Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bill Harms On Building The Graywolf 10' 7/8 Signature S-Glass

I really enjoy seeing collaborations and sharing between rod builders and I am honored to post this story of famed bamboo fly rod builder Bill Harms and the fiberglass fly rod build that he recently completed on a 10' Signature S-Glass 7/8 weight blank from Graywolf Rods.  

Bill graciously shared the background and story of this very beautiful build and Shane provided the photographs for this post.  Thank you, Sirs.

Bill Harms wrote...

So, after making bamboo trout rods for more than a few decades, steelhead got into my blood.  Haven’t gone after them yet, but I’m fixin’ to!  Recently, I began making a 12-foot bamboo spey rod, but first, I wanted to see how I might do with a more modest switch rod.  Thing is, I’ve never cast two-handed, so the prospect of using a switch rod for both simple overhead and two-handed spey casting was appealing.  My real problem was that long rods are almost always made of graphite, and we bamboo guys hesitate even to use the word.  What I wanted was fiberglass.  Almost all bamboo makers I know still have a soft spot for the lively, smooth action of glass.  It does become heavy in large rods, however, and this is where the new “S-glass” comes in.

After scouring the web, I learned of Shane Gray (Graywolf Rods) and his new, “Signature” generation of S-glass fly rods.  Usually, Shane builds rods on blanks from other suppliers, but he designed the “Signature” series himself.  This, too, felt important to me.  I like knowing the individuals within a craft.

Anyway, Shane’s 10-foot, 4-piece model for a 7/8 line seemed like just the ticket, and especially so after reading a few excellent reviews.  So, I got on the phone and asked if he’d part with a set of blanks for my own build.  Answer: “Well, I only sell rods in this series as finished models, but I’ll give it some thought....”  That was certainly kind enough and understandable, but I also assumed it meant no deal.  So, we had some good conversations about other stuff for another fifteen minutes or so.

But then, maybe a month later, Shane called back and said he had one 10-footer remaining before ordering another run, and that he’d sell the set to me if I was still interested.  Ummm... done!  The check went out, and a week later I had the blanks.  I guess I had to be vetted, and that’s surely fair enough too.  So, alright—here we go.

Shane kindly gave me his guide spacing, so I ordered a set of red agate guides in 12 and 15 mm from Joe Arguello; got a black reel seat (LC-25) from Joel Lemke, and bought a bunch of black snake guides, #2 – #5, from Snake Brand. (The #5 is probably overkill, as its hoop is fatter than the 12 mm agate guide. Ending with #4s would be just fine.)

Next, I began experimenting with silk thread colors—testing on the area that would fall under the grip--and quickly learned that, because of the deep mahogany color of the blanks, all thread colors became varying shades of brown.  Whether reds, yellows, gold, green, olive, tan or whatever, once varnished, everything took on the dominant color of the blank.  Of course, color preservers would protect against this, but the downside is that you also sacrifice that deep translucency.  Not quite my cup o’ tea, so I was left only to decide what shade of brown I liked, then find a contrast for the tipping.  (By the way, Shane tells me that he just got a new batch of 5/6-weight 10-footers in that are a yellow color.)

But the grip was my first job, and for this, I wanted to shape two end-pieces from the same burled walnut as the reel seat spacer.  Took a little messing around, but I think wood will do a good job for these high-wear areas, and I really like the look.  Next, I roughed-up the paint, then glued and turned the forward corks directly on the blank; then mounted the reel seat and hardware; then glued and turned the rear corks on the blank; then mounted the two wooden end-pieces.  My work is always accompanied by loud music, louder curses at my screw-ups, and humble gratitude for everything else, so staying with this recipe, things began to come together nicely.  Most impressive, here, is Lemke’s exquisite hardware, and the secure fit it gives to a reel.

After identifying the spines, wrapping was next.  I like rods to be a little Spartan, so I choose a brown that’s just a little richer than the color of the blank, and set the wraps off with black tipping.  Generally, I dislike the bulbous look of epoxied wraps, but I do like the way epoxy makes thread go translucent, and I do appreciate the bond it makes with the blank.  So, I applied one, thin coat of epoxy to the wraps, heated the area a little, and wiped the threads almost smooth.  It was a slow process because after application, heating, wiping and fussing to clean my left-over smudges, I could only do a couple guides before the glue would begin to “kick.”  From then on, it was just two guides at a time, down the rod.

When finished, I gave all the wraps 7 or 8 coats of varnish, sanding back between every other coat.  Then, I scuffed the entire rod with 0000 steel wool and brushed a finish coat of varnish over the whole thing (same technique I’ve used on my bamboo rods for more than 35 years).  The blank certainly didn’t need varnish, but I wanted to blend the transitions between thread and glass and give the rod a uniform sheen.  For the latter, I waited two weeks, then hand-buffed with the Novus polishing system.

So, now the rod was finished, but I still didn’t have a proper reel or line for testing.  Happily, my good friend, Bob Selb (The Classic Fly Fisherman) had a Hardy “Husky” reel with an extra spool, so I snapped that up.  This is a silent-drag, wide-spool model, and (along with the click-and-pawl “Zenith”) it’s the largest in Hardy’s “Lightweight” series.  Alas, the reel lacks ball bearings, but I look at it this way: If I hook into a fish strong enough to melt the bushings and blow out the cork drag, I’ll have bragging rights and a handful of charred evidence.  Suits me--I mean, the fish is gonna swim free one way or the other anyway. 

Next, I bought a 7-weight Rio “Gold” floating line, and backed this with several hundred feet of 20 lb. Micron.  With this mounted on the reel seat, and the first 35’ of line out of the tip, the rod balances perfectly right over my upper hand.  Still green at two-handed casting, I tried the line with some single-handed overhead casts.  I gotta say, Shane hit this rod’s design right on the money!  With a several yards of line stripped onto the grass and 40 feet of line in the air, a double haul fired a loop that pulled a couple clicks off my reel.  And I’m only an ordinary caster, as my friends delight in reminding me.  Overall, the rod is very light and gentle, and with the leverage provided by its length (and its strong action through the middle), the rod needs no effort at all for single-handed casting.  Close casting is easier still—a slow elbow and little wrist motion is all that’s needed.  The rod’s upper third is beautifully tapered, and knows exactly what to do on its own.

I’m still getting used to double-handed casts, but the thing I realized immediately is that a rod’s weight is almost totally irrelevant here. The casting motion itself is very different from a conventional overhead cast, with neither arm moving a great deal.  Plus, with two hands sharing the lifting, sweeping and rotation, if the timing is good, the rod easily loads itself and the line just sings.  I have much to learn about this, and so far, I’ve only done spey casting with the Rio fly line.  This actually works just fine, even though the line really wasn’t designed for spey fishing.  I’ve read that a 250 grain Scandi compact head (or Beulah’s “Elixir”) is the best spey set-up for this rod, but I have yet to put the combination together.  So, anyway, my plan is to carry both the fly and the spey lines in my vest, and use whichever spool tickles my fancy.  Meanwhile, the rod itself is an absolute delight, and even if I’m an old, stick-in-the-mud, bamboo dude, I couldn’t be more proud to carry my Graywolf glass rod to the stream.  Go get yerself one.  This thing does everything!

Please visit the William A. Harms Rod & Gun website for more information on his work.

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