Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Brief, Incomplete, and Possibly Imprecise History of Adams™ Reels

Adapted from two e-mails I recently wrote in response to inquiries about the reels, the man, and the company I briefly owned in 2003.


I’ve had a couple of inquiries about Bill Adams and his reels lately, so I thought I’d create this post while the information is still fairly fresh in my mind.

I’ll cover the reels first: They are made of lightweight 6061-T6 aluminum, hard anodized black on the side plates. The anodizing is then machined away on the rims and the “S” handle. The center axle/ spindle, pillars, and all screws are 303S stainless steel, the gear is brass, and the bushing/ bearing is Oil-Lite®. There are a few small internal parts that are non-stainless steel. The rest is aluminum, so unless the reel has been around salt water or was stored wet or never cleaned, corrosion should not be a problem.

The spool is CNC (computer/ numerical control) machined (actually, when I made the reels, virtually all parts were made on CNC lathes and machining centers). Bill always hand finished the spools to remove the machine marks before anodizing. (This is death for anyone trying to sell these at a profit – the hand finishing takes too much time and is a real pain.) My shop and I figured out how to use tool selection, ultra-high tool speeds, and unique automated polishing techniques to get the finish we needed without the hand work. Make sure the reel you’re looking at is nicely finished, with no tool marks under the anodizing. Once anodized, there’s no going back.

Bill hand fit all the parts when he was making them. He made all parts on a small mill and two small lathes in his bedroom-sized shop, which was attached to the back of his house. Such parts need hand fitting during assembly. This is important to note should the reel ever need service or if you purchase a spare spool later on. If you ever do that, be aware that the new spool may need to be worked on in order to fit the reel, if the reel is of Bill Adams vintage (roughly pre-2002). CNC techniques standardize parts and reduce/ eliminate the need for hand fitting.

The reels were always a little wide for my taste and I believe Mr. Lacey, who currently makes the reels to Bill’s specifications (see below), is now offering a ¾” wide reel, at least in the 2-¾” size. I think that’s a great idea, and had plans to do that myself when I owned the company. I also had plans to use the wider frames for a large arbor version, and I think Mr. Lacey is also offering something like that. I think they now get $465 for a reel and $200 or more for a spool, so the price you’re being quoted isn’t bad, assuming the reel is in good shape.

They’re a delightful little reel for small to medium fish. They have only a click-pawl drag (and a light one at that). They work fine on smaller streams while chasing fish up to a pound or two. They look great on a cane rod and have some modern features (a palming rim and the ability to quickly change to a spare spool) that make them easier to use. I know people who’ve caught bigger fish – up to five pounds or more, but it’s a challenge to land such a fish. The reel does have a palming rim, so a fisherman who has good technical equipment handling skills can palm the spool to augment the drag and stop bigger fish.

The bottom line is you’re not going to break one of these reels unless you run over it with your car. They are held together with screws however, so they can theoretically work loose from time to time (I’ve never experienced this with mine, and I’ve fished them since 2002). If you chase bigger fish, or fish salt water at all, I would not recommend the Adams, but if you fish smaller streams chasing fish up to 15” – 20” and like traditional tackle with some modern design features, this is a great little reel. I wish I’d been a better business man in those days. I’d love to still be making them.

Now the history:

I'll try to remember as much of Bill’s story and the story of Adams Reels as I can without digging deep for my notes (which are God knows where). So, caveat emptor on some of the details.

Bill Adams was trained as a tool & die maker and was in the Navy on, I believe, a light cruiser during WWII. When the war ended he went home and eventually went to work for AMF, servicing bowling alleys. He was a fisherman and tinkered with reels in his spare time. He generated several designs and prototypes before coming up with the present design. He knows/ knew most of the reel makers around New England - you may know he lives northeast of Albany, NY, near the little town of Cambridge - and they all talk, or did in those days.

Bill really liked the classic look of the 'S' handle, but liked the newer development of a quick release spool. Upon the encouragement of friends in the business, he developed and standardized the current design sometime in the early '90's, I believe. The design is patented, but (I think) the patent is weak and there are some irregularities with it.

Bill made the reels himself in a small shop off the back of his house near Cambridge. He made most parts by hand or typical machining methods (lathe & mill), but had the spools CNC machined at a local job-shop. As he got older he was looking to sell the company. I live in Minnesota and learned about him from a local fly shop owner who’d tried to purchase a couple of reels from him and had heard the company was for sale.

I got ahold of Bill to discuss a possible purchase of Adams Reels. Bill was indeed interested in selling, so I bought a sample reel to inspect and test-fish. I was quite pleased and impressed with the reel and subsequently made a couple of trips to see Bill, the first in late summer of 2002 to see his operation, and again in January of 2003 to consummate the sale, pick up the assets of the company - existing parts, tooling, plans & documentation, the above-mentioned patent, etc. - and to document his manufacturing process as best I could. When I took over manufacture, I redesigned a few parts and had all parts CNC machined, and that eliminated the hand fitting.

Unfortunately, I misjudged how to market the reels - misjudged the market altogether for that matter, and spent waaaay too much on big-time magazine advertising with no increase in sales over the numbers Bill had seen. Thus, I could only keep the business going for about a year. Through the purchase agreement I had with Bill, if the business failed, the assets that I took posession of reverted to him. That indeed happened, at the end of 2003. I spent the week between Christmas and New Years packing up boxes and shipping stuff back to him.

(A little aside here, these things are incredibly expensive to make in small quantities, paying modern US shop rates. That's why you see so much going overseas, to China and elsewhere. And that in turn is why you can now find a very good machined reel still in the $100 range - foreign manufacture. And it's also the biggest reason why you don't find a lot of these reels around anymore. I think if someone was a hobby machinist and didn't need to turn a profit, they could make a nice side hobby business out of reels - these or any other. And of course, that's what is happening with all these modern classic reels. They’re all boutique reels, made in small numbers by machinists, and appealing mostly to connoisseurs.)

I believe Bill made reels for another year or two. I'm not sure though, as I lost touch with him (I frankly was pretty embarrassed about my lack of business performance). I didn't know what became of him or the reels until they showed up in LL Bean's fly fishing catalog a couple of years ago. I know he'd also previously approached Orvis about the reels (Cambridge is near Manchester, VT). I mean no disrespect but I have to say the reel in the photo in Beans' catalog, and also on their catalog website, was of inferior finish. You could see machine marks all over it. I was surprised LL Bean would use such a photo. As I said above, make sure the finish on the reel you’re considering is good.

As alluded to above, a cane rod maker in Georgia by the name of Gary Lacey is apparently making the reels now. I believe he's the same one who made (makes?) them for LL Bean. The gentleman at Just Reels (I can't remember his name - Jim Williams, I think) notes that he hasn't gotten any reels from Mr. Lacey in quite some time, so I don't know the situation there.

That’s an overview of what I can remember about the history of Bill Adams and Adams Reels. There are obvious holes in this history, and some of the facts may be a bit vague, but it’s the overall story. I have to say, I’ve found this exercise inspiring! It’d be fun to pull together a real history of Bill Adams, his reels, and his company.


1 comment:

Dagoberto Arias said...

Maybe you cant believe, but this year (2012)in a little fishing store in Punta Arenas, Chile (Patagonia), I found Adams reels newbrand for sale.

It has a disc brake and looks beautiful.

The prize... so cheap, more than a Redington Pursuit

Good history.

Best regards