Reel Bearings 301: Maintenance, Design, and Troubleshooting
Introduction: This tutorial continues to build on the fundamentals presented in Reel Bearings – 101 and 201. It covers reel maintenance and design, common bearing problems and troubleshooting, and other related topics.
Reel Design and Maintenance: Most modern reels are typically designed and constructed so they provide years of service when properly maintained. Materials, service and use, tolerances, alignment, part configuration, and other criteria are considered when designing today's reels. However problems can occur, especially when you consider the environment that reels are used in, and the fact that many anglers don't always perform reel maintenance as often or as diligently as they should. I'm sure we've all heard the stories of a reel that worked flawlessly for years without any maintenance at all, until one day…
The type and degree of maintenance required to keep your reel in tip-top condition will obviously depend on several factors. The amount of time spent on the water actually using the reel, how it's stored, the brand/model/features a reel has, what type of water you fish (e.g. salt vs. fresh), whether your reel has greased or oiled bearings, and what minor maintenance is performed (e.g. flushing, periodic mini-lube or just an occasional wipe down), are some examples of the hardware factors. But personal factors also play a role and some examples include: how tolerant you are on performance problems; how you value your equipment; how much risk you are willing to take; whether warranty is of concern; if maintaining the reel is considered a chore or pleasure; and if you have the tools, dexterity, time and desire to do the maintenance yourself or decide to periodically send it to a professional for service. Everyone is different and there are a lot of variables involved, so we each have to determine what we are comfortable with and what works best for our situation.
So, just how often should you clean, inspect and lube your reel? Unfortunately, some anglers don't perform any maintenance on their reels until a problem develops, and then it's often too late to prevent a major repair. But a general rule with most fresh-water anglers is to perform preventive maintenance on a moderately used reel at least once a season. This of course assumes the reel is protected during storage, not stored wet, and is mini-lubed (oil spool bearings, etc.) as needed throughout the season. In addition, salt water reels may require more frequent preventive maintenance due to corrosion and frequent wash-downs. You can do the maintenance yourself or utilize a professional service, and many techs regularly visit the Tackle Tour forum. Regardless, always inspect components for wear, damage, abnormalities, etc. whenever you have your reel open!
Daiwa TD-Ito 105HL
Reel manufacturers have a difficult task when they develop a new reel design. As anglers, we not only want our reels to have 'bling', but we like them to also be saltwater resistant. We often prefer they be light, yet very durable and strong. The drag must be ultra smooth and easy to use, while still having winch-stopping power when needed. They must be easy to maintain and provide years of trouble-free service with the least amount of effort. Lastly, don't forget that we want them affordable as well. So, reel design comes down to making compromises between what is needed vs. what can be done vs. reasonable cost. As a result, the best design or configuration may not get be used in a reel that has been targeted to a specific market or price range, due to cost.
A reel is only as good as the configuration, alignment and tolerances that were designed and maintained in its moving components. That is why reel manufacturers choose extremely strong materials, tight manufacturing controls, and careful design; and is one of the reasons why high-end reels are so expensive. In fact, it won't mater how many bearings the reel has, if the configuration, alignment or mounting of rotating components was not initially precise or was adversely changed during use, since the meshing and mating of gears and other moving components is almost entirely affected by the alignment and tolerances of the reel. Some of the best performing reels manufactured years ago only had a couple bearings (or bushings), and they still provide excellent performance after many years!
Meisselbach Takapart Reel Manufactured Around 1904
The Meisselbach Takapart reel shown in the previous photo is a classic example of a well designed and constructed reel. It is a simple reel that was noted for its smooth performance and casting, and the frame is similar to a Calcutta. It was cut from a brass tube. Although the Takapart came out in 1904 and is not even a 'free spool' reel, you can spin the handle on one today and it will still turn freely for at least 11 seconds. Not bad for a reel that only had two bronze bearings Meisselbach was also noted for their gear hobbing machine and they manufactured very precise gears for many other reel makers of the time. [Special thanks to Phil – Reel Old Geezer for the photo and information.]
When a reel doesn't sound or feel right (assuming it has been used and maintained reasonably well), the first thing to logically suspect is the bearings. The bearings in a reel not only facilitate rotation of components; they also ensure that gears mesh accurately, the level wind travels uniformly, the knobs turn smoothly, etc. So, cleanliness, lubrication, and wear of bearings will have a direct affect on how the reel feels, operates and sounds. Sure, other reel components can also wear or become damaged during use, but in many cases this was probably the result of a bearing problem, that went undetected or neglected.
In extreme cases (e.g. warped frame due to excessive loads during use), the bearings themselves may even experience direct damage (e.g. warped races), causing them to no longer track correctly and feel very rough. In very severe cases, missing gear teeth, sheared drive components, and stripped idler gears, are usually a result of an impact stress. (Reengaging a baitcasting reel during a cast is a good example of an impact stress related condition.) Whereas, wallowed sockets, distorted bearing races, unevenly worn gear teeth and general 'slop' in the drive train are usually a result of rotating stresses that are often related to alignment or general wear. (A bent spool shaft due to dropping a reel (or that no longer spins correctly and results in wallowed spool bearing sockets or distorted bearing races), is a good example where alignment caused rotational stress wear.)