The Anodization Process and Why We Do It For Fly Fishing Reels | Fly Fishing Insider Podcast

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For years I worked as the Director of Dealer Sales and Service for Black Diamond Equipment one of the most trusted brands for climbing and ski manufacturing.  During my tenure, I was fortunate to be privy to tons of manufacturing. In fact, the majority of manufacturing was done in Salt Lake City, Utah under the same roof as sales, marketing, design, and everything else. Because I had daily access to manufacturing and often spent time on the other end of a rope or in the backcountry skiing with manufacturers, designers, and quality assurance specialists, I picked up a few things along the way.  One was the actual importance of Anodization beyond aesthetics.  Learning why, of course, sent me down the road of how and how to do it well. 

Fly fishing, a sport rich in tradition and precision, demands skill but also the highest quality equipment. At the heart of this equipment lies the fly fishing reel, a component that has benefited significantly from the process of anodization. I’m going to share as much as I can about the meticulous process of anodizing fly fishing reels and explore why it is a vital element in their manufacturing.

Peux Fly Fishing Reel Anodized

What is Anodization?

Anodization is an electrochemical process that converts the metal surface of an object into a durable, corrosion-resistant, anodic oxide finish. Aluminum is the most commonly anodized material, especially in the manufacturing of fly fishing reels.

The Process

  1. Cleaning: First the aluminum reels are thoroughly cleaned to remove any impurities or residues. This step involves removing all contaminants that could interfere with the anodization process. Typically, the reels are degreased in an alkaline solution and then rinsed in deionized water to eliminate any traces of dirt, oil, or other residues. This meticulous cleaning ensures that the anodic coating will be uniform and free of defects. 
  1. Pre-Treatment: The reels undergo a pre-treatment process to prepare the surface. The pre-treatment stage is about preparing the aluminum surface for the actual anodization. This stage may involve etching, which uses an acidic solution to slightly roughen the surface, enhancing the adhesion of the anodic layer. Alternatively, some manufacturers opt for a brightening process, which smoothens the surface, giving the final product a glossy appearance. The choice between etching and brightening depends on the desired aesthetic of the finished reel.
  1. Anodizing: Anodizing is the core of the process. In this step, the cleaned and pre-treated reels are immersed in an electrolytic solution, commonly sulfuric acid. When an electric current is applied, the aluminum reacts with the oxygen in the solution, forming a layer of aluminum oxide. This layer grows both on the surface and into the metal, making it integral to the reel. The thickness of the oxide layer, which can be controlled by adjusting the time and voltage, directly influences the durability and color receptiveness of the reel.
  1. Coloring: Many fly fishing reels are colored for aesthetic purposes. This is achieved by immersing the anodized reels in a colored dye solution. The porous nature of the anodized layer absorbs the dye, allowing for a range of vibrant, long-lasting colors. Some manufacturers also use electrolytic coloring, which involves depositing metallic salts into the anodic layer, creating a more subdued, metallic finish.
  1. Sealing: The final step is sealing, which is crucial for maximizing the anodized layer's corrosion resistance and color stability. The pores of the anodized layer are sealed by hydrating the aluminum oxide, which swells and closes the pores. Sealing can be done through various methods, including hot water sealing, steam sealing, or with sealants. This step ensures that the anodic layer is locked in, protecting the reel from environmental elements and wear.
Cheeky Fly Fishing Reel Anodized

Types of Anodization

Now there are different Types and or qualities of anodization. Figuratively, anodization is a widely used process to increase the thickness of the natural oxide layer on the surface of metal parts, particularly aluminum. It enhances the metal's durability, corrosion resistance, and aesthetic appeal. Here, I want to discuss the primary types of anodization, each serving distinct purposes and offering unique advantages.

Type I: Chromic Acid Anodization

Type I anodization, also known as chromic acid anodization, uses chromic acid to create a thin oxide layer. This type is less common due to environmental concerns associated with chromic acid. However, it's particularly useful for applications requiring a thinner anodic coating that doesn't compromise the fatigue strength of the aluminum. This makes it ideal for aerospace applications where precise tolerances and fatigue resistance are critical.

Type II: Sulfuric Acid Anodization

Type II, or sulfuric acid anodization, is the most common form. It involves immersing the aluminum part in a sulfuric acid bath and passing an electric current through it. This process creates a thicker oxide layer than Type I, offering enhanced protection and durability. Type II anodization is highly versatile, suitable for a wide range of applications, from architectural components to consumer goods. It also allows for color dyeing, making it popular for decorative purposes.

Type III: Hard Anodization

Type III, known as hard anodization or hardcoat, is similar to Type II but produces a much thicker and harder oxide layer. This process involves a colder sulfuric acid bath and a higher voltage electrical current. The resulting anodic coating is significantly more durable and resistant to wear and corrosion. Type III anodization is ideal for heavy-duty applications, such as military and industrial equipment, where extreme durability is a necessity.

Other Variants

Beyond these primary types, there are specialized variants of anodization, each tailored for specific requirements. These include:

- Boric-Sulfuric Acid Anodization (BSAA): Developed as an environmentally friendlier alternative to chromic acid anodization.
- Titanium Anodization: Used specifically for titanium parts, often in medical devices, to improve biocompatibility and wear resistance.
- Plasma Electrolytic Oxidation (PEO): A process for aluminum, magnesium, and titanium that creates a ceramic-like oxide layer, offering excellent wear and heat resistance.

Anodization is a vital process in modern manufacturing, enhancing the properties of metal parts for various applications. From the commonly used Type II sulfuric acid anodization to the heavy-duty Type III hardcoat, each type serves distinct industrial needs, balancing factors like durability, aesthetics, and environmental impact. Understanding these types and their applications is crucial for selecting reels with the appropriate anodization process.  Saltwater specifically should have a Type II or III process.  Those that have taken the time to integrate a Type III are typically excellent reels and really understand the difficulties that Saltwater play on a metallic surface.

    Why is Anodization Important in Fly Fishing Reel Manufacturing?

    1. Durability: The anodized layer formed during the anodization process is incredibly hard. This is because the process converts the outer layer of aluminum into aluminum oxide, which is significantly harder than the base metal. This increased hardness means that anodized fly fishing reels are far less prone to scratches, dents, and wear from regular use. This durability is especially crucial in fly fishing, where the equipment frequently faces rough handling and exposure to abrasive elements like sand, gravel, and micro minerals of salt.
    1. Corrosion Resistance: One of the primary benefits of anodization is its ability to make aluminum reels highly resistant to corrosion. The anodic layer acts as a barrier, preventing oxidation of the underlying metal when exposed to water, including saltwater, and other corrosive elements. This is particularly important in fly fishing, as reels are often used in diverse aquatic environments. The corrosion resistance ensures that the reels maintain their functionality and appearance over time, even in harsh conditions. A deadly area to prevent corrosion is often in the arbor.  What happens is anglers take a reel to the salt one time every year or every so many years and they don’t rinse the gel-spun spectra deep enough into the reel.  They give it a quick rinse which allows the spectra to sit with salt in it on the arbor and slowly corrode until it comes out of the closet again a year or two later. 
    1. Aesthetics: Anodization not only improves the functionality of fly fishing reels but also enhances their appearance. The process allows for a variety of colors and finishes, providing a wide range of aesthetic options. This customization is achieved through dyeing the porous anodic layer or through electrolytic coloring, which offers metallic hues. The result is a vibrant, appealing finish that is also highly durable, ensuring that the reels look good for years, despite frequent use and exposure to the elements.
    1. Non-Toxicity: Anodization is an environmentally friendly process as it doesn’t involve heavy metals or toxic solvents. The anodized layer is chemically stable, does not decompose, and is non-toxic. This aspect aligns with the eco-conscious practices prevalent among anglers and ensures that the manufacturing process of fly fishing reels does not negatively impact the aquatic environments where the sport is practiced.
    1. Maintenance: Anodized aluminum surfaces are much easier to clean and maintain than uncoated or traditionally painted surfaces. The smooth, hard finish of anodized reels doesn’t allow dirt and debris to adhere easily, making them simple to clean with soap and water. Moreover, the durability and corrosion resistance means that anodized reels require less frequent repairs or replacements of parts, saving time and money for anglers in the long run. 

    I prefer two methods. The first method is water only. Hot water is preferred but not always readily available. The most common is on saltwater trips. I make a point to get off the water and immediately rinse my rod and reel with the hose.  Then I put it into the sun away from the beach to dry.  I also do this every once in a while with my freshwater rod and reels in the driveway. I’ve found that the key to washing after saltwater is to do it when I get home and away from the salty air.  I rinse them again thoroughly and let them dry. This gets off as much as I can from the fishing and residue from the salty air and humidity.  Next, I move on to my second method. The second method is using a mild soap. I’ve used varying soaps over the years but the most recent I’ve used is Simple Green.  Simple Green is both extremely effective and environmentally friendly.  My priority with Simple Green is to get it on and off as quickly as possible and to rinse it several times. I don’t want residual soap on my lines, cork, sealed bearings, etc.  

    Anodization is a critical component in the creation of high-quality fly fishing reels that have an element of longevity. It contributes immensely to the durability, functionality, and aesthetic appeal of these essential pieces of equipment as well. As fly fishing continues to evolve, the role of anodization in reel manufacturing remains a cornerstone, ensuring that anglers like us have reliable, beautiful, and long-lasting gear for our adventures.

    Want to learn a ton about fly fishing reels?  Here is an overall guide that then breaks down into 7 detailed articles for you. 

    Christian Bacasa, Host of the Fly Fishing Insider Podcast

    By Christian Bacasa
    Host of the Fly Fishing Insider Podcast

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