By Gordon van der Spuy
This is a series of articles that will feature on fly tying made simpler, better, faster…
Fly tying, like heart surgery, requires the right set of tools for the job. Attempting heart surgery with a steak knife sounds crazy but you’ll be surprised how many guys do the equivalent when they’re tying. Get decent tools from the start – starting out well won’t leave you disappointed. I meet guys who struggle year in year out, just because they’re not well equipped. Don’t expect to tie a delicate #20 dry if the only pair of scissors you own are the garden shears. Fly tying is no different to gun selection when hunting; you don’t track buffalo with a BB gun! Be prepared.
Personally, I am not a fan of commercial assembled fly tying kits. The tools in them are generally not good quality. It makes more sense to build up a tool kit with quality ‘odds and ends’. In this way you gather products which are best at the job because you can be selective about brands and also buy tools made out of hardy materials. Kits, on the other hand, are limiting and the tools in them won’t last long. So don’t fall in the commercial trap of buying an assembled fly tying kit.
The main thing tools need to do is perform the function they’re designed to do. This may seem obvious but you’ll be amazed by how many ‘so called’ tying scissors are blunt, how many hair stackers don’t stack hair properly and how many bobbin holders actually fray thread!
Tying like anything special in life requires investment. You get out what you put in. Buying cheap is counterproductive. I’m not saying one has to spend truck-loads of cash on tools. Think investment as opposed to a ‘cheap fix’, you get what you pay for. So buy the best you can afford.
Assembling one’s own tool kit is simple – here is a basic run-down of what I think every tier should have at hand. By no means am I proclaiming this to be the gospel on fly tying tools, instead it’s what I am comfortable with.
This is often overlooked, yet so important. To tie properly you need sufficient light, try tying a fly in the dark if you don’t believe me. Get yourself a proper hobby lamp with a decent globe. Sure, they are a bit more expensive than a cheap light but they’ll save your eyes in the long run and make tying a pleasurable experience. Most guys I have taught have insufficient lighting. They try and budget when it comes to lighting, some even opting to tie with a head lamp. No! You’re tying flies, not mining! Invest in a good lamp with a decent LED globe because your eyes and flies deserve it!
The most important tools are your hands – try tying a fly with your toes and you‘ll see that I‘m not talking nonsense. They don’t need to be soft like a babies bum but they do need to be smooth. Rough hands will fray your thread and that’ll drive any sane person nuts. Avoid tearing apart your tying table out of frustration by frequently moisturising your hands. A bit of your wife’s Nivea cream or a drop of Bio-oil before bed-time will go a long way in preserving a silky smooth texture of the hands and so preserving the integrity of your threads. This is a great excuse to regularly treat your wife with a foot rub, you’ll have a happy woman (and likely get more out of it than brownie points too), but most importantly, you’ll end up with lovely, soft fly tying hands. A win-win situation for all!
In addition to smooth hands, short nails are essential. I always keep my fingernails short. Long nails are cumbersome and get in the way of mobility – they may also hook the thread and spoil your pleasure behind the vice. On occasion I have had the privilege of teaching lady tiers and my heart always warms up when they arrive on the second day of the workshop with their nails gone. Such dedication! I am yet to teach a lady whom isn’t prepared to trim her nails.
Finally, before tying I always wash my hands. Not only does this get rid of unwanted scents like aftershave, it’s also easier to work with clean hands – material grip and handling are just that much easier and more effective. Dirty hands may also stain light threads, so wash your hands well before picking up the bobbin holder.
Get yourself a decent ceramic bobbin holder. I’ve been tying with the Tiemco ceramic bobbin holder for years and it hasn’t let me down yet. It’s a straight-forward tool and works well.
The ceramic tube is thread-friendly (it won’t fray your thread). Cheap bobbin holders fray the thread, which is the first thing to avoid when tying.
There are many other bobbin holders on the market. Some of them are very snazzy, sporting thread-tension mechanisms or a retractable function, very useful and very comfortable. If you are financially blessed, by all means get the bells and the whistles. However, I am quite happy with the Tiemco ceramic bobbin holder and can recommend it. It’s all you need.
I am very much a Jvice man; I make no secret of it. I have tied on numerous vices and can tell you that the Jvice is right up there with the best. But you can buy it for a fraction of the cost of most international brands. I’m sure that the Jvice might seem expensive to amateur South African fly tiers, but I promise you they’re worth every cent. I like the Jvice because it is a solid, no-nonsense instrument that is practical and reliable. I have tied with foreign, top-end vices that came to pieces (having bits of plastic jumping out at you when you press the wrong button is very disconcerting).
Some vices are very well machined but not well designed in terms of their functionality. I tied flies on a R 12 000 vice the other day and quickly gathered that the gadget was a complete waste of money and time. Damn, at twelve grand you kind of expect the vice to be good! Even though some vices come with heavy credentials, they disappoint the fly tier. However, I’ve paid my school fees and I no longer fall for brand names. Instead, I now look for robust, functional and well-designed equipment.
Jay Smit developed a tying system (the Jvice) that is tailor made for the fly tier, a well-engineered and well thought-through vice. The system is also modular so you can buy bits and pieces as you go, you don’t need to buy the entire vice-kit all at once. You can start out with the basic vice and clamp and go from there.
I don’t enjoy clutter around a vice. A plain vice on a simple base is best. I like the base option because you aren’t reliant on a specific table or surface to attach the vice to. I am not a fan of gallows tools and magnifying tools, I find that they take up too much space. There needs to be room around the vice to accommodate hand movement.
The Jvice is as good as it gets and a worthwhile investment that’ll just make your fly tying life more fun. Don’t take my word only for it though, ask anyone who owns one.
Most of the labelled fly tying scissors sold in tackle stores are not suitable for finer fly tying. I know this because once other people have used my scissors they simply don’t want to go back to using their own. A pair of fly tying scissors needs to be very sharp, especially the tips because that’s where most of the work takes place. Blunt scissors will force you to leave thread and material ends which you’ll need to cover up, this will result in unwanted bulk in the fly. Sharp tips equal precision cutting and trimming.
Scissors should also be light and well balanced in the hand. This will make tying more pleasurable. I use embroidery scissors I got from a haberdashery store that my wife frequents. I stumbled on them by accident. Eight years ago my wife needed a ball of wool; we walked into Arthur Bales where I saw this pair of superfine, sharp looking scissors. I bought a pair and the rest is history. I tie anything from #26 dries to massive 6/0 classic salmon flies with these scissors – a sheer workhorse.
According to me, the Japanese understand blades – look at a Samurai sword for example. The blade on that weapon can slice a strand of hair down its length; I know of no other blade capable of that sort of thing. The Japanese-made Kai 5130DC is simply put, the best pair of fly tying scissors I have ever owned, period. They are scary sharp, light in hand, well balanced and last long due to fine but strong blades. Try them, you won’t look back. Clients that followed my recommendations tell me that these scissors have changed their lives.
The curved blade on the Kai 5130DC is more often than not actually useful. However, I have another, cheap pair of scissors with a straight edge which I use for cutting harder materials, such as plastics, and also foams. Cutting foam strips with a curved blade just doesn’t work. Therefore, you need two pairs of scissors at the very least.
Good old fashioned English hackle pliers are all you need. They’re cheap and light and execute their job perfectly. There are many fancy hackle pliers around nowadays but I still prefer my English hackle pliers. They work well enough for the tying I do.
I like these hackle pliers so much because they have narrow clamps. I often use it when melting mono eyes and find that the narrow clamps allows for eyes with less space in the middle, especially useful on smaller damselfly nymphs, for instance.
WHIP FINISH TOOL
I don’t like using these things because I feel I have more control using my fingers. That said, they are relevant and useful. I have met and tried to teach guys to whip finish with fingers the size of pork sausages and it simply didn’t work. In that case adaption is the name of the game and the fingers are replaced with a tool in the final tying process. The Matarelli and Petejean style whip finishers are good, the latter being overpriced in my opinion. But like I said before, if you’re financially blessed go for the Petejean.
The Thompson whip finishing tool is clumsy and one needs a degree in finger gymnastics to get the thing to work properly. I think they’re badly designed and cannot recommend them. Surprisingly, Thompsons are still very common in shops!
The bodkin is a very useful tool. I use it as an aid to help beginners with thread control when doing half hitches. Put the needle in the loop and pull on the bobbin holder with the other hand, slide the needle out once the loop is taut and voilà. It’s easy and simple as that – control is simple when you have a needle.
A needle is also very useful for applying varnish, picking out stray fibres that get trapped and great for splitting thread when using split-thread techniques, like spinning CDC.
I have a homemade one made with an eraser as a handle with a sewing needle stuck in it. The rectangular eraser prevents the needle from rolling as well as it being a comfortable handle and a nice tool for stripping peacock herl. In other words, a bodkin needn’t be expensive.
This tool is traditionally used for stacking elk or deer hair when used in Elk Hair Caddis-style flies and other terrestrial imitations. I use my stacker to stack almost anything though, squirrel tail fibres when I tie Para RABs, Gallos de Leon when tying Pardon de Meanas, buck tail when tying Charlies etc. etc. etc.
A hair stacker needs to have a bit of weight to it, buying a cheap lightweight stacker will just frustrate you. I always say: “A stacker needs to work!” If it doesn’t stack hair properly, chuck it.
The old-school Tiemco stackers are awesome but unfortunately not always available nowadays. I’d suggest using the tool before buying it. Test it out in the shop. Stackers also come in different sizes and your choice should depend on the size flies you commonly tie. I find a medium sized tool to be versatile.
VELCRO ON A STICK
A piece of Velcro glued to a very thin wooden ice-cream stick can work wonders for giving nymphs a lovely hairdo. Teasing out fibres on these flies can make them more effective – it reminds me of the term ‘static mobility’ I once heard in context.
I use sticks I get from the fast-food retail outlets. The ones they give you to stir your take-away coffee with. Velcro I steal from my wife’s sewing kit, but don’t tell her that.
Tweezers are useful to pick up small things, like beads and also tiny feathers, like jungle cock. However, I have a few pairs of tweezers that I use for different things in fly tying.
I find fine-nosed tweezers handy for sticking down eyes on minnows. Domed eyes have sticky stuff on the back of them that is never sufficient to secure the eyes. Water resistant superglue gel is still need to keep the eyes in place and prevent them from falling off when fishing the fly. The commercial glue on the eyes help keep the eye attached to the tweezers before superglue is added.
The Bulldog Clamp is basically just a paper clip. They are useful for split-thread techniques, in which case materials are aligned in the clamp before trimmed off. This is especially useful when trimming CDC fibres off the feather stems. The trimmed ‘edge’ of CD fibres is then neatly inserted into the split thread. It can be used to trim a wide range of materials including CDC, rabbit fur strips (aka zonkers) and marabou to name a few.
It is important to buy a clamp that closes properly and is straight and does not have bent edges. Petejean has a tool for this too, but I find the Bulldog Clamp more than adequate. The tension on the spring is also good.
FLAT, LONG-NOSED PLIERS
Long-nosed pliers are awesome for flattening hook barbs but also work well for flattening lead for ‘underbodies’, or flattening feather stems before tying them in.
Most feather stems are cylindrical when viewed in cross section, which complicates tying as they tend to roll out of position. Fly tying with whole feathers, such as large hackles, can be made easy by flattening the rachis at the area where the feather is tied in.
An old toothbrush is the perfect tool for brushing out underfur fibres when spinning deer hair or even when combing out brush flies or split-thread CDC patterns. For smaller flies I actually cut the bristles shorter.
These are the basic tools I use – what I’ve listed is what I regard as a very basic tool kit. The majority of the things I’ve mentioned are quite cheap, the exceptions being my vice, scissors and bobbin holder. In final summation, your tools need to fulfil the purpose they’re intended for. They need to make your life easier at the vice. Having good quality tools makes intricate fly tying a pleasure as opposed to giving you a headache.