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I wrote this dissertation to a Hand Mill user who was asking me about whether or not he was being too critical in his rodmaking. He also asked about how to choose a rod design. I may have gotten carried away but decided to share many of my thoughts about rodmaking and some of the difficulties involved in selecting a design.

You say that you are building your rods to a .001" tolerance. As I see it there are two areas of tolerance and I will discuss both of them. One is the flat to flat tolerance and the other is the taper tolerance. I do agree, as you will see later in my discussion, that the flat to flat tolerance is easier to achieve than the taper tolerance. I also believe that flat to flat dimensions that are close demonstrate good workmanship. And it is worthwhile to achieve good results, but not absolutely perfect results, because of balance and spine.

In reality, isn't .001" an arbitrary figure? Why not build them to .000" or even .0000" since all good micrometers can be read to that dimension. There are several reasons, in my opinion, why even .001" isn't practical. To cut strips that end up with .001" accuracy, when glued into sections, you have to cut your strip to .0005". I don't even know a way to measure strips that accurately. If you are sanding them to a predetermined dimension I will discuss this in more detail later. When I used to make ferrules it wasn't easy on one of the best lathes available, a Hardinge tool room lathe, to consistently achieve that accuracy on metal much less bamboo unless I was using a dial indicator reading to .0001" accuracy. I have never seen a bamboo cutting machine, including the milling machine at Winston with high precision bearings that would consistently cut to that tolerance.

Another factor that greatly influences section accuracy is sanding. Using 320 grit sandpaper you remove approximately .001" of material with three very light strokes. Therefore, you must be extremely vigilant in order not to remove too much bamboo particularly on the ends of tips.

Where are you getting the dimensions for your rods? If you are getting them out of a book forget great accuracy. I have personally miked a substantial number of the old "Masters" rods and have experienced everything from an occasional miking that is nearly the same on each side to as much as .020" variance from flat to flat. It's very uncommon to have the rods at each station within less than .004 from flat to flat and often it's greater than that. So when you read a taper in a book did they take the high, the low, or the average? What if you have two sides that mike the same and one that is .008 different? How did they deal with that when publishing the taper? Also if you read different tapers published in different books the same rod model sometimes have different tapers listed from each other. Which one are you going to choose? Also, rodmakers would improve or change the tapers over time yet keep the model number the same.

I have discovered over the years there are so many variables to trying to replicate a published taper exactly that it's extremely difficult to do. To give you just one example we did a test on a butt recently in our shop. It was a typical solid butt that was glued using Urac then coated entirely, including the ends, with four coats of Man O War varnish. We marked the place on the butt where the dimension was .250". During the winter when we did this test the humidity in the shop was about 25%. We have a humidity cabinet where we hang sections prior to gluing in order to increase the moisture content to the level recommended by the glue company. At the time of the test the humidity in the cabinet was about 75%. We left the varnished section in the cabinet for10 days and carefully "miked" the section at the point it where it had previously measured .250". It now measured .262" or a growth of 4.8%. We then left the section out of the cabinet and a couple of weeks later measured it again. It was back to the .250" dimension at the measuring point.

The reason I mention this is that if you are using a published taper what might the humidity been when a certain rod was measured and the taper recorded? I have never seen this reported along with published tapers. This is just one of the variables but it illustrates the difficulty of reproducing someone else's taper. A taper can certainly be a worthwhile guide but how the rod feels, casts, and fishes to the builder are, in my opinion, the most important elements.

You often see that the rod was miked over varnish and they subtracted .006 for its thickness. Was the varnish really that thick? Or was it that thick everywhere? Another consideration with varnish is that different varnishes are harder or softer than others and will affect how a rod flexes. What type of varnish was it?

They used to use hide glue on virtually every rod because it was the best available. Are the characteristics of rods glued with hide glue different from modern glues? What about the variance in the physical properties of bamboo? Everyone that has dealt with bamboo knows that the deflection varies some between strips from different culms. How can that be taken into account? What about heat treating? I have never seen tapers given with light, medium, or heavy heat treating as one of the parameters. Anyone that has worked with different heat treating knows that the deflection and resilience changes with different amounts of tempering.

What diameter of bamboo pole was used? Particularly on butts the diameter of the pole and the resulting radius on the outside influences the volume of bamboo in a given section.

What about the guides that are used? I have extensive knowledge of designing rods in fiberglass, graphite, and bamboo and know that different guide weights will GREATLY influence the action of the rod as will different tip tops. I don't see that listed as a parameter. What about the wrap length, wrap coating, and varnish on the rod. The action can be greatly affected by the weight of these items. What about guide spacing? How many guides were on a rod? The size and weight of the tip top can greatly affect the action. Did the rod have a heavy wire loop or a light wire? Was the tip top tube heavy or light or was it long or short? If you don't believe that a tip top makes a huge difference in the action put just a tip top on a rod blank and flex it then remove it and flex it again and see the difference. It's remarkable.

What about the length and style of ferrule? The difference in weight can be substantial and affect the action of the rod.

Was the old Master's rod really that great? Might it have been better with a slightly different taper in the butt or tip? Who's to judge?

You say that you flatten the flats on your rods. Think about the quad sections in particular. You are removing a substantial amount of the best fibers that are located on the outside. You go from removing no fibers near the corners to substantial in the middle. Doesn't that matter? I think so. Isn't this a compromise to the bamboo just so you can try to keep the dimensions the same?

I have discussed many of the variables that should be accounted for when choosing a published rod taper. Perhaps you design your own tapers. At least that eliminates many of the variables that I have described above because you can keep the bamboo rod dimensions and the components the same. However, are you confident that you are a good designer? Have you cast lots of bamboo rods? Can you make all kinds of loops during your casting to determine what the rod will do for different casting styles? If you don't like the action do you know where to change the dimensions of the rods to achieve the action that you do like. This is knowledge that, from my experience, is difficult to learn and I have found very few who have this ability.

One way that I have used is to try and get a consensus of rod action and to understand different angler's perception of what is the best action is to have several different casters and fishermen cast and fish different rods. This does give a good cross section as long as they are competent casters and fishermen.

I have also cast a great number of rods from rodmakers where I thought the tips and butts were poorly matched resulting in rods that felt odd or weren't smooth casting. Most bamboo designers never make enough tip and butt combinations with interchangeable ferrules to allow them to adequately test different actions to come up with what they like the best. To give you an example, in the series of bamboo rods that we are making now we have three models: 7' #3, 7' #4, and 7 1/2' #5. Among these three models we had over 40 combinations of tips and butts that were interchangeable to try and get the very sweetest casting and fishing combination. Even though the differences were subtle because I had a good idea of what I was looking for I still thought it necessary in order to end up with what I thought was three great designs. Was this an over kill? Perhaps, but the rods have been cast by some very knowledgeable bamboo anglers and they think that they are some of the sweetest casting and best fishing rods they have tried. I think a good record. This is not to say that I have all the answers but to point out that it's a difficult task to come up with really good designs.

As a general observation I believe that the tip determines the action more than the butt does but as previously mentioned having the proper balance between the two is critical for great designs.

I have always had the philosophy that I wouldn't criticize a designer who spent a great deal of time working on his designs because that is what he likes or he wouldn't be building the rod. However, most rods do fall within a fairly narrow range of design because anything outside of that range doesn't feel normal and isn't acceptable to most anglers.

I certainly haven't cast many of the bamboo rods that have been made but I've cast enough to give me a good feel for action. In my opinion, and that of another designer that I greatly respect, the rods of E.C. Powell were the best casting bamboo rods as a group of any that we have cast. As a matter of interest his rods were some of the worst for variation in measurement from flat to flat. In fact, the one that I mentioned above that was .020" off on one flat was his and was a great casting rod. I certainly don't advocate that lack of precision but it goes to show that he was a great designer and new actions despite the lack of accuracy of his machinery.

E.C. Powell used one of three different mathematical taper designs to make his rods. Following the B9 taper pattern certainly would be a good place to start to design trout rods. A great many bamboo advocates, particularly from the Midwest and East, have never even cast one. So there are lots of rods out there that many have never had the opportunity to experience.

Does this all mean that you shouldn't make bamboo rods because there is much that is unknown and a lot of things to consider? Of course not! There are lots of things that go into a quality rod that can be defined and many of today's rodmakers, and many from the past, have made great rods. They have also made a lot of poor casting rods and you shouldn't forget that. Just because it's a bamboo rod doesn't mean it's a great one. You can be careful in your bamboo selection to make sure you have good fiber quality, that the bamboo is free of structural damage, cosmetic blemishes can nearly eliminated, and the workmanship can be carefully done. Good glue work can be done without seams, they can be glued without torque, the sections can be very uniform, and they can be very straight out of the binder. Those that aren't can be CAREFULLY straightened using heat as long as they don't begin very crooked.

You can choose quality guides, relatively clear cork, beautiful wood, and cosmetically beautiful fittings that are properly polished. Your varnish work can be of a very high quality and blemishes polished out if you desire. The end result can be a beautiful rod that is a wonderful fishing instrument. And one that would make an angler proud to own and fish.

But, in my opinion, you need to take a realistic view of what is practical. To begin with, look at lots of rods. I don't believe that you can know what makes a great fishing rod until you see a number of them. Cast lots of rods to help determine what constitutes a good action for the situations you are trying to cover.

From my experience you want to settle on a basic taper for a rod and then you want to replicate it for others that you produce in that model. The things that are most important are the general taper and the consistency between rods. I don't think that anyone can tell whether or not a rod is off a thousands or two here and there but they certainly will know if they are expecting one type of action and get one that's completely different.

I believe that the important dimensions are based on percentage. Try to keep the rod in the area of the last 12-15" of the tip within +/-.001 or, preferably, less. If the tip diameter is .065" then .002" is 3.1%. Keeping the same thoughts of percentage the typical butt at .325" would be off .010 ". Naturally, a butt would typically be easy to keep within +/-.002-.003" which is a smaller percentage because of the size. I do think that it's important to have the area in the tip extremely close to your proven taper. If it doesn't come out perfectly you can always slide the sections slightly one way or the other to get it very close to your dimensions without changing the basic "feel" of the rod. That may cause other dimensions to be slightly off but it will tend to keep the overall action and the line sizing very close to what you want.

Now I do think that it is important to keep the flat to flat measurement close because that does help keep the rod in balance and without spine. In this area you should be able to keep the rod within the +/-.0015(.003 total) or, preferably, a little less with good equipment and technique but, here again, I would think of it in percentages.

Another thing to consider in rod design is the difference in line weights between sizes. Here is a chart measured in grains which are 1/7000 of a pound.

Grain   Weight   Difference  
1 60 20
2 80 20
3 100 20
4 120 20
5 140 20
6 160 20
% increase
1 60 -
2 80 33.33%
3 100 25.00%
4 120 20.00%
5 140 16.67%
6 160 14.29%

Isn't this surprising? This was a set of standards based on grain weights developed in the '60s to replace the old line designations of HCH, HEH, GBH, etc that manufacturers used. The reason they changed was that there weren't consistent standards between manufacturers as to line weight and variance tolerance so customers weren't sure of what they were getting when they purchased a line. However, with the new standards there is a substantial percentage difference between the lower weight lines and the heavier ones. I've never liked this dramatic difference, particularly in the lighter line sizes, but that's the way it is. Also, don't forget that line manufacturers have about a +/- tolerance of 5 grain on lines so the weight varies from this chart and can affect what a rod feels like by as much as 1/4 line size in some cases.

In designing rods I have always gone by the cross sectional area rather than a linear chart of the dimension. I think that it's a lot better way to do it. If you graph out the cross sectional area you get a very good visual picture of how the rod looks. It's always some form of a half parabola shape.

What are the important things in rod design? First, they must be great fishing rods. The most important is that on a trout stream they must deliver the line well, protect tippets, play fish well with the tackle being used, and be comfortable for the angler to use. Second, the rod should be smooth to cast without any hinges or kicks, it should come alive in the hand, and it should have that sweetness that's hard to describe but that you instantly know when you make a cast. It should easily become what I would call a thought rod where it becomes almost an extension of your arm and you forget it.

Then it should be beautiful and the workmanship impeccable. The overall design should be pleasing to the eye and have unique features that define your sense of design. The fittings should all be of the best quality. Things like the outside of the ferrules, winding check, and reel seat components should be perfectly polished showing no tooling marks. Your action between rod models with the same style should be similar so that customers know what to expect.

You certainly can make a progressive style model, or a parabolic style, or some variation of other basic actions to accommodate different philosophies to please your design philosophy or that of a customer's individual thoughts on good design.

The last thing, and probably the least considered but maybe the most important, is that the rods should reflect your philosophy of life and living. I believe strongly that your life and what you do should be in balance so that you are at ease with the rods that you make, there is harmony in your life, and when you are enjoying time on the stream with one of your creations you have a warm feeling about it and the environment. The rod should have a harmony that others will feel when they cast and fish it.

Building beautiful rods that other anglers enjoy has brought me tremendous satisfaction throughout my life and I hope that it does for you.

I hope that I have given you some insight into my thoughts and philosophy on rodmaking. Hopefully, this will also be a start of you developing your own.

Tom Morgan

Questions? Contact us:
21505 Norris Road
Manhattan, MT 59741

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Phone: 406.282.7110
Fax: 406.282.7167
tommorganrodsmiths@gmail.com


(Note: rodsmiths@imt.net is no longer a working address)



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