J.D. Wagner, Handcrafted Small Batch Reels, Model #2

The Tortoise and the Hare

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

Nick Taransky photo

In Junior and Senior High School, I ran Cross Country and track. Without a fast-twitch muscle in my body, I was totally unsuited for sprints under a mile but did better at longer distances, where a slower pace and dogged determination are more advantageous. I was a tortoise, not a hare.

The Wagner Small Batch Reel Model #2 is the reel I wanted to build from the starting line of my reel making adventure, with the much simpler Model #1 being an intermediate step towards my goal. The Model 2 is based on the Edward vom Hofe Model 360 Perfection trout reel, the greatest and most coveted reel ever produced. Making these represents the culmination of a 4-year marathon of effort and learning.

Introduced in the 1890’s and produced until 1942, the Perfection was available in seven sizes ranging from 2” to 3 1/8”. In 1913, when a stamped reel could be bought for as little as .75, a Perfection would set back a fortunate owner $14.00. From the beginning of his reelmaking career, Edward vom Hofe set out to make the best and did so.

Based on the aesthetics of his creation alone it is a timeless masterpiece, but it also incorporated some incredible technical advances in features and materials.

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

Original Edward vom Hofe Perfection 360 trout reel, 3", Pre-1908


Silent Tension Drag

Edward vom Hofe was issued a patent for his silent tension drag in 1896. This drag system evolved from an earlier design wherein a button could be slid to activate a piece of spring metal that put a variable amount of pressure directly to the inside surface of the spool. While somewhat crude, it is clearly the forerunner to his later patent.

The genius of the patent design is in the combination of a sheet metal spring with two brake pads, along with a combination clutch and cam that regulates the amount of drag as set by the angler. Ingenious in conception and execution, it consists of a spring temper phosphor bronze plate. On ends of this plate are nickel silver cups that hold the drag pads, which contact against the inner surface of the spool to provide friction/drag. Two pads are utilized for balance and to compensate for any irregularities in the nickel silver spool sides, which are hand spun from sheet stock into their graceful arched form.

The drag arm and its cups and pads is attached to a combination cam/clutch. Usually a clutch only functions to engage or disengage driven parts, but the genius of this design is that it not only engages the drag when a fish takes line and disengages the drag when line is retrieved, but also serves to regulate the amount of drag as set by the user. Looking through old books of mechanisms, I could find no instance where a clutch could also be used as a variable regulating device, so this was a quantum leap in reel design.

Sliding On/Off Dual Tone Click

Another patent granted to Edward vom Hofe that was incorporated in the Perfection reel was his sliding dual-tone click.(1883) The click is louder as line is stripped from the reel, quieter when retrieved. This click, when mounted on the rubber sideplates(a non-resonant, damped material) produces an extremely pleasing click. The click works independently of the drag. If an angler wishes to fish in glorious silence, one just slides the click to the ‘off’ position!

The Materials

Hard Rubber

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

The J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reel Model 2

Edward vom Hofe was amongst the first reelmakers to use hard rubber(Vulcanite or Ebonite), which he called gutta percha. Patented by Charles Goodyear in 1845, it was considered a miracle synthetic of its day, and used in products such as tires, pocket combs, bottle stoppers, electrical insulators, buttons and battery cases.

Ebonite is produced by mixing latex with sulfur and subjecting the mixture to heat and pressure. The sulfur produces chemical crosslinks with the latex, which causes it to stiffen and change color. As an example of this chemical transformation, think of the difference between a soft, stretchy latex glove and a bowling ball!

The center of rubber production in the USA was Akron, Ohio, just 26 miles from my shop in Parma Heights. Growing up here, when the winds were unfavorable, you could smell Akron- the hellish, acrid stench of burning sulfur. It came as quite a shock when I searched for the hard rubber to make these reels I could find only two sources, one in Japan, another in Germany!

Today hard rubber is used for articles like pipe stems, hockey pucks, mouthpieces of woodwind musical instruments and fine writing pens. Unfortunately, tire manufacturing is now almost totally outsourced from the once-vast Goodyear and Firestone plants of Akron, save the production of specialized racing tires.

The material itself is frustrating to machine. It is relatively soft, but unlike machining soft metals, I got best results with slow turning speeds and feeds. It moves a lot in response to temperature and pressure. Due to manufacturing anomalies, it can contain voids, inclusions, contaminants and other flaws which made it necessary to scrap about 1 out of 4 plates I produced. These flaws would often only become evident at the final polishing steps!

But wow, the results!!! It is light in weight and polishes to the deepest, richest black you can imagine and has a soft and warm tactile quality that just begs to be touched!

Nickel Silver

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

Nickel silver is an ideally suited, if expensive, reelmaking material. It resists corrosion in fresh water and takes a mirror polish. An alloy of copper and nickel, it’s not the easiest material to machine and can produce nasty stringy or needle-like chips.

Still, its properties of luster, combined with the rich deep ebony of polished hard rubber, produces an unmatched elegance. On the original reels (and mine) the screws, counterweight, crank, drag knob, nameplate, foot, safety bands, pillars, spool sides and drag cups were produced using nickel silver.

Phosphor Bronze

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

Phosphor bronze was utilized for the spool arbors, axels, bushings and the spring temper drag arm. Although it is extremely hard and wear-resistant and corrosion-resistant, I found it a joy to machine. It is referred to in old literature as ‘Tobin Bronze’.

The Styling

I don’t know why the Perfection reel always struck such a strong chord in me, but if you look closely at the details, there is so much to like! There is the understated elegance of the deep, jet-black ebony hues of the rubber against the mirror-polished nickel silver, the only other color the small red indicator dots. The combination of black and bright, along with the sensuous curves, reminds me of a c.1935 Bugatti T57, although the Perfection’s styling preceded the car by over 35 years!

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

The crank’s shapely curves are like the legs of a strong ballerina, the counterweight’s top sculpted round. The handle screw fits perfectly flush with the top of the handle, a continuous radius.

The drag knob’s knurling is gorgeous. Decorative, yes, but also practical too as it helps by providing a grip to turn the knob. The deep scallop in the front plate is also perfectly proportioned in relation to the diameter, but it’s not just there for decoration. Without the scallop, the drag knob and crank would need to jut way out from the surface of the front plate. Likewise, the front safety band would need to be wider to prevent line from fouling behind the crank. Without this simple and elegant scallop, the whole reel would be a visually unappealing mess!

The indicator arrow is delicate and beautiful, like the hand of a fine watch. Since the drag knob needs to resist turning, lest the drag setting slip, vom Hoff later replaced the arrow with a thumb lever that could provide more force to make turning the knob easier. This lever was a compromise between form and function, and is perhaps the only ‘klunky’ part ever made on a vom Hofe trout reel, so I chose the original arrow design.

But as beautiful as each part is individually, once assembled it becomes a visual symphony, but I never really understood why. I was discussing this with my friend Roberto who introduced me to the concepts of the Golden Ratio and Fibonaci sequence, complete with a picture of how it corresponds to these principles of design.

Putting It All Together

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

What is ‘Bench-Made’?

When I began making reels, I started to see references to ‘bench-made’ reels, but still don’t know what the term means. Certainly, all reels are assembled at a bench- one’s lap or a spot in the dirt doesn’t work near as well. But to me, the term means ‘make every part personally’. Like all nitpicks, one could also ask, ‘well, did you make the rubber, too?’ And that person might have a valid-if inane- point.

Every part of these reels was personally fashioned from raw materials. Certainly not profitable in any sense of efficiency, but I’m proud of the effort, which I estimate somewhere between 100-120 hours per reel. The machines and tooling used are a mixture ranging from old but best in class(a Hardinge HLV-H Toolroom Lathe) to beat to hell(a Hardinge TM Mill with an ancient Bridgeport head).

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

Along with the machines was also a seemingly endless amount of hand forming with tools like a slip roll, fretsaw, files, spinning lathe, soldering torch and polishing wheels. There was also a lot of fussing and hand-fitting each reel: fine tuning the drag specific for each owner, adjusting the click, hand-lapping the bearings for hours on end.

My goal was to make a reel befitting of the name ‘Perfection’, but of course never achieved it, as it’s my belief there is no such thing! I can honestly say, however, that it wasn’t for lack of effort as I viewed each one as without time-constraints, which meant the only limiting factors in trying to achieve Perfection were my patience and skill level. One day I finished one and thought, ‘this is the nicest object I have ever made’, so I think I did right by the philosophy of the process. My hope is that each owner looks at theirs and thinks, ‘this is the finest piece of fishing equipment I own’.

Who Gets Them?

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

Wagner Model #2 Owner, My Friend ,Rodmaker Jim Downes

As I found with Model 1, interest in ownership far exceeded my minimal production capacity, so it necessitated setting a hierarchy of how to distribute them. People who supported my efforts by purchasing Model 1 had first dibs.

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

A Wagner Classic Series Rod

Next came the owners of our Classic Series rods, which are rods for which I make all the hardware and started me in this machining adventure. As this rod series is modeled on the early rods of Ed Payne and Hiram Leonard, the reels provide an appropriate historical and aesthetic compliment. A cynic might argue this is a play for a top-of-the-line rod sale, but I make less than ½ the hourly rate on our Classic Series rods than I do on our introductory Patriot Series rods.

Making these has given me the first real taste of professional freedom in over 20 years. I make rods because I love to make them, but I do have to sell them for a living. But the reels are different, and it’s been a joy that every one of them has gone to people I consider friends or at the very least have the highest regard for.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

As I finished the first of these reels I was consumed with details of polishing and tuning while at the same time anxiously looking forward to the next model, which will be the same but in 2 ¾” size for 3-4 wt line.

Immersed in the work, I didn’t have much time to reflect on what it meant to finally finish something four years in the making, albeit in my ‘free’ evening time. But as I sit streamside and write this, I’m beginning to gain some perspective about this long journey and what it’s taught me.

On the technical side, I’ve gone from a person with virtually no machining experience or knowledge to one of basic competence. At times in the process I’d find myself ‘stuck’, either in doubt or without an answer or idea how to make a part! But I just kept plodding away and all ended well, and found the confidence to be able to diagnose and deal with any issues that might arise.

I learned that making reels to the original vom Hofe design on old manual machines is not a sprint, but a marathon that can be completed in stages, and that suits me well. Looking at the task at first, it can seem overwhelming. But if you just break it down into a series of parts it becomes quite do-able, one part at a time. I would make a batch of feet, for example, and when they were complete I’d set them aside and move onto the next batch of parts until at last there were no more parts left to make!

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

Forming a Radius on a Foot Using the Horizontal Mill

In turn, many of those parts needed to be made into sub-assemblies-the spools or drag components- for example- so there was still quite a way to go from finished parts to a completed reel. But by plodding along with determination I was finally able to get to the finish line!

Finally, although I've always admired these reels, it was only through building them that I gained a total appreciation for the genius of Edward vom Hofe. People have been very complimentary of the job I did emulating them, but the truth is that this has been a very humbling experience. Many people can play Mozart's music, but only Mozart could write it!

Just the same, it feels good. Reel good!


3” Diameter, 1” wide

For DT4 and DT5 line, plus backing

7.4 ounces

Presented in Block Leather Case with Owner’s Initials Engraved in Interlocking Script

$2,600, $2,400 with Pre-Deposit

J.D. Wagner Small Batch Reels in the Edward vom Hofe Style

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