Are they interchangeable? According to dictionaries, spool is more prevalent in America whereas reel is more common in the UK but distinguishing between them doesn't seem this straightforward because I have heard Americans say reel and someone from the UK say spool.

Which of these collocations are most natural? Why?

a garden hose reel / a garden hose spool

a roller shutter reel/ a roller shutter spool

a cable reel / cable spool

a plaster reel/ a plaster spool

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    I’m voting to close this question because it can be easily answered with a very small amount of research. Commented May 23 at 14:52
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    @FumbleFingers - apparently I'm a jingoistic racist now! I confess I do like some of Kipling, especially Recessional, but I can't actually see anything I have written that justifies such an epithet. Commented May 23 at 15:06
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    P.S You can flag comments and ask the moderators to delete them when they get out of hand/control Just click on the comment flag that are irrelevant to your question or flag your own question and ask the moderator(s) to delete all the comments.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 23 at 15:07
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    I have already done a lot of research!! I wouldn't have come here if my research had been successful!
    – Idk29
    Commented May 23 at 15:09
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    "Which of these collocations are most natural?" For whom? Since you say that you are aware that US/UK usage is different, how do you expect to get a definitive answer? All people can do is to say "Well, I would say a hose reel" and so on. I don't even know what a roller shutter is, so I can't answer that bit. Commented May 23 at 15:17

2 Answers 2


I believe the technical distinction is that a spool is just the part where something is wrapped, and a reel includes the mechanisms to do the wrapping. That's more-or-less how I'd use them:

AmE, California: I'd use spool (n) only for a packaging or storage, e.g. buying a spool of wire/thread or a spool of christmas lights. If there's a motor or gears attached to it, I'd call it a reel (n). (Confusingly, the roll that film is stored on is always called a film reel).

However, for me, reel (v) is only for fishing, spool (v) is for everything else. (If you need to get more garden hose, you unspool the hose.)

In many cases I might use roll (n) or roll (v). roll of tape, unroll the hose.

For your examples:

  • garden hose reel
  • roller shutter (probably wouldn't use anything here)
  • winch if it's a mechanism, spool of cable if it's a length of cable you're buying from the hardware store.
  • roll of bandage tape (I'm assuming you mean this sort of thing?)
  • I think you're close to the bullseye here. The reel either has an integrated winding mechanism or is designed to mate with one. Hence the film reel and the tape reel.
    – TimR
    Commented May 24 at 10:04
  • Bullseye. This is perfectly correct.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 24 at 16:00
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    I don't think I'd ever consider unspooling a hose. Unroll, yes. I'm not sure I've ever used the verb unspool, come to think of it. AmE, Maryland. Commented May 24 at 16:30

I want to expand on this existing answer which covers most of it, but leaves out the why, which is touched on by the question comments. I'm answering from an American English viewpoint, but I believe the Am vs UK preference is primarily applicable for the more ambiguous cases.

The general distinction is:

  • If it's purely for storage, it's a spool.
  • If it's part of operation, it's a reel.

Following from that, when it's unclear if it's for storage or usage, or is/can be for both:

  1. The "best" choice is context-independent, e.g. the one it's usually for, or most people would think of.
  2. The other one is close enough that you'll hear native speakers use it, too
  3. If both seem equally applicable, there's a good chance they are but refer to specific and different things.
  4. The verbs usually line up with the nouns, but it's a much weaker connection. It's not that weird if you say "the tape reel came unspooled" or "reel in the wire on that spool over there". (Note: you can often just drop the noun, since the verb communicates that you mean more than just the media, e.g. "the tape came unspooled.")

Easy Examples

  • A spool of ribbon
  • A spool of yarn

Harder Examples

  • A spool of thread
    • From 1, its role in the storing of thread overshadows the small part it plays when you put it on a sewing machine.
  • A hose reel
    • Tricky, but a hose is generally perceived as a tool, and using it involves pulling it off the reel and reeling it back up again.
    • A hose might come on a spool at the store, and then you put it on your hose reel when you get home.
    • If you need to refer to parts of your hose reel, "spool" works for the part the hose wraps around.
  • Fishing reel and spools of fishing line
    • Classic example of #3.
    • Because it's used in operation, the mechanism that feeds the line out and reels it back in (see #4) is the reel.
    • "Spools" is used to refer to the line and the thing it's wrapped around, because that's the "unit of storage." They sit on the shelf like this, you may transport several with you, etc.
    • "I put a new spool in my reel the other day"
  • "Spools of reel-to-reel tape"
    • Number 3 again.
    • Besides "reel of reel-to-reel tape" being awkward, the "spool" is what you store/purchase, and the "reel" in "reel-to-reel" refers to a distinguishing component of operation.
    • As the exchange between @Michael-Harvey and @FumbleFingers shows, even among native speakers there's not always a clear consensus. Spool vs reel can be used to distinguish what the tape is wound on, with "reel" referring to the part used in operation (in this case the spool and reel are the same physical thing) and "spool" meaning literally anything else.
    • Additionally, if one primarily dealt with blank tape, "spool" may seem more natural because storage is predominant in their mind, while someone dealing primarily with recorded tape would be more concerned with its usage, and thus operation, and think of them as "reels".
    • One more example to point out that disambiguation is big driver of choice: A manufacturer may have a giant spool of tape, and wind lengths onto individual reels for distribution and sale. The one "for customers to use", i.e. in operation, is the reel.

Hopefully that helps explain why there are sometimes apparently incorrect choices and other times they seem completely interchangeable. Choose based on whatever seems clearest, and you won't be any less understandable than a native English speaker.

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