Ron Bennett creating masterpieces – photo by Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette
In his workshop on the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Oakland, Ron Bennett of O’Hara, PA. carefully splits a bamboo cane into narrow strips. After flattening protrusions along the stock, he skillfully planes six strips into three 60 degree angles. The strips are nested together and undergo a finishing process, ultimately producing a hexagonal fly rod.
Bamboo fly rod building is a highly detailed and laborious process, requiring 40 to 100 hours. It’s also a passion, a process Bennett has learned to perfect and love.
“It’s a way of not only fishing in my mind, but dreaming about it while I work,” he said. “It keeps me in touch with nature down here among all this hard steel and all the tools, and that’s always been very important to me.”
Bennett, Hosack, and Zietak are members of a small cadre of Pittsburgh-based bamboo fly rod builders. Bennett likens their passion for the craft to membership in a cult, but without the religious connotations. The low number of craftsmen may be due to some 150 steps involved in building a rod.
“You have to be pretty dedicated,” said Hosack. “It’s very consuming.”
Intense concentration is required as each step builds on the previous procedure. One small mistake can interrupt the entire process.
“It allows me to totally immerse myself into the work,” said Bennett. “It’s meditation for me.”
Photo stolen from Dunsmuir Rod Company, www.hollowbuilt.com
Knowing the end use, such as what type of fish will be caught and the conditions in which it will be used, is important. The ability to adjust the flexibility, weight and sensitivity of the taper gives builders the freedom to create a wide range of specialized rods according to specific needs.
Various techniques can be used in building fly rods. Bennett and Hosack prefer the labor-intensive process of hand-splitting the bamboo culms with a tool called a froe, then planing it by hand. Zietack uses some automation — after the cane is split, one machine cuts the angles and another planes the strips, cutting both sides simultaneously.
“It’s an idiot-proof way to cut strips,” said Zietak. “The key is to make four, five or six repetitive strips so they glue together perfectly.”
Whether a rod is made of four, five or six strips, it should appear as one piece. Zietak said machines save time, but effort is still required to ensure that each strip is perfectly flat.
“You kind of rob Peter to pay Paul with the time,” he said.
Zietak is among a few fly rod builders who make four-sided rods, or quads. Quads consist of two 45 degree angles and one 90 angle, as opposed to the 60 degree angles of six-sided, or hex, rods. Zietak said quads typically come back to center quicker, ensuring that the rod, line and leader unload more precisely in the direction of the previous forward cast. This gives the quads a different feel than hex rods. Ultimately, preference depends on individual casting rhythms, expertise and taste.
The means to the end may differ, but Bennett, Hosack and Zietak agree on using high-quality Tonkin cane imported from the Guangning province of China. The perfect mix of wind, rain and good soil make the cane strong and flexible, which is reflected in the final product.
“Bamboo fly rods are really fun to cast,” said Hosack. “They feel good, they handle the lines well, weight is not a problem, and it’s a natural material.”
Nevertheless, Bennett notes that bamboo rods are not ideal for long-distance casting and don’t have the strength and resiliency of graphite. But, he said, that’s not the point.
“The difference is comparing a Ford to a Mercedes. They both drive really well, both do the job they were designed for, but somehow the Mercedes is just nicer,” he said. “You’re holding something in your hand that someone spent 40, 80 or 100 hours stroking and modeling into form. That alone is exciting.
This article was taken from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
written by Shannon M. Nass
First published on February 20, 2011