Staring at a freak of nature rendered beautiful by
“You must meet Edward Barder,” a friend suggested. “He makes the most
exquisite split cane rods.” I fancied meeting a man whose art was making
panda food into fishing rods so I called him. He sounded quite
self-possessed, and I imagined an old gentleman sitting at his polished
wooden desk upon which stood brass scales.
Over the months we tried to arrange a time for me to visit him, we chatted
occasionally on the phone. We put the retail world to rights (why were
all high streets the same? Why was service so bad? Did we think
people were starting to appreciate craftsmanship over mass-produced again?).
In the meantime, I had looked at his website (www.barder-rod.co.uk) and
drooled over his rods. By the time I turned up to Barder’s little
workshop near the rivers Kennet and Lambourn I felt I had the measure of
Barder is not an old man at all, but rather young. In his thirties,
although his rod-making business has been going for 13 years. His desk
was made of what looked like unfinished MDF. It had no holes for his
knees to sit under it, (no scales on his desk) and his chair is one of those
foldy-up wooden slatted things. I don’t think this is a man who sits much.
His whole workshop is about Making Things. Everything in it is deeply
functional, the tools patinaed, their job to create something beautiful, not
look stylish themselves. It is the very opposite of a showroom.
For a young man Barder is quite anoraky about Doing Things Properly, which
is a quality I find most pleasing. Other cane rod builders might oven
bake their bamboo in batches to temper it (to drive out the moisture) then
have a cup of tea while they’re ‘cooking’, but not he. He hand tempers
them over a soft flame, one by one, all the time moving the bamboo along so
as not to scorch it and until it is just the right colour: not too dark.
The knots in the bamboo, and any kinks, are flattened one by one, by hand,
with the love and patience of a mother searching her child’s head for nits.
This is forensically painstaking work. Each rod takes about 60 hours
work, which in real time equates to 12-16 weeks. Although not cheap
(fly rods start at 1,400, coarse rods at 900) if you calculate it on a
price per hour basis it is a bargain considering the skill involved.
Barder works with just his colleague Colin Whitehouse and they produce about
50 rods a year. There is currently a one-year waiting list. This
is the fishing equivalent of the Hermes Birkin handbag.
For those of you who don’t know how a split cane rod is made, imagine a
quite thick bit of bamboo. This is left to season for at least three
years (often more, but after three years it does all the seasoning it’s
going to do). After tempering the bamboo is cut into long strips which
are then made ready, the knots and nodules are taken out, then each strip is
milled into perfect, tapered triangles where only a 1000th of an inch
tolerance is maintained, often making a fly rod tip finer than a matchstick
These perfect triangular lengths are then glued together, to form a
hexagonal ‘blank’ and the rod starts to take shape. I am telling you
the simple version. The varnishing Barder does by hand and it’s all highly
Barder showed me a finished rod. Now, I love my Shakespeare Expedition
rod with a passion that not many reserve for mere carbon fibre, because it
and I have had so many adventures together. But split cane rods are
like models: freaks of nature you can’t help stare at because they are so
beautiful. They look molten, like long sticks of caramel tapering to
this quivery end. Everything on them is so damn perfect you feel shambolic
standing next to one.
I had never cast with a split cane rod so by this time we had been chatting
so much it was pitch dark we went outside as I cast a bit of line. The
action was strange. Almost alive. Split cane rods, I had heard, are
very forgiving of their owner’s casting action. I could see how it could
become like the best of partners: showing up your best bits, glossing over
the not so good ones.
However, by this time and despite wearing long johns and a thermal vest, I
was freezing so I lured Barder back inside with the promise of a home-made
cupcake that I had secreted in my bag.
Some of Barder’s customers buy one or two rods, there are a couple however,
who have “two dozen” of them. If any of them are reading this, and are
not married, do drop me a line. Legally speaking I’m single, have all
my own teeth, I can catch dinner and tie two knees into Daddy Long Leg
pattern. And I make exceedingly good cupcakes.
The Edward Barder Rod Co, tel: 01635-552916