Design Philosophy

Design Ethos

An inventor, a designer or a design team, a company, or an agency or a group very often will declare they have a philosophy. Good for them; we don’t want one. Philosophy is too abstract.

What we have are guiding principles: Strive for simplicity. Let style emanate from function, things like that. But the current running under and through those guidelines and the work we do is the knowledge that equipment is an interface. There is a fish and a man. Between those two there is a hook, a line, a rod and a reel. Excellent.

The Divergent Gene

Waterworks Lamson has focused on a simple machine, the fly reel. Fly fishing is by nature a minimalist activity, defiantly uncluttered. Multiplying fly reels? Good luck. The automatic reels of the 60’s? Long gone. Fly fishing is about being fully engaged, exposed, challenged, involved and immersed in the moment and the water and the life around you; it’s not about being distracted by gear.

For the last 20 years we’ve focused on perfecting that simple machine. We’ve tried to make them defy gravity, do their jobs superbly well without fuss, and in those moments when you do notice our thoughtfully designed and carefully engineered reels, remarkable to look at.

“Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

When you’re Wright, you’re right. But attaining this spiritual union can be elusive. In fact, sometimes to “save the union” you have to go to war with the status quo, take a radical side-step in the design process. Our conical drag system was such a step. Early on in our re-think of the fly reel we knew what it needed to look like to be efficient, light, solve line coiling issues and pick up line quickly.  For us, the ULA (ultra large arbor) format was a starting point, not an end result. Our first reel, the Purist, performed those objectives very well. Our next reel, however, would need a drag. And not just any drag system.

We set out to engineer the best drag system possible: zero start-up torque, adequate torque range, smooth operation, imperviousness to environmental contamination, maintenance free operation, and high reliability. It would also be compact, light and mechanically simple. Typical drag systems of the day, including those on the highest priced reels, fell far short of meeting these baseline requirements.  What’s more, they were all based on a single concept: Counter rotating discs. We knew it was time for an evolutionary leap.


It occurred to us that the same surface area of discs could be configured in a pair of matched cones. This resulted in a significant reduction in the diameter of the assembly, making it small, light, and easy to seal. We identified proprietary friction materials that produced zero start up torque and could run without any lubrication, thus eliminating maintenance.

In the end we found we needed only 19 components to do the job. Simple, yes, but a Mies van der Rohe aphorism comes to mind: “God is in the details.”  Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy.  Just as when one writes a poem, the fewer words one uses, the more critical each one becomes.  Discs are flat. Flat is simple. Cones, on the other hand . . . cones are nuanced. For the conical drag to perform at its best, the angles machined into the cones are held to within a few seconds of angular precision.  Very simple. Very, very demanding.

The conical drag enabled a “new branch on the evolutionary tree” to emerge.  Think Opposable Thumb. It’s no exaggeration to say that the design freedom offered by our drag system has been the defining feature of every Waterworks and Lamson reel.


In 1995, when we started looking at fly reels, our Bike Industry trained brains were in a useful mindset (see “Origins” for more). The fly reel is, after all, a wheel on a frame. For us, observing conventional fly reels in use at that time was like watching people ride bikes fitted with skateboard wheels. We imagined a simple mechanical solution that probably seems obvious today: storing line on a large circumference spool supported by a lightweight frame. This concept could only be optimized without the limitation of a disc drag system.

The development of our proprietary conical drag allowed us to apply the extreme design ethos exemplified by our earliest Purist reels in creating the first Force reels, reels that have set a bold standard for minimalist fly reel architecture for these past 2 decades.  Everything you need, nothing you don’t. Or as another phrase coined by Mies van der Rohe in the 1940’s proclaimed, “Less is more.” A Force reel can be said to be a lot more of less.

Power Arm

Due to our unique conical drag design, we were able to develop a very distinct and efficient frame. The Power Arm frame design is a way of aligning the structural support for the spool along the primary load path. The primary load path for any fly reel runs from the center of the drag core to the reel foot. It’s logical, therefore, to put most (if not all) of the material along that load path. Any distribution of material other than being aligned with the primary load path will result in a structure that is either more flexible, or heavier than it needs to be. The Power Arm design uses the least amount of material to achieve the maximum stiffness.

In the field there are other considerations besides lightness/stiffness. A reel may need to live in an environment where it’s bashed around in a boat, or it may need to deal with line control issues such as shooting line loops.  In these cases structure needs to provide a solution, and we wrap the spool with a ring of material. Litespeed is probably the best example of a structure that combines the Power Arm distribution of material with a full-wrap frame. They’re never as light as a corresponding Force reel, but they come close.


Another structural theme built into our reels, beginning with the first Purist, is our integrated counterbalance.  Why hang a piece of hardware on a spool if there’s a simpler way? The answer is that again, simpler isn’t always easier, and our earliest spools required a fair amount of trial and error to build the precise bias into the spool to counter the weight of the spin knob. Better CAD software now makes this more efficient, but it’s still easier to hang a lump of metal on a spool. For us, the elegance of eliminating a component and then using the resultant asymmetry as part of the design language is worth the effort. This simple, logical, often difficult feature becomes essential to the personality of the reel.


 In Nature the forces that shape creatures are natural selection and random mutation. In Design, the human mind selects, filters, mutates, amplifies and combines mechanisms and structures to create the entity. When done well, with artistry and vision, individual parts become something more, something coherent, a creation with a voice and a life of its own. We strive to elevate a simple thing like a fishing reel to a level that brings a smile to your face, that may transport you back in time to river days of the past, or better yet, to those imagined and yet to come. When you look at one of our reels we hope you see a complete expression. The reel should communicate more than function, more than form; all elements “. . . joined together in a spiritual union”.


After two decades of work creating new, more specialized models, each designed to fill a niche in the increasingly diverse and evolved nature of our sport, it’s still easy to see the familial traits that first took shape in the Force reels: compact conical drag core, efficient lightweight frame using the Power Arm structure, and integrated counterbalance. True to Darwin’s fitness test, the descendants of Purist and Force have flourished. The innovation and subsequent refinements of these original concepts have proved to be a game-changing mix of superior performance and style.