The tradition continues at Sweetgrass Rods;                               
crafting fine bamboo fly fishing rods

   
Thanks for the wonderful craftsmanship. You guys are amazing.
Frank D.


Making Bamboo Fly Fishing Rods - The Sweetgrass Rods Building ProcessFor nearly 100 years, bamboo rod makers have followed a process the basics of which have not changed:  obtain bamboo, split it, give it a shape and taper using one of various methods, glue it together, cut it to length, sand it, add grips and hardware, and seal it all with some sort of varnish to prevent water damage. 

Sweetgrass follows a similar path.  The individual steps along the way, however, have been adjusted and refined to improve efficiency and quality.  Belief in kaizen, the continual improvement process, comes naturally to Brackett and the crew at Sweetgrass.  If something is not working, the group discusses the matter and makes an adjustment.

Glenn & Dave selecting Tonkin cane - Sweetgrass RodsSweetgrass uses only Tonkin cane.  In 2009, Brackett and his then business manager, Dave Delisi, traveled to Aozai, China, a small town about a six-hours drive from Guangzhou.  This particular region grows cane straight and strong, and has been the source of bamboo for most American rod builders for the past century.  Brackett and Delisi stayed with the Cai family, the family who cultivated their bamboo.  During their 3 week visit, The Cai Family - Tonkin Cane Suppliersthe Cai family entertained and fed the booboys and helped them select the cane necessary for their craft.  The trip to China transformed the relationship between builder and grower from “supplier” to “friend.”  When they returned to Twin Bridges, the two had procured enough bamboo for Sweetgrass to make rods for the next 15 years, and this large quantity resulted in a low per-culm cost.Tonkin cane forest, Aozai, China - Superior resource for fly rod bamboo

The qualities which make Tonkin cane suitable for bamboo rod building result from multiple factors.  Certainly, the terroir of Aozai’s soil and climate help the plant grow straight, dense, and with very few bug-bites, the bane of bamboo builders.  The fibers run long and the width is remarkably consistent, from 1.75 to 3” in diameter.  These long and dense fibers lend themselves well to splitting, and Montana’s exceptionally dry climate can sometimes cause the bamboo to check the full length of the culm.  At Sweetgrass, more than one employee has been shocked by the sudden, unexpected BANG! of a culm splitting in the storage rack as it dries.  The resulting crack in the cane may be ¾” wide, but it is inconsequential to the rod building process as the cane must be split into 8 to 12 strips anyway, depending on whether it is used for tips or butt sections.

Sweetgrass Rods is somewhat unique in the industry.  The industry itself is dominated by individual builders, each of whom may build a 10 to 20 rods per year.  In 2012, Sweetgrass built nearly 400 rods, and shipped well over 300.  The remaining rods were held in shop to sell to walk-in customers who visit Twin Bridges when Montana’s weather allows, usually from July through September.  In order to build as many rods as Sweetgrass does, the company employs methods which enhance efficiency.  Some of these methods stem from lessons learned through old makers—Leonard, Edwards, Stoner and the like.  And some have been learned organically as Sweetgrass continues to push the craft forward. 

Hand-splitting bambooSplitting the cane is one place where efficiencies can be obtained.  An individual rod-builder may use a specialized knife to carefully split one strip at a time from the culm to reduce waste.  Sweetgrass uses multi-blade splitters which open each culm into multiple strips all at once.  This process is quick, but results in some waste.   But the waste is negligible when one considers the low cost of the bamboo in comparison with the time-consuming, labor-intensive method of making one strip at a time.

Each strip is then baptized first with fire and then with water as the optimal moisture content is manipulated prior to assembly.  The heat treating process at Sweetgrass is done in an oven given to Brackett in 1980.  It is a long, rectangular machine, mounted on legs to make bring the oven door to a height around 30”.  The rough-split strips having been split again and slightly beveled to facilitate later processing, are baked in batches of about 60 for about 45 minutes.  Brackett then uses a simple, analog, and temperamental timer to remind himself to go toss the strips around a bit to ensure even treatment and to check their progress every 15 minutes.  The oven itself is heated to 275°F.  As the bamboo “bakes”, it releases sBaked Booteam and aroma.  This distinctive aroma, which some have said is reminiscent of wet grass and some describe as burning green beans, becomes stronger as the process of heating continues, soon filling the entire Sweetgrass shop with the unmistakable incense of cooking cane. 

After 15 minutes, Brackett will open the door to the oven, allowing the steam to fog his glasses.  Checking the thermometer, he’ll raise the temperature a little bit, and note the time and temperature in a meticulously maintained log book.  In 15 more minutes, he repeats the process, again allowing the steam to coat his glasses, an event he has experienced over 10,000 times in the past 40 years of altering the subatomic structure of bamboo.  The heat-treating process caramelizes the sugars in the cane, adding tensile strength to ensure the finished product does not take a set.  It also alters the color, changing it from a soft-sulfur yellow to a honey-amber brown.  The final 15 minutes are critical, for the bamboo’s moisture content goes quickly from “just enough” to “too dry” and the bamboo can become too brittle.  Consequently, Brackett uses his years of experience and multiple senses to monitor the process.  With his eyes, he notes the color:  too brown means too brittle, so that honey-amber is what he wants.  With his nose, he smells the bamboo: too smokey and it’s too cooked, which also means the cane will be too brittle; a wet, smoldering grass smell is the objective.  And with his face, he feels the steam, or lack thereof, breathing out of the oven:  if it’s still steaming, it’s not done; if it’s dry, and all other conditions are met, he will stop the heat treating process.

Milling Bamboo StripsStraight out of the oven the bamboo is plunged like a redeemed sinner into a bath of cooling water.  The water stops the heat-treating process immediately and begins to add moisture content back to the cane.  Once cooled, the bamboo is then wrapped in wet blankets and placed in a humidifying cabinet for several weeks before it will be milled into its final shape.

The mill at Sweetgrass is a model of efficiency.  Where an individual rod builder may hand-plane a single strip in 45 minutes, Sweetgrass’ mill can do the same in four 10-second passes.   This means that Sweetgrass’ process can mill 67 times as many strips, thus accounting for much of the unmatched production coming from this small shop.  The mill at Sweetgrass is based on the ingenious mill invented by Lew Stoner over 75 years agoGlenn piecing together a rod from bamboo strips at Winston.

The milling process is a two-person task, with one person, usually Brackett, pushing the now-humidified strip through the mill, and another person pulling the strip and setting it aside for later inspection.  Bracket inspects each and every strip, noting it for smoothness, blemishes and other aspects.  He then assembles each blank, taping the requisite number of strips into positionGlenn taping together a rod - Sweetgrass Rods before then cutting that tape and laying the strips flat on the table, fileted open like a fish.  A special glue, not dissimilar from regular carpentry or wood glue but with a catalyst added to force the curing process, is slathered into place and the strips are then bound together with cotton string in a double helix, looking when done like a high-school teacher’s DNA demonstration exhibit. 

Gluing bamboo strips - Sweetgrass RodsSweetgrass is somewhat rare in that the mill has cutters capable of making 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8-strip bamboo rods.  While the traditional 6-sided, or “hex” rods are most common, Brackett’s 4 and 8-strip rods have seen a considerable level of interest.  5-strip rods were Kustich’s specialty, and he even had a license plate made for his car which said, “PENT.”  Regardless of which number of strips is used to build the rod, the action of a Sweetgrass rod is progressive.  Finishing work - Sweetgrass RodsBased upon customer request, these rods can be slow or fast, but the standard speed is considered by most to be “medium fast.” 

The glued-up blanks require a solid 30 days to fully cure.  Once cured, they are taken by one of the builders, a role now filled by Delisi, Brackett, and the newest addition to the team, Luca Troiani, to be sanded, cut, and ferruled for whatever rod is currently next on the build list. 

Gluing Grips - Sweetgrass RodsPortuguese flor-grade cork is used to make a grip of the customer’s choosing.  The rod is then dipped in spar varnish before guides are wrapped in place.  Dana Escott, who has been with Sweetgrass since its inception, and who, like Brackett and Kustich, had been a fixture at Winston, is considered by Brackett to be “one of the best in the business…ever.”  Escott is also the person primarily responsible for coating those wraps with the same spar varnish. Dana Escott applies spar varnish to a recently wrapped rod Each wrap receives between 3 and 5 coats of varnish, and then the rod is sent back to be dipped again, receiving its final coat of armor against the elements.

The last step in the Sweetgrass process is to assemble the reel seat.  Priding itself on turning its own wood for the reel seats, Sweetgrass allows customers to select the reel seat wood they find most appealing.  If not in stock, E-Bay provides a plethora of species for reasonable prices.  Finding a piece matching customer preference is one of Joe and Dana’s favorite customer-service tasks.  Reel Seats - Sweetgrass RodsOne customer requested a reel seat made from a tree that had recently fallen near the pond on his retirement dream-property, and, while not the most exotic of woods, the fact that this reel seat came from his own property made the reel seat quite special for the customer. 

Finishing a Reel Seat - Sweetgrass RodsThe hardware for the reel seats is custom made in several shades of nickel silver or aluminum, depending on the type of rod requested.  Sweetgrass has recently begun making rods for salt water that require anodized aluminum seats. 

Over 3000 steps from start to finish, according to Brackett, go into each bamboo rod.  Each step requires focus and attention, experience and skill, which is why the craft lends itself well to comparisons with other zen-like activities.  Brackett has been doing this so long that he recently said, in kind of an off-hand way, “Sometimes, I go through the process without thinking about what I am doing.  It’s as if I am watching myself from afar and I see myself going through the proper steps.  But, as soon as I start to think about what I’m doing—that’s when I make mistakes.”

From order to delivery, Sweetgrass requires approximately six months time, depending on backlogs and, of course, the occasional setback that occurs when working with a natural material.  For some customers, the waiting seems to be as much a part of the process as the actual receipt of the rod. 

Get a better look at our building process and see a few photos that weren't included above.

From Pole to Rod - Our Building Process

 

 




Sweetgrass Rods ~~ P.O. Box 486 ~~ 121 West Galena ~~ Butte, Montana 59703
406.782.5552 ~~ booboys@sweetgrassrods.com
(shipping deliveries to 80 West Galena)

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