Fish & Rod Stories | Techniques to Remove old Varnish from bamboo

When I received this email from a fellow rod builder I thought the communication was worth sharing.

Hi Matt,

I hope all is good in your neck of the woods for you and yours. I do have a question that should be right up your alley, please. Is there a safe way to remove old varnish (from and antique bamboo rod)? It seems to me that DNA (denatured alcohol) softens the varnish, but it still needs to be scraped, sanded, rubbed or a blade used on it, with the unwanted associated risk involved. I am not game enough to use paint stripper or thinners. Any ideas you can throw my way would be greatly appreciated.

Kind regards, Rod Churchward, Australia

I've tried many methods over the years, stripper, Formby’s denatured alcohol, acetone. Here is what I do for bamboo:

remove varnish from bamboo

First, carefully cut and peel away thread and guides.

Next, scrape using cabinet grade high carbon steel scraper or single edge razor blade. (Hand Scraper) WEAR LEATHER GLOVES!
1. Lay your rod on a firm flat surface (garage floor or wood-worker bench)
2. Firmly anchor the rod
3. Keep you blade perfectly parallel about and angle facing away
4. Apply force and firmly draw blade away from you
5. Varnish will fly off

Finally, in well-ventilated area, rub firmly with Acetone. WEAR CHEMICAL RESISTANT GLOVES!
1. I use old t-shirts (most other cloths does not work well
2. Acetone dissolve the old varnish, but DOES not completely remove it
3. You have a beautiful honey color original style finish ready for your new stuff.

This the fastest way I have found, and it leaves your edges very precise. In addition, after you learn this technique, you can change the taper of the bamboo, but this is not for the faint at heart, lots of studies before you go there. See my rod story The Making of Riffle Tamer III.

Hand scrapes must be sharp
Hand Scrapes, OR
3 piece rectangular set, last item

PS For original type finish, I use my version of an old ‘Coach Varnish’ formula.
Spar varnish 60%
Tung Oil 20%
Turpentine 20%
It takes a long time to dry but you can polish it easily after it dries with a soft cloth.