Van Staal VM275 : The Review

Hello Fishos!

I apologise for the long hiatus since my last review. My work and family spread across three continents and I've been doing a lot of flying around to mind my business, attend weddings and a couple of funerals, and give congratulations to new parents. For some reason my extended family has been reproducing at a scary rate lately and there are now too many smelly little creatures for me to keep track of! Nevertheless I've been doing a considerable amount of field trials and debugging of upcoming products, as well as my usual tests of new reels on the market. Unfortunately though I can only post a handful of full reviews a year, so keep telling me which ones you want and I will go with your requests as usual.

Before I begin, I need to mention that this review is strictly of the VM275 size. The smaller VM150 is significantly different and should be treated as a different reel and not just a smaller version in the series in the usual sense.

Van Staal is well known for their fully sealed surf reels that come in two editions; bail-less and bailed. These surf reels are known for their reliability and ability to function in harsh conditions that few other reels can survive, therefore many of them are used as wading tools by those who keep their reels submersed and wind them underwater. This dependability is largely owed to the simplicity of the design of the original bailless models, and that remained the case when full bails were introduced and a few tweaks were made for the creation of the VSB bailed version which I reviewed in the past. With the booming popularity of heavy duty spinning gear thanks to demand by the popping and jigging crowd, it was only normal for the company to want a piece of that lucrative market that's virtually dominated by two Japanese reels. A handful of other companies have introduced their own high end spinning reels, and a few more are coming throughout the next two years. Van Staal's shot at this is the VM series of reels, beginning with VM150 a little over three years ago, and now comes the VM275 which according to the company's promotion is a BFT tuna and marlin tool. Big claims for a reel that costs half of what a Saltiga or a Stella does, but Van Staal is owned by W.C. Bradley Company, which owns several brands such as Quantum and Fin Nor, and knowing the quality they are capable of I knew they can indeed achieve that goal. The VM275 became available retail at the beginnings of February, and as usual I was one of the first buyers.

A few photos

As far as I'm concerned this thing is pretty hideous. There is something about how it looks that brings to my mind a few photos I once saw of a testicular tumour! Looks are of course pretty subjective and usually I respect differing opinions on that, but if you like how this particular reel looks I seriously advise you to seek psychiatric help!

What comes with it

The reel comes with an instructions manual, a registration card, a tool to change the handle from left to right, and a reel bag that's very elegant and well made with a golden VS insignia sewn into it and a soft lining inside. I couldn't get myself to get this bag dirty so it stayed home during the 6 weeks I fished the reel. It all comes inside Van Staal's sturdy box that's well padded to protect it in transit.

The reel has a 4.4:1 ratio, which in my book is perfect for jigging, and on my scale the reel weighs 840 grams (29.6 oz) without line. For comparison the Penn Torque 7 is 807 grams (28.4 oz). The spool took about 355 metres of 0.40mm (0.015") thick braid. As you know I don't state capacity by a line's supposed breaking strength because this is plain nonsense. That is about the same capacity as a Torque 7. The capacity numbers advertised by Van Staal are exaggerated, something that for long has been a standard practice for the fishing industry. I don't care how much line someone can force onto the spool using a special spooling machine that packs line under unrealistic tension. 99.9% of fishermen don't spool their reels on those machines, so those numbers are fictitious for all intents and purposes.

The handle's stem is a thick chunk of aluminium alloy that won't break in any conceivable fishing scenario.

The threads of the handle are longer than most other reels for a very secure attachment to the gear. The threaded shaft is heat treated (hardened) as well. That's uncompromising strength that leaves nothing to be desired in this area.

The tool is needed to unscrew the body cap (red arrow) and screw it to the opposite side in in order to change the handle from one side to another. Both body caps have rubber seals (blue arrow) beneath them to keep water out. The green arrow points to the "oil seal" that seals around the handle's shaft where it enters the body. We will talk about this seal later.

Taking off the body cover to access the gearbox is simple, just unscrewing 4 Torx screws. More reels are being built like this today, with a side cover that comes off without the need to take out the rotor. Does wonders for the ease of maintenance by the inexperienced user or even during a trip.

The side cover has a body seal (red arrow) that goes around its entire perimeter, and it sits perfectly tight in its recess despite the fact that it does a 90 degrees turn (blue arrows). I'm mentioning this because you probably remember the "quality" of this part in the $1300 2013 Stella SW. The ball bearing (red X) also fits tightly in the recess. The fitting of all the bearings of the VM275 is similarly precise. You've probably guessed why I'm mentioning this as well.

One of the two screws of the traverse block (red arrow) had slight damage to the head, most likely resulting from a wrong size driver or over torquing. Normally I wouldn't care about something like this, but this is a $600 reel so I expect better.

The machined drive gear is made of stainless steel. Its large diameter translates into better power transmission efficiency.  

The wear rate is pretty impressive. It's hard to show that in a photo because it needs to be seen in 3D, but knowing the use I put on it I can say that this is in fact a very durable gear. I did stress the gearing as well to check its strength, and it's indeed pretty strong. Check some of my other reviews, such as the one of the Ryobi Carnelian, to see how low strength gears develop partial tooth cracks and chipping under fishing loads.

The machined stainless steel pinion is no less impressive. Actually I believe it's among the hardest and strongest pinions I've seen, on bar with the stainless steel pinion of the 2008 Stella SW (the new Stella SW has a brass pinion). There is nothing strictly scientific about this and I didn't do a Brinell test on the pinions. I'm just using my experience with a large number of reels to make these observations, so take it for what it's worth.

The front end of the pinion spins inside a synthetic washer (red arrow) fitted into the body.

Oscillation gear (red arrow) is made of a Zinc alloy which is quite perfect for this application. It spins on a ball bearing (blue arrow), and it sits on a synthetic hub (green arrow) that's inserted into the frame to reduce friction and support the gear. The marks on the face of the oscillation gear are a result of rubbing against the traverse block. They aren't deep nor worrying, and overall the oscillation gear setup in this reel is well made and a fitting companion for the very tough gearing.

The back of the traverse block, showing two synthetic shoes (red arrows) placed there to reduce friction between the reel's frame and the traverse block as it goes back and forth. Design feature aiming to reduce this particular friction are essential if a reels is to work smoothly under load. Daiwa's Saltiga series has the best such design with ball bearings attached to the block so it rolls on them without any friction, and various systems in other reels do that to lesser degrees. 

The synthetic shoes in the VM275 do reduce friction but they don't eliminate it, so about 110 hours of mostly hard fishing managed to leave faint rubbing marks (red arrows) in the frame.

An overview of the oscillation mechanism. Not the world's best but exceedingly satisfactory.

Actually loved the whole gear train enough to lube it with the good stuff that I usually keep for my +$1000 reels. Moly grease could impair bearings though so care should be employed.

The main shaft is a cross-pin design that unfortunately doesn't allow shimming to adjust line pattern on the spool. The VM275 has a slower oscillation than the surf Van Staals so it lays line quite well and casts further, but I still want the option to shim the spool and be able to change how line is laid. That feature comes handy and it allows for greater flexibility in choosing the line size. The gummy stuff below the cross pin in the photo above is grease that gets dirty pretty quickly with use.

The cross pin is the rolled type. It's simpler to manufacture because once it's inserted in a hole it unrolls itself to fill the hole and become lodged tightly without the need for fasteners like a solid pin does. It's not as strong as a solid pin, but it's strong enough for this particular reel.

At 7mm the main shaft of the  VM275 is the thickest stainless steel shaft in any spinning reel. It's heat treated and hardened as well, making it literally proof to anything that swims in the water. It's pictured above next to the beefy shaft of the Torque 9, and it dwarfs it! Actually this hardened shaft is so thick I felt really uncomfortable rubbing lube on it, if you know what I mean

Keeping count of the seals, the main shaft has a very efficient seal (red arrow) that keeps water from getting around the shaft.

Underneath the rotor's nut lies another seal (red arrow).

And here is the oil seal of the rotor (red arrow).

That's the same seal from the previous photo (red arrow). In this photo I'm showing how it grips the rotor's neck.

And this O ring seal (red arrow) protects the pinion assembly from water intrusion. This completes the sealing of the reel. I know that some people and promotional material say that the VM275 isn't fully sealed and mention something about the shaft being unprotected, but this is absolute rubbish, probably designed to give people a reason to buy the more expensive surf Van Staal reels. This is in fact not needed because the surf VS reels are much lighter in weight thanks to the simplified design, and people who stand in waist high water and cast for hours will still go for them. The VM275 is fully sealed, and during my post-fishing tests I kept it underwater overnight, and I cranked the handle while fully submersed for a considerable amount of time and not a drop of water was found anywhere inside.

This takes us to another question though. Is that sort of sealing appropriate? The VM275 has the exact sealing of the surf Van Staal models on the handle and the pinion, that is "oil seals", and only the shaft sealing is slightly less beefy. This makes the VM275 an incredibly tight reel to spin. Actually I have no doubt that it is the second tightest reel available anywhere in the world today, surpassing even the ZeeBass surf fishing reel which I place in the third position. The only reel that is tighter than a VM275 would be a surf Van Staal reel. The VM275 doesn't become lighter to spin after breaking in, and it remains an excessively exhausting reel to use. It's tiring when you spool it, painful when you retrieve a stick bait, and energy depleting when you work a deep jig to the point that I really dreaded fishing it because I could still feel the muscle sore in my left shoulder from the previous use of the reel.

Here are the two oil seals, the small one is the handle seal, and the other is the rotor seal. This is an advanced type of seal that's common for industrial applications where high pressure is present. It has a metal skeleton that's covered in rubber, and the strength of that metal component in addition to the large contact area between the rubber and moving parts create a very large amount of friction that is inappropriate for a boat reel. I thought I should look into my collection of seals to find ones that have bigger inner diameters and install them in the reel, but then I decided to keep it in its original state for now.

The anti-reverse clutch, or "one way bearing" as it's sometimes called. A quality part made by Koyo, and it worked flawlessly and reliably to my complete satisfaction.

Inner structure of the clutch showing the brake cylinders and the their plastic V springs.

This is an uncommon design feature where the sleeve of the clutch grips the pinion via two protrusions (red arrows) that fit into notches machined in the pinion itself (blue arrow). Works fine.

Moving on to the drag

Red arrows point the woven carbon brake washers, blue arrow points the tube that goes through the spool, green arrows point the top and bottom ball bearings the spool spins on, yellow arrows point the two oil seals that seal the drag from top and bottom, and the others are keyed and non-keyed metal washers. This drag is sealed in a way that no other reel comes close to. This kind of sealing would allow it to sit in many metres deep water for months and not a single drop would leak in. The following is a simplified diagram which shows the design of the drag's sealing

There is no sealing between the tube and the main shaft so the spool could be removed easily without compromising any seals, water is free to move between the shaft and the tube, still it will never find its way into the drag. That's some superb engineering that a couple of other brands have imitated to a degree.

The surprising thing here is that the drag turned out to be the same drag from the surf Van Staal models! Not similar or nearly identical, rather the exact same parts that go into the drag of the surf reels are also used in the drag of the VM275. Let's take a step back and see what was said about the VM275. Van Staal doesn't state a maximum drag for this new reel on their website, but they said everywhere else that it was 45 lbs (20.5 KG). This is what official Van Staal representatives told people at shows, that's what they told the various publications publicising their reel....

And that's what they said over and over and over in videos right before they went on sale. Check these three different videos which I linked at the exact time the maximum drag is stated

(If the videos get removed or deleted please let me know)

So we've established beyond doubt that Van Staal claims 45lbs of maximum drag for this reel. Reality? Struggling against that annoying drag knob to the full lock down I got 12.1 KG (26.6 lbs) with a half filled spool, and because I know most brands advertise a maximum drag obtained on an empty spool to inflate the number, I tested again with only 5 metres of line on the empty spool and got 13.6 KG (29.9 lbs) of maximum drag. Of course no one fishes with an empty spool, so the actual useful maximum drag of this reel would be less than 12 KG with a full spool. That claimed 45lbs figure is so out there it certainly exceeds all the usual exaggerations we hear from tackle makers, and no, I haven't bought the mythical "lemon", a one off, my reel isn't missing any parts, none of the parts are defective, and I wasn't sold a prototype my mistake (yaaaaaawn)! The numbers make perfect sense and fit the facts, and they match the figures I got from the many surf Van Staal reels I tested throughout the years including the one I reviewed a couple of years ago.

Not only that the drag can never generate the advertised number, but also the reel isn't build to handle it. The above photo shows the stem of the reel right above the gearbox, and a simplified description of the stresses would be that the part marked with blue arrows is subject to compression, the part marked with red arrows is subject to tension, and a bending moment is also generated on the stem and it increases as we go up to reach its maximum at the reel's foot. The two sections marked in the above photo simply can't withstand the stresses of the claimed 45lbs (20.5 KG) even if the drag could produce it which it doesn't. While I measured the drag on the scales I could see that the stem was bending too much and struggling to cope with the 13.6 KG (29.9 lbs) of pressure. It's true that machined frames are less brittle than moulded ones and have more flexibility, still I can tell without a shred of doubt that if this stem is subjected to the stresses generated by the claimed 20.5 KG of drag it would either snap or go beyond its elastic limit, meaning it would be permanently deformed. There isn't enough metal in this area for that sort of stress.

To sum it up, the drag is smooth and has no felt starting inertia, it's more linear than the surf models because the advanced oscillation of the VM275 lays line in closer coils, I fought some excellent fish on this drag without a hitch, but to call it a big Bluefin Tuna and Marlin reel as per the advertisement, or to say that it would "tackle just about anything you could hook up" as is said in the above linked videos, that's not even remotely realistic.

Before we leave the spool

A nice tweak that was done here is the inclusion of a spring loaded clicker (red arrow) in the drag knob, which works on little holes in the top spool plate (blue arrows) to prevent the drag knob from turning when a fish is pulling line and the spool is spinning. The surf models  don't have this nice little feature.

The internals of the drag knob. The outer casting (red arrow) is metal, the pressure disc (blue arrow) is quality plastic, and the spring loaded clicker is encircled.

The spool clicker (red arrow) is also different, and this design should be more reliable.

The line roller design is practically simple. Runs on a ball bearing and is completely dependable.

Same applies to the bail mechanism. Reliability derived from simplicity. Unlike the smaller VM150, the VM275 has a manual bail that can only be closed by hand. I am looking forward to the day when every spinning reel will have a manual-only bail because auto bail trip is a most useless feature in my book.

The thick overbuilt bail arm. Like the main shaft, this is a part that nothing in the oceans will break.

As I fished the reel I noticed a little dent in the finish (encircled) that was becoming deeper and more pronounced as time progressed. It's in the rotor right behind the end piece of the bail wire (opposite side of the bail arm).

I first thought that the end piece was hitting the rotor and causing this dent, but I looked carefully and found that with the bail opened there is a space between the end piece and the dent in the rotor as encircled in the photo above. Upon further thinking I discovered that it was indeed the end piece hitting the rotor and causing the dent. Here is how it happens; when you open the bail of a spinning reel you manually push it until it passes the toggle point, then the spring takes over and snaps the bail fully opened. When the spring snaps the bail of the VM275 open, the end piece continues moving by virtue of its inertia and hits the rotor, then it returns back to its supposed stopping point leaving a space between itself and the rotor. It all happens in a fraction of a second and can't be spotted with the eye. To verify this theory I did the following test

I put a piece of paper on the rotor behind the bail wire's end piece, then I opened the bail normally and let the spring snap it fully opened as we do when we fish, and...

Voila! A dent appeared in the paper right above the dent in the rotor. My theory is correct, and although it's a small issue and the anodised finish of the reel is pretty tough, it's still a silly design flaw and that end piece needs a redesign.

Both the bail arm and end piece are retained by a pin and a snap ring (red arrow) instead of traditional screws. Makes service easier and safer for the novice user who could over-torque screws.

And finally here is the handle grip. No bearings but runs smoothly and is easy to grip with wet hands.       

That's all. At $600 this reel is certainly expensive, and I don't believe that what it offers is worth that money. Granted it's a reel that's built to the highest standards of manufacturing tolerance the likes of which I've seldom seen on a reel, and granted also that it has a very durable drive train that would keep it going for many years with minimal care, but in order for the angler to enjoy that quality and long service life he should be able to fish the reel. That fishability is what's missing from the VM275. Unpleasant and almost disruptive tightness, anemic maximum drag that comes straight from a bass reel, and line capacity that doesn't match its heft. For the most part I tested a Saragosa SW next to the VM275, and despite the Shimano being a cheaply made reel with a basic plastic rotor and gearbox, it was way more fishable having a convincing drag performance, being much freer and lighter to spin despite being fully sealed as well, and of course it costs much less than the Van Staal. Looking up the price scale a Penn Torque 7 costs just $80 more and it's as durable as the VM275, holds as much line, have a superior drag, lighter, and also freer to spin while being fully sealed.

Despite the enthusiastic promotion there isn't a good reason to buy a VM275. If it was up to me I would put a larger rotor and a wider spool on it to increase the line capacity, put a redesigned drag into the new spool and do away with the heavy tube inside the current spool, and with the tube gone the new spool design should allow for shimming, and I would beef up the reel's stem so that it handles the newly increased drag. The frame is machined, so no retooling with expensive moulds is required to change the stem of the reel, but rather a small adjustment of the software operating the machines should do the trick. Second step that's definitely as vital would be getting rid of the oil seals and using lighter single lipped seals. The reel would then still be protected enough for boat use, but the free spinning would increase dramatically allowing the user to feel the excellent pulling power that's built into the gearing of this reel, which is unfortunately lost in its current state of extreme tightness. The Van Staal comes from the same conglomerate of brands that builds the new Quantum Cabo, one of my most recommended reels and the one I received the most number of thanks from my readers for, so I know they can make truly brilliant reels and hopefully one day the VM would become one of those so it can give the Japanese reels a run for their money.

I will be adding a new section to the site where I'll post tackle articles not specific to a reel, and I still have at least a couple of big reviews coming this year. Keep watching the news page for all updates to the site.

Tight lines     

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Alan Hawk
March, 26th, 2014

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