to each wrap on a section, allow the section to sit for one hour at room temperature. Two actions occur in the curing of Amber Varnish. First, the solvents evaporate. Second, the oils cure. Your goal is to find the moment when the solvents have evaporated but the oils, for the most part, have not started to cure. Generally this takes around one hour. Apply a second coat of Amber Varnish, also very thin and wick off the excess. I turn my rods with a drying motor during this entire process, but there should be so little varnish on the wraps that, were you to set the rod section up-right in a corner, nothing would run, drip, sag, or slump.
5. Now comes the key step. After waiting for an hour or so for the solvents to evaporate from the second coat, you must apply a third coat – but NOT of Amber Varnish. The third coat must be a good Marine Spar, like Sutherland-Welles. The spar varnish – a natural oil and resin varnish – will be compatible with the Amber Varnish and it will have drying agents that will serve to “kick” the entire, three-part layer of varnish. Apply this coat of spar very lightly and be sure to turn the rod section with a drying motor for at least three to five hours. Before applying another coat of spar, you should allow the first, three-part layer to fully cure. This could take anywhere from three to seven days at room temperature. If you utilize a drying cabinet, I’d still stick to at least a three day cure.

Ok, now it’s really over. Class dismissed. Have fun!!


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