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Making Strip-built Fly Rods from Various Woods on a Lathe
John Betts
Hardbound:   180 pages.
Frank Amato Publications   $45
ISBN  1-57188-411-4
Making Strip-built Fly Rods by John Betts

When this book arrived my first thought was; Another book on bamboo rod building? Thumbing through the book, I saw pictures and diagrams of woodworking activities, and naturally I assumed I was looking at a bamboo workshop. A lot of these books have been coming out lately. Then I focused on the title a bit more: "Various woods." Then it hit me--this is not about bamboo at all. I continued to muse: How or why would someone want to build a fly rod with anything other than bamboo, graphite, boron, or the faddishly retro Fiberglas? I mean, the woods and tools in this book I can find in my garage, with maybe a quick trip to ACE. This required further inspection indeed.

Oak, hickory, birch: What do these woods have in common? Fine furniture and bats are built with them, not fly rods--unless you're John Betts.  Unless you refuse to approach flyfishing the way the rest of the world (to say nothing of past generations) does. His approach slowly grows on you, and it is the type of vision not seen in flyfishing since . . . I'm not sure when, but Dame Juliana Berners comes to mind. Betts explains his methods by contrasting it with bamboo. The complexity in Bamboo involves, among a thousand other things, the careful shaving of strips before gluing and assembling. With a strip-built wooden rod, on the other hand, the strips are glued first, placed in a lathe, and then reduced down to fly-rod dimensions by means of a simple sandpaper device called a "clapper." The time taken to completion is a few hours, instead of hundreds for bamboo.

Betts makes it clear, though, that you don't just whittle one of these rods in an afternoon. There is much to master, even in a lathe-borne fly rod. Any fly rod, no matter what its construction, involves just as much math as materials. This is seen in Betts' lengthy explanations about the exacting means of reducing the diameter of the fly rod with sandpaper passes up and down the blank. And once this is done, there are the stripping guides, tip tops, ferrules, rings, and even the line (yes, the line) that need to be constructed, again by hand, with a minimum of tools and fuss. No laser lathe and complex physics for this gentleman.

Something new is sometimes expressed best by looking at something old. Betts illuminates his methods by dipping into the  history of our forefathers, how their ancient rods were crafted, how they were cast, how the old horsehair and silk lines were constructed, and how this impacted rod construction. Reading history this way is often the best way to illuminate a complicated subject without getting lost in vague, bookish generalities about what our forefathers did.

The medium of this book is just as fascinating as the message. In this day of word processing, I assumed the cursive font was, well, a font. Here, too, I had to look more carefully to realize that the entire book is handwritten using, we learn later, a calligrapher's fountain pen, and a pasting operation that resembling more a "homeless person's blanket than a manuscript." You can almost sense the pain that our literary forefathers went through, with cramped muscles, messy inks, moldy stitching and attention to the kind of organic detail that probably drives a publisher nuts. The entire effect is surprisingly easy and charming to read.

The spirit of our sport is found in books like this. Flyfishing on one's own terms is what propelled our sport forward. I'm not a literary scholar, but if I had to think about what makes a great book, I would have to ask what it does. If it makes you do something that you wouldn't have done, then the author has succeeded. This doesn't mean that we should all glue up and sand down a birch fly rod. But it might encourage us to find the confidence to approach our next nymph, say, with some unusual materials not found in a catalog. Or maybe discover a new way to twirl a fly line around your body when in a particularly difficult lie in a manner you didn't read about in a book. For me, I enjoy bending and twisting hooks until I get the shape I want. Small stuff, to be sure, but you get the idea. And it's the ideas, however small, that a great book is able to pull out of you.

--Toney J. Sisk


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