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|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1-5|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
||6-10 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of trainees||1 known|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
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
Bamboo rods still have many benefits over carbon, and yet there is a mindset, instilled by the carbon rod manufacturers, that cane is heavy and weak. This could not be further than the truth especially for the traditional realm of streams, where cane rods are the unsurpassed ruler.
Availability of materials: since the retirement of John & Brian Chapman of R Chapman & Co, who were the last people to import bamboo for resale, there is currently nobody importing rod making bamboo into the UK. Some makers may have a reasonable stock, but the time may come when there isn’t enough bamboo left in the UK to make rods with commercially.
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: Several of the current rodmakers will offer some training to suit the requirements of potential students but there are no formal classes. In America several well known makers offer classes of up to a week and these have been well received. There is no training available for rod makers in the UK, and the last apprenticeship scheme wound up in the 1980s.
Training issues: Long learning process.
Some people claim to be rod makers, when in fact they have simply assembled rods on split cane blanks that they’ve purchased.
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.
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
Businesses employing two or more individuals:
R Chapman & Co specialise in rod blanks.
Henley, John, (2009) ‘How to make a split cane fishing rod’, The Guardian
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)