Learn how to build a Tennessee spinning rod handle from cork, carbon fiber, or Kevlar in just 4 simple steps.
A Review of Custom Tennessee Fishing Rod Handles
Tennessee fishing rod handles are a popular handle design that has stood the test of time. As a traditional setup, the Tennessee handle brings the best of simplicity and performance to your fishing rod.
Not only is building a Tennessee handle easy, but now with modern innovations in rod components, there are many more options to customize this classic handle assembly.
What is a Tennessee Spinning Rod Handle?
The Tennessee handle is a classic for three reasons, it’s simple to build, it feels great, and it looks even better.
Originating in… you guessed it, Tennessee, this handle’s efficient design and traditional appeal helped it quickly grow in popularity. Not to mention it eliminates metal components, so smallmouth fisherman in Tennessee used it to keep on fishing despite the colder weather.
1. Choose the Tennessee Handle Material
Although classic Tennessee rods only used cork, today’s modern Tennessee handles are generally made from either cork, carbon fiber, or even kevlar.
Each of these materials is lightweight and great for transferring vibrations from the line to the rod and then to your hand.
Since each option makes for a great Tennessee handle, just choose the best handle material for you!
Cork has long been the classic when it comes to Tennessee handle setups.
A longtime favorite for fishing grips, cork remains popular for it’s lightweight structure that brings an incredible feel to any handle. Cork is also a fishing favorite because it is firm with a subtle cushion to make for a very comfortable grip.
These factors also allow angler’s to fish longer hours without feeling the fatigue that comes with using a heavier handle.
Extremely lightweight, yet firm and durable, carbon fiber is a very trendy grip material for today’s fishing rods.
Carbon fiber grips bring excellent feel to any fishing rod and it was only a matter of time before rod builders began using it for Tennessee spinning handles.
Not only does carbon fiber bring serious performance benefits, it also looks awesome!
Similar to carbon fiber, kevlar is a popular handle material for reducing weight, but maintaining a firm and durable grip.
Kevlar’s lightweight construction works well to eliminate fatigue and also enhance the feel for vibrations as bites and strikes transfer from the line down to your hand.
From its looks to its performance, kevlar is an excellent option for building a Tennessee fishing rod handle.
2. Fit the Tennessee Handle to the Rod Blank
The second step to a custom Tennessee handle is fitting the grips and arbors to the rod blank.
This step looks much different with carbon fiber and kevlar compared to cork. The biggest difference is that the carbon fiber and kevlar tubes require arbors in order to fit securely over the butt section of the blank.
Follow the additional instructions below that reflect your style Tennessee handle:
Cut and Ream Cork Grips to Fit
When it comes to a Tennessee cork handle, it may shock you, but the next step is to cut that nice piece of cork in half.
Cutting the cork in half is necessary for two reasons. The first reason is that the graphite slip rings that hold the reel won’t fit over the cork’s outside edges, and the second reason is because it makes reaming much easier.
Use a sharp razor blade and place it roughly half way up the cork grip. Press the razor blade into the cork and then slowly introduce more pressure as you rotate and slice through the cork.
This method will help cut through the cork without splintering the cork’s edges.
After the cork is cut in half, ream each section to fit on the rod blank.
Remember when reaming, slow and steady will always produce a better fitting handle because you can slide it on to check and then ream as needed to fit the grip perfectly in place.
TIP: Make sure you keep the grip oriented correctly while reaming to avoid fitting the cork upside down on accident.
The ABC’s of Arbors in Carbon Fiber and Kevlar Tubes
Unlike cork, carbon fiber and kevlar Tennessee handles use tubes or sleeves to install the grip.
A.) Cut Arbor in Four Equal Pieces
First, cut the arbor into four equal sections.
Treat these arbors just like cork and use the same method to cut through the graphite and get four arbors.
B.) Space Out Arbors and Mark Arbor Locations
Four arbors will allow you to space out each one underneath the tube for a better fit.
After you have the right spacing, mark the location of each arbor on the rod blank with a china marker.
C.) Label and Ream each Arbor to Fit
Since the rod blank is marked to show the location of the arbors, use these locations to label each arbor.
Whether you use 1, 2, 3, 4, or A, B, C, D, the point is to label the arbors so that you can ream each one to fit that specific location on the rod blank.
Labeling the arbors will make reaming and installation much easier.
3. Install Cork Grips or Handle Tubes
After the cork and arbors are reamed to fit, you can begin gluing up your Tennessee handle.
Mix Up Two-Part Paste Epoxy
Use a trustworthy two-part paste epoxy like ProPaste to glue up your handle assembly.
With two-part epoxies, it is important to mix equal parts of the resin and hardener to get the best bond in your handle.
Apply Epoxy on Blank to Install Cork
After the paste epoxy is mixed, apply a small amount along the butt section of the rod blank to install the cork.
Start applying the epoxy a few inches above where the grip will be because as you rotate the cork down the blank and into place, it will use the epoxy as a lubricant before bonding to its final position.
After you have rotated the bottom half of the cork grip down onto the rod blank’s butt section, there will likely be some leftover epoxy emerging from the bottom. But that’s fine, simply use this runoff to install the butt cap over the cork’s rear tenon.
Next, slide on the graphite slip rings over the bottom half of the cork grip.
TIP: DO NOT FORGET to add the slip rings before mounting the top half of the cork grip.
After installing the slip rings, repeat the process to mount the top half of the cork grip onto the rod blank.
Then if there’s any epoxy left above the grip, use this epoxy to glue on the appropriate winding check.
TIP: Use denatured alcohol to clean off any remaining epoxy on the rod blank.
Apply Epoxy Over and in Between Arbors for Tubes
While cork grips don’t require much epoxy paste to bond to the rod blank, the carbon fiber and kevlar tubes will require more because of the space created between the handle tube and the rod blank.
After you mix up two equal parts of the resin and hardener, use a little bit on the edge of the blank’s butt to glue the EVA butt cap in place. The butt cap is the only EVA insert without a hole all the way through the center.
Next, brush the paste over and in between each of the arbors so that the tube can completely bond to the rod blank.
TIP: Swab out the inside of the handle tube with denatured alcohol to remove any lingering release agents used in the manufacturing process from inside the tube.
As you slide the handle tube down the blank, start twisting it once you are sliding over the arbors. This twisting motion will help spread epoxy around the inside of the handle tube for a better finished bond.
Once the handle tube is placed, mount the EVA insert on the topside of the tube with a little more epoxy if needed.
4. Mount Reel on Cork or Handle Tube
Before trying to install a reel onto the handle, make sure the epoxy has had ample time to bond and cure within the handle.
When it comes to mounting a reel onto these Tennessee handles, there are a few methods out there that work.
The following methods are what is generally recommended for these Tennessee handles:
Use Graphite Slip Rings with Cork Tennessee Handles
Since the Cork Tennessee handle kit includes the graphite slip rings, you won’t need much more than that.
Don’t let these graphite rings scare you, these rings are more than enough to keep a spinning reel in place on this handle.
Add Nylon Strapping Tape & Shrink Tubing on Handle Tubes
Considering that graphite slip rings can’t grab onto the smooth handle tubes of carbon fiber and kevlar, there has to be different methods for these materials to keep the reel in place.
These methods may look different, but all achieve the same goal in maintaining the reel.
With that said, a proven way to hold a reel onto these tubes is with a dose of nylon strapping tape followed by some heat shrink grip material. Just use 3-4 wraps of the strapping tape and then conceal that tape with the heat shrink tubing.
The heat shrink should only go about 1/4 of an inch past the reel foot to keep it in place.
The Benefits of Tennessee Fishing Rod Handles
Now knowing just how easy Tennessee handles are to build, let’s talk more about why anglers choose the Tennessee style handles for their fishing rods.
Extremely Lightweight Yet Secure Handle Assembly
As previously mentioned, Tennessee handles are commonly made from cork, carbon fiber, and kevlar.
But for those wondering why?
The answer is simple, these materials are ultra-lightweight to make for a handle that is easier to hold up for extended periods of time.
Not only does the weight help fight off fatigue, it’s also remarkable considering how sturdy and secure the reel feels with these lightweight materials.
Conducts Vibrations and Detects Bites
With these ultra-light handle materials also comes a boost in sensitivity.
Since Tennessee handles are incredibly light and mounted directly to the rod blank, these setups are excellent for transferring vibrations and fish strikes straight to your hand.
This added feel is awesome for fishing and it also explains why Tennessee handles have been so popular for so long.
Easy to Balance with Any Spinning Reel
Another reason that Tennessee handles are still so popular, is due to how easy these handles make balancing the rod.
Since the reel seat position is entirely up to you, you can easily adjust the position of the reel to make balancing the rod as simple as it is effective.
Traditional Cork Style or Modern Custom Flare
The exciting part of building Tennessee handles today, is all the available options in the rod building market. Not only can you further customize these handles, but you can also choose a trending material like carbon fiber to build a state of the art Tennessee handle.
Or if you grew up fishing cork, then build the traditional cork Tennessee handle you’ve always known and loved.