Split cane rod making
The making of fishing rods from split cane (Tonkin bamboo).
|Craft category||Sporting equipment; Plant fibre|
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||19th century|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||11-20 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of trainees||Unknown (perhaps 11-20?)|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||11-20|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||11-20 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
Split cane rods were developed in the USA in the 1870s. Until this time rods had been made from whole cane or solid wood, and the split cane rod was a big improvement due to its lightness and flexibility (the ‘carbon fibre of the day’). Fibreglass rods were developed post-World War II and until the mid-1960s split cane and fibreglass rods were produced side by side, with split cane rods dominating the high end of the market. However, by the late 1960s fibreglass had improved and carbon fibre was introduced in the 1970s, marking the end of the split cane rod. Nevertheless, as long as it is the right type of rod, split can cane be just as good as carbon fibre, and for some specific purposes can even have an advantage.
Today, split cane rods are a luxury good, but they still need to have all the performance that split cane rods had in their heyday.
Split cane rods are specifically made with Tonkin bamboo grown in a small area of southern China. It is a very sustainable crop harvested every few years and is one of the quickest growing plants on the planet. Only a tiny fraction is used to make rods – the rest used as scaffolding and furniture.
The cane is split out from 2” diameter culms which are 12ft long before the nodes are straightened and flattened before heat treating and planning to shape each of the 6 equilateral strips that make up a hexagonal section. The work is very precise with sections accurate to a thousand of an inch. Planed sections are glued and bound before finishing and adding handles, ferrules and guides.
Handmaking split cane uses hand planes and a ‘planing form’. Machine-made blanks use a powered bevelling to cut the strips. A hand mill uses machine technology but hand power.
Most makers make all styles but some specialise in particular types:
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Ageing workforce: Most of the people who learned to make cane rods when they were the normal thing to use have either passed away or retired.
Market issues: Falling demand for split cane rods due to introduction of modern carbon and plastic rods.
Market issues: Low demand for hand-made rods so makers must diversify, such as providing kit form rods and parts for amateur rod makers to build at home, as some companies did in the 1950s and 1960s.
Market issues: It takes a long time to make a rod completely by hand so production is low (up to 80 hours per rod).
Market issues: Most hobby rod makers, and professionals, use hand planing forms, which takes many hours to set up and a lot of time and effort to make the strips needed to make a rod.
Training issues: There is no training available for rod makers in the UK, and the last apprenticeship scheme wound up in the 1980s. There are some short courses available in the USA but the quality is unknown.
Training issues: Long learning process
Dilution of skills: The internet means that it is very easy to make a business look professional and highly skilled, while the person running the business is still essentially a novice.
Dilution of skills: People will always want to make their own rods and there will always be amateur/hobby makers. However, learning to make a single rod is very different from making rods in increased numbers at a commercial level.
Lack of standards: There is no standard for split cane rod making.
Availability of raw materials: must use Tonkin bamboo.
None. There are many cane rod makers in the USA and in mainland Europe, especially in Italy – unlike the UK these countries have very active organisations, arranging meets and producing publications. The UK is very apathetic in this respect.
Craftspeople currently known
Status: People will always want to make their own rods and there will always be amateur/hobby makers. However, learning to make a single rod is very different from making rods in increased numbers at a commercial level.
Minimum number of craftspeople: It could be less than 11-20 but it needs to be worthwhile for someone to import the cane.
Total number of craftspeople: According to one rod maker, there are probably in the region of 11-20 rod makers: there are probably fewer than ten people making split cane rods professionally, and very few people making rods as their sole means of income, with an additional dozen home rod builders. According to another rod maker, there are probably 11-20 trainees, 21-50 skilled craftspeople, and 51-100 makers in total.
Handmaking split cane rods is really a one-man band activity these days, but as long as there is demand the craft will continue.
Lawton-Moss, G. (1954). How to build your own split cane fishing rod: A manual of instruction in the art of rodmaking for the amateur. London: The Technical Press.