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Custom fishing rod building – Part 1, the basics

Custom rod building is a growing trend among anglers. It is all about making your own rod to fit your own preferences and fishing style. Components are getting easier to obtain and rod-building classes are available, including online, to guide you through each step of building your own custom rod. This is the first of a 3-part series on building custom fishing rods.

Rod building classes lead you through every step of the process.
Ron Presley

Expectations

As is often the case, a recent Mud Hole rod building class in Orlando had been sold out for months as future rod builders awaited the scheduled days. Janet from Ft. Myers was one of the attendees. The very fact that she and other anglers would hit the road and even stay overnight is a testament to the growing popularity of the craft. Janet said her main reason for attending was to learn how to repair her own fishing rods. “I wasn’t sure if I could do it,” commented Janet, “Now, after taking this class, I not only have the knowledge to repair my own rods, I can build one from scratch.”

Like any new project there is a learning curve involved and what seems hard at first gets easier as you gather information and understand the process. “It was not as easy as I thought it would be,” states Janet. “It was very challenging, but also interesting and exciting. The instructors make it look very easy and they are very helpful. Every thing you need to build your rod is provided. The class was laid out very well in a step-by-step procedure that leads you through the process of building your own rod.”

Others agreed with Janet that the ability to repair rods was an expected and valuable outcome of the course, but the notion of building their own rod was foremost in their reasons for coming. “I took this class to learn how to build some fishing rods for my sons,” said Jim from Winter Springs. “They are learning to fish and I want to give them rods they will remember. I think being a custom rod builder shows your caring and dedication to the sport.” Jim also commented that the instructors did make it look easier than it first appeared to him.

Danny from Geneva was also most interested in building his own rods. I just like the idea of knowing what goes into my rod and I also wanted to be able to repair my rods. It is a mysterious process at first, but once you set down and build one it is pretty easy to do.” Time consuming, but easy after you learn, was the description most participants gave of the process.

Why Build Your Own Rod

Brook Oliva of Mud Hole Custom Tackle was one of the instructors in the class. He named Dale Clemens, author of “Advanced Custom Rod Building,” for making the case for custom rod building. “More than any other piece of fishing tackle, the rod is constantly in hand,” says Clemens in his book. “It is, in fact, the extension of the angler’s hand and the primary instrument through which he transmits his fishing skill. […] It is irrefutable logic that the better the rod is matched to the angler, the water, and the specific fishing at hand, the greater will be the expression of the angler’s skill, the more he will enjoy his fishing, and the greater will be his chances of success.”

Brook explained the “why” by saying, “Ultimately, the main reason to build a custom rod is to make yourself a better looking, better functioning, true to your needs rod than you can buy at the store.”

He rationalized that given the amount of time dedicated anglers spend on the water it just makes sense to build something that fits their individual angling needs. “Anyone can buy a cookie cutter rod from a store shelf,” says Brook, “but there are a lot of individual items you can customize that most guys don’t realize are available. For some people the rods become more than a fishing rod, they are works of art. For many it is a matter pride to be able to create a custom rod.”

Decisions and Process

Rod blanks, handle lengths, guide selection, guide spacing, guide location, and rod length are just a few of the decisions to be made when setting out to build a custom rod. Add the huge choice of color and wrap designs available and it soon becomes apparent that your custom rod truly can be one of a kind. “To me,” commented Brook, “the main thing is to build yourself a better performing and better looking piece of equipment than you can get in any other way.”

The very first thing good rod building instructors teach is the process of finding the spine of the rod blank. “The initial thing we preach to people is understanding the spine of the rod blank.” Brook explained that the spine is created when the rod blank is produced in the factory. There is a tapered steel mandrel that the rod material is rolled around and the edges of that material create a high spot, which in turn creates the backbone (spine) of the rod. It is important to take time to find that backbone and build your rod in relation to it. The result is a much better performing rod than you might get off the shelf.

You can find the spine of the rod blank by placing the butt end on a flat surface, use your right hand to support the blank about one-fourth the way down from the tip and slide your right hand about half way down the blank and push down to deflect the blank. The blank is now standing at about a 30-degree angle and curving upward. Using your left hand roll the blank and you will feel it pop into place. Repeat the process and each time the blank pops into the same position.

That process has shown you the spine. Use a white china marker to mark the top of the blank. The mark will be on the outside of the spine. That white line will be the reference point for building your custom rod. If you build a spinning rod the guides and reel seat will be on the same side as your mark. If you are building a conventional rod the guides and reel seat will be on the side opposite your mark.

Once the spine is found the building process begins. Since the rod blank is tapered the handle goes on first by honing it to size and sliding it over the tip and into place on the butt end. It is secured with two-part epoxy. Next, the reel seat, then forward grip and trim ring are passed over the blank and secured with epoxy. The tip-top guide is added next, lined up perfectly with the reel seat and the spine mark.

The last step is adding the individual guides, aligned with the tip-top and reel seat, and wrapped into place. Each guide is carefully spaced to gain the performance the angler wants. Once everything is in place an epoxy finish is applied.

Rod building is a series of individual specialties and you need to learn how to do each one. “Rod building is a craft where you need a lot of patience,” states Brook. “Good hand eye coordination doesn’t hurt. Really though, it is something that almost anyone can do. It is important to put in the effort to complete each step properly. To say there is one single tip that is going to make you a successful rod builder, I don’t know what it is.”

The Outcome

The growing popularity of custom rod building cannot be denied. At least some of that growing popularity is the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes with building your own rod. Ryan Dangel, another instructor in the class, summed it up pretty well. “One of the best parts of custom rod building is being able to create a rod correctly and exactly how you want it. Plus, there is a lot of pride, when you show your friends what you have built. They always say, ‘I want one of those.’”

In an analogy to fly-fishing Ryan suggested rod building is taking the fishing experience to its final outcome. “I always hear fly fishermen talk about catching a fish on a fly they tied themselves. For a rod builder it is even more. Now, not only am I catching fish on a fly or lure I created myself, I am landing it on a rod I built myself.”

Note: This is Part 1 of a three part series on rod building. Part 2 describes building a relatively heavy rod such as would be used for cobia, striper and similar sized fish. Part 3 describes building a relatively light rod such as would be used for seatrout, redfish and similar sized fish.