Real manufacturing – Hardy Reels History, an interview with the reel design team

After taking a tour around the manufacturing side of Hardy & Greys at Alnwick towards the end of last year, I was struck by the range of machinery used and the attention to detail that went into creating each reel produced at their Willowburn factory.

I sent a mail to Hardy the company asking if it’d be possible to visit the factory again, and spend a bit of time with someone from the reel manufacturing side to document the fascinating stories, facts and figures shared during the factory tour.

Lucy Bowden from the Hardy Marketing Department was kind enough to arrange a meeting for me with Charlie Norris and Chris Bond. Charlie is the Head Reel Designer at Alnwick, and has spent many years in the various stages of the manufacturing process – giving him unrivalled knowledge of the product line, components and steps that go into creating a hand made Hardy reel. Chris is the Research & Development Director and has overseen many of the products we see in the Hardy & Greys catalogues today, during his 14 years at Alnwick.

As I typed up the notes from the visit, it was clear I’d got a lot of information. I’ve split the content over two blog posts to make it a little easier to read. I’ll publish the second part in the next week or so – I hope you enjoy it 🙂

Why use traditional tools and techniques in the modern age?

After taking the factory tour some weeks back on the September Hardy Experience Day, I’d already seen the incredible mix of old and new machinery employed by Hardy in their reel manufacturing process. From modern up to the minute CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machines removing over 80% of the raw billet to create the reel frame, through to the vintage spring making tools dating back to 1899, and many machines of many different vintages in between.

Chris was very clear about the reason for the mix of machines – things that can be improved by modern technology, have been. However there isn’t always a computer controlled automated solution to some of the manufacturing challenges faced by Hardy. The reels produced in Alnwick are steeped in history, with the components and manufacturing process playing a big part in making them desirable and coveted the world over.

An example of how new isn’t always better is apparent in how the springs are made. Hardy have tried many different suppliers and manufacturing techniques to improve the springs used in the check mechanism. To date, none of the modern methods can replicate the quality and, crucially, the sound – a key part of the finished product and as vital as the look and quality of the reel itself. Because no modern spring manufacturing method will compete with the traditional hand operated tools first used by Hardy back in 1899, they’re still in use today.

The flip side to this is how the CNC (computer Numerically Controlled) machine quickly and accurately mills the alloy billet into the spool, frame and plate, and also engraves the lettering on the frame and spool. The quality and finish of the components produced by the CNC is far more consistent than those produced by the hand lathes. Historically the lettering was stamped into the metal during the finishing process. However, the force needed to stamp the letting into the reel material was pretty significant – this was not helpful to the reel and could result in damaged components. By employing a VMC (Vertical Machining Centre) to engrave the lettering at the same time as the distinctive holes are drilled into the spool and frame, the finish is as equally as good and there is no detrimental effect to the reel structure.

The BouglĂ© is just as recognisable for its lustre as it is for its distinctive noise – and again, the process Hardy use to create the iconic finish on each reel is another victory for traditional methods. Once the VMC machine has methodically and swiftly drilled all the ventilation holes into the spool and frame, the polisher takes over.

Firstly, the operator will hand de-burr or ‘buff’ all the components. This involves locking the spool into a motorised spindle, setting it away at a high RPM and using wet and dry paper, remove all the burrs leftover from the CNC drilling process. This is also carried out for the frame, and any other area of the component with burrs and unfinished edges left over from the milling process. For the semi-bright finish reels (such as the Perfect), once de-burring is complete the components are placed into a barrelling machine containing ceramic balls. The machine tumbles the components along with the ceramic beads, smoothing all the edges and producing the characteristic semi-bright finish. For the BouglĂ© and its highly polished, glossy finish, the barrelling machine is not able to compete with the depth and shine only achievable by hand polishing. The operators in the buffing section will firstly de-burr the frame and spool, then move over to the hand polishing machine to complete the process.

After talking through the process of manufacturing the various components which go into making a handmade Hardy reel, Charlie and Chris went on to tell me about the assembly of the parts into the finished reel, and as you can guess this is very much a manual process.

Size isn’t everything, oh hold on…

The key here is the exacting tolerances used in fitting each of the components together. Hardy work to a precision of five tenths of a thou (that’s 0.0127 millimeters to all you youngsters) when fitting the spool, frame and plate together. Though the modern machines are generally more consistent with the quality of the components they produce, hand assembly is for Hardy, a far more precise method of assembling these components. Hardy are supplying reels to some of the most demanding customers in the world – many of the collectors are as versed in the history, methods and parts that go into a reel as the guys in Alnwick who manufacture them. They have to get the fit and finish right or they’ll soon hear about it!

Charlie went on to explain that how the final fit on the side and end plate has a large part to play in how long your reel will last. By assembling by hand Hardy are able to get to as close to a perfect fit as is possible.

Never has that attention to detail been perfected to such a degree as can be seen in this year’s limited edition model, the BouglĂ© 110 year anniversary model, with the 1912 check!

The BouglĂ© reel – 110 years and still going strong

The Bouglé reel started its life back in 1903 when a French competition cyclist Louis Bouglé contacted Hardy to ask if they could produce a lighter reel, taking the standard Perfect and taking out some of the weight and therefore making a smaller diameter reel without compromising on its capacity. Thus began the link between Bouglé and Hardy, and the name is going strong 110 years later.

The BouglĂ© has had a number of ‘refinements’ over the years however, along with a hiatus in production stretching some 60 years.

Check, mate

The check has changed many times over the years, each time reflecting the vogue of the era. When the reel was first produced it sported the 1896 calliper check. This was used for the following 9 years through until 1912, with the introduction of the ‘floating’ pawl check. To this day the 1912 check is widely recognised as the most elegant and desirable of checks from the many variants produced by Hardy. In 1917 a different single check system was used, then in 1921 a further revision to the check saw the inclusion of a spare spring and pawl on the inner face.

Around 1937, just before the war Hardy stopped production of the BouglĂ©, and it didn’t see the light of day right through until 1998 when a modern version (mk IV) was introduced using the 1921 check.

For many years Charlie has been receiving requests from collectors and fishermen to produce a BouglĂ© with the 1912 check. Due to the relatively short production time – 1912 to 1916, these reels are very rare. And with to the inability to swap from right to left hand wind (unlike the 1921 check), resulting in LHW reels needing to be specified when ordered, a left hand reel is like the proverbial hens teeth. It’s not unusual to see originals fetching upwards of ÂŁ6000.

The Limited Edition of 110 Bouglé reels, built to commemorate the 110 years since the reels first introduction sees the reintroduction of the 1912 check. The Heritage reel also manufactured by hand at Alnwick, to the same strict requirements as the Limited Edition, sports the simple double check similar to the 1921 system.

Satisfaction in a sheepskin lined case

Charlie is justifiably proud of this reel. With the loan of an original BouglĂ© with a 1912 check from a very helpful collector, Charlie spent over a week measuring each part that goes into the finished reel. Once finished with the measuring process, he went on to digitally recreate each piece in the 3D modelling tool allowing him to work on and refine the components until happy with the finished work. Previously this process would have required each iteration to be made by hand until perfection was reached – a much longer, and crucially much more expensive development process. Chris and Charlie both agreed that this process – from measuring the parts off a 100 year old collectors piece, through digitally working into the desired model, manufacturing the components using a mixture of traditional and modern methods and finally holding the finished reel in their hands, is something they both get a kick out of, and unlikely to be achievable in any other industry.

2014 Hardy limited edition

With all the time and effort that goes into producing a special edition reel, work has already begun on the 2014 offering. The decision as to which reel will be brought back to life is not one to be taken lightly. Charlie and the team at Alnwick have many requests from collectors, each keen to see their own personal favourite recreated. The list of possibilities is endless – St George Tournament, St George Multiplier and the Barton to name a few. Charlie also monitors the second hand markets to understand which reels are proving popular amongst the collectors.

The year 2014 will see the reintroduction of the Special Perfect featuring the 1912 check. The Special Perfect, a light weight version of the standard Perfect is certainly a rare and much sought after reel. With the inclusion of the 1912 check its set to be as popular as this year’s BouglĂ©.

Once again Charlie has borrowed a vintage reel from a generous collector, and is going through the painstaking process of measuring each component and recreating within the 3D modelling software. As you’ll see from the pictures, the reel Charlie is using has the double pawl check.

That’s it for the first instalment, I’ll post the second part soon. It includes a brush with royalty, talk of tolerances, the changes seen at Hardy over the last 30 years, and using overseas manufacturing.

Thanks for reading, and a big thanks to Charlie, Chris and Lucy for their time and help.

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