Bamboo

Hi Russ, The [A+]cane arrived today in great shape. It’s beautiful stuff! Thanks for what you do and for making this great material available for us to work with. -Dave G. (USA)

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This is my spot to add a description to this ‘category’ page. I’m not going to. Instead, I want to share an email from a client on the verge of moving from building a rod on a blank another maker crafted, to gearing up so he can make his own blanks.

Mark wrote: Thanks Russ. I’m compiling my list to get started. Will be fun to at least see if I’ve got what it takes to see it through.

And here’s my response – hopefully an inspiring one: It is fun. The sense of accomplishment the first time you catch a fish on a rod you crafted from raw materials…that’s indescribable. I recently posted a new ramble on Quad Guides, which is mostly a back and forth email conversation that didn’t go the way I hoped. Within that pile of words, I talk about how critical it is to make the jump from reading (or watching dvds, or talking to other makers) and to simply get material and get started. I was addressing guides – wire bending for frames and lapidary shaping of the agate – but the concept applies to all craft work. Once you dig into the project, you’ll learn how your tools work, how the material responds to your hands. You’ll make mistakes, but those mistakes are your best teacher…as you tick off all the things that don’t work, you’re also figuring out what does work. With bamboo, some of the steps feel almost magical…Yes, this sounds completely corny. For me, I really enjoy heating and pressing nodes…it’s ‘magical’ that you can heat this material over an alcohol lamp and then press a lumpy portion more or less flat as though it was molten wax or plastic. Once ‘flattened,’ you file off the little bits of the lump (and the tiny residual groove from the internodal ring) and the stick winds up dead level where there had been node….and the ‘scar’ from the node, if you heat, press, and file, is very small. Of course some makers argue against heating and pressing…it is time consuming, so it doesn’t work in a production shop, and it’s just one more place you might damage the bamboo if you’re not careful with the heat. These fellows might argue for sanding the nodes flat on a belt sander, without pressing. It’s fast, it won’t damage the bamboo…yet the pressing crowd will argue that you’ve just sanded off power fibers that could be conserved by heating and pressing. Both groups are ‘right’ because there really are two ways to skin that particular cat and each method has advantages and drawbacks. In our shop, when we made rods for sale, we offered two grades of tackle. Top tier rods had heated and pressed nodes. Less expensive, light production, rods featured sanded nodes. There really is a place for both. Finding the method that works best for you, in your shop, with your tools, with your mindset…that’s the bigger challenge than actually ‘removing’ the nodes to get flattened strips that can be planed down.

I hope that if you’re considering making a rod, you’ll simply try to do it. Stop pondering and take action. Yes, curse me, I earn my living doing this and I have a vested interest in getting you to buy some bamboo and other parts. But I’m also terribly interested in something larger than merely earning my living. I’m interested in the continuity of the craft, and that requires craftsmen and craftswomen. I’m also interested, at a societal level, in urging folks to be active participants in making things, doing things, and not just watching others. It doesn’t have to be bamboo rods, just make something. Bake bread. Brew beer. Ferment wine. I’d suggest distilling, too, but that’s still illegal in many places. Paint a picture – there’s something that hasn’t been outlawed, yet. Make a piece of jewelry for a loved one. Plant a garden. Teach a kid (yes, I’m a home-school advocate). If you have a creative urge, follow that muse forward to a more involved life. Your muse is akin to Alice’s white rabbit. Name the rabbit. Follow your rabbit down a rabbit hole. Trust me, rodmaking is one such rabbit hole that may re-orient your life, but it’s not the only rabbit hole in the warren. Explore the paths that intrigue you. The more often you try to make or do the things that catch your eye, your interest, the more your craft skills – your knack for accomplishing things – will develop and the more success you’ll have when the next, divergent, project catches your eye. Do things to become better at doing other things. You have this life. Use it well.

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And now a note on “Patriotic” Bamboo inspired by another question that arrived shortly after the 4th of July, 2021

Russ, Thank you (for the early response). I want you to know I’m interested in acquiring locally USA Tonkin grown Bamboo. I am a patriot and don’t feel good about getting Chinese bamboo. I know its great but C’ Mon ,….Can’t we even grow Tonkin here in the USA? I grew up in Costa Rica, and Bamboo is everywhere and Louisiana and Washington I hear have great climates for Tonkin Bamboo.(?) Anyways if you know any contact in the USA that grows it here let me know please. But yes I agree one step at a time with the Poles, I’m also researching buying a Pole in great shape for about 150 bucks and fishing it really to see if I LIKE IT? I mean I think before I get onto this I better fall in love with the feel of bamboo right? I’m interested now in buying an older rod and maybe fixing it up or having someone else do it so I can fish it first! Then i decide what path to take.
Thank you for your support I look forward to your advice,
Tim G. (USA)

So here’s my response:

Good morning Tim,

I do hear you. My wife and I fly a vintage canvas flag off our front porch…it’s so old you know it was made here and not overseas. She keeps her eye out at the antique malls because the old flags fade after a year or two and neither of us (military families on both sides) want to fly a flag that merely looks appropriate.

Like a lot of makers with patriotic concerns, I’ve had to come to terms with the source of our primary material. In the end, once American makers began the switch away from greenheart and ash rods they learned the limitations of home-grown cane. I can’t speak to all native bamboo, but I’ve worked with ‘Carolina Cane’ that grows wild all over the east coast and at its best it is narrow and thin walled. Generally speaking, our stuff simply does not have the diameter, the long spacing between the nodes, and the depth of power fibers necessary to make rods that are both lightweight and powerful relative to their scale. Some Japanese makers use Moso bamboo, but I’ve heard that they have to alter (expand) the tapers of any given rod to get a similar action to Tonkin, and then the rod really isn’t the same because it’s heavier and somewhat slower. In the end, the early makers across our nation settled in favor of one particular imported bamboo that had all the right characteristics. Thus the craft product, if not its material source, winds up being historically appropriate as a patriotic tip of the hat to early American craftsmen, even if it is politically inappropriate these days. Or something like that. Speaking practically, I’d go broke trying to sell anything but Chinese Tonkin – it’s the only stuff 99% of American rodmakers want to use. The discipline and the material are that intertwined.

I’m not a botanist, but my understanding of the problem relates to the old nature/nurture debate….and it’s not a debate, really, because both aspects impact the outcome. The Tonkin by nature wants to grow to a certain height, a certain diameter, and will have, more or less, a fairly long span between nodes. Tonkin grown on windy mountains in China develops the heavy depth of lignin – what we makers call the power fibers – precisely because every culm is subject to fairly constant, fairly intense environmental stress.

I know you can find Tonkin as a garden plant if you hunt through enough nurseries. I don’t know of anyone selling local Tonkin, or any other domestically raised bamboo, that is suitable for rodmaking.

Many, many of our rodmaking (from scratch) clients started off by exploring bamboo through restoration work. Just be sure you start with a good taper. Part of the joy of fishing with bamboo is the materials used – nice bamboo, fine cork, etc.; part of the experience is entirely wrapped up in the mechanical specs of the rod you’re casting. It’s possible to have great materials and a lousy action. It’s also possible to make a damn fine fishing tool using even our lowest grade – visually spotty – bamboo and indecent cork.

I hope this helps your planning. Best of luck hunting down a vintage rod or two to clean up!

-Russ

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