Introduction: How to Make a Fly Fishing Reel

My partners and I have been working over the past few months to create fly reels out of billet aluminum and brass rod stock. This project took us about four months because of the many issues we ran into with machinery problems and either poor planning or poor material preparation. However, this project overall has been very interesting for us all and we have enjoyed the challenges. This is a quick tutorial on how to make a fly reel for yourself. You will need access to some fairly specialized equipment such as milling machines and lathes and will need to have the knowledge to operate such equipment so this build may not be for everyone. I hope that those of you who are reading this and have access to those machines find it informative and the steps easy to follow.

Step 1: Gathering Materials and Machinery

This project was done entirely on a 1930s Lagun Milling machine, a 1932 South bend Lathe, a Clausing 11" Lathe and a mini lathe.

To create this reel, we used the following bits, cutters, and tools:

· Square carbide cutting tool (left and right)

· Triangle carbide cutting tool (left and right)

· Indexable Carbide insert boring bar

· Cut off tool

· 3/4” Three flute milling bit

· 1/2” single insert milling bit

· 3/8” drill bit

· Dial

· Caliper or other high accuracy measuring device

And for materials here is what you’ll need:

· 3.5”x3.5” billet aluminum

· 1” diameter brass rod stock

· 3/8” carriage bolt and 3/8” nuts and lock washers

Note: Though these machines are old and there are many more accurate ways to manufacture precision parts now this is what we had available to us. If you have access to a CNC lathe and/or CNC milling machine of any type, you will be able to machine these parts faster and more accurately than we could by hand.

Step 2: Preparing the Aluminum Billet

For this design you will need an inner line spool as well as an outer reel casing. The line spool must fit into the casing and therefore you must account for this when you are measuring and cutting your aluminum. Remember: it is always better to have to mill more material off or have to remove a little material in the lathe at the end rather than to cut something too short in the beginning and to have it not work after you put in all the work. LEAVE IT LONG. You can fix it later.

For our spools we went with a circle 3.5” in diameter and 2.5” in width to start. To speed up the lathing process we used a metal saw to cut off the corners of the aluminum block until we had gone from a square to more of a circular shape. This is also why we chose to start at a 3.5” outer diameter for our spools and then work in from there. The more cuts you make of the corners the less time you spend on the lathe making it into a circle.

(Alternatively, instead of a metal saw you can use a milling machine to take down the corners. However, this takes more time but is more accurate. We chose to just use a metal saw because it was faster.)

After we had made our block more circular, we then took the recently cut block to the milling machine to drill the center hole for our mandrill to mount it in the lathe. While you can use a drill press for this I recommend using a milling machine as it will be more accurate, and you can make sure that there are no inconsistencies or angle in your drilling of the center hole. A good way to check and make sure that your center hole is perfectly round and centered is to mount it in the lathe making sure that the piece is centered in the jaws and level and to run a small boring bar through the center.

Do this to both sides of the “reel”. If you can make the corners flat in a milling machine and drill the center hole all as one piece, it will be more accurate than if you make the two parts separately. You will need a fairly large milling machine if you choose to do this in addition to a specialty drill bit that is long enough to drill through the entire part without breaking.

Step 3: Mounting the Billet in the Lathe

To mount the billet in the lathe we used a mandrill made of a piece of a 3/8” carriage bolt. This is because our reels are designed to be more heavy duty. You can use anything as a mandrill if it will hold up to the lathing process. You will need to thread the end of this unless you use a piece of threaded rod instead. Either will work. Make sure that you do not bend this rod! It will mess up the entire project if you do and will require a lot of fine tuning and fixing if you make it with a bent mandrill.

To mount the billet to the lathe you need to take the newly made mandrill (modified carriage bolt) and run it through the hole in the center of the billet. Once you have done this and placed the lock washers and nuts on both sides you are ready to place your part into the lathe jaws. We used a lathe with a three-jaw chuck so that it self-centered itself when we tightened it.

In order for the three-jaw chuck to self-center correctly make sure that all the nuts that will be going into the jaws are the same size and lined up on the faces, so the jaws have a flat surface to grab.

Once you have made sure that the sides are level (just use a small level here) do a preliminary spin of the part in the lathe using your hand to turn the chuck as this will let you see if there is any wobble in the lathe. Anything minor can be fixed by truing the part during the lathing process but any big incongruencies should be addressed at this point.

The final step of mounting the billet in the lathe is to use an end drill or centering drill bit and place a dimple in the end of the mandrill for a live center to sit during the lathing process to stabilize the part.

Once this has been completed and the live center has been set into the dimple and locked into place in both the tail-stock and the tail-stock to the top surface of the lathe you are ready to begin making the part.

Step 4: Turning the Line Spool on the Lathe

We found that for turning the rough-cut billet to a smooth circle a square cutting tool is the best. For the rest we used either a radiused piece of High Speed Steel or Left and Right hand triangular carbide cutters. As I mentioned earlier it is better to leave all your cuts a little on the long side to that you can turn them down to your final width when you are finishing the part. This is when having a bit of machinist’s dye is very helpful. If you are doing to use the dye, make sure not to get it on you as it stains both skin and clothes and doesn’t wash out.

Once you have measured out your part and decided on the width of the walls you may begin to cut into your part. We found that using a wide cutoff tool allowed us to make cuts to the depth that we wanted and saved time later in the turning process by removing material quickly and accurately.

Once you have plunged to the depth that you want with the cutoff tool go through with either a triangular carbide cutter or a radiused piece of high speed steel.

When your spool is finished take it to the milling machine and drill a small hole for the handle to be mounted in.

Step 5: Milling the Reel Case

To make the Reeling case you must repeat many of the same steps as you did with the line spool. However instead of finishing the process and turning it on the lathe take it to the milling machine and place it in a four-jaw rotary chuck. Make sure to center the part in the jaws otherwise you will end up with a very crooked reel case.

Using an end mill, mill out the center of the piece slowly moving outward until your line spool can fit inside of the depression you have made. Once this is done switch to a three or four fluted, carbide tipped milling tool to finish cutting the depth of your reel casing. This will remove any inconsistencies that could affect how the line spool fits and spins in the casing. Keep cutting until the hole is slightly deeper than your line spool is wide. This will give you some room for error and fine tuning once the reel has been finished. As well as leaving room for a line braking mechanism.

Step 6: Turning the Reel Casing on the Lathe

Once you are pleased with both the depth and diameter of your reel casing take it out of the milling machine and chuck it into the lathe. If you left your part long, then you can place it into the lathe and use the level to make sure that the part is square in addition to allowing the three-jaw chuck to center the part. Once this has been done, repeat the process you used earlier on the line spool to turn it down to a circle. Be careful to not take too much at a time because the walls of your part will be very thin as you approach your final diameter. When our reel was completed the wall thickness was 0.1"

Step 7: Milling the Line Slot Into the Reel Casing

Once you have turned your reel down to a wall thickness that you are happy with take the part to the lathe and mill off a slot for the line to run out of. You can either make a single large slot or you can mill in multiple which helps to reduce weight and gives more options for where your line will exit the reel.

Step 8: Turning the Axle, Axle Sleeve and Handle

For the axle and the handle, we used 1” brass rod stock which we turned down in the Clausing Lathe to just under 3/8 in diameter using a square cutting tool. While the diameter of the axle needs to be smaller than that of the center hole you do not want to make it to small as this will allow if to wiggle and will not give you a consistent cast. Our design consists of two different sides of this axle. One that is mounted into the reel casing, and a second that is threaded and threads into the other holding the line spool in place. For the larger 3/8" axle we used a tap size of 5/16-18 for the threads as it is stronger than ¼-20 threads that we were originally going to use. The drilling and taping of the part needs to happen using the tail stock on the lathe before the part is separated from the rest of the brass rod.

After this is done start on the axle sleeve that will be pressed into the part. At this point you can either make it fit the existing hole in the line spool or make the hole in the line spool larger. For our purposes we made the hole in the line spool larger and then pressed in a piece of brass we turned to fit the larger size hole. Before separating this brass tube from the rest of the rod we drilled a hole through the center of our part to accommodate the axle shaft.

Once these parts are done start on the handle. We decided to keep with the brass on this to give our aluminum reel brass highlights. To do this you have to repeat the same steps as for the axle but on a smaller scale. Our handle was – in diameter and about – tall. To connect this to the reel we used a small peg that we superglued into a hole that was drilled on the line spool. The handle should be large enough that it allows the fingers to easily grip and turn the line spool while using the handle.

Modified Axle: Another option that you could go with is to make your axle and leave space at the top and bottom of the axle sleeve to fit a fully sealed ball bearing. Ceramic bearings would be best for this situation as they do not rust and, when fully sealed, have little chance of binding because of foreign material. These would be placed at the top and bottom of the axle sleeve and allow for smoother casting.

Step 9: Turning Axle Problems and Steps for Success in the Future

We experienced many different problems with our center axle. One of the problems we encountered was making a hole that was to the correct depth to create the threads. To do the correct order of operations, make the thread hole before slimming down the diameter to the true size of your axle sleeve.

When I started my axle, I didn't drill and tap the center hole for the threads before taking the part down to it's final diameter and removing it from the rest of the brass rod. Because of this I had to improvise a clamping system to hold the part in the three-jaw chuck to drill and tap it without damaging the now small axle rod. To do this I used electrical tape and three long joiner nuts that were strapped to the part at 120 degree intervals, matching with the jaws. This allowed for the drilling and tapping of the part without a lot of difficult and inaccurate use of hand tools when a simple jig could be made to hold the part in the lathe.

Step 10: The Reel Base

The reel base is probably the most difficult part to machine and requires several long drill bits working up to 3/4 (we used ¼, ½, and ¾) or a radius milling bit. You need to have a block of billet aluminum at least 1”x 2”x 2”. To make this you will need a milling machine with a rotary table on it.

The first step of making this part is drilling through the block lengthwise on one side of the 1”x 2” side to create a ¾ hole that will eventually turn into where the reel attaches to the rod. Once this is done you are ready to start your radius cut where the reel casing will sit. To do this you will have to make a gig with a piece of scrap wood or aluminum between two opposite jaws while the part sits against this spacer while you mill it. We found that using aluminum worked better than the wood. To do this we used a ½ end mill to mill our radius. Once this is done take the part to a milling machine that just has a standard vise and level the part in the jaws. Once this is done use a ¾” quad fluted bit to remove material from the ¾” hole wall closest to the side so that the hole is turned into a groove for the rod to sit in. Once this is done flip the part over and do the same thing on the radius sides to that the radius does not wrap all the way around the reel. You only need a small pad for the reel to sit on when attached to the base.

If you need to make this part narrower so that it fits better on your reel or if you need to change the dimensions of this part, it is easy to do. You simply use the milling machine and the ¾” fluted bit to remove material until the desired dimensions are reached.

(Our reel base is not finished in these photos. Each base will be a little different depending on what rod you are mounting the reel to.)

Step 11: Assembling the Reel

Now that you have made all your parts it is time to assemble them. This is where it becomes very important to follow a specific order so that you do not have to back track once you start to assemble the reel.

The first step in putting together your reel is to connect the reel base to the casing of the reel. To do this you can either use a small set screw or rivets to connect the two together. If you decide to use the set screws keep in mind that you will need to drill and tap holes in both the base and the case of the reel.

The second step is to place the axle into your casing. We super glued ours in and they work great. When you are gluing in your axle it doesn’t hurt to have the line spool on the axle, so you can avoid any binding that could occur. Doing this ensures that your reel rotates freely and doesn’t catch on the edges of your casing.

Before you install the line spool, trace the base of it onto some felt that you can sandwich between the reel case and line spool that will act as a line brake and slow the rotation of the line spool depending on the tightness of the axle cap.

When your line spool and axle are installed, and the spool rotates freely, secure your spool into the reel with the other half of the axle. Once this has been done it is time to attach the handle. To do this we made a small peg that fit into the hole that was drilled in the line spool and then super glued the handle and the peg into the line spool. Make sure that your peg doesn’t drop through enough to interfere with the line feeding into and out of the reel when casting.

When the glue has dried it is time to load up your line spool and attach your newly crafted, custom fly reel.

Enjoy and happy fishing!