Do-It-Yourself Trouble:
Building a Fly Rod

Every so often somebody pulls off the Information Highway at the GRTU E-mail exit to ask directions for building a fly rod. So far, the most succinct response has been, "Get a bunch of books." Here are a few additional observations, some gained from the rich experience that only comes from making mistakes, which can be far more instructive than doing things right the first time. Doing something right and you only learn one way to do the job; do it wrong and you learn two ways AND why the right way is the right way.

Here are a few additional observations, some gained from the rich experience that only comes from making mistakes, which can be far more instructive than doing things right the first time. Doing something right and you only learn one way to do the job; do it wrong and you learn two ways AND why the right way is the right way.

First, like the man said, get some books. One of the best is L.A. Garcia's Handcrafting a Graphite Fly Rod from Frank Amato Publications. The photos are excellent. Skip Morris has maybe a more comprehensive book, The Custom Graphite Fly Rod, which as I recall from scanning it at the book store, covers repairs as well as the essentials. Dale Clemens's excellent volumes are encyclopedic-probably more than you want or need to know about all kinds of rods.

Then get some tools: a wrapping stand (about $30-50), a slow motor to rotate the rod on the stand while the epoxy dries (shop for a cheap one and fit it on the wrapping rig however you can), a small file, and an X-acto knife.

Materials you'll need are two kinds of epoxy, one for rod wrapping and another for making the grip and attaching the reel seat, and some masking tape. Something called a "bubble buster" is fun. It's an alcohol torch for popping little bubbles before they dry in the epoxy on your wrappings. It takes a light touch, though, because it makes your epoxy runny and it can fry the nylon thread wrappings underneath.

If you can hack the $140 or so for a Flex Coat cork lathe powered by a hand drill, do it. Shaping the handle on the blank is a lot easier than the jury-rigged methods I've tried for making grips off the blank then boring them out to fit the blank. The lathe lets you bore and fit the cork rings one at a time, giving a perfect, on-center bond of cork to blank. Shaping grips off the blank too easily leads to the embarrassment, aggravation, and expense of making a new grip when you ream out too much of the core or get it off center. If you get the lathe now, maybe getting a friend to share the cost, you can amortize the cost over all the rods you build.

One advantage to the lathe is that you can make your grips fat, which some find makes them more comfortable than those on off-the-rack rods. If you want to slim it down later, just tape on a guide(s) to counterbalance the stripping guide(s) on the lower section, put it back in the lathe, and sand away. (Skip Morris does rough shaping on a lathe using a high-speed Dremel tool, which invites disaster if you slip and it digs into the cork. You get more control and less risk using 40 or 60 grit sandpaper for that chore.)

Now for the rod itself. I suggest making a spinning rod first because your mistakes will be a lot easier to live with. When you're done, you can afford to keep it or give it away, unless you're too embarrassed by the outcome. The important thing is that your brain, eyes, and hands will have learned the basics of epoxy flow, wrapping, guide alignment, and grip shaping in the process. Even if you can afford to do a clumsy first job on a $200 blank, why make something you don't want to fish with?

Before moving on to a top-of-the-line fly rod blank, you might make one with an inexpensive blank for some kind of fishing you don't do often enough to invest much money in-maybe a short, light rod for very small waters. Think of it as low-risk skill enhancement. Besides, you get another rod.

When you're ready for the big time, don't expect to save a lot of money on your dream rod. First, top brand blanks are expensive. Second, you'll probably invest what you might have saved in special hard-finish guides and a better-than-stock reel seat. Add the cost of a bag and tube and you're going to be closing in on retail, though you'll have made a higher-quality rod than you can buy. If you have to buy a new reel because you don't have one the right size for the new rod, well now you've gone and done it, haven't you?

When choosing guides, there are a lot of options in finish and configuration. One of the advantages of building your own is that you can use larger stripping guides, which Lefty Kreh and many others recommend for less friction and better shooting. There are all sorts of recommendations and formulas for guide spacing, but the best bet is to get the blank manufacturer's recommendations. Apparently stresses at the ferrule(s) require some accommodation that are not provided by formulas that give you an orderly mathematical progression of guide spacing from top to bottom.

When shopping for blanks, guides, seats, and miscellaneous parts, there is much to be said for buying and building relationships at local shops. But in Houston at least, the local inventory seems somewhat limited, though perhaps your favorite shop can special order your blank.

If you want enough information to get oriented-and enough choices to get good and confused-get a catalog from Angler's Workshop in Woodland, WA (www.anglersworkshop.com). They have top and not-so-top brand blanks as well as their own label. They also have a great variety of reel seat and guide options. Best of all, they know their stuff and they'll make an extra effort to help you out. Even if you buy locally, their catalog is a great reference and will give you additional options.

Anyhow, if you want to give it a try, have fun. Go slow. And stop what you're doing and back off as soon as something doesn't feel just right. If you make a mistake, short of snapping the blank, odds are you can undo it. I've been able to shave off and redo epoxy-coated wrappings that turned inexplicably lumpy on the last coating without damaging the blank. One more caution. Once you take rod building into your own hands, there's no telling where it will lead. One day you'll see a book on making bamboo rods and think, "Say, this doesn't look all that hard." Or you'll decide to build your own kayak. Even the folks at Betty Ford won't be able to help once you head down that path.

Richard Stanley

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