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Making a tenkara net is such a unique craft. It is not difficult, but I can’t say it is the easiest thing. It is also not that complicated, some may even say it is simple. I will work on putting together a better tutorial on how to make a tenkara net, I promise.
I have learned a lot since I made my first tenkara nets, which I document here. But, for anyone interested in giving it a try, I believe this will give you a good place to start.
The Jeffrey pine seems appropriate for the task. Steam-bending is okay, durability is not great but okay. The branches are not super interesting visually and aesthetically, but appropriate. It’s widely available and seems very easy to work with.
The most difficult aspect of making a tenkara net is branch selection. Not many trees have branches that are appropriate. It’s important to find the branch with the right diameters and angles. The tree I found had many branches with thinner sub-branches coming out at a slight angle. I spent about 40 minutes analyzing every branch that looked suitable, grabbing the sub-branches that would make the frame and bending them to see the shape, flexibility (I wanted one that wouldn’t be flimsy), looking at the diameters that would compose the handle and the frame to make sure they would be appropriate. 2 branches qualified in the entire tree. The tree was in public land. It was a healthy adult tree. I cut each branch about 1/2 way, just a little pruning, barely noticeable. Interestingly there were a few other Jeffrey pines nearby but none with suitable branches that I could see.
2 branches would yield 4 possible nets. Notice the 2nd branch, it actually had two great branch pairs for making up the frame, I decided to leave the 2 branch pairs on until I got home and was able to decide on the best one (I chose the thicker of the 2 pairs).
It is recommended the branches be selected in the winter/end of autumn, as that’s when they will have the lowest moisture content. Indeed, the tree branches were very wet right now, but I figure I’ll just let them dry a bit longer. The bark could easily be peeled off, allowing me to see the raw wood. The best diameter for the frame, based on the nets I have, is approximately the diameter of a sharpie pen with the bark on (9mm to be exact), and about the diameter of a regular pen about 7.5mm with bark stripped. Handles may be of different diameters, suiting the person, mine range from 24 to 29mm with bark on (about the same as the handle of a tenkara rod).
What to do with the branches:
With branches selected and their look “analyzed”, it was now time to prepare the branches for a couple of weeks of drying. According to one of the links, it’s good to tie the branches that will form the frame together for this period. This will allow the wood to retain some of the circular shape more easily when the time comes to put it all together.
I took each of the branches and bent the frame arms together. They didn’t get perfectly round to begin with (I suspect that’s very rare). So, I not only tied the two branches together (each one at 3 pointt: middle and sides), but also pulled and tied the branches to different parts of the handle to get as close to a circle as possible. I used some heavy nylon material I had, but I think it’s best to use rope at this point to avoid damaging/cutting the wood with the thinner nylon.
The Jeffrey pine, at least at this time of year, is very malleable, so I could put a lot of force bending and pulling the branches in whatever direction and they didn’t snap. I put a LOT of force on shaping a couple of the branches, and hopefully that’ll be okay, they didn’t seem to be even close to breaking. In a couple of cases I also used a dowel to force sides apart and get a better circular shape.
Here are the frames tied together:
Drying the branches for a tenkara net:
In Japanese tutorials they say you have to let your branch dry for at least one year. But, Japan is generally very humid, I have found that it varies a lot depending on where you are and typically it can be dried for a shorter period of time. For example, in drier climates, like in Colorado where I currently live, a 3 month drying period may suffice. If you have one, a wood moisture meter can come in super handy, and moisture of 8-10% is recommended. My first nets I made while living in San Francisco, semi-dry. I let them dry for about 3-6 months. It is very important to dry them slowly (e.g. not in direct sun) to prevent splitting and cracking. Also, cut the branch a bit longer on the very ends to prevent splitting where you don’t want it. Some people have had success applying a layer of white glue or candle wax to the ends to help minimize splitting.
– When sawing the knots off, spend a good amount of time looking at it and visualizing how it may work best. Also, cut less than you think you need, as you can always cut more later.
– Gloves are highly recommended. I did the first branch with no gloves on, and even though I have rough hands from climbing, it was still not easy. Plus, the sap was a bit messy. I got some latex gloves for removing the bark (and for later resin applications) and a heavier-duty glove for all the carving.
– Get a very good whittling/carving knife and sharpening stone. This is very important to make good cuts on the knots and pieces that need to be removed.
Two indispensable tools, a good detail saw and a good carving knife. I have found that fine Japanese saws are worth their price if you start getting into tenkara net making.
Okay, maybe I’m just way to impatient, but as I mentioned I thought I’d take advantage of the wood being soft and try to do some of the steam bending. And, I figure, may as well work on some of the carving and sanding too, so the nets are starting to take shape.
For steam bending, I kept it simple, and followed some instructions on the Japanese sites. Just used a pot with water. I would keep small sections over the steam for about 5 minutes, and then bend it with my thumbs, I could feel the wood getting slightly softer and bending. This is a VERY SLOW and GRADUAL work, I probably already spent over 1 hour on 2 frames, and will probably repeat the process a few more times. I’ve decided not to use a form, and will definitely not make a steam box for this purpose. The kettle worked well enough for the thin arms.
I think 2 of the pine nets are going to be very usable, with great shape and stout wood. I love the long handle of one of them, but am afraid the arms are a bit too thin and flimsy. The mazanita is just something of its own, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the final result looks like. All my nets will be 24cm in diameter, I prefer the smaller net and it’s plenty for all fish I plan to catch.
Also, despite using wax (perhaps not the best type of wax, since I used candle wax) the manzanita developed a small crack in the middle. I can live with it, but hope it’s not a problem. One of the pine nets also has a couple of small, and very thin cracks, which I’m not sure could have been avoided. I found some beeswax at home, so switched to that for the time being.
I had been split on whether to retain most of the wood’s natural shape, or force bend it into more perfect circular shapes. At first I wanted to make it as circular as I could with a simple kettle and my hands, but the frames wouldn’t get very circular due to the wood features on the nets I selected. I have decided it was important to make the frames as circular as possible and have thus given in to my reluctance to use a form to bend the wood into shape.
A couple of blocks away there is a kitchen supplies store, a very large one, so I thought of going there to look for a pot to use as a form. I found these great “wok stands”, which are just about the perfect size for the 24cm nets. They are inexpensive and work great. I mounted my frames onto these and also steamed them for several minutes each.
Finished the last coat of tung oil on my first Jeffrey pine net yesterday, and put the last mesh I had in hand in it. I really wanted to get this finished as I’m heading to Colorado for some fishing this week, and of course wanted to show it off I’m very happy with it, and it’ll be my new “to-use” net.
Here are some pictures of the tenkara net in action. I really like how functional the net is when it comes to photographing the fish. I keep the net pressed behind my knee as a kneel down, with the mesh and the fish completely in the water as I get my camera ready. Only when I’m about to photograph it do I lift the net out of the water. It works great!
I have become a fan of the flat cut knot on the middle of the net, a great way to photograph the fly too: