Alaska Made: Tonkin cane, silver spoons and the ultimate fly rod

By December 26, 2018 Alaska Made, Business, Juneau
Jon Lyman says you could bend a bamboo fly rod almost double on itself and it still won't break.

Jon Lyman says you could bend a bamboo fly rod almost double on itself and it still won’t break. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Entrepreneurs are always searching for ways to grow their business. But some businesses may simply be a one-person operation producing handcrafted items, and they don’t need any growth.

As part of CoastAlaska’s “Alaska Made” series, this is the story of how one Juneau man’s early childhood passion for fishing became a small business.

Jon Lyman claims fly fishing is the world’s oldest sport, going back centuries. But he says it’s less about killing fish and more about the connection to nature.

“I think (Henry David) Thoreau said it: Some men fish all their lives without knowing it’s not the fish they’re after,” Lyman recalled. (Editor’s note: That quotation, while commonly attributed to Thoreau, may have been misattributed.)

Lyman remembers being 10 years old and getting frustrated feeding his entire can of worms to an elusive trout in a Connecticut stream. Everything changed when he borrowed something he’d never seen before.

“These long, willowy sticks. And flies! And I was just entranced,” Lyman recalled.

“There I am trying to come up with worms,” he said. “They handed me a piece of leader with an Adams (dry fly) on it and said, ‘Try this on the end of your line. Betcha catch that fish. Just be real quiet.’”

He was surprised at what happened next.

“Damned if that fish didn’t come up and take that fly!” Lyman laughed. “Ever since then it’s been, ‘Katy, bar the door!’”

Now retired from building houses and as an education officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Lyman jokes he spends “eight hours a day, 10 days a week” in his woodshop, incorporating skills from both jobs into making bamboo fly rods.

Cross-section of two-inch diameter piece of Tonkin bamboo shows the dark power fibers that gives the cane its strength. (Photo by Matt Miller)

Cross-section of two-inch diameter piece of Tonkin bamboo shows the dark power fibers that gives the cane its strength. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Lyman uses a species of bamboo only found in one area of China. He showed me a cross-section of a scrap piece of unprocessed cane that he had recently discarded outside his woodshop.

“See all the little black dots?” Lyman pointed out. “Well, this is big heavy cane.”

Making a fly rod out of bamboo cane is a long, meticulous process that includes 600 steps and 60 hours of work.

“Those black dots are the power fibers that are tubes that run the length of the entire column,” Lyman explained. “Those tubes are like carbon fibers. They give you the power in the rod. They concentrate in Tonkin bamboo out towards the skin, towards the outside of it.”

Lyman splits the bamboo cane into very long, but very thin three-sided strips. Then, he uses a razor sharp wood planer to trim the strips into a gradual taper. Frequent checking with a micrometer ensures that he’s accurate down to ten-thousandths of an inch.

“If your taper is not exact, if you aren’t holding the plane dead level, then your taper gets skewed one side or the other, and it doesn’t give you the same degree of power in the rod,” Lyman said. “Things get twisted and the cast won’t go right.”

Rough cut batches of three-sided bamboo strips wait for more planing and gluing.

Rough-cut batches of three-sided bamboo strips wait for more planing and gluing. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

The tapered strips are glued together and wrapped in string in a mechanical binder that sounds like an old sewing machine. Next, they’ll be hung in his own fabricated dryer and dehumidifier for at least a month.

Then he’ll paint, varnish and hang again before dressing with line guides, silk thread and exotic wood for the reel seat, like bloodwood or a 2,500-year-old English yew struck by lightning.

“It’s one of the reasons why it takes six months to build a rod,” Lyman said. “Not only do you have all the labor, but the adhesives have to dry, the varnish has to dry for three months before you move or wiggle the rod. It just takes a long time.”

The end result is a strong and flexible rod that is better and more responsive than mass-produced fiberglass or graphite rods.

This antique silver spoon with its unique design will someday become a decorative reel cup or rod butt for one of Jon Lyman's bamboo fly fishing rods. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

This antique silver spoon with its unique design will someday become a decorative reel cup or rod butt for one of Jon Lyman’s bamboo fly fishing rods. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

“I have to be real gentle with it,” Lyman said as he hunched over a metal lathe that is spinning a portion of a sterling silver spoon.

Lyman adds a distinctive touch by reworking spoons with unique designs that he’s scrounged from antique stores and pawn shops.

“So now I got a buffalo on the end of my reel cup. Repurposing old silver that everybody says is junk. That will be the end cap that is holding the reel,” Lyman explained as he held up the piece of silver for me to see. “Isn’t he beautiful? Just a gorgeous buffalo.”

After carefully picking out spoon designs that tell a story, the rods become usable art and family heirlooms that can be passed down from generation to generation.

“The family, the father, the mother, the children, the grandchildren were all there (in a Juneau restaurant) when they bought that rod,” Lyman said. “Now that rod is part of their Alaska story. The entire family for generations in the future will have that rod to remind them of this time. And that’s why I do it.”

The rod even comes with a warranty.

“I offer a lifetime guarantee,” Lyman laughed. “My lifetime, not yours!”

Jon Lyman describes how to make a bamboo fly fishing rod in his Juneau woodshop.

Jon Lyman describes how to make a bamboo fly fishing rod in his Juneau woodshop. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

But Lyman’s rods are not cheap. They sell for at least $1,200 dollars and up.

And he worries the trade war with China will add to his material expenses. For example, it usually takes months and $600 to get good, mature Tonkin bamboo cane shipped over from China. He now expects that will double.

“And it’s going to cost because this is an agricultural product from China, and the tariff is going to hit it,” Lyman said.

Lyman has a website and displays his rods in Colorado ski shops or Juneau restaurants. But he really doesn’t need marketing to bring in more orders, since he can only produce a dozen rods a year.

“I still fish several times a year with it,” Lyman said as he grabbed one of rods and led me out to a small lawn adjacent to a busy downtown street.

He side-cast a few times with one of his rods, precisely landing the line at his intended target underneath a tree.

A silver spoon with the image of goddess Minerva on a Hawaiian background serves as a reel cup on one of Jon Lyman's handcrafted bamboo fly rods.

A silver spoon with the image of goddess Minerva on a Hawaiian background serves as a reel cup on one of Jon Lyman’s handcrafted bamboo fly rods. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

“Here, just feel this,” Lyman offered. “Let’s put down a modest amount of line here.”

Lyman let me try casting with his rod.

“Now don’t be afraid to bend the rod,” he encouraged. “That sucker, you can bend it in half! Hammer it! Don’t wave the flag! Bang! Bang! There you go!”

For a fleeting instant, as I pulled back and watched the line loop above and back behind me, I paused for a few beats then heard the distinctive whoosh sound as I loaded the rod and pushed hard forward on the cast. I was in the moment.

I was already thinking about visiting my favorite stream again. Which may be just what Thoreau was talking about.

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