To make a split cane fishing rod takes days but the varnished results are beautiful and allow you to fish like a dream
Along with hours spent on river-banks, Edward Barder’s childhood was spent playing with Airfix models and railways. “I was always dismantling things and working out how to put them together,”
he says. “So, when my father suggested I try mending one of his split cane rods, it seemed totally natural to have a go. I was 17 at the time.”
The first attempt proved unsuccessful, so Barder scoured books and sought advice. Before long, he had a successful repair and a new hobby. “One thing led to another and, while working for Hardy’s in the Eighties, I became a keen amateur rod-maker,” he recalls. “There were still people who liked split cane rods and the market wasn’t being well supplied, so I decided to give it a go full-time.”
That was 22 years ago. Today, Barder has a long waiting list and produces at most 40 rods a year in his Berkshire workshop at a picturesque mill situated at the confluence of the Kennet and Lambourn. “I have one colleague, a great friend, who has worked with me for 18 years. We’d love to make more rods but the way we do it is extremely labour-intensive,” he says. “The whole process takes about 80 hours and is incredibly painstaking.”
The advent of split cane rods was in the late 19th century and for about 70 years bamboo reigned supreme. “The best examples were by Leonard and Payne who, to the annoyance of patriotic Brits, were American,” chuckles Barder. “I haven’t made any great improvements to their designs, although the action of our rods is different to accommodate modern tastes in fishing. Mr Leonard or Mr Payne could walk into my workshop today and get on with a rod, but we’re not about dressing up like Izaak Walton. I don’t want someone to spend £2,000 on a rod that looks beautiful but isn’t up to the job,” he says. “We produce rods that work as well as carbon fibre, albeit in a different way. Because of the fibres in bamboo, the rod telegraphs everything into your nerve endings; it gives fishing more immediacy.”
Seeing the hefty pieces of bamboo neatly piled in the workshop, it is hard to imagine them as finely tapered rods. Rolling them in a flame removes excess moisture from the poles. The same soft flame is used to straighten the strips the poles are split into. “At a certain temperature, bamboo is very elastic. Knowing when this is, is about feel and eye. You’ve got to be careful not to scorch the fibres – or one’s fingers – and create a weakness,” says Barder.
Straightening alone can take several days. The pieces are then precision milled into the six triangular strips that eventually form the hexagonal rod shaft. “In the past the measurements would have been plotted with wads of graph paper and sharp pencils. I’m able to
use an Excel spreadsheet and a stress-curve-analysis programme – not so romantic but at least when something works we’re able to repeat the process exactly,” he explains.
Final varnishing is a weekend job. “The timing is critical. In order to get a perfect finish, you need the air to be settled. During the week, there is rather too much dust in the workshop. You can dip varnish your rod but I prefer to do it by hand to achieve a finish that people are kind enough to say is as good as any in the world,” says Barder.
The company takes orders from around the globe and many customers collect their rod in person. “It’s like parting with one of your children but I gain immense satisfaction from striving to do something well, involving both hands and brain,” he enthuses. “There’s a cultural expectation of how much one pays for a fishing rod that means I don’t get nearly as much out of the hours I put in as my equivalent in the gun trade. But this isn’t a time for violins: it’s a fantastic way to make a living and I’m impatient to get to work every morning.
“Because it is such a niche, there is just a handful of us making split cane rods as our sole means of support,” says Barder. “It’s never been smaller as an industry, but as an amateur-driven pastime, it is in good shape.”
Those wanting to learn often look across the Atlantic, as the US offers a wealth of ma-terials, DVDs and, for those who can afford the crossing, courses. “You really need dexterity, patience, a good eye and determination to be a rod-maker,” believes Barder. “I learnt pretty much through trial and error and from working it out for myself.”
It’s not all hard work. “Too often in artisan-based trades, people go into something they love but gradually forget why they started. As a youngster, I was amazed at how many rod-makers hadn’t been fishing for years,” says Barder. “I find time to fish. Not only do I enjoy it but it informs everything I do. What could be a better way of keeping one’s eye in?”
To contact The Edward Barder Rod Company, call 01635 552916 or visit www.barder-rod.co.uk.