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Reel Components


Reel Bearings - 201 (continued)

Bearing Lubrication: All most all fishing reels use grease and oil to lubricate bearings and other reel components.  The primary purpose of the lubricant is to reduce wear and damage between contacting surfaces.  Reduced wear is achieved by utilizing a low viscosity material between wearing surfaces that have a relative high coefficient of friction.  In effect, the wearing surfaces are replaced by a material that has a more desirable coefficient of friction, like oil or grease. Lubrication is also used to preclude corrosion, and to seal against the entry of water and debris.


Grease is a semi-fluid mixture of oil, a thickener and additives.  The oil that performs the actually lubrication in reels is usually petroleum or synthetic based.  The thickener gives grease it consistency, and can be thought of as a sponge that holds the oil in place.  Additives enhance performance, protect the grease and lubricated surfaces, and can even neutralize the effects of corrosives.  Many reel greases on the market today have additives specifically designed to prevent chemical attack of metal components due to seawater.



Reel grease and oil are not really interchangeable. Grease is used when it is not practical or convenient to use oil, primarily in low speed frame bearings.  It must be thick enough to prevent it from running or spinning out of a turning bearing.  On the other hand, oil is used in locations that are generally more accessible, and primarily in higher speed spool bearings.  It must have lower viscosity and little restriction to movement of bearing components.  The previous picture show a greased bearing ready for reinstallation back into a reel.  (Notice how a generous amount of grease was expelled between the shield and inner race ó the bearing is completely full and was greased with a commercial small bearing greaser.)


Although all bearings and moving components in a reel could theoretically be lubricated with oil, grease does not require as frequent replenishment, and it limits the intrusion of debris and generally protects the components better than oil.  However, there are a few downsides to the use of grease.  Grease tends to resist motion more due to its higher viscosity, and some low quality greases can dry out and harden, or can bleed.  (Bleeding is a condition where oil separates from the thickener, primarily due to age or temperature).  Early reel greases tended to harden and bleed relatively quickly, but that is seldom the case with quality modern reel grease.


Oil should never be added to a greased bearing, because it tends to wash out the thickener.  The net effect is the bearing will more susceptible to the entry of contaminants, and will need to be replenished sooner.  Contaminants and debris will no longer be held on the surface of the grease if the thickener washes out, and the bearing may actually wear due to insufficient contact with lubricant.


Itís also not advisable to mix different types or brands of grease or oils, since it can have adverse and unpredictable effects.  Some of these effects include reduction in lubricating properties, change in viscosity, additives can be diluted, and thickeners can harden or bleed.  If a new brand of lubricant is to be used, manufacturers recommend that components should be cleaned to completely remove the old lubricant.  If this is not practical, then itís advisable to inspect the condition of the bearings more frequently to look for signs of incompatibility.  Some things to look for are hardening, bleeding, grease discoloration (typically darkening or streaking), and rougher bearing rotation.


It is seldom necessary to add more than a small drop of oil to a reel spool bearing.  Oil should be added to the outside of the inner race and the bearing spun slowly to distribute the oil.  Any excess oil will be spun off after a few hard casts, but the oil can splatter inside the frame, and get on magnets and the spool.


Oftentimes you can add lubrication to a frame bearing without removing the bearing, like when performing periodic maintenance during a fishing season.  Many reels have access or grease openings specifically designed so the grease travels to ball bearings, roller bearings and other sliding friction components.  In other cases, it may be necessary to just dab a small amount of grease on the surface of a ball  bearing, and work it into the inside of the bearing with a fingertip, dowel, or stiff brush.  If the shaft is removed from a roller bearing you can work a small dab of grease that has been applied to a small stick or dowel into the rollers and cage.  Frame bearings wonít usually use much grease anyway, so donít get carried away with the grease.  If you see debris or foreign material on the surface of the old grease, itís advisable to remove it with a wooden stick or similar object before adding new grease Ė just donít push it into the bearing.


Grease can be added to a roller bearing still mounted in the frame, but itís usually desirable to remove the load (shaft, pinion, etc), from the center of it to grease it.  Just put a little dab on the cage and work it into the side of the cage at the rollers with a small circular stick.  It wonít take much, and expect any excess grease to be pushed out when you remount the load Ė just be sure the excess grease wonít end up on the drag stack or other components not intended for grease.



Always make sure a bearing is dry before re-adding grease.  If not, small droplets of water may be trapped inside the new grease, or if itís a solvent, the small droplets can even break down the grease.  There are a few different ways to add new grease to a frame ball bearing that has been removed and cleaned:

                     You can use a small bearing greaser to force the grease into the bearing through the open space between the shield and inner race.  These greasers are very quick and do an excellent job of completely filling the bearing, and one is shown in the previous picture.  You can make your own, or buy one.  [I intend to cover this in a future product review.] 

                     You can also remove one of the bearing shields, pack the grease into the bearing with a fingertip, and then reinstall the shield when full.  Although you can completely fill the bearing this way, it can get quite messy and tedious, since removing and replacing a shield retainer can be a real challenge Ė especially when grease is involved.

                     You can pack the grease into the bearing through the open space between the shield and inner race, by periodically putting a dab on a finger, and working it into the bearing.  However, this can also get quite messy, and one has to wonder how much of the bearing actually gets filled this way and how much thickener is actually lost in the process.



Hereís a tip that you can use before remounting frame bearings that youíve just greased.  Spread around a small dab of grease in the bottom and side of the socket that the bearing mounts in, before putting the bearing back in.  It will not only aid in installing the bearing back into the frame (some bearings are a very snug fit), but will also preclude corrosion between dissimilar socket and bearing metals.  (If the bearing is flanged, be sure to put a light layer of grease on the area where the flange mates into the frame.)  Pinion gear bearings seem to be the most vulnerable to frame-bearing corrosion, because the pinion itself is often made from a third type of metal, which sets up a great condition for galvanic corrosion!  If youíve ever had to remove a pinion bearing that has been corroded into its bearing mount, youíll appreciate this tip.



I wonít make a specific recommendation on the brand of oil and grease to use in your reels Ė Iíll leave that choice to you, since there are so many.  (Besides, anglers have very strong opinions on what brand of lube is their favorite or the best to use, similar to the opinions they have on rods and reels.)  The only real recommendation Iíll make is to stay with lubricants that are designed for reels.  They really arenít that expensive, and the additives and thickeners have been specifically developed for use in reels, and more and more manufacturers are switching to synthetic reel lubricants because of superior characteristics.  [I donít see any advantage to using general purpose lubricants, or lubricants designed for other equipment, in a fishing reel.  Why run the risk of reel damage, by using a lube that wasnít really intended for them?]  I have had very good success with Hot Sauce reel grease and oil, and I like its unique properties, but that is just my preference.


Iím often asked if oil or grease should be used in the knobs of a reel handle.  The answer to that question is dependant on a few things:

                     Some anglers prefer the smooth and buttery feel of a greased knob when they crank their reels, although the knob doesnít tend to spin as freely as it would if oiled. 

                     Other anglers like the solid feel of knobs that spin quickly and with the slightest effort, and thatís fine too. 

                     Some reels may already have grease or oil under the knobs, so you may want to just stay with whatís already there.

                     Grease tends to hold debris on its outer surface.  Since reel handles are very susceptible to debris while shore fishing, it makes some sense to use grease in these situations.

                     High end reels usually come with instructions that cover knob maintenance, so be sure to check for manufacturer recommendations, before making a final decision.

                     Most anglers who only occasionally fish with their reel wonít notice much difference between a greased or oiled low profile reel handle.  But an angler who spends a lot of time on the water probably will.


[I personally prefer greased knobs on reels that I use for spinner baits and crank baits because they involve steady cranking, and the feel of oiled knobs for intermittent presentations like jigs and worms.]


Here are a few knob lube tips: Removable knobs (with bushings or bearings) are easier to grease if the knob is removed.  Always put a very light drop of Locktite on the threads at the end of knob screws so they donít back out while cranking, and donít over tighten them. You can restore some of the smoothness to a worn knob that is not removable, by forcing grease between its mounting shaft and the knob (usually through an end cap) Ė just donít get carried away with the grease and be sure to remove, clean and rinse them first.  Knobs are vulnerable to picking up sand and other debris while shore fishing, so watch for this, and remove any debris as soon as you see it (and never set your reel on the ground).


Cleaning Bearings: Most reels are designed so the bearings can be removed for cleaning, greasing and replacement.  However, removal will usually involve disassembling parts of the reel, requiring 1 Ė 2 hours and basic mechanical skills to perform (depending on skill, cleanliness, methods used and other factors).  It may be better to remove them to clean them, but that may not be always possible.



Many different cleaning agents can be used to clean bearings.  Some examples include: Degreasing agents like Simple Green; citrus based cleaners; and industrial solvents.  Here are some important things to remember:

                     Solvents like mineral spirits, brake cleaning fluid, acetone, naphtha, denatured alcohol, lighter fluid, etc. are irritants, flammable and dangerous to breathe, so exercise appropriate precautions if you use them! 

                     Never clean bearings in bleach based products, since it can damage many metals.

                     Never clean yellow metals (copper-nickel, nickel-copper, light bronzes and brasses) in ammonia based products, since they can crack these metals.

                     Do not get solvents on plastic or painted reel parts.  Some solvents can melt, discolor and crack reel plastics, and blemish paint.  Also do not clean rubber or poly sealed bearings, or plastic roller bearing races in solvents, unless you are absolutely sure the solvent will not affect them.

                     Eye protection should be worn if using air to spin or dry bearing.  Bearings can become projectiles from poorly fitted bearings.

                     Avoid the use of solvents that contain perfumes or other similar additives.  For example, the fragrances in beauty shop acetone will leave a deposit that will affect the adherence of grease, and can even blemish yellow metals and certain magnesium or aluminum alloys.


I like to use acetone to clean bearings (and other bare metal parts) that Iíve removed from my reels, because it totally breaks down the components and additives in oils/greases.  It also does not leave any harmful residue after it dries, so rinsing is not required.  If I cannot remove a bearing from the frame, I use Simple Green to clean the bearing and other parts of the reel in place, followed by liberal rinsing in tap water.  Spray it on, and scrub the bearing and adjacent areas with at stiff bristled brush, and repeat the process as necessary.  (However, donít get it on drag components.)  More time and effort will be required to remove lubricants and debris, and it may help to just periodically spray the Simple Green on and let it set for a bit, before scrubbing.  You can even spray/flush it into the bearing(s) with a syringe or eyedropper.  Always be sure to rinse the bearings (and other parts) thoroughly with tap water after using Simple Green and similar cleansers.



I prefer to clean removed bearings in an ultrasonic cleaner.  The ultrasonic action is very efficient at removing old lubricant and debris from components, even if shields are installed on the bearings.  It will not damage any of the bearing components, and will take less time to thoroughly clean the bearings.  Ultrasonicís also have couple of subtle advantages that are of benefit.  The center race, cage and balls will slowly rotate as the bearing become clean, especially if the bearing is standing vertically on its outside race.  (This slow rotation between the balls and race tends to scrub the balls and wash away harder surface debris (like crushed silica from sand that has adhered to the balls).)  The small amount of heat produced by the ultrasonic will also help emulsify the lubricant.



I admit that I get meticulous about my bearings (just my nature I guess), and many others wonít often go to the extremes that I do.  I put each bearing in a glass vial (~50 ml) that has been filled half-way with acetone and then put the cover on the vial.  [I use glass because you can see the acetone get cloudy as the bearing is cleaned, glass is very efficient at transferring ultrasonic motion, and acetone will not harm the glass.]  Then I put the vial in the cleaner, and add/remove water to/from the cleaner so the level is approximately the same level as acetone in the bottles (the greatest transmission of ultrasonic waves will occur if the levels are about the same).  I allow the bearing to initially clean for approximately 15 -30 minutes, depending on the cleanliness of the bearing Ė periodically checking the vial for cloudiness.  If the acetone in the vial gets cloudy, Iíll replace it with fresh acetone, and continue ultrasonically cleaning it for the remainder of the time.  Next, Iíll allow the bearing to soak in clean acetone for an additional 15 - 30 minutes, and will finish by final cleaning it in the ultrasonic again for 15 - 30 more minutes.  I usually rotate the bearing between each of these steps (by putting it on a pointed hard wood dowel), to drain the acetone and check the condition of the bearing.  Bearings that do not turn smoothly after cleaning, can cleaned an additional time, but most likely are permanently fouled, worn or damaged, and should be discarded.


I have even cleaned a few reel frames with some of the bearings installed in them, in my ultrasonic using Simple Green.  I did this more as a test to see just how clean the bearings would get, and found they cleaned fairly well.  [However, I normally ultrasonically clean my frames after tearing them completely down, because I also typically inspect the reel for damage/wear at these times.]  You may want to consider cleaning your reels with the bearings installed in the frame, if you donít use them in harsh environments, and know that wear and damage is not very likely.


If you are thinking about getting an ultrasonic cleaner, here are a few things to consider.  Get one that is large enough to hold the biggest reel frame you have, if possible.  I have all low-profile reels, and the 5Ē x 3-1/2Ē opening is plenty big for a frame.  In fact, I can clean a frame and a few other small plastic parts in Simple Green, and 3 or 4 bearing vials that contain acetone, all at the same time.  That can really save time, since the ultrasonic seems to frequently become a bottleneck when I strip down, clean and re-lube a reel.  Also make sure your ultrasonic will take the rigor of cleaning a reel, since there are some very cheap models that are really intended for cleaning hard contact lens, that are made for only 5 minute duty.  You can often get a good quality ultrasonic off the internet, but can get some very nice bargains (for used ones) on eBay.  I got mine at an auction that was selling equipment from a jewelry store, for $35 dollars.  My wife even uses it to clean her jewelry too, which I tell her was the reason I bought it!


So, whatís a good way to clean removed bearings if you donít have an ultrasonic?  You can still do a pretty good job of cleaning bearings if you donít have an ultrasonic.  However, it will usually involve more time and effort to do so.  Soak the bearing in a jar of solvent or Simple Green, periodically agitating the jar to wash loosened lubricants and debris out, and periodically spinning the bearing on a pointed stick to redistribute/breakup remaining grease, and repeat until clean.  You can often look into greased bearings with a magnifying lens, or can tell by the way they spin, to determine when they are clean. (A dirty bearing can take 2 - 3 hours to clean this way, and very dirty bearings may even need to be soaked over-night.)  However, the time can be significantly reduced, if you remove at least one shield and clean it.



Roller bearings will clean faster if you can remove the plastic cage from the outer race (theyíre usually press fitted into the frame via the outer race and it can be a little difficult the first time you remove it from the frame).  The cage is usually press fitted, tabbed, or held with a retainer.  Just be careful, since the rollers will often come out of the cage and they are very small as shown in the previous picture.  Do not clean plastic roller bearing cages in a solvent unless you are sure that it will not be damaged.  (I like to clean mine in Simple Green.) Always be sure to rinse liberally with tap water after using cleansers and get completely dry before lubing them.  By the way, a can of compressed air (like you use to blow debris off a computer keyboard), will work great for quickly drying bearings.  [I donít use a hair dryer because of the acetone I use in my workshop.]  When you reassemble the bearing, the grease will usually hold the rollers in place, while you reinstall the cage into the outer race.


By the way, thereís a problem with the components from the 2 roller bearings shown in the previous picture.  Can you figure out what it is? (Answer in conclusion)


Iím not associated with any of the previously mentioned products.  I only identify them to give examples of what is available.  Also, the techniques, tips, etc. that Iíve provided are what work for me, and others may do things a little differently.


Some anglers donít have the skills, time, facilities, interest or desire to clean and lube their reels Ė and thatís fine, there are many good reel mechanics available to do this for them.  Others enjoy maintaining their equipment as much as they do using it Ė and thatís fine too.  Just remember, if you are going to clean and lube your reels, youíll need to ensure you have the correct tools, schematics, lubricant, time, work area, and be free from distractions ahead of time.  Also, be safe when working with solvents, compressed air, etc.


Conclusion: Still want to know more about reel bearings? If you do then congratulations... your graduating to the next class. A class that only the most tackle afflicted need apply. The next tutorial will go even further into bearing applications, problems and other topics. By the way...the answer to the question in the picture is (Answer:  One of the rollers is missing Ė each bearing takes 6 rollers.  It was found later, sticking to the bottom of the tweezers used to position the components for the picture!)












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