Friday, 13 April 2012

6: Rod building - the finishing touches: varnish and lettering

Having finished your wraps, you're ready to varnish and add the finishing touches to the rod.  There are so many ways you can varnish the wraps, but most modern two-part epoxies will do a good job and the question is more whether you choose to apply a colour preserver beforehand to create bright, opaque colours or whether you want that more subdued, partially translucent look.  Personally I'm a fan of the latter, but for most purposes on a sea fishing rod, bright colours are considered the norm and because of the intense clear light at sea, you'll need a colour preserver if you don't want the threads to fade.  If you're varnishing the wraps for a fly rod to be used on a quiet trout stream somewhere, then subtle, translucent colours that often let the blank show through seem to be more appreciated.  It's your choice.

Applying a two-part epoxy finish, especially if it's a high build formula, has to be done carefully so as not to introduce bubbles.  Measure it out using two syringes, stir it as slowly as you can and apply it gently.  Sudden or "dabbing" movements with a brush will introduce those tiny bubbles that can be so difficult to get rid of.  Better by far to avoid bubbles in the first place than to be left messing about with flames trying to use heat to bring the bubbles up to the surface to get rid of them.

For this rod I used a medium-build epoxy, which is a half way house in terms of dealing with the dreaded bubbles.  It's thin enough for virtually all the bubbles to come out of their own accord without resorting to flames, but the downside is that you may find you need two applications to give an equivalent coating to the more common high-build formulas.  Once on, you'll need to keep rotating your rod 180 degrees every 20 mins for the first hour, then once an hour for four or five hours.  I'm not going into any more detail on applying an epoxy finish.  Other than dealing with the bubbles they are pretty straightforward to use and it seems a good finish can be obtained by most people.


A much more fun part of the finishing process is writing the rod's casting weights, length and owner's name on the blank.  This is a bit more difficult than you might imagine.  Firstly, you are quite often dealing with a shiny black or near black blank.  Very few pens write on such a surface, and the ones that do generally have black ink.  It's true that if you have a very small gauge paint brush and an even, steady hand, you can paint the letters on.  I couldn't.  They ended up blotchy, uneven, unprofessional.  I don't mind a handmade look, but I don't like clumsy!  In terms of the metallic marker pens you sometimes see advertised for the job, my advice is to avoid them.  Unless you're using broomhandles for blanks, there isn't any on the market good enough (i.e. with a fine enough writing tip) for the job.

That leaves old fashioned dipping quills and opaque inks.  Dipping ink pens (nib plus holder) can be quite difficult to find, but once you've found them they are cheap.  I can strongly recommend, who sell both pen sets with nibs and holders, and they also sell a good range of opaque acrylic and metallic inks.  I wanted to get a really fine line for the writing on my blank, so opted for a fine mapping nib that comes with the Joseph Gillot set.
No. 659 "crow quill" in gunmetal blue is a rather fine piece of work:
The choice of ink is again up to you, your wrap highlights and the blank colour.  For dark colours, I prefer white or silver, but sometimes a copper or bronze colour can also look good.  For this rod I chose titanium white:
Whilst using the pen, try not to dip it past the "breathing hole".  You really need very little on the nib to write quite a few letters, particular as you're writing on a hard surface.  Before you start, you'll need to roughen the surface slightly so that the ink can grip and begin to flow from the nib.  I used some wet and dry that I'd smoothed right down by rubbing it together - it needs to be no more than matt, if you create any scratches, ink can flow down them and create a "leeched" effect.  You can erase any errors you make, but obviously the closer you get to the final letters, the more painful it is to start all over again!
Don't worry if the final thing isn't the prettiest up close.  Hold it a couple of feet away, and if it still looks OK then I'd just go with it.  You can see a few wobbles on my letters, but once you hold the rod away, you quickly realise how small the letters are that they actually look quite neat from a distance:
A coat of permagloss will deepen the contrasts and really make those white letters pop out at you.  If you really can't face writing the lettering on your rod, you can buy ready made up lettering decals  relatively cheaply, but I think a hand written inscription looks a lot nicer.  The last thing you want is for your rod to look factory made.  For me personally, if that's the look you're after then you're failing to appreciate what makes us individual and human.  Humans are not machines, and if you want a handmade rod then it should show the hand of its maker in some way.  Many rod builders add little touches to highlight the fact that the rod has been handmade, such as fancy wraps or patterned handles and the like.  Luckily I can rely on my shaky "old man's" hands!
So, there you have it.  The rod is finished and it's nearly time for the season to start (well, the cod fishing season at least - the sea bass are a few months off just yet!).  I'm pretty pleased with the results.  I've taken a rod that was only destined for the bin and rebuilt it into a nice looking rod, with the type of underarm, split grip EVA handle I've always wanted.  Moving the reel seat higher has given it a snappier action to work surface lures and it has better guides, lighter but also bigger (No. 8) that can pass a small egg snap through the tip to make finishing for the day easy.  Off with the plug and just reel in!  Of course, on a sea kayak the rod will get inevitably get trashed again as it really is the toughest environment bar none, but hopefully the quality of my finish and the materials I've chosen will outlast those of Orvis (who to be fair weren't making a rod specifically for sea kayak fishing).  Below is the original rod from Orvis, or at least what it quickly became after two seasons, and below that how it's been transformed this winter!  Apologies for the quality of the final two photos.  If I get time I'll put some better ones up.

I've one more rod building project to share with you, which is converting a rod with a trigger grip that leaves the rod guides facing upwards, to one more suitable for jigging that has the guides facing downwards.  Basically you re-wrap the guides in a spiral from the bottom guide up!

Hopefully I'll get that started soon enough to beat the start of the season...

until then, tight lines.

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