Many of us are, at times (or constantly!) searching out fishing reels of the past. There is something to be said for these reels built 50 to 100 years ago that still allow us to both catch fish and at the same time appreciate the history involved and the time-tested craftsmanship of these fine tools.
That said, the vintage/classic tackle marketplace and the pursuit of buying or collecting these old fishing reels can, at times, be difficult due to numerous factors that you often encounter. To be frank, seller dishonesty and extreme lack of knowledge sometimes exists. Without dwelling on this negativity, this article is meant to assist buyers in finding a quality vintage fishing reel at a fair price.
There are many established and very experienced dealers of these reels overseas and here in the US, and even some of the auction houses that either a) overlook defects out of being too busy, b) simply lie outright, or c) intentionally refuse to disclose these things if not asked directly about them. Greed and dishonesty sometimes exists even in our tight knit and well-meaning fly-fishing community. This is sad but true. However, to be fair, many of the mistakes made in the non-disclosure of issues/defects are made out of lack of knowledge or simply oversights.
Also keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with a repaired reel or a reel with defects/issues. As long as you are aware of such issues before opening your wallet, and the reel can still fit its intended purpose, there can still be a very gratifying result.
If you know what to look for and who to deal with, you will more than likely never experience what many of us have in the *bad* deals.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR.......
* Cracks -- one of the first questions you should ask is whether there are any cracks in the reel. This could render a reel useless and of no value should a crack worsen. Cracks are obviously very weak points in the frame and should you accidentally drop the reel, a crack could result in a piece of the reel falling off. Sometimes cracks are very hard to see. Upon inspecting a reel for the first time, rotate all parts of the reel under a really good light source and look for any inconsistencies in the reel surface. Low angle light is very helpful for seeing cracks.
* Repaired cracks -- not only should you ask whether or not there are cracks in a reel, you should also ask if there are any prior cracks that have been repaired. There are some really talented craftsmen out there who can repair a cracked frame. When this has been done, there are some tell-tale signs to look for to reveal such a prior repair. First, the finish of the entire reel should be uniform, meaning if it's a leaded reel, the leading should be worn in a consistent manner on all surfaces. Repairs most often result in a re-leading job or at least a patchwork job that should be fairly apparent upon close inspection.
* Re-leading -- as stated above, a re-leading job should be pretty apparent if one part of the reel, say the spool or faceplate, does not look like the rest of the reel. And if an entire reel has been re-leaded, sometimes, unlike the original reel, the leading is applied over brass rivets or other hardware, for example. This should raise a red flag if not disclosed by a seller because it definitely affects the value of a collectible reel. The fish don't mind though.
* Line grooves on pillars -- most if not all of these old reels were fished with silk lines for a very long time. Silt collected in silk lines would eventually cut into the pillars that support the line while the user stripped out line to cast, or when a fish would make a run. Bad line grooves can weaken the pillar and in some cases, cause them to crack or break. Many times you can see where a prior owner attempted to fill in these line grooves. Again, just something to look for.
* Improper/incorrect components -- this is perhaps the toughest area to become trained in. All of the various reel makers were known to use standardized components, types of metals, etc. during certain periods of their history. Many of these standards have been covered in books authored by Graham Turner, John Drewett, Jess Miller, Jamie Maxtone-Graham, etc. However, the reel makers did not always follow the letter of the law and sometimes would experiment outside these standards, making our jobs even tougher when trying to verify a reel's correctness/originality. The best way to cover this area is get to know experts who can recognize specifics and ask them for advice before making the purchase. You can even call me and I will be glad to hook you up with some of these guys.
* Spool wobble -- the best way to describe this is that the spool is not turning true to the reel body, or will notably press inward on opposite edges. A wobbly spool will crank on a slight angle due to the spindle not being perpendicular to the cage. For example, when a fish makes a run, you would hope the tension applied against the fish is without friction, as to lessen the possibility of a break-off. When a spool wobbles, this chance is increased. Spool wobble results from a few things, most notably the bushing gets worn over time. Severe spool wobble can result in the spool rubbing against the frame.
* Spindle/Spool end play -- when a reel is set down with the spool facing the sky, if you pull up on the spool handle and it moves vertically, this is what we call end play. This movement should not be excessive. There are ways to fix this too and I will cover that later. Just take this into account when deciding on the value of the reel you are pursuing. Sometimes you need to put another $75-150 into a reel if the wobble or play is too excessive.
* Cracked agate line guides -- this is fairly obvious but lots of sellers choose to not disclose cracks in the agate. Ask for close up photos with the spool off the reel and looking at the underside of the agate with a light source behind it. Hairline cracks are not as serious as cracks you can feel with your fingernail, but they still affect the value of the reel. Note also that agates are minerals and contain seams which may look like cracks when viewed with anything other than a microscope. Your fingernail is a sensitive measuring device - if it sticks as you glide it across the stone, there is a crack in the agate. That said, this defect only affects the collectible value of a reel, NOT your chances of landing a fish. This is purely cosmetic unless it becomes a huge gouge that damages your fishing line at some point.
* Replaced reel handles -- the best way to check for this is to remove the winding plate and check the back side where the pin comes through the winding plate. Replacement jobs are usually pretty crude, leaving marks on the winding plate. Another way to check the originality of the handle is to compare it to others you can find, either online or perhaps in the collection of an acquaintance. Again, like most of these defects/issues to watch for, this is a collectible value consideration, not anything that decreases your chances of landing a fish of a lifetime while fishing a classic reel.
* Replaced cups/tubs holding the reel handle in place -- not a huge deal, but again, you can check similar examples online to make sure it looks original. You can also look closely at where the tub meets the winding plate and sometimes you will see difference in the leading when a tub has been replaced.
* Any extraneous washers you may find can signal a reel that is not correct. I once found an extremely thin brass washer attached to the base of the spindle on a very expensive Hardy reel I bought from one of the popular online fishing tackle auctions. Upon removing it and re-attaching the spool to the spindle, the reel seized up and did not wind properly. More than likely this reel was pieced together over time, perhaps adding a spool or winding plate from another reel. Watch for washers that don't belong! However, thrust washers are a normal and needed component on Young thumbscrew reels, both prewar and postwar.
* Mis-matched numbers/letters stamped on the the various parts of the reel. If there is a 3 stamped on the back of the winding plate and a 5 stamped on the inside of the spool, this reel was probably pieced together at some time. You want all of the numbers to match. Sometimes however, these stampings do not exist.
* Bent or filed reel feet -- a filed reel foot decreases its value. How much is the question. A bent reel foot may preclude it from fitting on your rods obviously.
* Condition of pawl(s) and spring(s) -- the points on the pawls should be very sharp. The springs should be tight and of proper form. Again, check similar reels for what the springs and pawls should look like.
* Condition of gear teeth -- worn gear teeth decrease the effectiveness of the pawl. If a reel has been through many a battle with very big fish, the teeth may be worn. Worn gear teeth and worn non-replaceable pawls both are not cost-effective to repair, and should be high on the condition checklist.
* Reel handles should spin freely on their posts. If not, the handle could be a replacement or it could simply have swelled over time. Sometimes a little lubrication can help free up a seized handle. Other times, the inside bore needs to be filed.
* Bent spool latches -- some reels like Hardy St Georges, Youngs and Dingleys have a latch instead of a screw that dis-engages the spool from the spindle. It's hard to tell if one is bent, but just make sure the latch dis-engages and re-seats properly. Latch bars can be straightened, but sometimes the reassembly is a frustrating jigsaw puzzle and little springs sometimes fly away.
* Aftermarket line guide jobs -- each reel you buy with a line guide, just make sure it's original by comparing it to others in books or online. Also the Hardy line guides are numerous, some with "Hardys Pat" on part of the bezel. Again, get expert opinions or corroboration before assuming it is original and correct.
* Corrosion/pitting -- on leaded reels especially, this is caused by water damage and/or saltwater exposure without proper cleaning. If not addressed quickly these reels can disintegrate over a period of time, leaving you with cracked frames, pillars, etc. A little corrosion doesn't hurt much as long as it is properly treated to halt the degradation process.
* Home-made polish jobs - this has been covered in depth in recent years as "spitfire" reels (or reels made during war time with a shiny appearance due to the scarcity of certain metals) began to bring large price tags in the aftermarket. There are guys out there that attempt to fake the true spitfire finish, so just watch out and get at least one second opinion before you buy.
Hope this helps,