Determining the Shape
Size of a Cork Handle

By Steven H. McGarthwaite

When I started fly angling, I didn't know anything, about everything. And one of the first decisions I had to make, was to select a fly rod. I did not have any mentors, and the only help was from a store owner who was not the "caring type." I ended up with a nice fly rod, made by a very reputable company, and I have no complaint with the fly rod, or the company that built it. I do have some problems with the owner of the store. You see the fly rod was a nice rod but the handle was wrong. Wrong for my hand grip size, and hand grip shape, I was not properly fitted.

Buying clothing, the merchandise is marked as to the articles size, shoes, pants, shirts, coats, and even gloves. You can try on the article to see if it fits properly. If the article does not fit, you try a different size, until you find something that is comfortable. Gloves come in many sizes because not everyone has the same sized hand. Fly rod handles, should be no different. Commercially-made fly rod, are available in all weights, lengths, number of sections, and actions. Most fly rod, are available with the handle in one size, and shape only, for that particular model.

Once I started to build my first custom fly rod, I found I had a problem when it came time to the choice of handle. I didn't really know what my hand size diameter was, and I really didn't know what handle grip shape was best for my hand. I looked for information on how to determine this, and did not find any resource available to help. So I determined that I would have to make something that I could use to determine my hand grip diameter and hand grip shape. Before I could do this, I first had to determine what was the proper hand position on a fly rod handle. I came to the conclusion, for a properly sized handle grip on a fly rod;

    1. The thumb should be on the top of the rod handle (call this the 12 o'clock position).

    2. The finger-tips should be somewhere on the side of the handle in the 9 o'clock-to-10 o'clock position (if you're a lefty 3 o'clock-to- 2 o'clock position).

This positioning allows the best control for you gripping the handle without having to grip too tightly. If you have to squeeze the handle to hold the rod, odds are the handle is too small. The wrong size and shape handle, will effect your casting motion, and all the muscles in your hand and arm, from your finger-tips to your shoulder.

Try this experiment out, and see the difference it makes. Make a fist shape with your hand, and clinch your fist as tight as possible. Now, go through the motions, as if you were casting a fly rod. All the muscles in your hand, wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, and shoulder are tense. Your motion is slow, restricted, and you do not have any real strength, or fluid motion.

Now open your hand, and let your hand relax. Now, go through the motions, as if you were casting a fly rod. Your motion is smooth, there is no restriction or resistance to your action. You are in complete and total control. Your arm moves faster, and you have more strength and power to cast with. What does this tell us?

If you have a handle that is the proper size and shape, the hand is not tense, your hand grip is firm, and your muscles are relaxed. With a relaxed arm, you have more power to cast, you have better control of the cast, and will be able to cast the line with more accuracy and control.

How to Size Your Hand Grip.

If you were to buy a ring, and didn't know which size ring would fit on your finger, you would most likely use a "Jeweler's Ring," a set of small hoops that you would slide on the finger. When you found the smallest diameter hoop that would slide on your finger and over your knuckles, you would have found the ring size for your finger.

The same principal applies to determining the proper diameter handle for your hand grip. Shoe Stores have devices for determining your foot size and width. Clothing Stores can determine your clothing size, with a cloth tape measure. I don't know of any Fly Angling Store, that has a device for measuring the hand grip diameter of a customer. Maybe it is time for someone to invent one. Here is my solution to the problem:

Go to your local Hardware Store, they will probably have a section that has wooden dowel rods in different diameters. We are interested in the larger dowel sizes ( inch diameter and larger). Earlier I talked about the proper position of the thumb and finger-tips on a fly rod handle (12 o'clock for the thumb, and 9-to-10 o'clock for the finger-tips). Try the different sizes of dowel rods, until you find one that gives you a proper grip size. With the 4 foot dowel rod, try a few casting motions. How does your hand and arm feel, and move?

Do you notice that your hand does not have to grip the dowel rod as hard to maintain a good grip? Is your arm action fast, and smooth, with no restriction due to tighten muscles? Is your elbow and shoulder joint loose, able to flex without restriction? Don't you wish you could cast your fly rod like that?

Okay, it is time for "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God!" What is the diameter of the wood dowel rod that gives you the best control, and action of casting. While allowing you to grip the dowel, without exerting a death grip on the dowel? Was it 3/4 inch, 7/8 inch, 1 inch, 1-1/8 inch, 1-1/4 inch? This is most likely the size diameter your fly rod handle should be.

Now you have determined your hand grip size, and know what your handle diameter should be, you are half-way home. Now you have to determine what shape handle will best fit your hand.

How to Determine your Handle Shape

Flyrods come in a variety of handle shapes. The following are the most common by name and description:

    1. Wells (or Full-Wells): The handle has two hollow groves one at the forward end, and one at the rear. The shape is asymmetrical, along the axis of the handle.

    2. Half-Wells: The handle has only one hollow grove, this can be placed towards the front or to the rear (near the reel seat) of the handle. The rest of the handle is usually cylindrical and does not taper.

    3. Cigar: The handle is symmetrically shaped along the handle axis, tapered at both ends with the largest diameter somewhere in the middle of the handle. It gets its name from observation that it looks like a cigar.

    What is your choice of handle shape, is it

    1. Wells

    2. Half-Wells


    3. Cigar

    . . .are those yours only choices? Not really!

Some people have fallen arches in their feet (commonly called being "Flat Footed".) Some have misshapen bones due to arthritis or rickets, ect! For these folks, the only way they can have any comfort in walking or standing is to have custom made shoes. The only way the craftsperson can properly make the shoes to fit, they need a cast or mold of the foot. The same principal applies to determining the best shape, on the fly rod handle to fit your hand grip pattern.

Are you still at the Hardware Store, in the section with the wood dowel rods? I want you to buy a wooden dowel, but not the one that is the diameter of your hand grip! I want you, to buy a wooden dowel that is 1/2 inch smaller in diameter then the dowel rod you determined was your hand grip diameter. While your at the Hardware Store, do they have a toy section? If they do, you need to purchase some "Play Dough".

The reason I tell you to buy and use Play Dough is it is very soft and malleable, and when left exposed to air over a short-time will start to harden. These are the two characteristics we will be needing for this task. Most clays are too hard to make an impression in, without first working with them, kneading them and adding water to make them more malleable. Fresh Play Dough right out of the can is the correct texture, and then will harden to maintain the shape for later reference.

Now you are done with all the purchasing you need, and can return home to determine your hand grip shape, in the privacy of you own dwelling.

Let's get started, you will need two sheets of wax paper,

    1. Lay one sheet down on a flat surface.

    2. Place all the dough in the center of the sheet of wax paper.

    3. Place the other sheet of wax paper, on top of the dough.

    4. Now you need to flatten the dough until it is flat and about 1/2 inch thick.

    5. After you have done this, you need to roll the dough with a rolling pin, or some cylindrical shaped item (how about that dowel rod you purchased?). You want to roll the dough until it is 1/4 inch thick, and is uniform in thickness.

    6. You now need to peel off the top sheet of wax paper. Now with a dinner knife, you will cut a straight line along one edge of the dough that you have just rolled flat.

    7. Cut the top and bottom off the flatten dough so you have a measured length of 7 inches along the side. 7 inches is the usual length of most flyrod handles.

    8. With the bottom sheet of wax paper on the outside, wrap the sheet of dough around the wood rod, until the dough starts to overlap the straight-cut side where you started the wrap.

    9. You now need to cut away the excess dough, remaining on the sheet, so you will have a smooth layer of dough on the wood rod. Peel the wax paper off of the rod. Now comes the moment of truth, finding out your true hand grip shape.

Making the Model

At this time, you need to place your hand on the wood dowel (wrapped with the sheet of dough). Position your hand, making sure your hand grip is positioned, so there is equal dough at the front and rear of were your palm and thumb are, on top of the rod.

Gently squeeze the wood rod/dough, you are making an imprint of your hand grip shape. Now lessen your grip and take your hand off of the rod. Your hand has changed the dough, giving you a indication of the shape of your hand grip. What you have is something that resembles, a lumpy pile of goo on a stick. Next you need to determine what handle style this lumpy pile of goo represents.

When I took my hand grip imprint, I came up with a pattern that was a cross between a "Half-Wells Forward", and a slightly tapered rear section that was of the "Cigar" category. Go ahead, and do some thinking and see what you come up with . . .

Remember, there is no rule that says it has to be one of the three type mentioned earlier.

Next you will shape the dough so it will resemble a fly rod handle.

Turning the wood rod, start to shape the high points of the dough and the 'wells' that your hand grip imprint made. If you need to, pinch some of the material off, and smooth out the area so the handle is symmetrical along the axis of the wood dowel rod. Measure the thickest portion of the dough handle to see if it is the diameter you determined your hand grip was. Now it is time to give the handle another try to see how it feels. Remember, you want the handle to fit your hand as perfectly as possible. Does it need a little tweaking here or there? Go back and add or remove the dough where needed, and re-smooth out the handle mold, and test it again until you feel it is perfect.

When you are satisfied that you have a handle pattern that is as good as it can be, set it aside to harden. After the fly rod handle has hardened, take some fine sand paper and lightly sand any rough spots on the handle. Try the handle again, gripping it and casting it as if you were casting a fly rod. How does it feel?

Is your grip a lot lighter than before? Are your arm and joints not as tight and your arm action a lot smoother? I hope so, matter of fact, I know so! You are now ready to build a custom made handle (See Al Campbell's Building a Graphite Rod series) for your fly rod. You can do this yourself, or have someone who does custom rod building make it for you. You have the mold as a pattern to follow. You will then have a fly rod handle that was designed by you, custom fitted for your hand, it will give you joy every time you use the fly rod.

Tight Lines - Not Hand Grips! ~ Steven H. McGarthwaite ( aka Parnelli)

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