Tuesday, December 9, 2008

An Interview with Jack Charlton

By Jim Brown

Jon Cave, Trey Combs, Steve Probasco, and Jim Vincent have one thing in common: they all fish with Charlton Signature fly reels. So did Jack Samson (1922-2007) long-time editor at Field & Stream, author, and saltwater fly-fishing specialist. The attraction of Charlton fly reels is simple enough to explain. It is quite possibly the best saltwater fly reel ever made!
Charlton Signature fly reels were produced in the ten year period of 1994 to 2003. Estimates vary but it is believed that no more than 6000 reels were made during this time. The Signature Series were mostly produced in six models, from trout to bluewater. These were respectively: 8350C, 8450C, 8500SS .8, 8500SS 1.2, 8550C, and 8600B. (8400SS .8, 8400SS 1.2, 8400 1.6 and 8500SS 1.6 were produced in smaller numbers.) The breakthrough technology, functionality, and beauty of these reels won instant converts. Supply never met demand for this product. For this reason, many were surprised in 2003 when 3M/Scientific Anglers (they had acquired rights in 2000) abruptly halted production of Charlton reels. The official explanation was that this division was not profitable enough and that the price of the reels would have to be raised to an unacceptable level to make it so. Five years latter, the price of Charlton Signature fly reels on the aftermarket has risen more than 200%. Oops! This extraordinary rise in a crowded marketplace and against a tide of a global recession is certainly a vindication …if one was needed. I wanted to speak with the man who gave his name to these reels and who spent ten years of his life designing and manufacturing them.

Jack Charlton is not an easy man to interview. Don’t get me wrong, he is a gentleman and a charming guy, but between his eighty hour work weeks and his prolonged off-the-grid trips on his fifty foot diesel cruiser, he can be a hard man to track down. It was my good fortune to catch him recently during a rare quiet moment at his home in Washington State. Here is the result:

Q: Jack, tell me a little bit about your early years.

Charlton: I was born in the 1940s in Montebello, California but shortly thereafter my family moved to Tucson, Arizona where I was raised. I am a product of its fine educational system. It seems that throughout my years of growing up I was always building something. I have always been insatiably curious as to the function of things, particularly mechanical items. As Tucson is where the Air Force mothballs all the nations’ military aircraft, I developed an interest in aviation. This interest ultimately led to both Judy [wife] and I becoming private pilots. And like any young man I had an interest in things motorized which led to my building from scratch a 1925 model “T” Ford at the age of 16. Other interests were music and art, but in the end I really wanted to become an architect. It is funny how things work out. I suppose the biggest influence in life was my attraction to water. Maybe being raised in the desert had something to do with that. Sure there were lakes where we could boat and fish but it was the ocean I wanted to experience. And experience it I did. Judy and I have been boaters for 35 years now. First starting with a 24’ sailboat in Ventura County, California and progressing to our current 50’ diesel cruiser we keep in Friday Harbor, Washington. Much of our time is spent cruising the waters of Washington State but even more time is spent exploring the endless waters of British Columbia.

Q: When you set out to design and manufacture a new fishing reel were there other makers that you studied?

Charlton: I have appreciated the work of several reel makers over the years. But because I wanted to create a reel of unique design, there were few guidelines provided from previous reel incarnations. I suppose the only thing I took from existing reels was the open frame instead of a caged design. I started the design process with a list of criteria that would make the reel different from those before it. The requirements were as follows. A huge drag knob that was easy to manipulate in the heat of battle against large species. It should turn only once to provide the entire range of drag. The drag mechanism should repeat precisely when returned to the same angular position regardless of temperature, submersion or any other physical influence. The spool needed to act independently of the drag mechanism making its job that of handling line only. The bearings for the spool had to be oversized 7/8” bearings mounted on the frame rather than a long flexible shaft pushed through small bearings in the spool. The mechanism had to be totally hydraulically sealed against water, atmospheric pressure, sand, coral, marl, etc. Spare spools needed to be changed in less than 5 seconds even on the largest bluewater models. The reel needed a finish that was so bullet hard and thick as to eliminate any signs of wear for decades. And the overall design should be that the reel did not entrap saltwater or contaminates and use no external fasteners. A drag material had to resist wear for many years regardless of prolonged use and the drag mechanism should automatically readjust to factory specifications should any wear occur. I needed a design that could accommodate multiple clutch plates to produce the drag necessary for the largest species yet be light enough to allow balancing a rod when mounting spools for smaller line sizes (configurability). To my knowledge these features didn’t exist on previous reels. During the course of designing the first Charlton reel I quickly realized why I had never seen these features on other reels. The design task was daunting to say the least!

Q: Can you describe the major advantages of the Charlton Signature fly reel?

Charlton: Anodizing. The finish on Charlton reels is Type III anodizing. Charlton is one of only a few to use it. Type III is the ultimate coating for an outdoor product but is very difficult and expensive to use. It is the only process that not only builds up on the surface of the base material but also penetrates equally as deep. Unlike the Type II anodizing used by 99% of reel makers, Type III can be applied to an extreme thickness and is bullet hard at 68+ Rc hardness. One can take a key from their pocket and attempt to scratch a Type III surface and the mark they see will be the material from the key, not a scratch in the anodize. Try that on other reels. The downside of using Type III is that it is an expensive process, it has a much higher attrition rate, and it alters the surface of the reel due to the penetration. This results in a much higher cost for the end product. There are several reasons. Parts that are improperly anodized (uneven color, poor thickness control or electrode burns) have to be discarded since Type III cannot be stripped off and re-anodized. To offer a highly polished finish on the reel, extensive labor is required to re-polish reel components after anodizing. Why bother? Well, as any Charlton owner knows, the appearance of the reel is almost as new after many years of hard service.

Drag disks (clutch plates). As a key component of the original design, the drag system of a Charlton reel received probably more attention than any other feature. Not only the choice of material but the mechanism required to consistently deliver calibrated drag tension over a very wide range of settings. As you know the choice of material was made after testing 32 different materials in the field. The “field” meaning a Trey Combs 10 day 1000 mile bluewater fly fishing trip in 1994. The results of those tests narrowed our search to a single material that subsequently underwent additional in-house testing. That material was a carbon fiber product made to our specification. Just a few of the tremendous characteristics of carbon are: near zero thermal expansion, withstands a high PSI loading, incredible wear characteristics, very bondable to machined components, and it produces les than 1% breakaway friction (many use the misnomer, startup inertia). Carbon for all intent and purposes is unaffected by heat as it does not even begin to change characteristics until 1800 degrees F. The carbon disks are bonded to the clutch plates with a special ceramic adhesive rated at 3000 degrees F. that will not expand as temperature increases. This is important because drag would increase during a long run if the drag assembly became thicker due to thermal expansion. After bonding the disks are lapped to a flatness of one thousandths of an inch to insure total smoothness during operation.

Cork vs. Carbon. I preface my comments to say that although we changed to carbon, I believe the Charlton cork reels [circa 1994 and 1995] are the finest cork reels ever made. The reason is simple. Since the Charlton reel is hermetically sealed, most of the negative features of cork are eliminated. Cork is hydroscopic and tends to swell when exposed to water. It also tends to hydroplane and loose all drag when soaked. Cork does not operate long without lubrication. In an exposed drag this means regular maintenance, Cork is also porous and can entrap contaminants which can ruin the surfaces with which it contacts. But cork exhibits good performance if these drawbacks are mitigated. The enclosed Charlton reels did just that. But when we wanted to produce reels for larger line sizes and increased drag requirements, cork simply wouldn’t do. It has a poor thermal threshold and a precise mechanism cannot tolerate its compressibility. By adding pressure to increase drag, cork yields to pressure and its thickness becomes unpredictable making it impossible to maintain repeatability and calibration. This is why the makers of open-faced cork drag reels have designed drag knobs that require several turns to achieve a maximum drag setting. The maker just never knows how thick the cork will be. It also explains why there were never any cork automobile brake systems. Conversely, carbon will withstand tremendous PSI without the slightest sign of compression and heat is not a factor.

Q: Can you explain the idea of configurable spools?

Charlton: Charlton invented the concept of multiple spool sizes for a single reel frame. The first configurable reel debuted at the International Fly Tackle Show at Denver in 1996. The concept of multiple spools and other innovative features of the 8550C were so embraced that we were awarded the “Best in Show” award. We were pleased to receive this honor after only 36 months in business particularly since most major reel manufacturers have never received it. The design advantages for a configurable reel are many. First, the ability to mount a spool designed for a specific line weight eliminates carrying an inordinate amount of backing for smaller line sizes that reduces the operating weight. Wet backing is heavy (reel manufacturers always list dry weights but it’s the weight when loaded that counts). In doing so the reel functions as an even larger arbor diameter reel as line sizes become smaller. The advantage is that one reel can cover more applications which reduces the need to pack as much gear. Another plus is that people that could not formerly afford to purchase a reel of the cost and quality of Charlton could do so now. One could purchase a Charlton reel with multiple spools for the same price as the several lesser reels it would take to fish as many line weights. The large challenge was to design a large diameter reel with the structural integrity required for large species while being light enough to balance on lighter weight rods. The large diameter of the 8550C allowed us to produce (at the suggestion of Jim Vincent owner of Rio Lines) an outstanding reel for spey fishing. We designed a spool that could accommodate the long thick spey lines while maintaining plenty of backing and quick retrieve. Charlton was probably one of the first “Spey” reel makers of the new generation. By the way, Jim probably owns four 8550C reels and they are used prominently in his spey fishing videos with Simon Gawesworth.

8550C Offshore Spool. There is not a spool like the 8550C Offshore on any reel, let alone a fly-fishing reel. Most will never need the cooling effect of the OSS. But as a designer I must be true in what I offer. The 8550C was designed to be used for any type of fishing and any line rating or tippet strength. Its multiple disk drag system is calibrated to produce 15 pounds of dynamic drag continuously at 4000 RPM without fade, skip or reduction in line tension. Do fly fishers other than the likes of Trey Combs or a few others really need such performance? No. But this was the design criteria for the 8550C. If one were to use this reel to its full capability, there becomes an issue of heat. Not because the reel would fail. During in-house testing Charlton reels have run at 400 degrees under a full load for up to 14 hours without skipping a beat. The heat problem I cite falls into the category of user friendliness. Because of the light weight of a fly reel (no mass) such heavy use would raise the reel temperature such that the user could not touch the drag knob. I always jokingly said that without the cooling effect of the Offshore spool; it would brand the Charlton logo from the drag knob onto the users palm … great advertising but poor public relations! The cooling effect can be calculated by using a complex formula that takes into account the drag setting, RPM, length of run, etc. But suffice to say that at maximum RPM, the ducted ported fan design of the OSS can move over 100 cubic feet of air per minute. More than one customer has called me upon his return from a bluewater trip to inform me that at the time he didn’t realize he had purchased a $1400 blow dryer that catches fish.

Q: Do you have a favorite model?

Charlton: A very hard question as you might imagine. I would say that since it was our first reel, the 8500SS .8 is at the top of my list. It does so many jobs well. It has more than enough drag and with today’s UHMW backing; folks have caught some amazing fish on it. Trey Combs did an ESPN filming where 20 minutes of the hour long show was devoted to landing a 70 pound Yellowfin on an 8500SS .8. It was one of our original cork drag reels made during our first year of business. Needless to say I use all the models that we manufactured but primarily the larger reels since saltwater is where I spend most of my time. I use the 8500SS .8 and 8550C most. I don’t get much opportunity to bluewater fish but because our boat is a “non stop to Alaska” kind of boat, I find myself fishing places where no fly fisher has been due to inaccessibility. Many long fiords in B.C. lead to great rivers at their head and then to (if you are up to it) incredible mountain lakes and streams.

Subsequent to the actual interview, Jack Charlton has designed and released an entirely new line of reels--Mako by Jack Charlton

About the author:
Jim Brown was born in Burlington, Vermont, holds a masters degree from Columbia University, New York and has worked as a librarian for the past 35 years in Fairfield County, Connecticut. During this time he has fly fished on 6 continents and has built one of the premier collections of antique American fly reels. Jim has written dozens of articles and two books on reel collecting. He is an honorary lifetime member of Old Reel Collectors Association (ORCA) and regularly serves as a consultant for the American Museum of Fly Fishing and the Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum.

© 2008 Jim Brown and Fly Reels R Us

Charlton Tribute Pin

These vividly detailed lapel pins (1.25" diameter) are a minted tribute to the legendary Charlton Signature Series fly reels. Each pin is die-struck and precision-etched across a slightly convex black nickel field, then sequentially numbered 1-100 on the reverse. A safety pin-style attachment secures them to canvas jackets, felt fedoras or simply keeps them at-the-ready in a library display case.

Packed in plush, black velvet presentation box.


Number 11-99/100: $90 each.
Number 2-10/100: $150 each.

Pins assigned in ascending order.

Pin 1/100 and 100/100 will be offered for sale after all other pins in the edition are sold.

10% dedicated to The Marine Fish Conservation Network when this 100-pin offering is closed.