A Rod Building Primer

The purpose of this article is to provide a rough overview of the components, concepts and techniques used in rod building. It is not intended to be a definitive collection of all the tips of the trade, nor should it be as each rod builder does it his own way.

Rod building at its core really is a simple task. Most anyone can do it. It requires very basic and inexpensive hand tools, the rod components, minimal dexterity and a few hours of your time. It’s those rod builders that take the time to understand the relationships that each component shares as well as the technology behind the components that can achieve a level of performance that is unmatched in the commercial rod building industry.

Let’s go over the components that make up a rod.

1. A blank
2. A reel seat
3. Graphite arbors or other suitable material
4. Appropriate guides
5. Either a preformed handle kit or cork rings for turning
6. Slow curing epoxy
7. Wrapping thread
8. 2 part rod finish epoxy

Blank - The blank is the core of any rod. There are many characteristics that affect the feel and action of a rod. Two of the most widely known but often misunderstood characteristics are action and power. Action refers to how the blanks walls are tapered from the butt end to the top. A fast action blank will flex in the upper third of the rod when fighting a fish where as a slow action blank will flex down into the bottom third of the blank. Power refers to how much resistance a particular blank has under load. So a medium lite power, fast action blank would flex in the top third and have sufficient power for small to medium sized freshwater fish.

Blanks are marketed according to various levels of graphite measured as modulus. A 33 million modulus blank is referred to as IM6. There is no such thing as an IM7 or IM8 blank! These are just marketing ploys to try to get more sales. All blanks are based off of IM6 and depending on the modulus goes up in price and sensitivity. Modulus is basically how much actual material is in the blank. A 44 million modulus blank will be heavier and less sensitive but more durable than a 54 million modulus blank and the 54 million modulus blank will be lighter and more sensitive but less durable than the 44 million modulus blank.

Reel Seat - The reel seat provides a solid platform from which you mount your particular reel. There are varying levels of quality among the reel seat manufacturers but Fuji is at the top of the list. There are many styles of seats and in some rod designs there is no reel seat at all! The type of seat you choose will be loosely dictated by the type of rod you are building. Casting trigger seats for casting and spin casting rods, fly seats for fly rods and some spinning rods and spin seats for, you guessed it, spinning rods. Seats are sized in millimeters from 16 up to 24 and larger. This size refers to the inside diameter of the opening of the seat. A size 16 works well for ultra lights and people with small to medium sized hands. 18 and 20 are for more powerful rods with larger reels and people with large hands. Fly and spin seats can be mounted in the up locking or down locking positions based on the fisherman’s preference.

Arbors - Arbors are nothing more than a gap filler most commonly used to shim reel seats or handles. The best material to use for both sensitivity and weight is graphite. These are sold by the tackle companies in various sizes to match a particularly sized reel seat. They can easily be worked to have a snug fit. Other choices for arbors are brick foam, wrapping thread, cork rings and drywall mesh tape although tape should be considered as a last resort.

Guides - Guides are the rings that guide your line from the reel to the tip of the rod. These come in many sizes, shapes, colors and materials. This area along with rod blanks require a good understanding of what the specific characteristics are of the materials in order to build the best rod for the type of fishing you will be doing. The two most common types of guide ring material are aluminum composites and ceramics. Aluminum rings are cheaper, less durable and don’t dissipate heat as well as ceramics. Aluminum rings are fine for most light to medium freshwater fishing but you are better served by spending a little extra for the ceramics. Aluminum rings are also susceptible to grooving from braided lines especially if there is debris such as sand in the braid its self.

Handle - Handles or grips are a pretty straight forward component. You have two choices when it comes to handles, either a pre formed handle kit or buying cork rings and making your own. There is nothing wrong with quality handles but the quality or cork used in their making is usually of lesser quality than you can achieve by making your own. Preformed handles often require filling of the pits and crevices and then sanding to get a truly smooth handle. By buying high quality rings you can skip the filling of pits due to the higher quality. But as with everything else, higher quality means higher price. Other materials used in handles are hypalon, a foam type material, wood, bone, antler or horn or just about anything else you choose to fashion. Another consideration is handle length. For casting rods a longer handle is usually preferred as are split grips. For rods that will be used on bigger and more powerful fish, longer fore grips are desired.

Rod Building Epoxy - Just about any epoxy can be used in the construction of a rod. Most rod builders use a specially formulated 2 part slow curing epoxy. The slow cure allows for minute adjustments of the components over a long period without having to hurry getting it just right before the epoxy sets up. You don’t want your rod to come apart on you at a bad time so use a quality epoxy! This epoxy is used to adhere the handle and reel seat to the blank.

 

Wrapping Thread - This is nylon or silk based thread that is used to secure the guides to the blank as well as any additional thread artwork on the rod. Common sizes are A (small) D (Large) and 00 (fine). For most freshwater game fishing rods size A is used. Thread comes in 100 or 950 yard spools and all colors under the rainbow are available.

Finish Epoxy - This is a two part epoxy system that has a slow cure. The finish epoxy covers the guide wraps as well as any other thread work on the rod. The epoxy is specially formulated to resist UV rays as well as the natural elements and is somewhat flexible. Spar urethanes can also be used as a thread or blank finish.

As you can see there are varying combinations of components and individual component technologies that go into building a rod and as I stated earlier those of us who study the benefits of these factors will produce a better rod!

Cone of Flight vs. New Concept

As rod building has evolved over the years, rod builders have adapted to produce the best rods available. Technology isn’t the only thing to change the way things are done concerning rod building. There have been improvements in the concepts behind what makes a rod better. As I stated earlier, Fuji produces some of the best components in the tackle industry. They also lead the way in research. As a product of this marriage between technology and component innovation Fuji has developed what they call the Fuji New Concept Guide Spacing System.

As of a few years ago all spinning rods were built with a guide placement system based on the Cone of Flight theory. This theory states that the best way to control and then choke the line unfurling off the reel spool face is to start with a large ringed guide and each subsequent guide should gradually be reduced in size (i.e. 20,16,12,10,8,8,7) until the line reaches a straight path somewhere towards the tip. This loosely resembles a cone shape in how the line is choked down. This was the de facto standard for many years.

Then a few years ago Fuji did considerable testing of guide placement and selection and found a method that was better than the Cone of Flight system. What Fuji found was that by drastically choking the unfurling line quickly, in two to three guides, (i.e. 16, 10,6,6,6,6,6) and then using the smallest and lightest guides you have chosen for the rod, that the amount of weight on the rod had been reduced (by using smaller and lighter guides) and in doing so sensitivity had been increased. Fuji also found that casting distance had increased slightly by using this new method.

This New Concept System works extremely well and should be considered the proper way of choosing and placing guides for any spinning rod.

Simple Spiral

When it comes to casting rods not a whole lot has changed. One thing that has changed is the way guides can be placed on the blank. As anyone who has fished a bait caster for a few hours can tell you, they can put a strain on your wrist. This is due to the weight of the reel being on top of the rod as well as the guides and the line also being on top. So when you have a fish or any load on the rod, all the weight and pressure is pulling the blank from the top downward as well as trying to twist the rod one way or another. Now imagine that we were to route the line from the top of the rod to the bottom. This would off set the instability of the rod and it would no longer want to twist one way or another in our hands. The process of doing this is called the Simple Spiral method.

To achieve this, place your guides on the top of the rod as you normally would then flip all but the butt guide 180° to the bottom of the blank. Then you would ADD a low framed, small ringed guide at 90° in between the butt guide and the second guide. This transition guide keeps the line off the blank as it travels from the top of the blank to the bottom. After many tests and many rod builders using this method, if was determined that although a little odd looking, this Simple Spiral method produced a better bait casting rod.

These two methods just discussed are examples of improvements in rod building that you cannot generally find in commercial fishing rods thus giving the custom rod builder several advantages over the industry.

Spine - The spine or spline of a rod refers to a physical effect created when the blank was manufactured. To understand spine you must have a little knowledge of how a blank is made. Thin graphite sheets are laid out and a pattern resembling a triangle with the top cut off is transferred to the sheet. These sheets are then cut and layered with an adhesive in between the sheets. This graphite adhesive sandwich is then wrapped around a tapered mandrel and pressure cooked. This forms the solid graphite blank. This cooked blank is cooled then removed from the mandrel and finished. This process causes the blank to show a natural curve which we call the spine. The spine is the result of the graphite sheets being wrapped around the mandrel in an uneven manner which causes an uneven pattern in the thickness of the rod blank walls. The spine affects different parts of the blank all along the length of the blank. So the spine could be on “top” of the blank near the top and could be on the side of the blank a third of the way down.

To determine the spine of a blank you support the very tip of the blank with one hand and with the other you apply pressure to the middle of the blank while the butt of the blank is resting on the floor. While doing this rotate the butt end of the rod on a flat surface, such as the floor, and you will feel the blank “jump” to a certain spot in this bend. This is the natural position the blank wants to rest in while under a load and the only position of the spine that we measure. The spine is the outside bend or the curve closest to the floor.

Where you locate then spine has little measurable effect on your rod’s performance. In fact, some builders place the guides along the straightest part of the rod as do the commercial builders. If you have a decent understanding of the spine then you can see that there is a little to be gained by where we place the guides in relation to the spine. For example if you want to apply more resistance to fighting a fish, then you would place the spine on the bottom of the rod or put another way, facing the fish. If you want a little more power when casting, place the spine on top of the rod. As I stated earlier, the spine has little measurable effect on either fish fighting or casting distance. So why worry about the spine you ask? Well, even if locating the spine and orienting it the way you want increases the desired characteristics then you have succeeded in creating the best fishing rod available. Every ounce of weight on your rod counts and so does the manner that you set your rod up.

Guide Selection - Guide selection and set up probably contribute the most to the performance of your rod. Do it correctly and you will have the most sensitive, lightest and smoothest casting rod your hands have ever been wrapped around. Get it wrong and you have nothing more than a factory build rod. Let’s discuss a little about guide selection.

What style of guide you choose will depend on your fishing needs. If you are going to fish for bluegill or panfish, guide selection is a lot easier since the quarry does not fight very hard and your method of fishing for them is pretty straight forward. However, if you plan on fishing for bass or larger fish, guide selection will be crucial! The main differences between guides are their frame style and choice of ring material. As stated in part 1, there are two basic kinds of guide ring materials, ceramic and aluminum alloys. The ceramics are harder and dissipate heat more readily than the cheaper aluminum alloys. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the aluminum alloy rings, but you must use them wisely. Since the alloys are a softer material and do not handle heat as well as ceramics, you would be wise to keep the alloys on rods for smaller and less powerful fish. Use the ceramics if you will be using any sort of braid, will be fishing in harsh conditions or if the fish you are after may make powerful runs against your reels drag. Guide rings are measured in millimeters.

Guide frame style is of lesser importance than the ring material you choose. I would recommend a single foot guide for all spinning rods (except heavy duty catfish rods). Use double foot guides for the first 2 guides on a baitcaster and then use single foot guides for the rest. By using a single foot guide you reduce the amount of weight on the blank and therefore increase sensitivity.

Selecting your guide ring sizes depends on the type of rod (Spin or Casting), line size that will be used and the frame size of your intended reel. For most spinning rods used for bass fishing a size 20 or 16 guide will be your largest ringed guide. You can get a general idea of the largest guide you will need by measuring the diameter of your reel face (In millimeters) and dividing that number by 2. This will give you an approximate size for your largest guide (Butt Guide). Then you must decide on the smallest ringed guide that will pass any knots or terminal rigging you will be using. For line less than 20#, a size 6 guide ring will work very well. These smaller guides we refer to as running guides and the majority of your guides will be of this size. All that is left is the intermediate guide(s). These guides will be sized between your butt guide and the running guides. Here is an example of guide ring sizes for a 6’6” rod; 16, 10, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6 Tip Top. This example represents the smallest and lightest guide set up needed to achieve both sensitivity as well as casting distance. There is no need to use every guide size available to choke the line down to a straight path. Remember, we are setting the guides up using Fuji’s New Concept Guide Spacing System as mentioned in Part 1.

Guide Placement/ Set-Up - To figure out where to place your guides for a spinning rod, you need to attach the reel intended to be used on this rod. Remove the spool and tie a piece of string to the spool shaft. Most spin reels have a small degree of upsweep, that is the spool shaft is not exactly parallel with the blank when mounted in the reel seat. As long as your reel has some degree of upsweep we can determine the location of the Intersect guide (First of the smallest ringed guides you will be using) fairly easily. To locate this intersect guide, first place the blank along a straight edge such as a table or a line in the floor. Next take the string attached to the reel spool shaft and extend it in a straight line with the shaft. Where this line and the blank meet is where you will place your first intersect guide. This should be approximately one third of the distance from the rod tip but your results will vary. If your reel has little or no upsweep, then the easiest method to locate where to place the intersect guide is to pick up the blank and hold it in one hand. Then shake the blank back and forth while observing where the flex in the blank occurs. Where the blank flexes while shaking it side to side is where you will place your intersect guide.

From here we will eye ball the remaining running guides with an eye on good stress distribution on the blank. Place your running guides from the intersect guide out to the tip of the blank. At this point you should only have your smallest guides on the blank, from the intersect guide to the tip top. Now we only have two or three guides left to place.

Now we will place the butt guide (Largest ringed guide). To place the butt guide measure 18”-24” up the blank from the reel spool face and place your butt guide here. Don’t worry about getting any of these guides exact as we will be moving them later. All that remains are the intermediate guide(s). In the space that remains between the butt guide and the intersect guide, place your intermediate guide(s) equidistant from each other and the butt and intersect guide. At this point we have successfully placed the guides in their initial positions.

For casting rods, follow the same procedure as described above and use the alternate method for determining the placement of the intersect guide. Remember to place the guides on top of the blank for a casting rod as well as using a two footed guide for the butt guide. The only difference on a casting rod is that you must ensure the line will not rub on the blank or fore grip when in a deep bend or flex. This is done by either moving the butt guide closer or farther from the reel. You can also achieve this by using a higher framed guide for the butt guide.

 

Static Testing - Now that we have the initial guide set up, we can move on and check for proper stress distribution along the blank. The purpose of this test is to see how the line will flow from guide to guide while being flexed to ensure that there is no danger of the rod breaking. To do this first mount the reel in the reel seat with some line spooled on the reel. Next run the line through the guides and out the tip top. On this line tie something that has a little weight, just enough weight to keep the line taught, such as a nut or bolt. Next tie a separate line to the ring on the tip top and tie a water bottle to this line. We now need to support the rod at a 45 degree angle. One way to do this is to close a drawer on the butt of the rod. Once you have your rod supported, add enough water to the water bottle to flex the top third of the blank. Be careful not to exceed a 90 degree bend in the blank at any point in this testing! Now look at your line going through the guides in the top third of the blank. How does the line path look? If the line touches the blank anywhere adjust the guides accordingly to make the line path follow the flex in the blank. You may need to add or remove a guide to achieve the desired results. You want the line to follow the natural bend in the blank without touching the blank or having any extreme angles between the guide ring and the line. When you are satisfied with the results, add enough water to the water bottle to flex the blank two thirds of the length of the blank and repeat the testing as described above. Do this until all guides have been adjusted to provide the best stress distribution along the entire length of the blank in front of the reel seat.

Test Casting - Now that we are sure our rod won’t break under load, we need to test cast the rod to check for line slapping the blank and proper placement of the butt and intermediate guide(s). Tie on a lure that is at the upper end of the rod’s specifications for lure weight. Mark off about 50 yards in 10 yard increments. Now cast the lure paying attention to how the line is coming off the reel spool face and how it is being choked down as it passes through your guide set up. You will more than likely have to move the butt guide closer or farther from the reel to achieve the longest casting distance as well as proper choking of the line. If while you are casting, you see the unfurling line piling up at the butt guide you either need to move it farther away from the reel or use the next larger ringed guide. If the line is slapping the blank either before or after the butt guide you may need to move the butt guide closer to the reel or even use a smaller ringed or framed butt guide. It helps to have various sizes of guides available while test casting for experimental purposes.

Record your results for each move of the butt guide as well as how the line passes through the other guides. Once you have achieved the longest casting distance with proper passing of the line through the guides your rod is now as highly tuned as it will ever be! Now we can visually check the guide placement. Look down the length of the blank and look through the butt guide. If you have done everything properly, the picture you see when looking through the butt guide should resemble that of a shooting target with the guide rings somewhat equally spaced inside one another until you get to the intersect guide.

Congratulations! You have just made your rod superior to any rod on the commercial market!

Additional Info:
 
When placing guides on the blank for either static testing or test casting, I have found that ¼” rubber bands used for braces work extremely well. They allow for quick adjustments and can be cut off after you have wrapped the foot of the guide. Tape also works but I don’t like having to un-wrap the tape, move the guide and then re-wrap the tape around the guide.
Use hot melt glue to affix the tip top to the rod blank. Tip tops are measured in 64ths of and inch. A size 5 tip top is actually 5/64”.
When boring the cork handles, go slow and check for proper fit often. You can always enlarge the opening but you can never make it smaller!
When gluing up the reel seat and handles, be sure they are oriented in the proper position in relation to where you are placing the spine. If you put the spine on top of a spinning rod, be sure the reel seat is facing down.
Anywhere that you will be gluing a component to the blank be sure to lightly scuff the blank with fine grit sand paper to remove the protective finish from the blank. Then wipe the area with a rag soaked with rubbing alcohol to remove any debris or solvents. This will aid in the adhesion of the components to each other and the blank.

At this point I have covered most of the steps in assembling your custom rod. Although I did leave out some steps (such as handle fit and installation), these steps should be pretty straight forward and common sense will aid you in there completion. If you would like further info on custom rod building, I highly suggest purchasing a copy of the book Rod Building Guide: Fly, Spinning, Casting, Trolling by Mr. Tom Kirkman. Also take a look at the website www.rodbuilding.org

Hopefully I have written this guide in such a way so that the average Joe can understand it and follow along in the procedures and methods involved in crafting a fine tool for catching fish. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me via E-Mail at Firstrock@hotmail.com

Tight lines and good wraps!

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