Over the years I’ve had a lot of people ask me to look at rods and assess them. Sometimes it’s so that they have a better sense of the value before they buy or sell it. Others want to know more about the rod’s backstory: who made it? When? Is it completely original?
This sort of thing happens a lot at the major fly fishing shows where you have a lot of buying and selling going on, as well as a lot of builders and enthusiasts meeting in one place. But what I also see a lot at these shows are folks who are just starting to dip their toe in the water, people who aren’t yet die-hard collectors but who are getting ready to take the plunge. And because the bamboo rod universe can be a complicated one, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed.
Junior and I were talking about this and he suggested that it might be helpful to put together a basic primer on assessing bamboo rods, something that might help those who want to have a better sense of what to look for when they pick up a piece of cane. While I tend to look at rods more with a builder’s eye than a collector’s, I thought this might make a helpful starting point for those who might feel a little over their heads. Here are some of the things that I look for:
(1) Finish Work
So this should be the first, and probably the most obvious thing to check when looking at a used rod. Take a good minute to inspect the varnish. What state is it in? Has it worn off in places? Does it have cracks, wrinkles, or alligator-like blemishes? Obviously rods that are poorly finished will have pretty lousy varnish jobs, but the kicker here is that even higher quality rods can have a lousy finish if they’ve been mistreated. Determining whether it’s a rod to skip or one that might actually have some value if it’s been touched-up a bit is a critical reason for inspecting the varnish thoroughly. Also keep an eye out for signs that the varnish has been recently polished, since many people try to disguise poor varnish by superficially buffing it up at the eleventh hour.
(2) The Cane
Okay, so you’ve looked at the varnish: then what? Bamboo naturally, which is the very heart and soul of a rod, so it’s well worth your while to take a careful look at the state of the cane. Are there hook digs in it? Is the surface relatively smooth? Are there cracks or splits? With the splits especially, they can’t always be easy to see (most often these splits occur along or near a seam which means that you won’t spot them unless the rod is flexed to some degree). I’ve seen people buy rods and get home only to discover later that they had splits somewhere along the cane that they hadn’t noticed. Another thing to look out for are the nodes, especially ones that are large and grainy since this tends to indicate the they were simply belt sanded down and not pressed as they should be (while you’re at it, you should probably try and get a sense of the node pattern and whether the builder put some time and energy into thinking through the design, or whether they just ignored the nodes completely). Finally, you should always keep an eye out for cane that has water marks or rotten spots — the first isn’t the end of the world but the second is bad news. If you see an imperfection that has a black center with white around the edges it’s a sure sign that the cane you’re holding has seen some serious mistreatment or neglect.
(3) Short Sections
This is sort of a no brainer, but can sometimes get lost in the shuffle, especially if the repairs to the short section were very well done. Basically, you want to make sure that all of the rod sections are the lengths that they’re supposed to be and that none of them has been broken and possibly repaired as a “shorty”. Testing this isn’t rocket science: hold the tips up together and compare the lengths. If one is shorter then it has probably broken at some point and been fixed, hopefully by someone who knew what they were doing. In terms of fishability, having a short tip isn’t the worst thing in the world, though it will certainly change the action and feel of a rod. In terms of value however, mismatched tips will definitely drive down the rod’s worth.
When you first inspect a rod it can be pretty easy to look past the wraps. Often, people are so eager to check out the bamboo or varnish that they sort of overlook them. It’s critical though, that you take a good look at each rod section and see what condition those wraps are in. Are there any that have started to come undone? Often silk wraps that have been treated with orange shellac have a life-time. While that lifetime varies depending on how well it’s been treated, if it does reach the end of it you’ll see cracking, fraying, and sometimes thread coming up off of the rod near the guides. You really have no choice then but to refinish the rod. While you’re at it you should probably also take a look to see if any of the rods current wraps look like they’ve already been refinished. Are there any whose color doesn’t match very well? These things can be easy to miss with a cursory look, so don’t be afraid to check the rod out one wrap at a time.
If bamboo is the heart and soul of a rod, then glue is certainly a vital organ and one that a lot of people don’t necessarily pay enough attention to. One thing that you need to take a look at is whether there have been any problems along the seams of the bamboo strips. Ideally, you shouldn’t be able to see any seams at all and the rod should look as though it were made of one solid hexagonal piece. But occasionally you’ll run across a seam where the glue either hasn’t held the rod strips together or else has pushed them apart (this can happen if the glue isn’t mixed properly, for example, and you get some granules that wedge between the strips). To check this, turn the rod around slowly in your hands when you are looking at it, and pay special attention to the butt section.
Guides are meant to withstand a lot of abuse and with good reason. When you think about how much line passes through them over the course of a number of years, then it’s a bit more understandable that they can end up in pretty bad shape, even on high-quality rods. Fortunately checking this is pretty easy. Just take a look at the inner edge of the guides to see if any grooves have been worn into the steel. You’ll be surprised how many old rods will have them, and it’s a good sign that the rod has seen a lot of use. What’s more, in the worst cases it also means that the rod will have to be redone, which includes stripping down virtually the entire thing except for the ferrules in order to replace them. Not a pleasant thought (at least for this rodmaker), and certainly one you’ll want to factor into the rod’s value.
A rod’s straightness can tell you two things: First, it can tell you a lot about the maker. Were they okay sending the rod out the door looking like a boomerang? Secondly, it can also tell you something about how much it has been used and how well the rod has been treated. Now it’s not always easy to tell where to lay the blame for a rod that isn’t very straight, but it’s definitely something that you want to factor into your decision to buy, sell, or refinish it. If it’s a decent quality rod that just needs a little straightening, you should take it to a seasoned rodbuilder who should be able to take care of whatever sets the rod has acquired. If it looks like it was sent out the door that way then you may want to pass, especially if you’re looking for a high-quality rod.
One thing that you often see people do is flex the rod by wiggling it back and forth a bit. It’s not a bad way to get a sense of the rod’s action, but a better test is to put the tip gently against a surface and flex the rod against it. If you twist the rod gently, sometimes you can find a “spline”, essentially a plane on which the rod flexes differently because of some dimensional problem in the construction (with graphite these are easy to spot since it’s the place where the blank cylinder is fused together). Another thing this does is help you check the rod for a soft spot: does the rod stay in something of an arc when you are done flexing it? If so, it’s a pretty good sign that you’ve got a noodle on your hands and you may want to keep looking.
(9) Ferrule Fits
A rod with poorly fitting or poorly functioning ferrules really isn’t much of a rod at all, so you’ll need to examine them carefully. With ferrules you’re looking for two things. The first is how well the ferrules fit together, which you can check by simply putting the rod sections together (make sure the ferrules are clean first!). The second is how well the ferrules are mounted to the rod. To check this the best method is to take the fully assembled rod, place your fingers at the bottom of each ferrule and then wave the rod gently back and forth. If you can feel the ferrule move then it’s too loose and if the ferrules are in particularly bad shape then you can sometimes hear a small clicking noise, a sure sign that the fit is lousy. While this is the sort of thing that can often be repaired by a knowledgeable rodmaker, it’s certainly worth taking the time to check.
(10) Originals vs. Refinishes
This part takes a lot of experience to really get a feel for, partly because it requires you to be able to really see the forest for the trees. It’s one thing to know if a specific part of a rod is in good shape, it’s another to be able to assess all of the various parts of a rod and match them up with how you know the original is supposed to look. Not only do you have to know a good deal about the originals, but you also need to be able to step back and look for more for general patterns as opposed to simply zeroing in on individual details. Does the varnish tend to match in color and texture? Are there wraps that don’t seem to really go well together? If you have a few of these things going on at once, it might be a sign that the rod has been refinished or that an unkown maker has tried to do a knock-off of a well-known or valuable model. While this may not make a big difference in terms of a rod’s fishability (as with many things that I’ve brought up good repairwork can do wonders for fishability) yet in the end it certainly makes a big difference in terms of the rod’s collectible value.
While each of these elements could probably spark a discussion in it’s own right, it’s often helpful to have a broad overview. Hopefully this will help those who are looking for exactly that.
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