It’s only natural after practicing a craft for a number of years to want to expand more deeply into it. This comes in the form of reading, talking to knowledgable people, developing your own personal techniques, and connecting more with the smaller pieces that make up the whole. In the case of fly fishing, it often includes things like dedicating oneself to a new method for a period of time or learning to tie flies.
This month for me was about learning to build my first fly rod.
This isn’t going to be a how-to, a step-by-step guide, or anything that remotely resembles something instructional. It’s going to be a play-by-play of the process I took to build my rod: what I learned, where I messed up, helpful tips I got along the way, etc.
For those who have never built one before (like me, just a few weeks ago), it’s not always obvious what building one even means. My buddy Jon Hill, who makes and sells rods as Yellowfin Custom Rods, gave me a walkthrough beforehand that opened my eyes to what goes into a fly rod.
All the things I’d taken for granted using bought fly rods came to light. Tiny pieces like the winding check and hook keeper are rarely noticed when you’re fishing. But, they’re things you need to make time for when you’re building.
What is building a rod?
One of the things I was slightly embarrassed to say before I got started was that I didn’t exactly know what building a rod meant. I knew very basically that it involved combining the pieces together, but some people may not even know that.
Think of building a rod as putting together a puzzle, but one in which you have some input on how the final product turns out. In the case of fly rods, “building” does not actually mean you’re necessarily creating any of the parts. Here, “building” mostly means assembling, and I think more people would have a grasp on the process if we called it “assembling a fly rod.”
In this process, you start with rod blanks (the main pieces of a rod, usually in 2’s, 3’s or 4’s depending on the rod). Blanks, as their name suggests, have nothing on them. No guides, no handle, no place for the reel. They’re just the raw pieces of painted graphite or fiberglass that make up the backbone of the rod.
The building part entails adding all the features that turn blanks into a rod. This includes attaching the guides in the correct places, adding the handle and reel seat, and aligning everything to make a cohesive final product.
Choosing the components
Like I said, this is not a how-to. That will become evident as soon as I get through this section without telling you how to choose your components. I got the components that were available to me through Jon, and in most cases got to make some decisions based on feel, appearance, and rod specifications. I’m not here to tell you which brands are good or bad.
I wanted a 6-weight rod for bass fishing and throwing streamers, so I chose blanks for a 9-foot 6-weight with medium-fast action.
After that came choosing the smaller components. Some of these actually had options, and others were just what Jon had available. The guides, tip-top (which, admittedly, I had always just called a guide until I recently learned the real name), and hook keeper were all “take what’s available” pieces.
The cork, reel seat, and thread I chose. I chose the cork based on feel, and the reel seat and thread based on appearance. With deep blue blanks, Jon suggested grey thread with electric blue highlights, so I trusted his advice.
Here’s what I had to work with
- Rod blanks
- Cork handle
- Reel seat (and cap)
- Hook keeper
- Winding check
- Epoxy for thread wraps
- Epoxy for bigger hardware
There were also various other pieces of equipment used that weren’t actually part of the rod. These included brushes, a motor to spin the rod, a stand to hold the rod, tools to help with stacking the thread nicely, tape, and more.
The rod’s spine
The first step was to find the spine and belly of the rod. This means checking each blank to find out where its “sweet spot” of bending is. Each blank has a direction it naturally bends.
For the thicker blanks, especially on a 4-piece rod where each piece is fairly short, finding the spine isn’t very easy, or very necessary. However, the first and second blanks from the tip benefit from following the spine, and also aren’t hard to spine.
For each piece, I placed one end on a hard surface and bent the blank while rotating it. Each one had a noticeable sweet spot, where it’d seem to just “fall” into a nice bend. I used a few pieces of tape and a sharpie to mark a line along the natural bend. After doing that for each piece and putting all the pieces together, the rod had an extremely obvious natural direction of bend.
The belly, or underside of the bend, is where the guides needed to go.
Planning the guides
Notice that this section is called “planning” the guides, as opposed to adding the guides, because the planning is just as important. Obviously, they need to be lined up together, but you’re also trying to make sure they’re spaced properly and are lined up with the blanks.
In the case of my 4-piece rod, the bottom blank had no guides, which made things easier on that one. On the other three blanks, I used a chart Jon gave me to plan my spacing. Spacing is determined by the length and weight of the rod.
I measured out each guide location and marked the spots with more tape and sharpie. Now I had marks for both the guide spots and the belly of the rod.
The next step was to file down the ends of each guide. Since the guides are eventually held onto the blanks with thread wraps, the ends should come down to a gradual point to allow the thread to climb up onto them. Unfortunately, filing them down is harder than it sounds. The first “wish I’d known” moment came when I started filing and realized it’d be much easier with an electric rotary file than a hand file. The guides are small spirals, and trying to hold them still while applying file pressure is pretty difficult. If you’re considering a self-built rod, look into power tools for this step.
Once the ends were a smooth as I could muster, it was time to tape the guides into place, aligning them with the belly. I found this to be possibly the most frustrating part of the whole experience. The guides appear uniform at first glance, but once you place them on the blank, it becomes apparent that they’re all unique. Some were straight, some slightly off-kilter, and some really off-kilter. I did a decent bit of bending to try to get them straight enough to sit nicely on a blank. Once there, each got two thin strips of tape to hold it in place.
Wrapping the guides and ferrules
Wrapping the guides with thread was fairly tedious at times, but also mildly therapeutic. Again, I’m not going to really explain in detail how to do this step, but I’ll give a brief overview of what’s going on.
With the rod sitting horizontally on the stand, I went guide-by-guide adding the thread. You get the wrap started slightly off to the side of the end of the guide. Then, you slowly turn the rod and keep pressure on the thread to make tight, clean wraps around the blank. One of the tools I used was meant for pushing the thread to keep each wrap tight against the previous.
When I got to the guide, I “jumped” the thread up onto it, as my manual filing didn’t get it as flush as I’d hoped. After completing enough tight wraps to lock down that side of the guide, I used another small tool similar to a bobbin threader to hold the end of the thread until I was ready to pull it back under the wraps to lock it in.
I repeated this step for each guide, and then did essentially the same thing at each ferrule. For the ferrules, I also added decorative blue wraps (which wasn’t very hard with a little instruction from Youtube).
Here are a few lessons I learned during the wraps.
- Your neck will get very sore, and breaks are a lifesaver.
- Having a good way to keep tension on the thread would be very helpful. I only had my hand, but Jon suggested running the thread through a closed book or something similar. If you have access to a nice stand, it probably has a way to keep tension.
- The thread will still move a bit even after you’ve tied it off. Before moving on to epoxy, clean up the thread a bit by using a tool to stack the wraps tightly.
- Leave a little tag end out until you’re ready to epoxy, in case you need to pull it to tighten the last few wraps.
- After each guide, look down the blank to make sure they’re all still lined up. They can shift a bit during wraps, and slightly adjusting the ones that are only taped to match the wrapped ones isn’t difficult.
Adding the reel seat, cork handle, and winding check
I should mention that the order in which I did things isn’t gospel. Some people do this step immediately after spining the rod, but I wanted to get the guides done while I was still in tape-and-sharpie mode. This order wouldn’t work if there were guides on the blank with the handle, as you’d be unable to slide the handle down the blank with guides in the way.
Since I had a 4-piece rod with no guides and a nearly undetectable spine on the first blank, I also didn’t have to worry much about which way the reel seat faced. This was really nice, because it would have taken noticeably longer to do on a blank where direction mattered more.
By far the most frustrating part of adding the reel seat and cork was hollowing out the insides to make them fit my blank. Obviously, all rods are a bit different, so you need to adjust the standard hardware to fit your blanks.
This involved a ton of filing using a rat tail file, as both the cork and the reel seat were too small to fit at the bottom of my blank. If the reel seat had been too big, I’d have needed to add layers of tape to make it fit.
My tips for the filing process on these are to make sure you file evenly around the inside and to check your progress frequently. I didn’t want to have to add tape just because I accidentally filed too far.
I had the good fortune of getting a reel seat that was already fully constructed apart from the cap on the end, and that fit perfectly with my cork. If it hadn’t, I would have filed the cork to fit that, as well. If it hadn’t already been constructed, I would have had to spend a lot of time assembling it and making sure it fit my reels.
Once I had the handle and reel seat sized correctly, I filed down the rod blank where they sit to remove the glossy paint (sandpaper also works). This ensures that the glue has something to stick to.
When I had a matte blank, I applied the epoxy and situated the reel seat at the end of the blank. In the same batch, I also glued the cap onto the end. Tip: the cap kept popping off as I let it sit, so I used tape to hold everything up onto the blank. Once that all dried, I slid the cork down from the top, applied some glue, and situated it down to rest with the reel seat.
The winding check (the small metal ring that sits at the top of the cork to make it look nice), was the final addition to the handle area. It slid right down and sat at the top of the cork, no glue needed.
Adding the tip-top and hook keeper
The last two steps before finishing off the rod with epoxy were adding the tip-top and hook keeper. I added the hook keeper above the handle the same way I added all the guides, with tape and thread. The thread pressed up against the winding check, holding it in place. The important thing here is to remember to line the hook keeper up with the space for the reel. With no guides on this blank, the reel is the only thing I needed to line up with the keeper.
Then, I added the tip-top. For this, I had a stick of glue that reminded me of the ammo for a hot glue gun. I shaved off a few pieces of this, stuck them into the tip-top, heated it with a lighter, and placed it on the tip of the blank to align with the rest of the guides. I also added a few wraps of thread at the base of the tip-top to give it a smooth transition onto the blank.
Jon’s least favorite part of the process was one of my favorites: epoxying the thread wraps.
After tightening and straightening the thread, I trimmed off the tag ends. Then I pieced the rod together and put the handle into a motor that slowly rotated the rod.
With Jon’s advice, I let the epoxy tubes sit in hot water for a few minutes to thin them, and then mixed equal parts, stirring for a few minutes. Also with his advice, I trimmed the bristles of the paintbrush I was using to give myself more control of the epoxy.
For each place with thread (guides, ferrules, tip-top, and hook keeper) I had to coat with epoxy. With the rod spinning on the motor, I held the brush on the thread, making sure to cover every bit of it. I also moved the brush slightly off to the side of every wrap, for a little overlap onto the blank.
After each wrap, I waved a little flame close to the epoxy to lift out any bubbles. This had the added benefit of thinning it out again, especially near the end when the epoxy was becoming noticeably thicker.
This whole step was a race against the clock. While the epoxy took around 36 hours to totally dry, it started to thicken only 30-45 minutes into the process. I noticed a sweet spot right in the middle of the rod, where the epoxy wasn’t too thick or too thin. Just right for getting a clean coating.
After finishing all the wraps, I let the rod continue to rotate for the next 24 hours and then applied a second coat. Another 36 hours after that, the rod was complete!
Takeaway and lessons learned
By far, the biggest lesson I learned throughout the process is to not worry about striving for perfection.
Do I want to put good work into building myself a rod? Of course. That said, it’s crazy to assume your first attempt will be your best, and this is the type of project that could drive you mad if you’ll only accept perfection.
When all was said and done, I noticed some imperfections on my rod. Some of the epoxy coats are slightly thicker on one side than the other. Some of the thread wraps moved slightly while I was applying epoxy, and you can see tiny gaps in places. A few of the guides that were particularly egregious to file had larger “jumps” for the thread to cross, and those are visible.
However, these problems are aesthetic. At the end of the day, as long as the guides are aligned, the thread is wrapped securely, and the glue holds, my rod will catch fish.
I’ll have plenty of opportunities to build more rods, and my goal is to improve the craftsmanship each time. If I’d worried about getting this one perfect the first time, I probably would have quit halfway through.
At the end of the day, this was a fun project to connect me more to fishing, learn a new skill, and get a new rod that will surely haul in lots of fish over the years. If you have the chance to try building a rod of your own, work hard but don’t stress if it doesn’t look like the Sage rod sitting across the room.