Rolling Your Own Rods: Part 2 Construction Tips

by Louis Bignami Editor and Publisher

I've made at least 30 rods over the last 50 years. I've lost rods to car doors, a Springer Spaniel, various airlines and considerable personal foolishness. Some ran to 15 or even 20 feet; others were three foot ice fishing rods. I've tried running line down the inside of the blank, used British long rods and even composites with fiberglass butts and graphite tips. I once broke six graphite surf sticks in a single day - these were rather unfortunate prototypes without hoop strength.

Author with a 15 foot graphite for casting distance or fish "you wouldn't want to touch with a 12-foot pole."

PHOTO: ANNETTE LUCIDO

Most of these rods worked. A few worked better than "store-bought." Most didn't work as well, but there's a special feeling when you're flinging lures thirty feet farther and into, rather than "short of" schooled fish because you've more length. Best of all, rolling your own rods beats masochistic practices like winter steelheading and makes couch potato days watching football in the winter at least marginally productive. But I know I'm not as expert as the pros. So consider this a series of tips that will help you roll a decent rod your first time out. Then check a good how-to book or video on rod making.

"Splineless" Wonders

Splining the rod is the first step. This lets you mount the guides in line with the stiff side of the blank -- there is a stiff side on all rods made by rolling fiberglass, graphite or Kevlar "cloth" on a metal form, or mandrel, saturating it with fiberglass and then cooking off. The edge of this cloth causes the spline. To find the stiff side of each section simply roll the tip of the blank across a flat table when the blank is bent. The rod will "jump" opposite the stiff side. I mount the stiff side opposite my spinning rod and flyrod guides and under my trolling and casting rod guides. Either way works so long as the stiff section isn't off-line. That causes lateral vibrations and other problems on the cast.

Getting A Grip

Grips aren't difficult. If you use foam you can easily pull them on blanks by wetting the blank with soapy water. Then, after you see how the grips work, you can repeat with cement. I use simple waterproof cement from the hardware store. If you plan to add a reel seat you need to build up the blank to take the seat. I use plain paper tape here. It works fine so long as you remember to keep a tight fit.

Custom rod with special grip designed to jig Vertical Rapalas.

PHOTO: LOUIS BIGNAMI

With cork, care starts with the selection. Pick the best cork rings you can find. Look at the flat side. Avoid those with lots of pits. Cork needs to be reamed out to a snug fit. A standard rat tail file works. I mount all rings and reel seats over a soaped blank, make adjustments, remove and then glue. Don't worry about glue on the outside of the rings. Sand these down later.

You can also form rings on a long bolt and completely finish the grip before it's mounted. I'd rather form mine in place to fit my hands. Do save the cork dust that results from fitting. Very fine dust mixed with some standard waterproof glue fills cork pits and finishes into a baby bottom smooth surface. I rarely bother, but it looks lovely until you use the rods a season or so and forget to wipe the bait off your hands before each cast.

Realize that reel seats are optional. Various tapes or clamps work quite well if you don't want to change reels.

Going With Guides

The next step is spacing the guides. First glue in the tip top to line up with the spline. Then string guides on a line between the rod grip and tip top so the guides will be on top of the blank. Extend the line to a weight just large enough to depress the rod tip 90 degrees. Attach the guide nearest the reel - I use plastic tape on one foot of double foot guides, and a strip as skinny as a Copacabana Beach bathing suit on single foot guides.

Space out the remaining guides so they grow gradually closer as you get to the tip. The line should not touch the rod. If it does, your guides are too far apart and you need one or two small ones near the rod's tip. Too many guides, so long as the rod balances, are better than too few, the usual situation with cheap rods. After the guides are placed, remove the line and weight.

Wild Wraps

Wrapping uses a loop of contrasting color thread to pull the wrap end back under the wrap where it is trimmed. Some singe the wraps for smoother result. I'm either too lazy or unskilled to do this so I don't bother. I do try to use a wrap thread size suited to the rod. Quite fine thread works for ultralights; you need to go to heavier thread for trolling rods. For very heavy rods you might double wrap so guide feet rest on a reinforcing and cushioning layer. Shrink wrap and tape are other options worth considering.

All sorts of fancy devices are used to tension threads or hold rods. A chair with wooden arms set in front of a stack of books used to weight down tying thread is cheap and effective. Wrap one set of guide feet with double foot guides . Then remove the tape and wrap the other. It's important to sight down the guides after wrapping but before finishing, and wiggle things a bit to make sure everything lines up.

I usually add a sloppy coat of epoxy. Years back I would varnish rods with several coats of wrap and a nice rod coat. Drying in a dustless area usually produced a rod that would look nice for about six trips before the inevitable dings. I now use dull finishes that won't flash in the sun on stream or flats to flush fish, or I just epoxy wraps and, as often as not, don't even bother to rotate the blanks as they dry for a totally even finish.

Note: you can rotate wraps with a barbecue motor or various store-bought devices to insure even coats. Fancy types add diamond and other decorative wraps or write their name on the blanks. I don't bother any more. Since I test blanks, I'm always wrapping, trying and fiddling. In some tests guides are just taped on. This process continues until I get the result I enjoy best. You can too! 

Given a minimal effort, your result should be a custom rod that exactly suits your needs. There is, however, a drawback. Once you start to wrap a rod you may get hooked. Relatives and friends will advance their own ideas and hint for their own rods. You may end up, as I have, with a dozen custom-wrapped rods in your garage racks. You might, as I did, teach your wife to wrap too. Kids who sometimes trash gift rods, seem to take better care of rods they wrapped. So there are benefits besides the pure pleasure of taking a fish on a rod you have wrapped. Add a lure or fly that you made yourself and you can be dowright smug when describing your results to the envious who lack "custom" tackle. Just don't call it homemade.