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Vintage Rods - The Great Rod Makers

Split-cane rods can be made on grooved wooden hand planing forms that are cheap and relatively simple to construct. Very little capital was required to acquire the tools and raw materials required to start rod-making. With the necessary knowledge and skill, perhaps gained whilst in employment with one of the large rod-making firms, it was possible for almost anyone to set up in private business as a rod maker. Hundreds of rods were made by one-man-band operations. Despite the simplicity of the method, it was perfectly possible to build to fine tolerances, and some excellent rods were made by these small businesses. Output was small compared to that of the big manufacturing companies, nevertheless, it was sufficient to provide a reasonable income. Towards the end of the split cane era, some comparatively small companies acquired machines for beveling their cane, and their production capability was easily able to keep up with the demands of the shrinking market. When tubular fibre-glass became available, and split cane fell from general favour, many cane beveling machines became redundant. When the Sharpes of Aberdeen rod-making business was sold, the stock inventory included two splendid cast-iron cane bevelers. Unbelievably, one complete unit was smashed with a sledge-hammer because it was too big to store in its new factory. The same fate probably befell other fine ‘out-dated’ machines.

Although there are still plenty of rods in existence that were entirely hand-planed on wooden forms, the vast majority to be found will have been made by one of the big concerns, and will have been machine-beveled. There is no implied criticism in that description. Hand-planed strips should be completely consistent in shape, but the human input into each strip means, almost inevitably, that there will be minor planing inconsistencies. These inconsistencies (and other possible factors) lead to a marked ‘spine’ in the rod - a tendency to have one or more weak planes. Ideally, these would be absent from a perfect rod. Machine-beveled strips SHOULD be more consistent, and therefore offer better components to go on to the gluing process. Of course, perfectly beveled 60º strips are only one of many elements that go into the production of a ‘perfect’ split cane rod, but without them it is unlikely that the completed cane will be perfect. The completed rod was an accumulation of many raw material and manufacturing inputs. We therefore find that despite possible inconsistencies caused by hand-planing on wooden forms, the rods made by master rodmakers such as Ted Southwell and Ted Oliver, are profoundly superior to those made with machine-beveled cane marketed by (say) the Modern Arms company.

The restorer finds that rods vary tremendously in quality. Even the great names produced rods that varied considerably from batch to batch, and particularly from generation to generation. For example: the famous Allcocks Wizard rod seems to have reached its quality zenith during the late nineteen-thirties and forties. Wizards from this era are beautifully made, and when restored are often found to be superbly steely. The butt sections of Wizards from late production appear to have been made from smaller diameter whole cane, and the split cane sections often seem to be a little tired. As much as anything, this may be simply a reflection of the quality of raw materials available during the later production period.

Some makers offered two or three grades of rod to suit the varying depth of customer’s pockets: it wasn’t everyone that could afford a ‘best rod’. In some cases it seems that the grade was dependent upon the quality and price of the fittings. In other cases the manufacturer appears to have uses lower quality standards throughout, and (it’s likely) lower grades of raw materials. This variation in grade is particularly noticeable in late production rods. Before the second World war, and perhaps up to the early 1950’s it was a matter a pride within some companies to reject any material considered to be less than perfect. I have been told that before the war Hardys rejected up to 70% of each batch of Tonkin. This highly selective view of Tonkin stock worked well until the supply of Tonkin dwindled. It seems that a more pragmatic selection process would then have become inevitable.

It is difficult to know how many of the named rods were constructed from split cane made ‘in house’. It was common for highly respected ‘rod makers’ to buy in completed split cane from specialist makers. These blanks were sometimes made to the preparation and taper specification of the shop, but many appear to have been of a generic type for a purpose, e.g. two piece 8’0” spinning rod for 8 - 12 lb. line, or three piece general 11’0” bottom rod, or 9’ fly rod for 6 weight line. Such blanks would be finished and brand-labeled by the seller, and would be regarded (rightly or wrongly) as products of that seller. To complicate matters further, some of the great fishing tackle houses also made completed products for others to brand. For example, I am told that Milwards made hundreds of rods under contract. With the rod-building skills within that company, these products are likely to have been made to a consistently high standard. Continuation of article

The enthusiast restorer has one great advantage over the manufacturer - he does not have to be The enthusiast restorer has one great advantage over the manufacturer - he does not have to be quite so ‘cost-effective’. This term probably hadn’t even been coined when the old manufacturers were extant, but it means the restorer does not have to return the same predictable profit. Despite the undoubted skills possessed by their highly trained artisans, the old manufacturers were constrained in the amount of time that could be allotted to each rod by the necessity to turn out goods at a price the public would pay. The basic process of rod construction could not be reduced very much, but the finishing work - handle, whipping, and varnishing - could. I have had the opportunity to inspect many rods in perfect original condition, some of then unused for forty or fifty years. I have been surprised to see just how poor the finish often was, compared to the super-fine finishes that we expect these days. There were exceptions of course, prestigious London firms like Hardys, Ogden Smiths, and Farlows: in Birmingham, Westley Richards: in Newcastle Papes, and several fine rod-makers in the Scottish cities. These high class firms catered for a more Patrician clientele, who were prepared to pay for the best. The vast majority of rods though were finished in quite an ordinary way. The restorer, with no time restraints, and motivated by a pursuit of perfection, can transform restoration rods to a standard that would put even the best rods of Hardys to shame.

What’s in a name?

For many years I laboured under the mistaken impression that ‘proper rods’ were made to carefully calculated tapers. Further to my discredit, and probably to the detriment of my rods’ abilities, I would never have dreamed of buying a rod from an obscure maker who had ‘borrowed’ a famous rod name. A Mk.IV made by any company other than B.James was not a real Mk.IV. Without the right label, it was the wrong rod. What stupidity: how many missed opportunities I must have suffered. More recently I have discovered that famous-named old rods can vary enormously between samples. Not only do they vary in ‘feel’, they vary in split-cane dimensions, and particularly in whole cane dimensions. They vary in weight, and in colour of cane, indicating variations in baking times between one batch of cane and another. Nevertheless, they all have the same name on the butt, and are all regarded by anglers as the same rod model. Clearly this is not rocket science. Less clearly, but just as surely, a rod made from cannibalised lengths of cane can be as sweet and efficient a creature as anything blessed with a great original label.

New makers have taken to producing rods with great names that bear little resemblance to their illustrious originals. The original Kennet Perfection was made by B. James. The latest version made by Barder is a ‘Kennet Perfection’ in name only. It is stiffer, heavier overall, and even has a hollow butt section. It is a very fine rod indeed, but it is not really a Kennet Perfection. This doesn’t matter a jot. The essential thing is that it is a first-class fishing rod. The name is an indication of what the rod is, rather than a precise description of a machine-made product.

Not even registered names have been entirely immune from this process. As far as I am aware, no-one has actually attempted to market a rod with the famous Wallis Wizard name, but rods with remarkably similar specifications bearing the names, Wallis Master, Avon Wizard, and Senior Wizard, have been seen. It would be interesting to view Hardys’ reaction to an alternative manufacturer’s marketing of the highly desirable France, Fairy, and Marvel models. Of course, famous rod types may still be produced by alternative manufacturers after the original makers have changed their specification, or have gone out of business. Most fair-minded observers would consider that to be acceptable.

Playing around with a stack of blanks and a micrometer, it is remarkable to find that there is precious little variation in tapers between one rod and another. It is certainly true to say that split cane in fly rods tends to be made with slower tapers than those destined for coarse rods. It is also true to say that in spite of this, marriages between lengths of fly rod blank, and lengths of coarse rod blank can produce delightfully usable rods. Mixed marriages do work. What I am trying to convey is the amenable and forgiving nature of these materials. There is good reason to believe that a ‘near-enough’ replacement for a broken rod section will be even more successful than the carefully calculated original.

It is very nice to have a prestigious name on a rod, but it is always good to remember that the name of the game is fishing - not posing. Return to home page


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