November 30, 2018

Some Musings on Wood Handled Tenkara Rods

Call me old fashioned, but I still like craftsmanship. I certainly wouldn't call myself an artist, but having built many western fly rods I can appreciate what it takes to make a functional piece of art such as a custom fly rod. When it comes to tenkara rods however, the usual things that define a custom rod do not apply. On tenkara rods there are no reel seats, no guide wrappings, no ferrel wraps, and on many, no winding check wrappings. For the most part, when it comes to tenkara rods, what is left for the true artist is the handle.

You can be an artist with western rods. (No, I didn't make this rod!)

Since I started fishing tenkara (January 2012) there has been an explosion of rods available to tenkara anglers. Many have been me-too rods; rods that come from Alibaba with a logo change and then sold as a great new line of rods. Other tenkara rods have been partially designed from the ground up, tested, and then modified to increase their action and improve the casting/fishing experience. Finally, there are a few rods that are groundbreaking, truly new designs with many hours of testing and modifying until the ultimate goal is achieved. Still, even with these last group of rods there seems to be little artisan/craftsmanship. The trend now days is to use foam for handles, not even cork. I know it's hard to find and somewhat expensive to buy high quality cork, but I don't care what you say, a foam handle will never stir my soul like a well executed cork handle will. And for that matter, although a custom cork handle is to be admired, in my book it still takes second place to wood.

Bottom to top: TUSA Ebisu, Nissin Air Stage Fujiryu 360, Sakura Seki Rei, Oni Itoshiro 340, Oni Type-1 Bamboo.

A wood handles gives a rod its own personality. They can be simple in shape, such as on the Sakura Seki Rei, or they can be more complex, as on the Oni Type-I Bamboo. Still, any wood handle, as long as it has been done well, gives a rod unique characteristics that is not achieved by cork, and certainly not by foam.

With wood, each rod is different. No grain pattern, even from the same wood blank, is the same. Also, as the rod is fished the wood takes on the oils from the users hand, and in effect absorbs into itself all the fishing adventures it has been used on. Wood develops a patina, cork gets dirty, and foam, well, foam just gets smelly.

Are there any downsides to wood, of course, there are downsides to everything. The main two I can think of are cost and weight. Wood handles, especially really great ones, like ones on the Oni Itoshiro 340, are true works of art. To get that level of quality it's going to cost some simoleons. Secondly, wood weighs more than cork and foam, and so the rod will weigh more. Still, when done well, a wood handle is a thing of beauty to be celebrated and prized. It will show you where you have been, and continue to please you for years to come.

With that said, do I wish my favorite tenkara rods, the TenkaraBum 36 and 40 had wood handles? No sir, I do not! That would change the characteristics of the rods too much. Do I love the handles on the TB36, TB40, Karasu, Tanuki XL-1, or Shimano rods? Don't be ridiculous, of course not, they're lifeless, impassionate foam. How can you love foam? Do I wish Tenkara USA would bring back the Ebisu? You bet! It was heavy, but you have to admit, it had class!


  1. Hi Tom. Great writing on the virtues and vices of wood grips. This may be a bit off topic but, I love foam on ant, beetle, hopper and terrestrial spider patterns, for its great floating characteristics and its soft, alive feel to the fish, which they tend to hold on to a little longer. As for foam grips on rods, not so much. But I have come to accept the foam as a serviceable enough alternative that keeps the cost more competitive and economically acceptable....Karl.

  2. Yes! I still hold on to my TUSA Ebisu, probably for the reasons you call out in your post. I'd love to see more wood handled rods from other makers.

  3. Very nice.
    That Jungle cock highlight is beautiful

  4. I like wood-handled rods and wish there were more of them. The only two I have right now are my Tenkara no Oni bamboo-handled Type I and my Tenkara USA Ebisu. Maybe I can talk Dennis into turning a new handle for some of my other rods. :)


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