Public Lab Research note

Line Reel for Balloon/Kite String

by seankmcginnis | May 16, 2013 12:33 16 May 12:33 | #7620 | #7620

I wanted to find an easier way to feed out and wind up the string during balloon flights. I wandered around the hardware store for awhile and came across a reel to store extension cords (relatively inexpensive at $10-12). All of the other pieces in the construction I had in my workshop or were part of my balloon mapping kit.

I have found that this setup is much easier to feed out and reel in a lot of line and reduce the risk of string burns. The reel has a handle and makes it very easy to walk around with and the board provides a stable base to set it down.

Parts List

  • Extension Cord Reel
  • 12"-14" board or section of plywood
  • Dowel
  • Zip ties (4)
  • String (from balloon mapping kit)


Cut the tab off the middle reel so it doesn't snag the line. The reel is a medium hardness plastic and was able to cut it with a pair of dikes. IMG_2359.JPG


The next is pretty straight forward, tie the string around the spool and start reeling it in. I ran the line over the handle which made it easier to guide the line on to the spool so it didn't get all wrap around one side of the reel.


The reel is held to the board by zip ties, line the reel up on the board and mark eight holes to pass zip ties through. Then drill the holes just a little wider than the zip ties.


Then pass the zip ties through and tighten them down to secure it.

The cord reel I used had holes in the side, which allowed me to pass a dowel through the holes and the reel to create a brake and not allow more string to be released.



Nice Sean! I have also used an extension cord winder and find it very convenient, especially when there are two people, one to pull in line and another to wind it up. Watch out for winding up the string under much tension-- I've had a reel collapse on me.

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Thanks Sean, this looks like a great idea! My first reel was an electrical cord winder, but it didn't have a base and the core/handle was different. It's still my backup reel and sits on my shelf. I think I will go to a hardware store to get a reel like this and try this method.

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@Mathew - what part of the reel collapsed on you?

@Liz - thanks, I hope it works for you as well as it has for me.

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The cylindrical center of the spool broke under tension. We were winding in a kite at about ~40lbs of tension, and after a few hundred feet the spool collapsed. The reel kept spinning with just a little more friction though, and we got the kite down. When we unwound the string it fell apart.

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I've been using that reel for about 3 years now and I love it. Mathew is right - don't bring the line in under tension. I have had a reel collapse as well. The reel that collapsed was made from two plastic halves fused together and they separated.

I have been very pleased with the reel pictured. It has plastic guts though, so I try to apply some braking to the line when releasing a balloon or else I end up with plastic shavings from the plastic axle. One nice additional modification is adding some dense foam or other lightweight material to the core to increase the radius and decrease the number of rotations required to reed it in the entire way. I've actually been kiting more than ballooning lately and have been using Charlie's winder for over two years and love it. Each movement around it reels in 2 feet of line AND I can bring it in under tension with no fear of collapse. They are oak.

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