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Vintage Zebco Cardinal 3 Restoration

Vintage Zebco Cardinal 3 Restoration

Made to Last

One of the best features of vintage reels is that they were designed to be maintained.  Usually, unless the reel is super rare, parts can be found if there is a component missing or it needs to be replaced.  But often, vintage reels can be modded or improved to enhance the fishing experience.  The significance of this can not be understated.  Iconic, legendary reels can be reborn and can be made to play on a different level when given the opportunity. 

In the Spotlight

For the last few years, I've made it a tradition to select a vintage model spinning reel from the top picks in its specific category and use it exclusively throughout the entire fishing season. In 2022, my attention was on a budget Mitchell 308, a rebuild project that began with a bag of disassembled parts. This year, in '23, I centered my focus on the Zebco Cardinal 3.

A Little Background on this Reel

For those not acquainted with the Zebco Cardinal 3, it's hailed as one of the best ultralight spinning reels ever made. After using it extensively this season, I absolutely agree. Originating from Sweden, the Cardinal 3 is the smallest among its series, coming before the larger-sized reels like the Cardinal 4 and Cardinal 6, and was previously featured in "The Top 5 Vintage Ultralight Spinning Reels (In Our Opinion)" post. However, the main spotlight of this post is on the dismantling and reconstruction process.

Maintenance and Servicing of the Reel

In this particular case, the reel was in relatively good condition given its age. To start restoring a vintage reel, I usually begin with an external cleaning using warm, soapy water to assess its condition. I prefer a mild dish soap and a soft toothbrush to remove any grease or oil that might have accumulated over the years. Once cleaned, I gently dry the reel using a cotton towel instead of a paper towel for a less abrasive touch. Then, I thoroughly examine components like the handle knob, handle, bail wire, line pick-up, anti-reverse lever, and spool. I’m meticulous about both the functionality and aesthetics of the reel, so any issues with logos or appearance are often addressed before the reel is put back into action.


Cardinal after initial cleaning
After cleaning, I applied a drop of 3-in-1 oil to the screws before disassembling them, allowing it to sit overnight. While this step might be considered excessive, it’s a precautionary measure against rare but potential issues like stripped screw heads or screws breaking off in the hole. The following day, I proceeded to disassemble the reel, starting with removing the spool, taking off the line, opening the case, and dismantling the handle, rotating head, and gears for the internal cleaning process.

Vintage Cardinal 3 Dissasembled


If you ever choose to try service or restore a Zebco Cardinal 3, take heed: it contains incredibly tiny c-clips that may be concealed by grease and are prone to breakage if handled carelessly – as I unfortunately discovered. Finding replacements was a bit of a challenge, so exercise caution when removing these clips, as they'll need to be reused. Once all the parts were disassembled, I meticulously cleaned all internal components and lightly coated them with WD-40, wiping away the excess. While I'm not entirely certain if this step is necessary, and there may be alternative methods to shield the internal metals, it is how the old timers showed me how to do it.

The spool, though operational, required reconditioning. After a thorough cleaning with soap and water, a magic eraser was employed to eliminate oxidation, followed by the applications of Back to Black conditioner until the original color and condition were restored. In order to shield the spool from future deterioration, I applied two coats of Renaissance Wax, effectively sealing and safeguarding it against oxidation and environmental damage.

The drag knob on this reel showed its age. Looking back, I might have made a better choice by replacing the original with a new Avail aluminum drag knob. Instead, I meticulously cleaned and restored the original parts by hand, applying a compound to restore them to their initial condition and sealing them with Renaissance Wax. Although the results were satisfactory, I'm uncertain if the effort was truly worthwhile.

After thoroughly cleaning and laying out all the components, I began the rebuild process in the reverse order. I applied Lews grease to the suitable surfaces, like the main drive and gearing as well as the drag system. Since I don't often work on these, I took pictures during the disassembly as reference in case they were needed during reassembly.

Reassembly of vintage Cardinal 3

Replacing Stock Parts w/High Quality Custom Parts

This reel holds a special value overseas, especially in Japan, resulting in a wide array of high-quality custom aftermarket parts.  Seeing how this could take my Zebco Cardinal 3 Restoration to another dimension, I decided to explore and acquire some of these unique items. Several aftermarket companies craft custom parts for these reels, and luckily, many of these brands can be found on Amazon Japan. When using Amazon Japan, it's important to note that everything is in Japanese. However, the browsing experience is quite similar to the one in the States, but with a different domain, You'll need to create a separate account as your US Amazon account won't be valid there. Here's a pro tip: I found using Google Translate to convert Japanese descriptions immensely helpful. Additionally, Google’s currency converter is essential due to the significant difference between the Yen and the Dollar; simply search "Yen to Dollar" on Google for the conversion tool. To start searching for parts on Amazon Japan, you can begin with a basic search query like “Cardinal 3 parts” in the search box. Without further delay, here are the parts I acquired to upgrade the '23 focus reel.

Titanium Replacement Screws by Avail.  When dealing with antique reels, encountering screw heads marred by years of servicing is a common issue. Although the stock screws on this reel were functional, I chose to replace them with titanium ones. This not only adds a touch of modernity but also really dresses things up.

Cardinal 3 Replacement Parts
Replacement Custom Wooden Handle Knob by iOS.  Upgrading a vintage reel with custom handle knobs is a straightforward solution. However, these knobs are often not readily available in mass production. iOS has tackled this issue by crafting replacement knobs for this reel, offering a variety of wood choices.

Wooden Handle Knob For Cardinal 3

Adjustable Handle by iOS.  The original steel handle on this reel functioned well, but I opted to swap it out for an adjustable billet version from iOS. Not only does it enhance the aesthetic appeal, but it also provides the flexibility to adjust rotation speed.

Adjustable Replacement Handle For Cardinal 3

Reare View of Replacement Cardinal 3 Knob

Quick Cast Bail Wire Bracket by iOS.  This enhancement maintains the aesthetic while altering the travel distance of the bail wire. This change offers a noteworthy improvement that truly needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

Bail Wire Bracket For Cardinal 3
Side by Side IOS Quick Release Comparison
Handle Collar by Avail.  The stock collar is attached to original handle, so I opted for this one. It has a stock replacement look.  

Handle Protecting Ring
Berkely Nanofil Line.  In addition, to the additional new parts purchased from Amazon Japan, I added my current favorite line in low-vis green.  It boasts a 25% further casting distance, little to no line memory or stretch and features great sensitivity.  This is a great way to update the performance on vintage reels, in general.

Final Thoughts


After extensively fishing with the Cardinal throughout the season, I must commend this compact reel for its impressive performance. The gear precision resembles that of a Swiss clock, and the drag function is exceptional. Despite spooling it with 4lb test, both the drag and line roller allowed me to successfully land larger smallmouths, a task not typically recommended for such a light test line. This reel demonstrated remarkable resilience, effortlessly handling every challenge I threw its way. Additionally, the modifications, particularly the products from iOS and Avail, showcased superior craftsmanship with a flawless fit and finish. The addition of the Quick Release bracket elevated an already refined reel, enhancing its precision further. In summary, the result of this restoration surpasses the original product. I have come to truly appreciate what this reel contributed to the market more than four decades ago.

Fully Restored Vintage Cardinal 3

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