fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)

part three of building a rod: getting our butts in place

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I just gently set down the butt end of my new rod, with grip and reel seat in place, for the umpteenth time this week, and I still haven’t grasped the notion that some day I’ll use it to land on trout on some unknown river or stream.

I’ll chalk it up to never having built a rod before (though I do tie some of my own flies), and the fact that the upper sections of the rod blank are still a bit naked.

Construction is a bigger part of fly fishing than most people realize. Building rods and tying flies are the most cost-effective approaches, if your calculations include materials, tools and your time, but I don’t know too fly fishermen who are great mathematicians. Most of them, however, would say that given the choice, they’d rather catch a small wild trout on a fly and rod put together with their own two hands.

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Getting ahead of ourselves.

That’s what had me, on a foggy morning last week, arrive early at a workshop just across the Carquinez Strait for free doughnuts, to kill a bit of time and, somewhere along the line, install the grip and reel seat on the butt section of what would become my latest fly rod. It was cold day; the air was still, the fog heavy, dense and unmoving — a day when it makes sense to build something for the days ahead.

Slider, who owns the workshop, opened the door and Phil, enlisted to assist the students, pulled a rod case and other paraphernalia from the back of his truck and joined me in the still chilly shop. Soon coffee was brewing and small doughnuts were consumed, one after another. We talked about new grip designs, rod blanks and the fog before other students and mentors crowded into the shop. (It’s hard to believe by the number of students that the sport needs a celebrity cheerleader.)

It wasn’t long before tables were covered with the bits and pieces required to build a fly rod. Like men tend to do, I caught myself comparing my grip with those of others; some of more intricate designs, others made wood or composites. It’s true that there’s a certain level of art ascribed to fly rods, so while my grip might not have a spit-shine gloss or woven pattern, it’s my first; made by me with a bit of assistance.

Reel seats and inserts were as varied as the students, with hardware colors varying from nickel and titanium to blued nickel and black aluminum. It was the same with the guides and winding checks.

Being a somewhat self-centered crowd, it was a sight to see a room full of fly fishermen stop talking about their latest escapade to devote attention to the class leader and club master rod builder, Wayne. Quiet but intense might describe Wayne’s approach to instruction, as he walked us through — with the necessary visual aids — dry assembly of the grip and reel seat, reaming the grip, again testing everything with a dry fitting, adjusting the diameter of the blank with tape to properly fit the reel seat, application of epoxy and the final assembly.

Then we were set free but not left entirely to our own, with a 2-to-1 ratio of students to mentors.

The process isn’t one of great difficulty. The biggest requirements are patience and thought. Pictures best tell the story.

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The surprising small amount of hardware that would be used on our fly rods.

All considered, a fly rod requires very little hardware. It’s the work building the blank, grip and reel seat that require time. Once we confirmed all the parts were delivered as promised, the next hour or so was devoted to dry fitting, taping the butt section to create a suitable diameter where the reel seat would go into place, and reaming the center of the grip.

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Master rod builder Wayne demonstrating how to measure and mark of the butt section that will be covered in epoxy before installation of the reel seat and grip.

Much like carpentry, the key was to measure twice and cut (or ream, tape and apply epoxy) once. One important aspect of this measurement is to determine how far up the rod butt one will slather epoxy, since, because of the taper, the grip will be pushed down towards the bottom of the blank – passing the upper section where epoxy would make for a pretty ugly rod – before reaching the proper position.

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Taping the grip to protect it from epoxy – which will get on your hands – and the butt section to build up a proper diameter for the reel seat and insert.

It’s amazing, but if you were to disassemble a well-known brand of fly rod, you’d find a similar method and material used to properly seat the reel seat. What’s not pictured here is the copious amount of epoxy pushed into the gaps between the tape and directly securing the reel seat to the rod blank.

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Reaming the inner diameter of grips to properly fit the rod.

With the variety of sizes in rod blanks, there’s no way to ensure a perfect fit between everything, requiring a bit of work and continuous testing of the fit. The hole drilled out in the cork grip, or rings in my case, is often about .25”, but since the rod blank is tapered, the best fit requires tapering his hole. Cork is easily reamed, but the dozen times I stopped to check the fit mandated slow and methodical work.

With the grip, reel seat and the reel seat cap in place, a little pressure brings it all together while the 10-minute epoxy dries.

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The completed butt assembly of what will become a 7’6” 4-piece 4 wt. fly rod built by my hands.

With time to spare, we stuffed glue into the tip top guide and seated it on the top section. Some builders use a heat-sensitive glue, but Wayne’s done just as well with five-minute epoxy. There was more epoxy stuffed into those little tip top guides than I thought possible, before we slid it on the top of the rod blank. (I should note that during this process a good supply of solvent was used to ensure that epoxy didn’t end up where it wasn’t wanted.)

With our butts in place, we will move on to wrapping guides this week.

Though not fishing, this is one winter that I’ll have my hands a fly rod nearly every week. Stay tuned, more to come.

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