As a full time tackle store employee for many years, I must have repaired and/or serviced tens of thousands of reels. Some major advances have occurred since then but the steps remain the same. I fish A LOT, and service my reels to withstand many trips and catch fish after fish without letting me down at the worst possible time.
First thing to do is find a place to disassemble the reel that is portable and has edges so parts can’t fall off and disappear. I have the bottom of an old basket, with a microfiber cloth on it.
Make sure to test the reel thoroughly before disassembly. Not only will you know what areas need work, but it helps to be able to see the improvements after the work is completed.
If you are not totally familiar with a particular reel, set the screws and parts out as you take the reel apart in a pattern that makes sense as to where they go back to. This helps avoid an embarrassing trip to your local tackle store with the famous “bag-O-reel”.
Say what you want about WD-40, but it cleans and lubricates just fine for me. I use a small brush and an air compressor to clean and blow out dirt and salt. Best to do this in the garage if you are married.
When reassembling the reel, I put blue trailer wheel bearing grease wherever I can without affecting the performance of the reel. Sounds crazy right? What could protect the inside of your reel better than that stuff? Thin oils wash out easily and the next time you try to take it apart you just might want to re-read this article. I simply avoid bearings, shafts and drag washers with the sticky blue grease.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match parts from other reels. For instance, I love my Daiwa SL’s. The drags are not perfect, so I put Shimano drags in instead. I had to make a punch and alter drags from Shimano TLD Star reels, but now my SL’s are awesome. Bearing upgrades also make a big difference. The manufacturers stock bearings are often less than ideal for anything more than a weekend warrior that only fishes spring/summer. Visit a local bearing shop and ask for top of the line stainless bearings. I use Eureka Bearing And Supply here in HB. From them I get AST brand bearings. In fact, I put AST’s in all my SL’s and can’t remember ever having to change a single bearing.
Drag grease is the number one improvement in reel design in my opinion. Dry drags SUCK! A stock Penn reel with Shimano Drag Grease is ten times the reel it is with stock drags. Forget Super Smoothies, unless you never fish. Shimano Drag Grease works best for me, with Cal Sheets brand a far second. If you are on a yacht, far from home without Shimano Drag Grease, anti seize works in a pinch.
Finally, a drop of quality oil on the bearings and shaft give that ultimate free spool you are looking for. I use X-1R. This is where WD-40 does not cut it.
If you can possible afford it, get yourself a reel line winder. Not only is it great for removing old line and winding new perfectly, but you can fine tune a reel on one as well. Chuck the reel onto the base and line it up with the drive arm. Hold the spool and spin the handle to spread drag grease evenly. Tighten the spool brake and crank the reel handle for few minutes at high speed to break in a bearing. Spend the money, you’ll be glad you did.
If you simply don’t have the mechanical aptitude or time to do reel repair yourself, at least make sure you use a reputable reel service. A big hint here is to use a guy that services his own reels and ACTUALLY catches fish on a regular basis. The kid or old man at the local tackle shop that is full of fish stories but never really puts his own reels through the paces is not the ideal service provider. Also, sending the reel back to the manufacturer removes any aftermarket improvements, as all those guys do is replace so-so parts with more so-so parts. Cal Sheets is a great example of a guy that takes good reels and makes them great.