Having a good set of tools is fundamental to the art of tying flies. Not only do the tools determine the quality of your flies, but also your enjoyment of the process. Dull scissors that mash materials or a bobbin that frays your thread can become both frustrating and discouraging. While it is possible to spend inordinate amounts of money on tools, with a basic understanding of your needs you can easily find quality gear that will not break the bank. Below, we break down what to look for when purchasing your first set of tools, or upgrading your current ones.
If I could only have one tool this would be it. While I cannot imagine wrapping thread by hand would be any fun, its’ still possible. Regardless, this is an area where I would certainly shoot for higher quality, and yes, a more expensive pair of scissors. There are a few characteristics to consider when purchasing a pair of scissors: serration, length, and tension.
Serrations are tiny indentations along the blades of the scissors. These serrations help to provide more purchase on materials to allow for a cleaner cut. Meanwhile, un-serrated blades may push materials down the length of the blades; especially when dull. Serrations work especially well for larger, harder to cut materials such as thick hair or dense synthetics. Furthermore, for these denser materials a coarser serration tends to work better. However, for general-purpose scissors a finer, micro serration tends to work best. This is a nice middle ground between a coarse serration and a straight edge.
Blade lengths on tying scissors can range from less than one to four inches. Generally, longer blades for larger flies, however, the deciding factor for blade length should be what you are most comfortable using. Shorter blades tend to have finer points and are often used for precise cuts while longer blades tend to be used for preparing or shaping larger amounts of materls for flies such as streamers. A good all-round blade is generally in neighbourhood of 1.5” to 2” range.
Tension is also an important factor to consider. Most scissors have either a knob or a screw to adjust blade tension and therefore range of motion. If you see a pair of scissors that do not have this feature, they probably are not worth purchasing if you want just one pair. For precise cuts, a higher tension is used as this allows more control whereas for less precise cuts or shaping materials, lower tension is normally used as this allows easy, repeated use.
In a perfect world it is ideal to have 3 sets of scissors. One general pair can certainly cover most of the bases adequately but may fall short in certain areas. These three pairs would be a larger hair/synthetic pair, a smaller pair for precise cuts and finally a “beater” pair for wire, thick stems and anything else that will dull a pair of scissors.
Like scissors, bobbins are a critical piece of equipment for tying flies. The bobbins primary purpose is to manage your thread as you wrap it on the hook. Different bobbins can be used depending on the style and size of fly you are tying. Some of the characteristics that differentiate bobbins are the tube length, tip material, and tensioning.
Tube size can vary depending on the size of fly you’re tying. For the most part a bobbin with a tube length of about two inches will cover most situations. However, some individuals tying bigger flies may prefer a longer tube length for ease of use while smaller flies like nymphs or dry flies require a shorter tube length as it allows for more precise wraps.
The material on the tip of your bobbin is arguably its most important component. The tip of your bobbin is the edge that ultimately contacts the thread the most, as such it is critical to have a tip that does not fray or break your thread. Polished steel tips are widely available and inexpensive. However, over time the thread in your bobbin can create micro grooves in the steel that will fray your thread. To avoid this, manufactures offer bobbins with ceramic and synthetic ruby tips that are harder than steel and therefore last longer.
There are two main styles for applying tension to your thread spool, one is the basic wishbone spring style. Tension is achieved by bending in or out two metal pieces that hold the spool and additional tension may be applied manually while wrapping your thread. The second style is a micro adjustment type and is often controlled via a knob on the side of the bobbin, this provides much more consistent tension, however, costs more.
This tool is great for finishing flies and to keep the thread from coming undone. While there are other options for finishing a fly like half hitch knots done by hand, a whip finisher is inexpensive and often invaluable.
The bodkin is essentially a fine metal toothpick used mostly to adjust fibers or apply small amounts of head cement (glue). While not essential, it is a very handy tool to keep at your bench.
When working with deer or elk hair, a hair stacker is crucial. A hair stacker is used to align the tips of each hair cut from a hide by placing the clump of hair into the stacker, tips down, and then lightly tapping it on the table. By aligning all tips, you to tie in an even collar or wing to your flies. Stackers come in various sizes depending on the length and amount of hair you are working with. Generally, small to medium sized stackers will cover most flies you will be tying at first, from dry fly wings to streamer collars.
Used primarily to grip your hackle feathers while wrapping them around a hook, they allow you to wrap the last bit of hackle that would otherwise be exceedingly difficult to do with your fingertips. Tweezer and plunger style hackle pliers are both available with the plunger style often providing a better grip on the feather with less breakage of feather stems.
After forming a dubbing loop, a dubbing spinner is required to spin the loop closed and set your materials. Most dubbing loop spinners consist of a weighted object with a shepherd style hook to slide in the loop. It is hard to go wrong with this style, just make sure the one you go with has some mass behind it to twist the thread tight.
After spinning your dubbing loop, a dubbing brush is critical to brushing out the fibers that get caught in the thread. Dubbing brushes can also be used to brush out dubbed bodies on nymphs or small streamers giving them a “buggy” look. While you can certainly spend money on a dedicated tool, often a piece of Velcro and a stiff bristled toothbrush (preferably not one you intend to brush your teeth with!) work best and make for an easy to DIY.
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