Accessories D.I.Y. Tenkara

Build Your Own Tenkara Tamo

D.I.Y. Tutorial by Adam Rieger

If you have ever seen the beautiful work done by master tamo maker Mankyu you have probably wanted one. They are gorgeous and rightfully expensive. To truly make a piece of art like those nets it takes years of practice and talent. But, without much skill (I have none myself!) you can easily make your own net that will be fun to make and very functional, and it might even be gorgeous as well!

I am by no means talented or skilled at this nor an expert, but I have made some very functional nets and enjoyed the D.I.Y. project and so wanted to share with the tenkara community a bit of a “How To” in the hopes this could help those interested in giving tamo making a whirl… and I hope you do!

What You’ll Need:

Tools

  • Branch cutting saw – landscaping version will do. Silky (Japanese company) makes very sharp compact folding saws you can keep with your outdoor gear in case you find that branch randomly while fishing or hiking etc.
  • Wood carving knife – anything from a pocket knife to specialized knife. The Japanese versions available online via Amazon and others are affordable and great. Wakashishi Kidirashi craft knife for example
  • A form to shape the hoop. This can be a pot, wok stand, circle cut from plywood with holes drilled, be creative but you will need a way to attach the branch to the “form”.
  • Zip ties and/or twine
  • Wood glue – the best I have found is Titebond III which is strong and waterproof.  Epoxy can work too.
  • Fine tooth rigid spine saw with narrow kerf – Zona makes a great one but Exacto does too and it is readily available. This saw will be for cutting the splice joint. Other saws can work but without a sharp fine tooth narrow kerf you risk breaking the branch.
  • Sand paper
  • Optional – rotary tool with sanding attachment

Finishing Stuff

You can stain or not, but you must protect the wood with either an oil like tung or a varnish. Decorative wraps with thread, leather or rattan are options. I like to wrap the splice joint with rattan for added strength.

  • Varnish – optional.  I use Clear Shield by Minwax. UV protector, Waterproof and breathable it also “flexes” when dry.
  • Stain – optional
  • Tung oil – optional
  • Leather for wrapping
  • Rattan or Wisteria for wrapping
  • Thread decorative wraps

Net

You can buy pre-made nets; most western companies sell “tear drop” shaped nets which you can use just make the shape of the branch more tear drop. Japanese mesh bags are available via Japan from Tenkara-Ya by special order. Mankyu sells just the mesh bags which are still available and Tenkara-Ya can get them. There is another company Shimizu that sells the mesh bags and attaching kit. These are available via Tenkara-Ya or Amazon Japan also.

You can of course make your own net if you can sew from laundry bag material or something else. You can also buy cheap aquarium fish nets (great idea JJ!) to use, or even kids butterfly nets online where the bag can be reused.

Whatever you choose it is important to match the “form” size to the net you choose.

  • Wire to create a “hoop” around the top loops of the net. A “No Tarnish” jewelry wire works… brass is nice. 24-gauge is good. You can also use thread if you prefer.
  • Thread to tie on the net. I use nanocord (nylon paracord in very small size). You basically want a thread that can handle water and not break down.
  • Sewing needle helps!
  • Super glue to seal the final knot.

Now that we have covered the basic tools to get the job done let’s begin! First up is branch selection…

Branch Selection

Many different types of wood can be worked to make a tamo, but the easiest for a first attempt is a pine species. In my part of the country (North of New York City) we have a lot of White Pine. Pine trees grow in an advantageous shape where on any given branch it produces side branches perpendicular to the main branch and with one on each side forming a “T” shaped joint. This shape is what you need the branch to look like to shape the hoop in a decent circle. The other advantage pine has is that a live branch or green branch bends very easily making shaping easy. I harvest branches in the Fall and winter when sap is at its lowest. I have spoken to others that prefer spring, clearly both work!

The main branch is going to be the “handle” so be sure it is thicker than you want it – you can always remove material later. The side branches are going to form the hoop. Each of these branches needs to be at least as thick as a Sharpie for enough length to form the hoop. I have been using a 10-inch form so you need the side branches of the “T” to each be around 20 inches. A 10-inch diameter is a circumference of about 32 inches, so each branch needs to extend far enough to make the circle but also to have some good overlap.

Once you have found the branch, cut it so that all parts are longer than you need… handle end longer… sides longer and the top of the “T” which you will eventually remove… leave an inch or so there. This is important because as you dry the branch it may crack, and it will crack on the “ends” first so by leaving extra (that you plan to remove anyhow) you eliminate the chance the crack ruins the branch.

To make one tamo, I suggest finding two branches… this way if you mess something up on one you still have a chance to finish one. Of the two one will be preferred… so always do each step on the “lesser” branch first to “practice”.

Shaping the Branch

As soon as you can, after cutting the branch, strip off the bark. I do this with a pocket knife and rubber gloves to keep my hands clean of the sap. You just want to remove the outer bark to help in the drying, no need to start carving at this point! It is not a bad if you leave a chunk of the green inner bark.

When you have finished stripping the bark attach the branch to your form using zip ties or twine. Start the to make the attachment at the joint and work your way out and around evenly on both sides. Try to keep the branch as tight to the form as you can. Continue working your way around on each side until you meet and keep going until all of each of the branches are wrapped around the form. You want both side branches to overlap but continue to hold the shape.

Tamo formed around a wok stand

If you are alone doing this sometimes you cannot get it as tight as you want. Finish it as best you can and then start at the handle again using zip ties or twine to get it tighter… and then remove the old zip ties or twine as you go getting it tighter and tighter to the form. It might not be perfect and that is okay, later you can work on the shape again.

You may also at this stage want to adjust the angle of the handle; you can either bend the handle more deeply or flatten it as you prefer. Just tie some rope to one end of the handle and then bend to where you like it (go slow!) and tie off on the form.

Tamo formed around a pot

Drying the Branch

Once you have peeled the bark and done your best to fix the branch to the form you now need a place to dry the branch. I have found my shed to be a great place; simply hanging it over the winter and checking back in Spring. I have dried branches out even longer up to a year as well. The drying process cures the shape and allows the wood to be nicely carved, sanded and stained or oiled later.

Tweaking the Shape After Drying

After the branch has dried, remove it from the form. It should hold the shape quite well. Now you can cut off some of the excess wood you left above the handle and inside the hoop. You may begin to carve this zone to remove excess wood. If there are any little wood knots from small side branches that you had removed on the main branch you can now remove them with the carving knife or the saw. If you left a lot of extra on the arm branches of the hoop you can reduce that now but still leave extra!

You may love the shape and angle of the handle and can skip the next step, if not and you want to further refine the shape then see how flexible the arm branches are. If you feel you can still bend them a bit manually to tighten up against the form more, then do so. If not, and you want to get the circle better you will need to begin to steam bend the branch.

Steam Bending/Setting

By steaming the branch, you loosen the branch to be able to shape it for a short time while it is hot. When it cools off it hardens to that shape. Fill a tall, narrow stock pot with water about ⅓ the way bringing to a boil. I use a metal wok stand as a form, so I attach the branch via zip ties to the form as best I can, then I put the area I want to bend over the steam. I wrap the sides of the pot with foil loosely, so the branch does not rest on the hot edge of the pot and only on the foil. Alternatively, you could use towels but I have a gas range so I am always nervous about a fire.

I then cover the whole thing with foil and steam for like 20 minutes or more. At that point using gloves (because it is hot!) I push the branch tighter onto the form and zip tie it there. The steam should have loosened the wood enough to get some more “give.” Keep doing this to get the branch to stick to the form more closely. You may need to steam again longer so repeat this as needed until you get it where you want it.

Is this necessary? No. It is optional. If you really want to try to make the hoop “perfectly” round it is the way. Will the tamo work not perfectly round, of course! This is a personal preference thing and often you will find if you were able to get things very tight while the wood was new the branch maybe is in great shape already. This is also the time to adjust the handle angle if you do not like where it ended up after drying. You may find you can bend it to where you want it without steam. If you can do that then, just go slow!

If you were able to tweak the shape of the hoop and/or handle by force and tie it off. You will still want to steam the whole branch hoop section for about 30 minutes. This will loosen tension by loosening the wood fibers and have the branch yield to how you secured it. After steaming let it cool off and dry a bit more. I hang it back in the shed for a month. I am not sure if that much longer is needed but steam-setting the wood and then drying it further has made it hold that finished shape when I remove it from the form.

A Note About Other Wood Types

In my personal tamo building I have always used pine, but in talking with others many different types of wood can be used. Many other tree/bushes have different natural geometry that makes finding the perfect branch much harder, but if you do find it, then it could be great. Also, some types of wood are much less flexible even when green so this means you will probably not be able to avoid a fair amount of steam bending the wood. You can access pictures and suggestions online and in the Tenkara USA forum from many tamo D.I.Y. projects with other types of wood and see how they did it.

Making the Splice

This is maybe the hardest part of the project. I have seen people suggest cutting the joint on an angle with one cut. Cutting through both branches where they overlap in one shot. I do not personally like this method because it requires then connecting the two ends under tension (you will have to stretch the two ends to meet). I prefer to mark the area I want to do the splice.

Next, select a good area where the two branches overlap and are both reasonably thick. I mark off about a 2-inch zone on each branch. I then with my hand saw (that fine tooth narrow kerf hard spine saw) cut an angle cut that extends the full two inches on one branch only. Once that is complete I line up the second branch without tension and double check the markings and adjust to match what I just successfully cut. I then cut the second branch with the counter angle of cut for the full length.

The longer the cut and the shallower the angle the better. That will give you the largest surface area for the glue connection. More surface area is stronger. Keep that in mind and try not to do the cut steeply. A dull saw with big teeth and a thick kerf will make doing a shallow angle very difficult.

When the cuts are complete is a good idea to sand the cut surface and edges and make sure it all fits nicely. I have come to love my rotary hand tool with a sanding attachment for doing this quickly. Don’t sand too fine, having a rough surface for the glue later is good.

Gluing the Joint

To glue the joint is easy if you did the cut in such a way where there is little to no tension other than the up & down between the two angles. To begin I put a zip tie on each branch and tighten them about 90% of the way so they will just loosely slide over the joint on either side. Dry fit it at this point, making sure the zip tie is closed down but not tight, so you can slide it on and off for this “dry run”. Sand more if needed.

Once it all works brush on each side of the meeting splice joints Titebond III glue. Then while putting the two ends together slide the zip ties over each end and tighten down. With a wet cloth wipe off excess glue. If needed to “marry” the joint better add more zip ties. Let the glue dry overnight. In the morning with a razor or box cutter you can cut off the zip ties.

A Note About Zip Ties

Zip ties will leave a mark in the wood. When stripping the bark, I tend to leave some of the green bark on the branch which is what gets marked by the zip tie and which I sand off after, so I do not worry about that. I also like to have a thicker branch than what I want when finished so the part marked will be sanded away anyhow. I just wanted to note this for all, so you know in advance. If you are worried about that then using a cotton rope might be the best but will likely require a second set of hands to tie.

Carving/Sanding

Now comes the time to do some carving and sanding. The main areas you will need to focus on for carving are on the handle, the part inside the hoop, and the very end of the handle. Carve it any way you like. I prefer to make the handle come to a narrow and flat end. With the branch being narrower crosswise than deep.

At this time, you should also sand the entire tamo removing that under bark layer that has now turned a dark brown. Sand it all to the shape you desire and sand down any knot areas to be smooth. You can leave the tamo rustic in shape with lots of gnarly bumps or smooth it out, that is up to you. Go progressively finer in grain on the sanding. I like to begin with the rotary tool to do the “bulk” job and then move to hand sanding with very fine grit.

Handle Ideas

There are a few handle add-ons I have seen. Using an antler at the end of the handle is one. You can get one from a hunter, a lucky find, or at a pet store as a dog chew! To attach it you will need to cut the antler and the end of the wood handle in matching diameters. Using a headless bolt glued into both the antler and the wood handle to attach. I have not personally done this but Daniel Galhardo has and he details the process on a blog post on the Tenkara USA site.

Another idea that I have done is to add a piece of a different type of wood to the handle. This is a great option if you found a perfect branch, but the handle part was not long enough.

To do this you make a flush cut on the tamo handle where you want to attach it. Then match that diameter on the secondary piece of wood and make an opposing flush cut. Drill a hole in both the tamo handle and the secondary piece of wood to accept a dowel or a headless wood screw. Using the Titebond III glue, glue in the dowel or bolt on one side and let dry overnight, then repeat to connect. If using a dowel, you will need a vise to apply pressure during the drying. If you use a wood screw, then twist it on tight to hold tension while it dries. Sand to finish the area and further shape the end of the secondary piece of wood to finish.

Rattan Wrapping the Splice (or for Decoration)

You can buy rattan wrapping material from cane furniture repair places. I like a very thin rattan, something in the 2mm zone wide but a few feet long. I like to wrap the splice zone to add strength there, then sometimes I do the wraps in other parts of the hoop for looks.

Before wrapping, soak the rattan cane in water to soften. I do this for an hour or more. Remove it from the water and dry off excess water with a paper towel. The rattan will have a flat side and a shiny curved side, wrap shiny side up and flat side down. Brush Titebond III wood glue on the area you are going to wrap.

Begin wrapping like you would starting thread on a hook for tying a fly. Catch a bit of the rattan end under your wraps to lock it in. Wrap the rattan in touching turns along the hoop as tightly as you can and over the glue. It is a bit messy don’t worry. When you reach the end of where you want the wraps to stop, hold the tension with your thumb and do two loose wraps and then sneak the end of the rattan through those loose wraps back towards the beginning. Pull that loose end through and tight, tightening those loops down on and around the hoop tightly. Get those loops tight but touching and not overlapping, which might take some maneuvering. Cut off excess rattan leaving a little tag (for now). Wipe off the zone with a wet towel to remove excess glue. Let it dry overnight.

When it is dry you can cut that tag off with a razor or box cutter very close. Repeat this where you want as decoration.

When you are done with all the wrapping and drying of the glue, sand the area again. The rattan sands down nicely so feel free to smooth it out and especially where that tag was so that area is smooth. The glue helps make the joint and rattan hold better. The rattan naturally shrinks and hardens as it dries. 

Rattan also takes stain so if you intended to stain as part of your finishing you can stain right onto the rattan. Or as a different look, you could stain the branch first and then add unstained rattan.

Alternative wrapping materials are thread or leather or something of your choice. Feel free to experiment!

Finishing the Wood

You must seal the wood with something to preserve it. You have two options; wood oils like Tung or an exterior varnish. Both work great and add strength to the wood. An oil like Tung oil will need to be reapplied every few years but is very easy to do. Tung oil will darken the wood a tiny bit – more yellows the wood – but not much and leaves it looking very natural. I believe you can add dye or stain to the Tung oil to change the color, but I have not personally done that.

If you want to stain the wood, then that is an option.  Follow the application instructions on the stain you chose.

To finish the tamo with varnish, follow the instructions with the varnish you chose. Be sure it is exterior grade and can handle water. I apply more coats than the instructions to get a bit of a lacquer effect, but that is up to you.

Attaching the Net/Mesh Bag

This is difficult to explain in words. Diagrams work great and there are some videos online that show the idea. If you are using a mesh bag that is Japanese in style you will need to put a length of wire into the loops at the opening end of the bag and around the complete opening. You want the wire to overlap inside the loops for a bit which you will later attach the overlap zone near the handle part in the hoop. You need to use a wire that will not tarnish when it has gotten wet. This wire is what you will tie with thread to the hoop. The thread I use is a nylon paracord called “nanocord” which comes in many colors. It is strong, not impacted by water and can be threaded through a big sewing needle (which helps!)

As mentioned, here are some links to resources that can help with the process if you are more of a visual learner.

Tamo Tethers

You can get a Japanese style net leash via various online sources for you net that will loop right on to the hoop of the tamo. I like to put on the tamo near the handle a ring clip. To that I attach a Gear Keeper which is then attached to a carabiner which I clip on a belt loop. This is up to you and your style.

I hope this little “how to” has been helpful and will provide another resource space to those who want to try their hands at making their very own tamo!


Adam Rieger works for a wine and sake importer and distributor in New York and New Jersey. He lives in the Croton River watershed about an hour north of New York City, but travels the tri-state area hunting brook trout whenever his wife lets him. Follow his fly tying videos on YouTube.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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