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Development of my 3D Printed Fly Reel

12/22/2014 - Michael Hackney

In late 2012 I began design work on a 3D printed fly reel and set some goals for this project:

  • all parts had to be 3D printed, no extra hardware or screws allowed
  • have a pleasing design and not look clunky
  • the parts needed to be small and simple enough for most consumer 3D printers to print
  • parts count as low as possible
  • printable and fishable in PLA - a renewable (made from corn starch),  biodegradible plastic
  • glue was allowed
  • have a click check
  • fit modern fly rod reel seats
  • and, the reel had to catch fish!

The first prototype (alpha reel) took a year to create working off and on and working through design problems as they arose. The alpha reel had seven parts, a silient (friction) check, and was printed in ABS. Here is a photo of it before and after assembly:

The alpha reel had some design issues though. The foot had a flat bottom and would not fit into a reel seat without machining first. It was also glued on to the frame's foot pillar - a weak mechanical joint. The spool was printed in two pieces and required reaming to fit the spindle. It was a good first effort though! It also got me a mention in 3D Printing Industry (Another Great Example of Personal 3D Printing - a 3D Printed Fly Fishing Reel) where I was described as an innovative designer!

I quickly got to work on version 2 (beta reel) that incorporated a click check and addressed some of the flaws in the alpha reel. Here is an exploded view of my CAD drawing:

The beta reel has a simple click check that is similar to the click checks I developed for my aluminum and brass fly reel kits. It also has a greatly improved foot that fits reel seat hardware and is securely attached to the frame.

I also started experimenting with techniques to improve the reel's surface finish and overall asthetics. Unlike most 3D printed parts, the faces that adhere to the printer's bed is visible on these reels. Parts are printed one layer at a time and the first layer is usually imperfect because it is difficult to print perfectly and it picks up any texture or imperfections from the print bed. In most parts, this surface is not usually seen. Here's a photo showing how the back frame piece is printed:

Notice the finished part on the left has warped because it was not firmly attached to the print surface while printing. This is one of the most frustrating areas for folks new to 3D printing. I spent countless hours testing different surfaces and techniques to improve the visual finish and adhesion of that first layer. An early success involved printing on plain printer paper. I simply glued the paper to the print bed with a glue stick and printed on it. It leaves a beautiful matte finish and the PLA sticks to it very well. It is easy to remove paper residue from the part with a quick water rinse. Later, I discovered a new print surface called PEI and experimented extensively with it. It also adheres well and leaves a beautiful slightly semi-gloss/matte surface - and it is much quicker since I don't have to glue down (and remove damaged) paper. The turquiose part above was one of my first prints on PEI (the amber colored surface).

I also started experimenting with exposing the internal fill pattern so it becomes part of the design. Here's a photo that shows what I mean:

Several of the 3D slicers (the software used to convert the 3D drawings called STL files into the g-code that controls the printer) have interesting fill patterns like honeycomb (Slic3r) and rounded (KISSlicer). I love KISS's rounded infill - that's what I used for the black and gold reel in the photo above. It took quite a bit of redesign and experimenting to be able to print strong parts with the infill exposed like this but it was worth effort! Many PLA filaments are translucent and allow the internal fill pattern to show through, this rounded pattern looks great with these parts too, as you can see here:

Through 2014 I refined the design and gave the files to 25 fly fishers/3D printer enthusiasts to test out and print reels. I've learned a lot about improving mechanical design as well as the reel's asthetics. Over the last few weeks I used this knowlwedge in a major overhaul of the reel design - Version 5. Here are some of the new features:


Here are some photos of the new version 5 reel being printed as well as the first v5 prototype "Snow". 







1/5/2015 Update

I've been getting a lot of questions about what 3D printer I use or recommend. Like many questions about "what should I get?" the answer is "it depends"! I built my printer from a kit several years ago. It is a Rostock Max from SeeMeCNC. It is a very large machine, I could print a cyclinder 12" in diameter and 15" tall! It is fast, accurate and precise. If you are a do-it-yourself type and want to learns the ins and outs of 3D printing, I wouldn't recommend anything else.

1/20/2015 Update

Joe Cermele, athe Fishing Editor at Field & Stream did an amazing video on my 3D printed reel. He put it through its paces. The video should answer all questions on how well these printed reels perform!