How to

DIY fishing reel maintenance

Knowing how to service or repair your own reel is an essential part of becoming a skilled fisho.

REEL maintenance is one of those essential chores needed for prolonging the life of your reel and ensuring problems don’t occur when it’s most needed. Reel manufacturers encourage owners to carry out basic maintenance and provide instructions for this with each reel. The recommended methods for carrying out daily and seasonal maintenance are well within anybody’s capability and will definitely prolong the life of a reel.

I’ve found many reels will work fine for years but problems can occur, particularly as the reel ages. Problems come from two main areas. The first is caused by general use which often manifests as wear in bearings, gears and other moving parts. The second is caused by the environment and involves saltwater corrosion, line degradation, cosmetic blemishes and paint chips, etc.

What can you do if you discover a problem? I regularly use reel maintenance departments for service support and always have good experiences. There are also specialists who repair and upgrade reels and some can be found through local tackle shops or online.

Nonetheless it can be expensive to send a reel away, particularly for things you can do yourself. Also, if you travel to remote locations some reel knowledge could be invaluable to get you or a mate out of trouble. So if you’re keen the following should give you some basic information to repair and maintain reels yourself.

As reels increase in complexity, the problems of doing the work yourself multiply. Here are a few common mistakes many of us have made:

  • Not having the right tool or using wrong or ill-fitting tools and “butchering” a screw head or other component
  • Breaking something by using too much force or being “ham-fisted”
  • Losing springs and other small parts (often because they fly off as you strip the reel)
  • Being unable to reassemble a reel, or
  • The reel doesn’t work after you reassemble it.

In most cases when this happens you end up scooping up the pile and sending it off to the service department. The good news is that there are a few things you can do to avoid these problems.

The following are guidelines for cleaning complex and delicate things like fishing reels:

  • Strip to a sequence – To access internal workings you have to take the reel apart. Methodically lay parts out in a logical sequence as you remove them. Ice trays are handy for holding small parts. Take your time and refer to the diagram. Take a picture before you proceed with each step so you can check what it should look like. I take notes as I strip a reel for the first time too. Beware of “stored energy” parts like springs and clips. Reassemble the reel in reverse order.
  • Use the right tool correctly – Use the screwdriver or wrench with the snuggest fit and apply force cautiously.
  • Don’t use brute force – Make sure you understand how the part works and is removed. Have you taken out the retaining screw/pin or circlip? Too much force can be disastrous.
  • Use the right cleaner and lube. New materials need specific treatment. Follow manufacturers guidelines when you use cleaners and lubricants.

Before you can pull down a reel you will need a few tools. I have a reel maintenance kit that travels with me and it fits into a kid’s pencil case. The following tools are useful:

  • Screwdrivers. Flat tips and Phillips head in several sizes and in good condition are obligatory. Worn tools will butcher soft bolt heads.
  • Jewellers’ Tool kit. These are actually just really small screwdrivers used for tiny screws, retaining pins etc.
  • Allen keys. A set of both metric and imperial keys will be needed to work on some reels. You may also run into tamper proof bolts which unless you’re really skilled should be sent to the service department.
  • Adjustable wrench. This removes larger bolts. Keep any special tools that come with reels and label them.
  • Needle nose pliers.
  • Bodkin (or probe). This is a small pointy piece of wire for picking things up inside reels and general cleaning tasks. They are also useful on circlips and removing dirt from corners, etc.
  • Tweezers. These are used for a wide range of tasks. Pointy tips are ideal.
  • Cleaning tools. Cotton buds, rags, tooth brush, paint brush, etc.
Having a reel serviced before embarking on a big trip is well advised!
Carrying out maintenance

I mentioned that most reels come with a diagram of their working parts in an “exploded” view. You get one with the reel and can find copies on the net for many models, too. You can also find videos of people carrying out reel maintenance which are useful. Where you need fine detail it’s best to take your own pictures to supplement the diagram.

You need a well-lit work place and I place a towel under the work area so things won’t bounce or ricochet. I use reading glasses for fine work and a swing away magnifying glass for micro work. I clean and service each piece as it comes off the reel. Invariably there are springs and other parts that want to escape when you touch them. If your work area is open plan and cluttered finding these little parts can be a nightmare.

Bearings are subject to heavy use and will degrade the reel’s effectiveness once they’re worn or dirty. I replace bearings with high quality races as in many cases the old bearings aren’t worth saving. You can buy replacement bearings at some specialist retailers.

Metal drag washers should be clean and flat and warped or very worn washers should be replaced. Non-metal washers are wiped clean with a cloth moistened with solvent. If the stack is “wet” washers are re coated with drag grease. For bigger reels capable of serious drag capacity consider replacing old washers with Carbontex washers in the right thickness. You can buy Carbontex sheets online and specific replacement washer kits for many reels.

One way bearings (infinite anti reverse) work best dry and will start to fail if oil or other material gets into them. They can be cleaned with solvent but are fiddly. If this part is playing up and a good clean doesn’t fix the problem, replace it.

Drive gears are also areas of high use and will need a lube. Where work has created movement in these gears you may be able to replace bearings to tighten them up. Eventually a reel will become so worn it will have a lot of play in the drive train. Coat any seals with grease and apply it to the shaft and worm drive surfaces.

Ordering parts can be difficult unless you have the right reel diagram and are certain of the part number. It may be better to send the whole reel away with directions to replace the faulty components. Some problems may also present you with the issue of the cost of repair being close to the replacement cost. I recently sent a threadline away that needed a new anti-reverse bearing and it cost just over half the reel’s purchase price. As the reel was already five years old maybe I should have upgraded instead.

After purchase modifications and upgrades are now quite common. Handles and drag washer upgrades are easy to fit yourself. I’ve fitted several metal handles to spin reels and liked the result. Most modern drags are excellent but after long term wear it may be time to consider an upgrade. I have handled overhead reels fitted with ceramic bearings and the improvement in casting distance and overall smoothness is impressive.

Paint work upgrades are best done by the experts and there are companies that specialise in “pimping” your reel. I have handled a few reels with new paint work and they look great. Line management should be part of any maintenance program. Replace monofilament at least annually and test braid for degradation regularly. In worn braid an over hand or “granny” knot will break when snapped tight. If in doubt, replace.


Daily maintenance will help postpone the big expenses that come through long term wear. The aim is to remove saltwater residue without forcing water into bearings and internal mechanisms. Mist or lightly rinse reels after every trip with clean water and wipe down reels and let dry. For many reels using sudsy warm water will be okay, but avoid detergent in anything with magnetic oil or similar. Keep lube around bail rollers, bail arms and handle assemblies and loosen off drags if they aren’t being used for a while.

Spraying reels with commercial cleaning products is workable but again be aware of those reels with magnetic oil technologies. Preventative measures can be worthwhile. I know a few anglers who treat screws and bolts with a product like Duralac to reduce electrolysis. They also spray their reels with a silicon compound, which when dry, provides further defence against corrosion.

Good quality reels come with a warranty. Take the time to register and retain your receipt as proof of purchase. While a warranty won’t cover everything I have found high end reels that develop a problem will get prompt service from the relevant company particularly if you enclose a copy of the receipt along with a letter outlining the problem.

A full pulldown is rarely required unless your reel goes in for swim or you want to replace bearings. An annual clean, lube and inspection will suffice for most reels. Also, because I have heaps of reels I keep a record which shows service dates and line fills for each.

All reels will wear over time and even the most expensive models will degrade. A basic daily, seasonal and annual maintenance program will ensure you get many years out of them. Basic skills and a tool kit will also get you back into the game when unexpected problems arise.

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