Making It Reel

We build the gold standard in offshore tackle.

June 1, 2003

First there’s that slow, hard click. You take a breath, then another…click. You can hear the finely machined teeth on the gear make contact…click. It’s the sound of anticipation, of impending battle. Two more clicks. Then a screaming zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz as all hell breaks loose and the drag on a Penn 50TW International big-game reel goes off, triggering a blast of adrenaline. I instinctively jump for the rod, then stop myself. I’m in downtown Philadelphia.

Like a hound in Pavlov’s lab, these sounds trigger an immediate response-one that’s completely out of place in the here and now, and which startles the guy sitting next to me at Penn Fishing Tackle Manufacturing. It’s not a fish spinning that reel, it’s the “finisher” sitting at Station #8 on the assembly line, checking to make sure the drag and clicker are functioning flawlessly. Which they are. Only a big Penn can sing like that, and this one is in perfect pitch.

I ease back into my seat at Station #1, next to Ralph, who eyes me warily. My little flashback has slowed down the line, and these guys want to put together 200 reels today. I screw up almost immediately. I put the lever knob cover on but forget to insert a shim first. Ed Stocklin, Penn’s assembly department supervisor for 43 years, catches the mistake before I send a botched part down the line. Neither he nor Ralph look happy about baby-sitting me through this. The folks here-some of whom have been on the job for decades-take their work very seriously. I feel bad, but it’s the only way to find out what goes on inside the baddest, sexiest reel on the ocean. That is, if they don’t fire me first.


Not-so-Heavy Metal

You might be a Penn guy, or you might prefer Shimanos, Fin-Nors, or Okumas. Whatever your favorite big-game reel is, you must agree on one thing: Penn makes the gold standard. Internationals have cranked up more marlin, tuna, and wahoo than almost all the other reels combined. More than 1,000 IGFA world records have been set on Penn reels. In the coming year, Penn’s 500 employees will build about 100,000 Internationals and 400,000 other models.

Since 1932, Penn has been manufacturing reels in Philadelphia. Founded by Otto Henze and named after that state’s founder, William Penn, the company’s three plants cover a combined 250,000 square feet. Big? In the world of fishing tackle, it’s mammoth. Which is why, when we decided to explore the inner workings of a big-game reel, we came here.


The birth of any Penn reel begins in the design room, where computerized and paper designs are created. From there, the idea travels to the tool room, where handmade prototypes are crafted. When a design is ready to go into production, Penn starts from scratch-from sheets and slabs of metal.

To see the first phase of putting together a 50TW Inter-national, I went to the Kulpsville facility, about 30 miles north of Philly, where reels begin as massive stacks of forged aluminum. Some get stamped into handle blanks by a 150-ton punch press. Some go to the machining cells, where CNC lathes turn them into side plates or frames. A quick look around the manufacturing floor is mind-boggling. I count the number of 3,000-pound drill presses and 8,000-pound lathes that can machine parts to .0001″ tolerances-71. A baker’s dozen of injection molds for making handle knobs sit in an area the size of my house. Sonic welders, oil baths, and engraving machines line the walls. At the end of the day, tractor-trailer loads of newly made reel parts will be ready to be shipped to the assembly plant in Philly, where I’ll sit on the line.

Many of the parts must be anodized first. At the Philadel-phia facility, they show me the “bath,” a solution of sulfuric acid and water that opens the aluminum molecules, allowing them to accept the gold dye, and then seals them to protect against corrosion. From the bath, these parts go through a vibrating “tumbler” filled with steel pellets, which take off any rough edges. A polisher then hand-finishes each piece. All of these processes have taken their toll on the metal. The 50TW I will build weighs 67.5 ounces, yet the process started with almost double that weight in raw materials. Penn is proud of its environmental consciousness and finds ways to reuse much of that material. Dumpsters filled with aluminum and steel shavings are sent off to recycling plants every week, and on every floor of the Philly plant there are clearly marked recycling bins.


Life on the Line

I wheel a rack of anodized parts up to assembly and pass room after room of heavy machinery. Some are creating sprockets for spinning reels; some are winding stainless-steel springs; and some are drilling screw holes in fabricated parts. Then, as I pass through a room holding several million dollars’ worth of gear-carving, tungsten-carbide-tipped, oil-bathing automatons, I see a bright white box stretching from floor to ceiling. There’s a window, and I can’t resist a peek. Here I learn that building a reel is high-tech-beyond CNC manufacturing and CAD-CAM designing. Inside the box is a computer-controlled electric discharge machine (EDM) cutting metal with electricity, creating parts with tolerances so tight I can’t fit enough zeros across this page to express them.

After watching the EDM in action and getting a hands-on lesson in how to chop stainless steel with pure energy, it’s time to get back up to assembly. They’re probably tapping their feet and glancing at their watches, waiting for me and my cart of parts. But I make another stop as I pass the employee time clock and a huge bulletin board with dozens of thank-you letters from customers and a few copies of magazine reviews-including two of mine. Cool. I’m a star.


But that doesn’t mean squat to Ed-he needs reels built. When I return with my parts in tow, he leads me to Station #2. Evidently, I was too slow at Station #1. Rather than do piece work, he suggests that I build and follow a single reel down the line. First I assemble the spool bearings, four clutch springs, and the pinion. Each hole gets a drop of grease before I attach the ratchet plate. Now I know what makes the clicking sound that gets my adrenaline pumping. At Station #3, I give the frame a left-side plate, two dog springs, and screws, which completes the anti-reverse system. Each hole must be gooped with grease, and before screws are inserted, each hole gets a coat of anti-seize.

I secure the screws by reaching overhead and pulling down an air-powered screw gun. There are 19 of these guns on this line, each set for the torque and speed appropriate for the task at that specific station. When I add up the number visible on all four assembly lines, I reach 90, give or take a couple. They’re building GTIs one line over, but the other two lines are quiet at the moment. Still, with 40 or so of these screw guns buzzing around me, I keep having nightmarish visions of a dentist’s office. Meanwhile, a pile of partially assembled reels on the conveyer belt keeps getting pushed back by Ed as they almost pass my station without getting dog springs and screws (with my butt parked at this station, no one else can get a job done). I sneak a look back at Ralph, who is chugging right along, adding to the pile. The kind folks at Stations #4 through #8 are all glaring at me, hands sitting idle.

It takes me four minutes to do my little job. At most of the stations, it takes a Penn employee two to three minutes. I move to Station #4 and start putting in freespool and strike buttons, clips for each, a housing with two screws, a clicker, and press in a bushing. At Station #5, I put together the cam mechanism, insert it in the housing, assemble the handle, and line up the gear stud. At Station #6, I assemble the drag system, drop in the spool, insert ratchet and clicker buttons, and screw on the right-side plate. It’s starting to look less like a jumble of clock parts.

At station #7, i insert the lever drag handle, the preset knob, two bushings, and a quadrant, though this part’s function still escapes me. The reel looks complete, so it’s on to situation #8, where I polish it, spin the spool to check for smoothness, and check the clicker. Next I hook it up to a digital scale, set the lever on “strike,” and preset it to 21 pounds of tension. Finally, it’s time : I shift the reel into freespool, put on the clicker, and turn it slowly. Click…click…click… Then a rousing spin for the cescendo…zzzzzzzzz. Ahhh, i love that sound. I record the serial number and send it down to the packer, who drops it into a box with a manual and parts list.

I look up at Ed. He’s been smiling all along, but this time it looks genuine. I know why, too. Finally, he can this monlkey wrench out of his machinery. As he shakes my hand and congratulates me on completing my first International, I notice that Ralph is making his way over to the packer and nonchalantly pulling a box out of the pile. He looks up and we make eye contact. A streak of guilt appears on his face. “It’s not that we don’t trust you,” he says. “But if a thousand-pound marlin was on the end of your line, you’s want the reel to be perfect, right?” Damn straight, Ralph. And the next time I’m using one of these four-pound tools to crank on a fish the size of a Volvo, I’ll be thinking of you.

Got My Reel?

Actually, it’s my and Ralph’s reel. But I’m still proud of it. So much so that if you bought Penn International 50TW serial number G020273, I’ve got a present to help you get the most out of that gold beauty. Send proof that it’s yours and you’ll get:

• Offshore trolling lures by C & H Lures and MP Lures • Spoons by Braid Tackle, Acme Tackle, and Tony Acetta • Plugs by Mann and Storm Lures • Saltwater circle hooks by Mustad • Fly-holder box by Form Plus Industries • Nauti-Benders Boater’s Computer Calendar

Contact us at: Rudow’s Reel, c/o Boating Magazine, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY 10019, 212/767-4818.


More Gear