Today’s TSP Amazon Item of the day is U-40 Cork Sealer. If you are like me, if everything else in two fishing rods are equal you will chose a cork handle rod over a foam handle rod every time. In truth if you want longevity with low to no maintenance this is the wrong choice. I mean let’s just look at what cork is for a moment.
Cork is a bark layer from a tree referred to as the “cork oak”. Translation it is an organic material that will dry out and break down over time.
It really is an amazing substance making message boards, rod handles, bottle stoppers and it does tons of other things well. That said fisherman get stuff dirty, we get stuff covered in salt water, we have sun beat down on our gear, etc. Most people don’t seem to realize that cork is well, basically wood. A light weight wood that floats and does not absorb water.
So would you treat any wood tool the way we treat fishing rods without some form or preservation? Likely not! Or perhaps you are constantly replacing shovel handles or wondering why your deck needs replacing every 5-10 years? Wood when properly preserved can outlast any human lifetime but when left to the elements without preservation it may not last as long as a goldfish from one of those carnival games!
When it comes to cork I have tried almost every option. I took an older cheap rod one time and applied a coat of polyurethane to it. Totally worked! Damn near perfect and cheap as you can get to boot. The problem is essentially that wonderful cork handle became “plastic” for any practical purposes.
Sure it is two coats and likely done for good but why do you want a cork handle in the first place?
To me it comes down to a few things. The first is I am a bit of a traditionalist and I like the look of a cork rod a lot more than foam or some of the space age looking crap some anglers are using now. The other though is the feel of cork. Fishing is a tactile sport, everyone talks about rod “sensitivity” and it is important but to me the feel of cork in your hands is just different. Don’t get me wrong I own foam handle rods too, I just prefer cork and for a large part due to its feel and its look.
So when you seal a cork handle with polyurethane you lose both. You get a glossy synthetic look and the feel of plastic. The rod handle looks frankly like you forgot to take the plastic wrap off it. Sorry may be I am an old fart but my view of that is why even bother then?
So happens to a rod when you don’t seal it? Well for a while nothing, then the handle gets some small cracks, oils and grease and fish slime soak into those cracks. Then it dries out creating expansion and contraction in the baking sun, cold rains, etc. In time it gets worse and then entire pieces of the handle start to fall out and it looks like utter crap. Eventually the entire handle will split and begin to fall off.
As a kid I was big into wood working and tried some things I thought may work well from that school of thought. We always put linseed oil on our tool handles so I tried it with cork, it seemed to work well and darkened it a bit. In the sun though it seemed to become sticky and while I never set a rod handle on fire, it seems a real possibility. Cork just doesn’t really absorb well, in fact that is the entire point of using it. It is why it works for everything from a wine stopper to a fishing float. For the same reason things like other oils, deer tallow and a variety of things that work well for tool handles just didn’t work.
Essentially I just wanted something that kept the handle in good shape and did not really change it. Enter U-40! Application could not be more simple. Simply clean your rod handle, get all that catfish slime and sea spray off it. Let it dry and then apply as thin of a coat of this stuff as you possibly can, let it dry and go on with life. Do NOT apply a second coat, the handle will NOT absorb a second coat. I have found if you put this stuff on rods about once every three seasons it will absorb but if you try to do it once a year, it won’t absorb well. And yes you should put it on that brand new rod the day you get it. It seems to me modern production rods are not sealed in anyway by the factory.
Translation that little 2 oz jar will last you for years even if you have a lot of rods. The great part is you can’t really see or feel any difference with it. It will very slightly darken the color which I like, I have to be clear when I say very lightly here. The feel of the cork will be slightly enhance but it will still feel like cork and give a little under a tight grip.
I will point out that I own a Daiwa rod made in 76 and a Whitmore made in 71 (before I was born and the company does not even exist any longer). I have these paired with vintage Mitchell 300 Reels from the 60s and fish with them on occasion for nostalgia. Both of the handles look like they are practically new. Let drive that home, the Daiwa is 44 years old and the Whitmore is 49 years old. These rods have been maintained with U-40 since I acquired them quite a long time ago.
U-40 makes one product line, rod building adhesives, epoxies and sealers, full stop. They don’t make lures, hooks, rod blanks, guides, etc. The specialize in the chemistry that makes building rods from those things possible. In fact in reality this company has about 6 products and nothing else. Translation when you do ONE THING and run a company for over 30 years doing so, you likely have your stuff together and do it right.
I want to point out that not all companies have the dedication to quality that U-40 does including those that make rods. My rods from the 70s made it like 25 years without U-40 largely due to build quality. If you look at the handles they are practically devoid of any fillers. Take any rod including some that are 200 bucks or more off the shelf today and inspect the handle. You will find a lot of fillers. It looks fine, it works fine but it ain’t what commercial rods were built like 35 years or more ago.
When you have fillers, you get more fall out, cracks and spreading. Worse, many of the lower end rods (25-70 bucks, which is what I mostly buy myself) now seem to have a “cork laminate” of sorts on top of a pressed cork. That is the best way I can describe it anyway. This works fine if sealed and will last for decades that way. If you don’t seal them however, when separation starts it will begin to peel away from the handle. And to be clear if you don’t seal it, it is not if but when it happens. I have seen it occur in as little as three years. If it gets bad enough all you can really do is sand it off down to the base layer.
I did this recently to a rod I failed to seal, it worked okay, I used a stain to darken it and then sealed it. It works fine and now kind of looks “vintage” but I would prefer that it was back to the way it looked when I purchased it. If I had sealed it like I know to do, this would not have happened. You can see a picture of this rod handle here. It is another example of companies taking short cuts. Now that I know they do it I have examined over half a dozen popular rod brands, almost everyone is using this technique.
And you know what, for a quality rod in the 40ish dollar range on average, it is fine IF you seal your rod handles about once every 3 seasons depending on how much you use them. Again one very thin coat, not two. This is a sealer, hence once it seals, the handle will NOT take in any more. At 10 bucks with free shipping it will be one cheap insurance policy for your cork rods and will likely be something you buy once or twice in the next 2 decades, yes you use that little on one rod handle.
So if like me you prefer the look, feel and tradition of cork handled rods, invest in U-40 Sealer today and protect the investment in your fishing gear for many years to come.
Remember you can always find all of our reviews at TspAz.com
P.S. – I will try to do some videos soon showing another rod that is beginning to have the outer layer peel away, but for now just trust me on this. If you want to see a video comparing U-40 Sealer, Kelly’s Sealer and Polyurethane this guy did a great job on his video about it. He prefers poly because it is permanent and super cheap.
As always to each his own but if I wanted a plastic rod handle, well I’d buy one from the get go. If you look at the handle he did with U-40 you will see what I mean, it looks like nothing was done to it and if anything it enhances the feel of the cork in your hands.
I will end with this, I have no problem with Kelly’s Sealer, I just think U-40 is a better product and the price difference is too low to consider in this instance. Many people love Kelly’s though and it absolutely WILL keep your handles intact if you want to try it instead.