Fly Rod Construction

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Today more flyfishers than ever are building their own rods. Some see rod-building as a money saving endeavor while others feel it is a way to obtain a customized rod. I personally find it an extension of flyfishing. First I fished then I started tying flies when I could not be in the water. After a few years I had plenty of flies. The next step seemed logical, I started rewrapping guides on my old rods and this led to building a new rod. So far I have built a fly rod for each member of my family,they make wonderful Christmas gifts. Each rod personalized and made special in some way.

Choosing the correct blank is a most difficult decision, especially if you fish a wide variety of situations. One must consider the kind of water you fish, small tree lined streams where you use a shorter rod, to the longer heavier rods required for salmon or tarpon.

The brand of blank you purchase is strictly up to you. Each manufacturer has their own color and finish for their rods and you might prefer a high gloss green while I prefer a black matte finish.

After you have made several rods and spent hours practicing the art of wrapping and patterns you might want to build your dream rod. Yes, I am talking about the split bamboo which in the opinion of most anglers is the best flyfishing rod available.

After the rod blank has been selected, the components that go on the rod must be choosen. Starting with the guides buy top quality it makes no sense to buy cheap guides when the top of the line cost so little. Quality guides add years to the life of the performance of the rod before they need to be replaced.

There are as many opinions as there are rod builders as to the best shape and size for the cork grip. Since you are making this rod for you buy the shape and size that feels comfortable in your hand. My only advise is buy the best quality cork that is available. This will save time and work with the added benefit that the grip will not have to be replaced as often.

Now we come to the reel seat which is the focal point of a rod. The reel seat makes a statment about your rod, so choose it carefully. Do you want an uplocking or downlocking reel seat? Do you want a plain or exotic wood barrel? Do you want a silver, black or gold colored metal findings? You also have the option of them being engraved or not. Some are inlaid and some have overlaid gold. So I guess I am saying do you want a plain reel seat or a work of art. As you might guess a work of art can be costly.

Where can you obtain blanks and components? Most people can order them out of catalogs like Orvis or Cabela’s. You can buy them through large fly shops in person or go on-line. You can even buy a complete kit. Just because kit with everything does not means that everything is the correct component, sometimes there are things missed sized.

Finding the spine

Finding the spine of the rod blank is probably the most important part of the rod construction process. It is the single element that everything that follows is build upon. If the spine is not properly located and marked the guides can not be placed on the rod correctly. This will effect the distance and the accuracy of your casts.

The spine is the stiff side of the blank. It is created during the production process and caused by variations in material, finishes and sanding. No two blanks are exactly the same and some blanks will have more than one spine. However, most blanks will have one pronounced spine. Each section of your blank will have it’s pronounced spine and when all the section are lined up according to their spines the entire rod spine should be checked. Sometimes it will be a little different. This slight change in the spine is due to the effects that the secondary spines in each section exert. Be sure to adjust your marks so the spine of the entire rod is the one you set your guides by.

The simplest way to find the spine is to support sections of the blank at the ends so that they can roll and find their own center of gravity. I use two kitchen chairs and push the sections slightly to cause them to roll slowly(see photo 1). I do this several times noting the position they come to rest. The spine is located on top. You can wrap a piece of masking tape on each section and mark the spine (see photo 2) Place the tape where it will not have to be moved to put on the reel seat, grip or guides. These marks will be used throughout the construction process..

You can also locate the spine by placing the heavier end of each section on a hard flat surface and then cradling the top 3 to 4 inches of the tip in one hand and apply pressure in the middle with the opposite hand. The rod section will tend to roll to a resting position. You will have to start these rolls by rotating the section slightly. The spine is on the side with the pressure.

Some rod blanks come with the spines already marked. It is still a good idea to check for the spine yourself. This way you know for certain the spine is marked correctly. You might be surprised how times the factory marks are off. I checked my blank both ways and to no surprise the spine showed to be in the exact same place.

The Reel Seat

Now that the spine has been located and marked, turn the sections 180 degrees and make another mark with a different colored ink or use a letter along with the mark so that you will know that this is the side that the guides go on. This will also be the side the reel will attach.

The reel seat should be mounted first. Check it for fit, it should fit with just a little play. You need some room for the epoxy without this glue space your reel seat can not be attached securely enough to last any time at all in the field.

If the reel seat hole is too small you must use a round file to enlarge the hole. A word of caution, do this by hand many a barrel has been ruined by trying to drill the hole larger. Take the time to get a correct fit the results are well worth it.

If the hole in the reel seat is too large the blank can be built up with masking tape until it fit perfectly(see photo). Thin 1/8 inch strips of tape are placed on each end and the middle of the area where the reel seat will set. On the rod under the reel seat and inside the barrel of the reel seat rough up the surface to insure better contact for the epoxy also shown in photo.

Before gluing be sure the reel seat is placed properly with respect to the guides. Check twice because after it is glued it will not move and is usually ruin in the process of removing. What type of epoxy should be used? Stay away from the 5 minute kind and use epoxy especially made for rod making. Make sure you mix plenty since use must fill the entire glue space. Leave no air pockets since they will weaken the bond between the seat and the rod.

If the reel seat has a butt cap it should be attached last, after the reel seat and the cork grip.

This is a good time to kill two birds with one stone. With the epoxy left over from the reel seat gluing process you can glue the tiptop on you tip end of the blank. Here again double check to make sure it is aligned properly to the guide side of the rod(see photo). In the photo the spine is on top.

The cork grip

Mounting the cork grip comes next. I am going to assume that you are purchasing it and not making it from scratch. Buy the style that best suits you. Wait to do reshaping until you have it ready to glue. I have yet to come across a grip where the hole is too large for the blank. So if the hole in the grip is too small it needs to be enlarged.

To enlarge the hole use a round file. Again do this by hand because cork is brittle and soft which makes using power tools extremely difficult. One usually tears up the cork beyond use with power tools. Check the fit often as you work. You don’t want to enlarge the hole too much. Pay close attention so that the end are not fluted while the middle is too tight.

In the process of enlarging the hole you will create cork dust. You will want to save this dust, so you can use it later when fixing any imperfections in the grip.

Make sure the hole in the cork grip is large enough so it fits easily over the rod. You need a certain amount of glue space and if it fit too snugly the grip will split with very little field use.

Now it is time to do the final shaping. This shaping is done with sandpaper and fine sandpaper at that. I use 100 grit to begin with and then use 200 grit to do the finishing touches. Before you do this finish sanding if there are any imperfections in the grip you patch them using the cork dust and glue. the recipe will be given later. After the patch is dry sand the excess off.

Gluing the cork grip in place.

First mark the rod just short of the area that will be covered by the grip. Now rough up this area from the reel seat to the mark. Mix plenty of epoxy and place it on the roughed up area of the rod. Now slide the grip down the rod slowly all the way to the reel seat.Clean up any excess glue now. A helpful hint rubbing alcohol dissolves the epoxy at this stage and make clean much easier.

Use a grip clamp to hold cork in place while drying(see photo on right). Don’t use too much pressure, use just enough to hold it. Too much pressure will flare the cork making gaps in the glue space thus weakening the grip. Do not glue the winding check on at this time. Wait until after the grip has dried.

The Guides

The placement of the guides is crucial. If placed incorrectly it can cause a rod failure. As a rule of thumb you need one more guide than your rod is long measured in feet. That is a nine foot rod needs ten guides. This includes the stripper but not the tip-top in the count.

For beginners it is best to request a clear description of how to place the guides when you purchase the rod blank. There are list available for all type of rods for where the guides should be placed. The problem is they are just a rough guide line to go by. Since there are so many different makers,so many different generations of graphite rods,different kinds of rods( bamboo,fiberglass & graphite) and different actions in rods each manufacturer should give you specifics placement information.

Three different guides are generally used on fly rods. There snake guides, open bridge guides and guides with ceramic inserts. Hard-chromed snake guides are thought to be best for most fly-rods. Sturdier bridge guides are used for heavy-duty rods like salmon and tarpon rods. Ceramic guides are best to use for stripping guides.

The blank being used for this tutorial is a G-Loomis GL3 9foot 2 piece 4 wt. The guide spacing recommended for this rod are as follows. They are measure from the tip down in inches. 1st. 4 1/2″,2nd 9 1/2″, 3rd 15 1/4″, 4th 21 3/4″, 5th 29″, 6th 36 1/2″, 7th 44 3/4″, 8th 54″, 9th 64 1/2″, 10th 76″.

Before placing the guides on the rod they must first be prepared. To do this the feet of each guide must be filed or sanded so that they are smooth and tapered(see photo). This is done so there will be a smooth and gradual transition from the rod to the foot. There should be no sharp edges under the wraps. If there is when you bump your rod on something the wrapping can be cut and unwind.

Now we are ready to place the guides by using masking tape. Cut thin strips and wrap a piece off tape over the foot and around the rod. The tape will hold them in place while the wrapping is done.

After the guides are placed mount your reel and string the line and then put some pressure on the rod. Check to see if there is a smooth and continuous arc. If the guides are properly placed there will be as seen in photo to the right.

If there is any flat sections followed by a sharp bend the placement of the guides will have to be adjusted. If they are not moved your rod will fail at the sharp bend when your rod is put under heavy pressure. This will certainly lose a trophy fish for you. To fix this problem move the guides adjacent to the flat spot a little closer together. Now recheck the arc and repeat this process until you obtain a nice smooth arc.

Wrapping the Guides

Wrapping the guides is the most time consuming and nerve racking part of rod building. Here are two suggestions that will turn it into a more enjoyable experience. Set aside plenty of time and take frequent breaks. Don’t set a dead line to have the wrappings finished. This will make you push yourself to finish and usually results in mistakes.

You wrap more than just guides. Put a short transitional wrap at the tip-top. This does two things, first it smooths the transition between rod and tip-top and also adds a finishing touch. These little finishing touches show people the rod builder pay attention to details and does the little things that make some rod special. You also wrap the hook keeper if you choose to put one one. Another place that is wrapped on graphite rods is the ferrules. This is done to strengthen the ferrules rather than adding a decorative touch.

Before I start wrapping the guides I do a few practice wraps on an arrow. This practice allows you to set your tension right on your thread and refresh your technique for packing your wrap tight together.This gives me a little practice and also will used later for testing color preservative and finish coat.

A lot of people like to use long wraps with decorative accent colors. This is well and good if you like fancy. Just remember the longer the wraps the stiffer the rod become changing the action of the rod. I personally use wraps as short as possible. As for the accent wraps they do add a nice touch visually but do nothing for the utility of the rod. I try to make all my wraps the same length so start with the stripping guide which has the longest feet. I start my wraps 1/8 of an inch past the tip of the foot.

Leaving the masking tape on the guide start the wrap at the point you have determined is appropriate. Wind the thread with even tension up onto the foot. Be sure to pack each wrap tightly and pay special attention that at the beginning of the foot the thread does not cross. When the thread reaches the spot where the masking tape is in the way remove the tape. At this point the thread will hold the guide in place.(see photo}Finish the wrapping, wind the thread to the shoulder of the guide foot. Here is a finish wrapping on a single foot guide. (see photo)

The Finish Coat

After the wrappings are finished, the last step is at hand. It is applying a finishing coat to protect the wraps. This coat not only protects against physical damage but also needs to protect the color from fading.

Some threads are not protected at the factory and when the finish coat is applied the thread goes transparent. This can be a real heart breaker because that wrapping will have to be replaced. Remember the practice wrappings done on the arrow, use one of them to see if the thread color will hold. Take another one and use a color preservative before the finish coat. Now you can decide how to proceed. If you use color preservative apply two thin coats rather than a single heavy one. A heavy coating can dry cloudy ruining the look of the wrapping. Thinner coats dry faster and are easier to get uniform.

After the preservative has been applied and has dried thoroughly, the actual finish coat can be applied. But, which product do you want to use. It is all personal preference and you should try several on the arrow to find the look that you like. Most of these products are epoxies that dry clear and have some flexibility to them. They need to be flexible to keep them from cracking while in use. Some of these epoxies are designed to be a one coat finish. I find them to be too high build and restrict free feeding of the fly line. These thicker epoxies can be thinned with a drop or two of rubbing alcohol. Thinner coats are easier to control while applying and are less likely to trap bubbles. If you see a bubble in the coating use a toothpick or needle to pop or remove it. Bubbles rarely come out on their own.

If you like extremely low build coats on your wraps as I do you can do it the old fashion way. You can use spar varnish and do 3 or 4 coats it. You can update it a bit and use 2 coats of spar varnish and two coats of spar urethane.

After each coat it has to dry completely. This drying process needs to done while rotating the rod slowly. The rpms should be 4-8 and should be done in a dust free environment. Rotating the rod lets the coating dry with a uniform thickness. Remember that fans and furnaces stir dust no matter how clean your house or workshop is. A room without a furnace vent or a cabinet that shuts tightly will help keep your wrappings dust free.

If all goes well you will have a family heirloom. If you fish a lot you can wear out your guides every 2 or 3 years. Some fishing guides have to replace their guides annually. Remember worn guides don’t feed free and wear out you fly line.

This article originally appeared on

Photo by Waldemarpaetz – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

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