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October 04, 2007

Not So Heavy Metals

Fishing reel construction deconstructed

Gearing Up
What you don't see in a reel can be more critical than what is evident. "Gears are the most likely thing to fail under great stress," says Accurate's Nilsen. Beyond the stress of heavy lines and big fish, the popularity of jigging and casting lures means anglers work these reels much harder than ever before since, unlike when trolling or drifting bait, the gear is being cranked all day.

Almost all reel gearing uses brass, marine bronze or stainless steel, often two in combination.

Gears may be hardened brass, as for the Ambassadeur (top), or stainless steel (above). Here, a machine measures the cut of a pinion gear since, particularly with steel, tolerances must be precise.
? Brass has been a longtime favorite and is still the metal of choice for pinion gears among many manufacturers. (That's the small gear that transfers rotation from the main gear into rotation of the spool.) It's easily worked with great precision and functions well against a stainless-steel main gear, its fine surfaces translating into a smooth feel when the reel is cranked.

? Bronze can be costly in marine grade but is also hard and workable. Okuma favors a "high-density, super-hardened bronze alloy" for its V-system and Salina spinning reels, according to Ric Hawthorne.

? Stainless steel is hard to beat for gearing because it's exceedingly strong and, of course, like brass and bronze, corrosion resistant. More expensive reels rely on stainless for one or both gears. The industry "standard" has the main gear of brass and the pinion gear of stainless. While the upside is the steel's strength and durability, downsides are cost (brass costs less) and the greater difficulty assuring smooth feel and performance of steel on steel. It's harder and more expensive to make stainless parts as smooth as you can brass; also, using the same grades of steel for parts that will interact (e.g., pinion and main gears) can "cold weld" and produce friction. In fact, Nilsen says making all-stainless gears work has been one of the most difficult challenges Accurate has had to overcome. The two stainless gears are still not identical since a heat treatment is added to the pinion gear. Penn's Martin echoes the challenge of steel versus steel gearing, but says that a  custom gear-tracking machine helps cut stainless pinion gears to exacting tolerances. Before that, "We would scrap about 20 percent of our pinions." The only factor really limiting the use of stainless steel to more components is its considerable weight.

? Titanium, on the other hand, offers minimal weight for its great strength (it's about half as heavy as stainless steel). It's also very hard, far more so than aluminum, and can produce an ultra-smooth surface. Hence it enjoys some popularity for some better reels for bail rollers or level-wind guide inserts (though often the titanium is in the form of a titanium-nitride coating). But titanium has its own limiting factor: cost. While reel makers may pay $3 for a pound of aluminum, a pound of titanium will set them back $30-90. Plus it's trickier and more costly to machine than aluminum. Still, Penn puts titanium handles on its top-end 80 and 130 Internationals, and Martin hints that more titanium may be showing up in Penn reels down the line: "We're talking about titanium in critical features where no one's used it before," working with a titanium vendor who has been involved in military applications of the metal.

? Magnesium hasn't made a big showing in saltwater reels. It has, however, become quite popular among freshwater enthusiasts, with good reason: It's strong and feather light, even more than aluminum. The problem is that magnesium and saltwater don't get along. Unlike aluminum, magnesium does not oxidize and provide its own protection from corrosion. Quite the contrary, a deep scratch would likely be the beginning of the end since it will always be a site for corrosion to spread. Magnesium is also somewhat more brittle than aluminum. Still, it could show up for more saltwater applications; some reel manufacturers hint about working on processes that might allow them to create an effective barrier from corrosion. Hank Kirkland, an engineer with Shakespeare, cites "an anodizing-like process for magnesium alloys" under investigation that could hold some promise.

In the end, "everything is a trade-off" in choosing materials for reels, says Littau. "Salt water is tricky; we need to balance strength, corrosion resistance and cosmetics." Those trade-offs have much to do with how much you end up spending for a reel, based on your needs. The odds are good that if your needs include filling a small spool with 300 or 400 yards of heavy braided line, you'll pay plenty - and then have a right to figure your reel's been put together in a way that will hold up under pressure. Knowing a bit more about materials and processes should help you feel good about the tackle you're using.

And, of course, if money's no object, well, maybe you can persuade a manufacturer to put together a reel mostly of titanium. "We did quote a price on a titanium reel one time," says Nilsen. "It came out to about $4,000."