A Beginner’s Guide to Bamboo Fly Rods

Charles F. Orvis began building fly rods in 1850 and launched his commercial enterprise six years later.
Photo via orvis.com

Although the bamboo fly rod fell out of favor in the 1950s—as a result of an embargo against products from China, which limited the availability of the raw materials, and the introduction of Shakespeare’s newfangled fiberglass Wonderod—some anglers continued to prize the slow action and delicate touch offered by “sweetgrass.” And dedicated craftsmen never stopped turning six-foot “culms” of bamboo into fine fishing tools. In today’s world of lightweight, fast-action, high-modulus graphite fly rods, more and more anglers are returning to the old-school rods produced by traditional shops, such as those built at the Orvis Rod Shop in Manchester, Vermont.

Most cane-rod buffs know that Samuel Phillippe of Easton, Pennsylvania, built the first six-strip rod in 1845, but bamboo had already been in use for nearly a century and a half by then. According to historian Andrew Herd, British Army officers may have brought the materials back for rod-making as early as 1700, but the early solid-bamboo rods were heavier and stiffer than the ash, hazel, and lancewood rods widely used at the time. Split-cane was first used for tips on wooden rods in about 1801, in the form of glued, four-strip sections. By mid-century, rods made completely from strips of bamboo were probably being manufactured, in three- and four-strip configurations, although some probably had wooden butt sections. But once Phillippe established the benefits of the six-strip rod, that became the standard. Although eight-strip hexagonal rods are now available, six strips remains the standard today.

Former Orvis bamboo-rod builder Charlie Hisey shows off some strips of Tonkin cane, as well as some impressive calluses, at the rod shop in Manchester, Vermont.
Photo by Tim Bronson

A Simple Stalk of Grass

A split-cane fly rod begins with a stalk of dried bamboo, known as a “culm,” whose walls are made up of three parts: a thin outer wall called the enamel, the dense power fibers that give the material its strength and recovery rate, and finally the chalky pith. Each culm can be up to 12 feet long and about 6 inches around, and the rod maker will split it up to two dozen times to make the tapered strips that will be glued together to form a blank section. There are more than 1,000 species of bamboo, and although the first fly-rod makers used a variety from India—the original “Calcutta cane”—most eventually settled on Chinese “Tonkin cane” (Arundinaria amabilis) because it features denser layers of power cells, less pith, and well-spaced nodes (the raised rings around the culm).

Tools of the Trade

Turning a culm of bamboo into a fly rod requires some specialized tools. The knife used to split the culm into strips along the grain is called a froe, which is hammered with a mallet or a club. Each strip must be transformed into an equilateral triangle that will fit snugly with five others to create a hexagonal blank, a process that requires planning by hand or a mill. (When H.L. Leonard developed a beveler that sped up the production process, the machine was treated as a valuable trade secret, and only two employees were allowed to even see it.) To taper the finished strips, most rod builders use a grooved “planing form” and a handheld block plane.

From Culm to Fishing Tool

Creating a split-can rod is a many-step process that requires many different kinds of precise skill—from carpentry to joinery to engineering. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of how a tall stalk of Chinese grass become a fly rod.

Once the rod maker has chosen a culm of Tonkin cane—taking into consideration its straightness, the regularity and size of the nodes, the presence of blemishes or other marks—the next decision is whether to flame the bamboo or not. Rods made from the natural bamboo are called “blonde,” but those who want a darker, richer color must apply heat evenly across the entire culm.

Next, the culm is split into the strips, using a froe, knife, saw, or cutting jig. A culm with a 6-inch circumference will yield 16 to 24 strips. The rod maker then chooses the best strips and sets them up so the nodes will be staggered along the finished blank. Then each strip must be straightened and the nodes flatted, using heat and a vise.

Now the shaping of the strips begins, with rough planning to make the six strips of each section fit together. The strips of each section are then bound together with cotton thread, and the sections are put in an oven for heating, which removes excess moisture.

The cosmetic touches on a finished bamboo are works of art.

Now the real rod-building begins, as the enamel is removed from the outside of the strips, and they are put in a planning form to create the proper taper. The strips are then taped together to ensure proper fit, and if all is kosher, they are glued together to form the blank and bound again with thread. After the glue has set, the thread is removed and all excess glue is removed. Heating the blank sections can the help to make any tweaks or to remove twist that may have developed. You now have the basis for a fly-rod blank.

Next up are the addition of ferrules (whish is not as simple as it sounds here), reel seat, and guides, and then it’s time for the cosmetic touches that will make the bamboo rod unique and something to treasure. Of course, we have skipped over many important details, but these are the basic steps in the creation of a split-cane rod.

23 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Bamboo Fly Rods”

  1. This is more of a question than a comment, and I hope it works. I have my fathers old bamboo fly rod, and the auto retrieve reel that goes with it. Probably not an expensive set in its day. I want to know how to determine if it is still a viable set, or if there is a danger of the rod being overly brittle after so many years. Any thoughts?

    1. I took my great grandfathers rod to my local fly shop for their opinion. I’d start there with your rod.

    2. My phony psychic powers are telling me there’s a “Split cane rebuild” in your future. Send me a pic or two of the fly rod, and I’ll see if I can tell you what the salvage would be worth ? Scott

    3. Brittle doesn’t really enter into it. If the rod was ever good, it likely still is, unless it’s developed a “set,” or unnatural curve, from bad storage. (You’re supposed to hang to rod by its bag, not store it in the tube). Automatic retrieve reels make only decorative antiques, though. Why not locate a nice antique reel from eBay, like an Orvis CFO or one of the Hardys if you want to fish with it? (Highly recommended!) Take it to an Orvis shop, and they can determine the right size for the line, and fit you right up. Eventually, you might want to consider a silk line, but those cost over $200 now.

  2. Great job Phil. Every fly fisher should own at least one quality built bamboo rod. There is a section of one of my favorite streams that begs me to fish bamboo.

  3. What is the best lubricant for the metal ferrules on a cane rod?
    I have an Orvis cane rod that is over 50 years old. It is in great condition. I do fish with it. What is the suggested maintenance and storage recommendations?


    1. My father had a number of Orvis Bamboos. He always made sure they were clean and dry before putting them away. He was always sure to wipe any dirt or dust off of the line. He would always rub the ferrules against his nose to “oil” / lubricate them. His rods were always stored vertically in their cases in a neutral temp location. Dad has been dead for 25 years, every year on his birthday I catch and release a beautiful NE Iowa Trout on one of his vintage Orvis Rods.

      1. I have some old split bamboo fly rods I’m trying to identify to see if they are garbage Japanese junk or worth touching up and using or selling? One has a wood storage case that’s covered in gold(used to be green fine velvet?) and has four indentations around the case that the pieces fit into and are tied on woth two cloth straps, it’s still straight and 98% intact and a pretty rod

        1. Oh also the sections are all the same length still and are 38.5” long so it’s like a 9’6” rod when together I think? And it’s very thin so maybe a real lightweight rod?

          1. … have you fitted a line and fished with your cane rod? Your local flyfishing tackle shop can fix you right up. If it works it’s not junk. Oh, and by the way, it’s my understanding that Scott bamboo rods are now built in Japan. They cost about $3,000 each. Doesn’t sound like junk to me….

        2. Better: Try storing the rods vertically in their bags without the tubes. Under certain weather conditions (usually tropical, fortunately for you!) your rods can develop a “set,” or curvature. A rodmaker can usually remove that, using heat. Don’t try that at home unless you know what you’re doing!

      2. Better: Try storing the rods vertically in their bags without the tubes. Under certain weather conditions (usually tropical, fortunately for you!) your rods can develop a “set,” or curvature. A rodmaker can usually remove that, using heat. Don’t try that at home unless you know what you’re doing!

    2. The old “rub it beside your nose” or “stick it in your ear” probably is not the way to go for lubricant. (the acid corrodes the ferrule) I try to just keep mine clean with alcohol (Q-tips in the female section. If the ferrules fit together loosely, try a little paraifin wax to take up the slack. Never put your bamboo away wet… always wipe them down and I leave mine out to dry for a few days before storing in the tube. John Gierach wrote a good book on the care and feeding.. “Fishing Bamboo” (9781585742332)

      1. I still rub my male ferrule on the side of my nose when assembling the rod. Which was built by Leonard in the early 1970s. And the ferrules are good as new.

    3. You don’t need to buy lubricate the ferrules with store-bought. But every time you assemble your rod, wipe the male ferrule on the side of your nose. That’s all the lubricant your rod requires. However, if your ferrules are loose on the bamboo, you need the help of a rodbuilder for repair.

  4. I have been collecting bamboo rods for 45yrs and putting them together and copying all of the big name maker to a tee with the bomber of wrapping and the exact colors and matching ferals.it is quite a since.
    It is a lot of fun and we’ll worth the time to catch a 8lb. G.Brown or 11lb. Rainbow Trout.

  5. Wow loved Reading an learning about fly fishing history. I’ve lived n the Appalachian MTN all my life Ive fished all my life . I came across THE ORVIS GOLDEN EAGLE 9′-5/4 OZ -H.F. 10 F

  6. Why stop there with Bamboo. Wanna get nostalgic, invest in a silk line, cat gut leaders. Even a leather and wool fly wallet which will stain your
    snelled flys.
    I too have fished with bamboo fly rods. When you add the weight of fly line ,leader and flys , that bamboo isn’t as whippy as you’d think.
    We progressed to fiberglass then graphite and boron for a reason. Its simply easier and less maintenance.

  7. I don’t get why split bamboo is better than bamboo cane. Also, how does it actually work? It seems when you split the bamboo you’ve got a little concave piece. Huh? I have a very old 7 piece rod, and don’t know much about it. Trying to find a little info to see if mine is worth anything. Thanks for anything you can tell me

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *