Published Aug 9. 2018 - 3 months ago
Updated or edited Aug 9. 2018

Reel seats and reel feet

Why is it that some reels simply don't fit some rods? There is a standard of course... but not all manufacturers seem to follow it.

Arctic Silver Quick Lock reel seat
Arctic Silver Quick Lock reel seat
Arctic Silver

Those of us who own more than one rod and one reel, and those of us who own rods and reels of many different brands, have probably been there: mounting a reel on a rod simply doesn't work. It may just fit, but doesn't really sit in a way that's reassuring – or it doesn't fit at all, and simply can't be mounted in any way, the reel foot being too big for the reel seat or the foot sitting loosely in the seat and wobbling helplessly.
This article was spawned at a get together where there were a lot of rods to try. A handful of them were from Norwegian Arctic Silver, and equipped with their custom quick locking reel seats, which are quite different from most other reel seats. The odd thing was that a handful of the reels we tried on these rods didn't fit. Like in didn't go on at all. Among them the very popular Danielsson reels. We discussed why it is that some reels don't fit some rods. This made me wonder what the manufacturers actually use to decide the size of reel feet and reel seats. They obviously don't agree 100% on size and shape, but still seem have some general agreement on the basic dimensions. Reel seats and reel feet are after all somewhat up to a standard.

There is a standard

That enticed me to continue a small journey that I had started already back in 2011 where I was researching the dimensions of reel feet and reel seats. I had started out by looking for a standard.
Of course there is such a standard. Anything else would make no sense!
It's issued by AFFTA – American Fly Fishing Trade Association – an organization that has been representing the fly fishing industry for decades, and is the body, which typically oversees the standards in fly fishing – line weights in particular, but also reel foot standards.

Same footprint
Same footprint
Martin Joergensen
The AFFTA standard
The AFFTA standard
AFFTA

Does it make sense?

Already back then I asked myself if a reel foot standard makes any sense at all?
I mean, rods can be found in a colossal variation. From the daintiest rod for a 1 or 2 weight line, meant to cast tiny flies to almost as tiny fish, to the massive broomsticks, built to hold a fish that weighs several hundred kilos.

Of course there is such a standard. Anything else would make no sense!

How can the reel that sits on these two rods ever have the same reel foot, and how can a rod be built so that a reel for one in theory fits perfectly on the other?
Well, mine and other people's experiences with ill fitting reels tell me that the story isn't that simple. The reels and feet simply don't match each other all across the board.
I decided to dig into it a bit, which led me down a path with lots of measures, tolerances and angles.
Be prepared for some nerdy stuff here!

Varying angles
The standard
In millimeters
Martin Joergensen
Combined reel and seat
Combined reel and seat
Gary Siemer, Vintage Fly Tackle

A "soft" standard

The AFFTA standard is a classic standard, giving the dimensions for reel feet – and through that the requirements for reel seat measurements. Bu it's not a firm standard. It does allow for some slack – in industry lingo called "tolerance" – and some of the measurements in the standard actually leave quite a bit of room for variation.
The width of the foot is set to be 0.525 inches or 13.335 millimeters, but allows for a variance of +0.02 inches or +0.5 millimeters, meaning it can be wider, but not narrower than the standard. For the metrically inclined reel makers that often leads to a neat 13.5 millimeter measure. Slightly bigger than the standard, but well within the upper margin.
0.02 inches or half a millimeter – or just under 4% of the width – might not sound much. But insignificant as it may sound, it can still be somewhat a deal breaker if the reel seat is milled out of solid stock to exact specs and the reel foot is just a fraction larger than the standard. That just won't work.
The length could seem less critical at first eyesight, because most reel seats have a ring that slides over the concave part of the foot and allows for quite a bit of play. But on some reels the variation is again huge compared to the standard, like 10% too small. Try to mount such a reel in a reel seat that's on the large side, and the connection is wobbly to say the least.

My reels

Reel Note Width ± % Length ± %
AFFTA Standard The industry standard 13.35mm 0mm 0% 63.50mm 0mm 0%
Bringsén #10-12 Large salmon reel 14.02mm 0.67mm 5% 65.05mm 1.55mm 2.4%
Hardy Marksman Tiny trout reel 12.86mm -0.49mm -3.7% 60.94mm -2.56mm -4%
LAW Medium saltwater reel 13.16mm -0.19mm -1.4% 62.91mm -0.59mm -0.9%
Lamson Litespeed 1 Light trout reel 13.34mm -0.01mm -0.1% 60.93mm -2.57mm -4%
Lamson Radius Medium trout reel 12.92mm -0.43mm -3.2% 60.90mm -2.6mm -4.1%
Leeda LW Light trout reel 12.37mm -0.98mm -7.3% 57.48mm -6.02mm -9.5%
Okuma Helios H78 Medium saltwater reel 13.43mm 0.08mm 0.6% 64.15mm 0.65mm 1%
Out Living 6-7 Cheap plastic reel 11.87mm -1.48mm -11.1% 62.68mm -0.82mm -1.3%
Pfleuger Medalist Tiny trout reel 13.84mm 0.49mm 3.7% 61.40mm -2.1mm -3.3%
Scierra Traxion 5/6 Medium saltwater reel 13.46mm 0.11mm 0.8% 63.39mm -0.11mm -0.2%
Scierra Traxion 8/10 Large salmon reel 13.42mm 0.07mm 0.5% 64.05mm 0.55mm 0.9%
Scierra XDP 5-6 Medium saltwater reel 13.44mm 0.09mm 0.7% 63.90mm 0.4mm 0.6%
Scierra XDP10-11 Large salmon reel 13.49mm 0.14mm 1% 64.08mm 0.58mm 0.9%
System 2 78M Medium saltwater reel 13.79mm 0.44mm 3.3% 62.87mm -0.63mm -1%
Waterworks ULA Force Medium size trout reel 13.40mm 0.05mm 0.4% 60.92mm -2.58mm -4.1%
Young&Sons 1535 Large salmon reel 15.28mm 1.93mm 14.5% 64.74mm 1.24mm 2%
Young&Sons Rapier Cheap compsoite reel 13.38mm 0.03mm 0.2% 62.12mm -1.38mm -2.2%
Compared to the AFFTA standard
Too long
Within tolerances
Too short

Same standard
Martin Joergensen
Rod testing
Rod testing
Martin Joergensen

Real life "tolerance"

The real problem is that quite a few reels are nowhere near being within the tolerances.
I broke out my reels and started measuring. I selected the easiest two measures: length and width of the reel foot. For those two simple measurements I got as many results as I have reels. Even reels from the same manufacturer in the same size range have different dimensions.
The fact is that I have one reel out of 18, which actually measures within the standard – one of my old Scierra reels. And judging from the rest of the Scierra reels, it seems a result of luck more than proper design and manufacturing that it falls within the tolerances – even though in all fairness it has to be said that the Scierra reels are actually all pretty close to the standard.

A couple of my largest salmon reels were wider than the standard allows, the Swedish Bringsén being just a fraction too wide compared to the upper standard, but my old Young&Sons 1535 being a whopping 1.4 millimeters too wide, which is close to 13%. There's no doubt that it will take a very tolerant reel seat to hold this large reel.
In the smaller end there are also variances and several reels are close to a millimeter too narrow and one – an older Leeda reel – is almost 1.5 millimeters too narrow. The standard has no allowance for narrower reel feet, so that's definitely breaking with the standard, and reels like this will be sitting loosely in many reel seats, even on lighter rods.

Reel foot width in millimeters

Reel foot length in millimeters

Comparison
Comparison
Martin Joergensen

The thickness

The thickness of the two ends of the reel foot – the flanges – is not quite as firmly set, and that also offers problems of an even more complex kind.
In theory, the measurements supplied decide the thickness. The length and height of the full foot in combination with the angle of the taper can give you the thickness through simple math.
But since the angle can vary a degree (7-8) and the the length can vary and there's no set standard for the "free space" above the two flanges, there's actually quite a bit of liberty there too.
The tip of the flange is supposed to be 0.042 inches or slightly more than 1 millimeter, but with a tolerance. That will give you a taper to a base thickness in combination with the length and the inclination. But taking all the variations into consideration, this allows for a pretty large span of thicknesses and tapers. And again: when we're talking milled aluminum reel seats and reel feet cut with small tolerances, and very different interpretations of the standards, there will not be room for play in many cases.
This is really nerdy, I admit, but it's never the less one of the main causes for many ill fitting reel foot and reel seat combinations.

This is really nerdy, I admit

No reel seat at all
No reel seat at all
Lamson

Curve and reel seat diameter

There's even the curvature of the foot to take into consideration. The inside curve is well defined by the standard, which is actually quite odd, because that sets some pretty tight strains on the possible diameter of the reel seat.
Optimally the inside curve on the underside of the reel foot is the same as the outside diameter of the reel seat. This will give a good fit. Of course this isn't the case in real life, because as already mentioned the difference is naturally huge between the most delicate stream rod and the heaviest saltwater rod.
And not only that. The outside diameter of the foot isn't defined at all. Of course it relates in some way to the inside diameter, but it's not necessarily so. Most reel feet are naturally designed thicker in the center part and tapering towards the edges, both on the short and on the long axis.
That has led to different approaches by reel seat manufacturers, who will often mill out a mortise – a "track" – for the foot in reel seats for heavier rods. Others again make the reel seat flat where the reel foot rests, simply writing the curvature on the underside of the reel foot completely out of the equation.

A simple reel seat
A simple reel seat
Mudhole

And the reel seat too...

Now, there's a standard for the reel foot, but not one for the seat, which basically means that reel seats can be shaped very freely. Designing a reel seat would of course meaning "inverting" the reel foot dimensions and making the two parts of the seat able to accommodate reels that meet the standard.
But it's not quite that simple.
Rods vary in heft as already mentioned, and the sheer diameter of the blank under the seat sets certain limits.
Reel seats are also made with different methods of securing the reel. Some have simple sliding rings while others have different threaded mechanisms. Some special reel seats – like the one from Arctic Silver – even utilize a sort of "friction lock" that relies on the tension between the reel foot and a sliding locking part.
Add to this that any reel seat manufacturer will have to measure and/or try a large number of reels, and design their reel seats to be large enough to hold most.
All this of course leaves an immense room for "interpretation", and if a reel seat manufacturer creates reel seats using one or a number of specific reels, they will govern the reel seat dimensions. And as seen in my round of real life measuring, many reel manufacturers use their own set of dimensions, some very close to the tolerances of the standard – quite a few way outside these tolerances.
Altogether this means that a reel seat can have been made to adapt a reel, which is a crazy lot off the standard, leading to a very ill fit of the reels that are within, or even outside the other end of the allowed tolerances.

To follow a standard

I talked to a few of reel makers and reel designers, and a surprising number of them weren't even aware of the standard.
They used existing reels or reel seats as the outset for creating reel feet on new reels.
This of course opens up for all kinds of errors and interpretations, and is an obvious source for the large variation seen in actual reels.
Larger commercial manufacturers seem to use a similar approach, and judging from the variation within brands, there's no standard used even here. Within my limited number of reels I had more than one reel of three brands – Young&Sons, Scierra and Lamson – and none of these reels had identically sized reel seats, even thought they were close in reel size within brands.

Reel maker Jacob Hardgrave wrote to me when I asked him whether he used the AFFTA standard:

Yes, you're correct, I have a copy of the AFFTA standard drawing for reel feet. As for the 7.5 degrees, you've pretty much got it nailed, to maximize accuracy within the spec given my available precision, 7.5 was the best bet.
As far as fitting on different rods, something not super clear in the AFFTA spec is the wide range of diameters reel seats seem to come in as well as different effective diameters between mortised and non mortised seats.
It seems like the spec is a general approximation, but after test fitting the reel to several different seats, I found some to be a more solid connection than others, based upon matching the radius of the foot to the seat.

You can see Jacob make a reel on this video.

Dutch reel maker Gerrit van der Meulen also sent me a note about his approach to designing reel feet. The letters refer to the AFFTA-standard shown in the top of this article:

I took the measurements for the first reel foot I made from a standard reel that I had. Funny enough, after I got the AFFTA standard it turned out that it was almost exactly like the dimensions mentioned in the AFFTA document.
Now I always use this standard.
But there is room for individual design. The most important dimensions are the total length A, the width D, the radius B and a little less important the angle C. These are the dimensions that make sure that the reel will fit most of the reel seats worldwide properly. As long as you hold on to these four dimensions, there is almost no risk that the reel won't fit. The rest is room for design and this means that the sky is the limit. You can vary with length F or the height G as long as you keep the A, D, B and (to an extent) C intact.
Actually there is a trend going on lately in the custom reel makers world where customers ask for bigger reel feet to fit a special rod they own, but that's always risky of course.

You can follow Gerrit's reel making and contact him on Facebook

Making a reel foot

Tube in the lathe


Conical tube


Drlling


Cutting


Cut feet


Milling off sides


Milled feet


The backside


Countersinking


A finished reel foot


Mounting


On the rod


Gerrit van der Meulen

Credits and links

Thanks to the following for letting me use their pictures:
Gary Siemer of Vintage Fly Tackle
Gerrit van der Meulen of Friesian Reels

Other links:
Arctic Silver rods
Waterworks/Lamson Center Axis reels and rods
Mudhole reel seats

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