Richard Kell handmade reels……

January 16, 2009

out-with-the-lad-autumn-2008Recently I have developed some distinct improvements in my reels. I’ve discarded the old tongue profile (ie for the check mechanism) which was never right from day one and at last have developed a far better component, a more lively check performance, much more ‘life’ in it and with just enough room for the new tongue to turn 90 degrees for it to be ‘parked’.  I’ve also gained insight to the characteristics of the spring material, which I need to order a further batch at a larger cross section for eventually bigger reels – that will be another £250 out at least, as the rolling mill has a 25kg minimum order. I’ve other mods though only sucessful purchasers get to see whats been done when they open the box.

I’ve also scrapped my existing stock of nickel silver regulator wires made ten years ago as I have evolved a much easier to operate version for older (me) or cold numbed  hands. Also scrapped is the cast nickel silver reg wire bridge replaced with a  machined from solid version, stronger, less liable to malfunction if dropped and hopefully requiring less time to ‘fit’. The styling of it, the design mentality reminds me of the illustration in Le Corbusiers ‘Vers Une Architecture’ of the engine compartment of a pre-war Bugatti.

The backs are cast gunmetal, filed and papered, machined, papered and buffed to a flawless finish, a fabulous deep colour; note that the reel seat is the bit on the rod it attaches to.  You would be hard pressed to find anyone in any factory that has the skill to do this nowadays, its pre-war standard and First at that.  The back is secured by the traditional press fit dovetail and secured by two R.Kell made (as are all my screws) being ‘up tolerance’ close fitting nickel silver screws. The reels are not lightweight models, yet I think they combine well with a cane rod. To recap, at Hardys the ‘back’ was always part of the reel and the ‘reel seat’ was the bit on the rod.

As Chris commented on my first post below, re making a ‘Bougle’ style reel from Jamie Maxtone Grahams prompting, I only ever make what is in my own head – good or bad! To people across the pond my reels may look very Hardy though that might only be because its all I have experience of, even repairing reels for Jamie, generally re-building crumbled broken drums  – it was all Hardy work. If I’d known nothing but Vom Hofes then I would be probably making a very Vom Hofe type reel.

Re the pricing of my reels. I have agonised over this, in 1986, then during my three year two thousand  hours 1995-98 and now again in 2008-9. I originally was selling at £300GBP in 1998, that was my ‘target’ price, though found it tortuously low for handmade work. Looking at the man-hours consumed to keep the show on the road, I have pitched at what I think is appropriate. No con or flannel or hyperbole, just what I think is required. Even a cut to the bone little one-man business like me overheads are £12k pa (2009) before I make a penny. Twenty five years of being a price-work self -employed toolmaker helps me ascertain the area I need to be. ……and still only two thirds the price of a pair of handmade Lobbs!

Postscript: My 3-1/8 inch back flange is seeming to be in demand, so my standard width of 0.810 inch between flanges and a wide version at 1.010 (ie 0.2inch wider) are seemingly the ones first available. A good sized reel capable of plenty of work, I’ve a couple of tricks on this including a beefed up heavy click check mechanism. Also, there is no brass used at all in any of my reels; for the money I’m asking you get better than that.

Taking orders for 2009……

January 11, 2009
Handmade fly fishing reels by Richard Kell.

Handmade fly fishing reels by Richard Kell.

Our first beagle circa 1995 when I would be starting the big push to develop and tool up for my handmade fly fishing reels.

Our first beagle circa 1995 when I would be starting the big push to develop and tool up for my handmade fly fishing reels.

I’m taking orders now for my reelmaking 2009 workload, a total of twenty of my 2-3/8 inch and 2-3/4 inch back flange fly reels, as craft made and flawless as you can get. All by one man, from the picture in my head to a fully functioning and durable piece of equipment. I use lots of jigs and tooling to get the accuracy and quality that I must have, it pains me if something isn’t ‘spot-on’ in tolerance. I had ten years ago machine engraved each reel, for instance the above is 98/13 – however I have decided not to do this in future. Enthusiasts will have to date my reels by subtle advances in design and manufacture.

e-mail me at richard…underscore…kell…at…tiscali…dot…co…dot…uk

My standard price is £1,650GBP for any reel inc Fedex delivery and insured. You get a free pair of check tongues as spares and four check springs – this is so that once that reel is out there you’ve enough bits/spares for any eventuality. Spare drums are £650 each, my design allows internal or external rim to fit any frame. Cheques accepted in any major currency. Terms are send me a written letter of your intention, I’ll let you know when to send payment, when funds are cleared I send the reel. I’ve a quarter century of exporting my own products to overseas stockists including Garrett Wade Company in New York so things should be trouble-free.

I recommend a leather case by Arne Mason to house your reel.

As a diversion –  I studied freshwater algae / plankton for about ten years during the 1990’s with the aid of a microscope – a Russian Biolam binocular – a  highly recommended piece of professional equipment.

The algal inhabitants of water determine what will exist higher up the food chain. Algae both freshwater and marine should be far more widely known in schools, for instance diatoms never fail to fascinate youngsters, their precise structure, colour and habits.

Alfred Nobel used ancient diatoms as quarried kieselguhr to absorb nitro-glycerine to allow it to be handleable – hence dynamite, diatoms are the abrasive in toothpaste, diatoms are my ‘triploli’ polishing compound for buffing metal parts in the workshop, they constitute the finest filters in the biology lab, and I think they are used as the source of silicon in a silicon chip. Oh yes, they initiate weather systems and are 70% of where the worlds oil comes from. The best paid diatomists work for oil exploration companies.

When you pick up a stone from the riverbed and it has a slippery coating, that is algae and particularly diatoms. Plankton – which are a higher life form – graze upon these tiny (say two thou inch long) lifeforms, classed as plants because they photosynthesise yet capable of movement (termed motile – with a ‘t’).

James Lovelock a greatly gifted scientist coined the term ‘Gaia’ for the earth as a whole regulating system and only in the 1970’s discovered that huge ‘fields’ of algae out in the oceans (inc a lot of diatoms) were responsible for generating dimethylsulphide (DMS) that greatly influences cloud formation. His books for the layman and biography are highly recommended.

Here are some links and images of ‘old friends’ objects of the microscope I have seen many times and still get a thrill. Wayne Lanier over on youtube is a very good introduction. I too roamed the countryside with our first beagle always with some small self seal plastic bags to bring samples home to the microscope. For fishermen and anglers that are not aware of this incredible microscopic web of life there is so much awaiting them.

Useful books to consult are Fritsch and West ‘British Freswater Algae’  and Macan and Worthington ‘Life in Lakes and Rivers’ also anything by John Clegg.

Hint: google image search using term ‘diatoms’, try also terms dinoflagellates, vorticella, testate rhizopods, closterium, diatom navicula. 

A just-found blog, excellent diatom photographs – you will have to copy and paste, as wordpress ‘adding link’ is beyond my competence at present:-

And lastly to repay your patience in getting to the bottom of the page here are fascinating accounts re rod builders Tonkin cane ie Arundinaria amabilis.

Thankyou for your interest.

Richard Kell 

Another link:  Excellent footage of what is easily found in any ditch or stream.  Filmed realtime , excellent photography of commonly found freshwater inhabitants.

Hardy ‘Zane Grey’ Big Game reels.

December 18, 2008

Theres a lot of misinformation out on the web re Hardys and about the late ’70’s early 1980’s Hardy ‘Zane Grey’ Big Game reels which I made as guided by Raymond Humble  (formerly Works Manager as well as being the Development brains). Raymond was a man of very high calibre, intelligent and capable, realistic and grounded, in fact I was lucky to be guided by him, he didn’t tell you much but got me to think. Once I’d left I think it was only a couple of years later he took early retirement.

The Hardy ‘Zane Grey’ Big Game reels occupied my time for a lot of the four years I spent in the Development Dept at Hardys after my previous four years in the toolroom at Alnwick.  I started my toolroom apprenticeship in Jan 1975, I left the company in Jan 1983.

At first I/we tried hydraulic mockups ie scratchbuilt hydraulic motors and throttled as brakes as prompted by Raymond as a possible ‘Zane Grey’ Big Game reel solution, Raymond keeping an eye on me with a couple conflabs each day; my hazy memory suggests that the tolerances and technology required for the high pressures involved were beyond the facilities and my experience, yet its still a good idea.  With hindsight perhaps we should have thought about recycling aircraft parts. Raymond my boss who had been Works Manager as well as handling development for many years – a highly skilled and knowledgable man I think was using this project (and other projects too) to develop my abilities and get some complicated reels explored that might otherwise would have never been made, I can see now in particular to get me to ‘think’ as after all someone had to follow on. In fact I wish I could rerun my time at Hardys as after I left I’ve improved in ways I would not have realised, both personally and with technique, approach etc with experience of other work and mostly all at a price-work pace ie my own workshop but that after all is what life is all about, we spend a lifetime getting it right. All our design solutions (and merely the first part of working toward an eventual working product) were the product of our own minds or maybe more specifically my own mind as I can see now it was up to me to ‘get the idea’ from being steered by him. Raymond must have had terrific patience with me whilst ideas emerged but in my defence I mostly was never slow, could make connections and be inventive and there was never any peeping at other manufacturers. I did after all have a lot going for me, my craft activity is in the blood just as it was for the Hardys; plus access to my dads home workshop from an early age and lots of books etc at home.

My only previous example to look at was the 1930’s Zane Grey in the collection of old reels in the Development cupboard – an incredible jumble of objects including a Vom Hofe. The latter really impressed me – such incredible understated design and workmanship, you could see it was the product of a different intelligence, an extreme rigour and like all the very best design near timeless. I think there was also a monel ‘Alma Baker’ in there too. I wasn’t particularly encouraged to look at all this, just my own nosiness actually at lunchtime. In those far off days I had hardly scratched the possibility of design or the books that could help me, all that came later with my own reading. With hindsight I would suggest I should have regularly or intermittently gone over to shop-floor work when my time in Development really was not fruitful.

The Hardy ‘Zane Grey’ big game reels we developed were ahead of the more conventional between the wars models, I acknowledge the former first class design and manufacture and much simpler mechanism but what we eventually developed was a more complicated and higher performing article, features of performance that probably had not been seen in a reel before.  There will be many so-called pundits that would be hard pressed to explain accurately what the ‘Zane Greys’ we developed were capable of, how in fact the clutch / brake actually works, hence the need for this post. The only design brief was a thousand yards of line per class ie 20, 30, 50, 80 and 130lb sizes.

The routine was for my boss Raymond to criticise and therefore to prompt/ suggest a step forward and for me to think hard on what form it would take, the solution was often not immediately apparent, often I felt that whatever I made was wrong and I would confer at intervals with lots of sketching to make clear ideas and small made parts to be further developed or scrapped as appropriate, lots of dead ends and dud ideas before I began cutting metal. Now I would do this all with minds eye visualisation which over the years has got better for me.  This was proper hands on mechanical development; components, assemblies, operability being refined from physical handling and testing at every conceivable stage. The work obviously was far from easy, sometimes frustrating. My minds eye visualisation was greatly encouraged and forty years later I can visualise extremely well and seldom need paper except for calculating decimal sizes or to set down ideas and information likely to be forgot. A lot of my work was done at the bench with basic handfiles and a simple drilling machine, often not a problem for me because I enjoyed an old-time approach and using such skills. Additionally the toolroom a short walk away had all we needed, as in all factories you design and make according to the facilities at hand, custom-made cutters and jigs and patterns were often needed and I enjoyed it all, luckily being a ‘natural’ for this sort of tool and die work (and modest too).

There were five reels in the late seventies/ early eighties range of Hardy ‘Zane Grey’ Big Game reels, all were solid stainless and I made them all to a very high standard – my boss Raymond would insist on that. I often felt that nothing I made was ever any good – though that was Raymond lifting my standards; really an incredible training. A degree would have been irrelevant, I had a T6 in Prod Eng and that was sufficient.

After successive ideas, mock-ups and bits of mechanism were developed in time would come finished drawings but these were the last things we wanted. I would make foundry patterns initially in wood then once satisfied we had got it right ones in brass for stainless steel cast parts such as the gearbox cover, two quite complex end frames / cages and suchlike structural members. I taught myself how to spin stainless steel sheet for the two end covers, no-one could crack that one and the correct solution is very satisfying in feeling the stainless sheet forming under ones own pressure from big self-made handtools in the lathe with feedback into hands and arms, its a trick like riding a bike!  The drums were always aluminium. Actually, I use the term finished drawings, these would only occur after we were fully satisfied that we had achieved our target by means of fully functioning prototypes and were the last task of all. Rigorous thinking was essential in all this, hence nothing was final until endless cogitation, testing and consideration.

A lot of time was expended on developing the best clutch / drag mechanism, really a lot of time and it reckon it is unique. The 130lb reel mechanism was different from the other four sizes, ie 20, 30, 50 and 80lb. I have a hunch one size was never made into a final working model, maybe 30lb or was it 20lb – I made developed and made them but cannot remember for sure. All of the parts in all of the reels demanded a lot in both design, development and execution. I think the two larger sizes had a two speed gearbox, all developed in-house with my hands and Raymonds guidance. As little as possible was bought-in, an ethos I still maintain in my own workshop – see http:/  The other day I found the tap I made to cut the internal thread for I think the speed selection on the two biggest reels. I’ve lots more cutters and devices I made to get all this work done. The clutch / drag assemblies were self contained with some tricky and clever work put into them, few people I would think could fully explain what we achieved.

I think I can remember at the end being told to make one of each exactly to the drawings, to prove it all, but its all hazy now, but certainly done with at least three sizes.

Peculiarly, later on the drawings were released to the production people in the Machine Shop, why I do not know, with hindsight was certainly a wrong strategy. It was unfair to them, it wasn’t their usual run of work, would have drained time and resources and drained profit too from the usual production activities. I saw just a little bit of this before I left, I think this was cruel to them as this was work different from their usual run of things and the MD W.F. Hardy perhaps should have had it remain in my hands, I knew all the nuances, the detail, the critical features of every component; it would have been good fun to crack on a a one (or perhaps two man) manufacturing cell, I’m sure it would have paid for itself plus. However I have nothing but utmost respect for all the people in that factory in Alnwick, they did a sterling job day in day out; men like machine shop foreman Norman Nesbitt and his setters (the two Tom Browns etc) and operatives on the capstan lathes; George Wright drilling, Norman Hetherington presswork and heat treatment, Terry Moore assembly, first class all of them and many more.

Maine the existing Development man and the toolroom from what I can remember would get all the roller guides made and handle fittings. Everything was stainless – that most loveliest of materials to work … not !!

I can remember the finished big game rods – very impressive. Frank Proudfoot the rod development man would be involved on that side of things.

I hope I didn’t let ‘the old men’ down so to speak, people (near anonymous) of previous generations that had made the ‘Zane Greys’ in the 1930’s. I would think they would have been very interested to see what we did. The monel ‘Alma Bakers’ must have been hell to make as this is a notoriously difficult and expensive material.

As I left Hardys in Jan 1983 I guess I would start in Development and the ‘Zane Greys’ around 1979. Actually, I’m thinking about all this for maybe the first time in many years, I realise the Big Game work only occupied half of my time in Development, there were lots of other things I worked on following that, I remember in particular a very clever fixed spool reel with no bale arm; some very clever development in that one. I got bewildered at the end when I was working on I’m sorry to say arse-achingly boring things like devons and locking handles for landing nets which I just could not offer anything new or in fact have any talent for, I was lost so to speak. That to my mind should have been an Ian Blagburn job, not for me, as a few offices away we had world class angler Ian Blagburn but he never contributed a thing to my activities in the four years I was in Development, not a word, well not in my presence anyway.

Years later, many years I found online that Hardys got the unofficial World Record with these reels in the mid 1980’s, down in Hawaii?

One of the final tests was done by attaching the line to a large lathe and attempting to simulate long runs (‘elf n safety would have loved that one) ….  and then there was a test/demo, a trip to Brunton airfield, a car was substituted for a likely catch and I remember W.F. strapped up and controlling the reel.

E&OE copyright 2022

New beginnings….

December 16, 2008
Precision crafted handmade fly reel.

Precision crafted handmade fly reel.

…….or carrying on where I left off.

My old folder of fly reel notes and drawings still contains the letters and notes taken when Jamie Maxtone Graham in 1986 urged me to make the Richard Kell ‘Bougle’. I knew Jamie by repairing Hardy reels for him previously (generally rebuilding broken drums) and he knew my abilities. So around 1986 there would be a few months devoted to the project, then the need to earn an immediate living pressed me to return to my usual products. The big push at handmade reels was 1995 to 1998, two thousand hours over three years, developing and trial batching a range of five sizes including a fabulous 4-1/2 inch back flange Spey. All my reels are specified as back flange diameter.

Now the time seems right to produce these reels. The web allows me to ‘cast a wide net’ and nowadays people more than ever realise the rarity of a good craftsman – and Hardy trained.

As of December 2008 I will be making a handful of 2-3/8 (back flange) fly reels. This equates to a 2-3/4 inch reel. As with all my fly reel designs a rimless or exposed rim drum will fit the same frame. These reels ooze old time quality and standards. A craftsmans attention to detail. This time I’m keen for an electroless nickel finish – a lot of other manufacturers use this, very low friction when stripping line, thereby eliminating the need for a lineguard. My reels have many features which are silly for me to detail here as it turns this into a ‘reelmakers manual’.

Since I last became absorbed in making reels ten years ago, picking up the thread again I immediately evolved another half dozen modifications that lift the product that little bit higher. Nowhere at anytime would there ever be any hint of shaving costs or compromising the highest craft effort, endless driving forward for a ‘bloody good reel’. The recipe of one man designing, developing and making the entire product is unbeatable.

I have Jamies grandfathers treadle lathe, bought when I was seventeen from a Doctor in Edinburgh, long story, see:-

see also my main website showing twenty five years of effort:-

Here is a recent magazine article on my workshop, courtesy Nick Gibbs, Editor, ‘British Woodworking’ magazine. Nick visited in the summer and we had a cracking good conversation.  see

Richard Kell in 'British Woodworking' magazine autumn 2008. Courtesy Nick Gibbs - Editor.

Richard Kell in 'British Woodworking' magazine autumn 2008. Courtesy Nick Gibbs - Editor.