(New) Tools of the Trade

(New) Tools of the Trade

Innovative tying tools for fewer headaches at the bench and more fish on the water

  • By: Ted Leeson
As an enthusiastic, if not a particularly gifted, fly tier, I'm continually hunting around for tools that will make my tying easier, faster, or better; for aids to organizing tying a bench that looks more like a badly managed landfill; or for anything that will make the craft more interesting or fun. And I should cop to the fact as well that the endless minutiae of fly-tying, the vaguely surgical-looking instruments, the gadgets and gizmos, the enormous variety of stuff are things I simply like about it.With the possible exception of vises, however, genuine revolutions in benchside accouterments are relatively rare for the simple reason that tying gear is reasonably simple. Improvements come in more modest increments. But modest does not necessarily mean insignificant. A serious session at the vise involves the constant repetition of small tasks, and even tiny efficiencies gained in speed or comfort can add up over time to make the tying easier or the results better. After sorting through the product introductions of the last few years, testing out the tools of the trade that might give you a little edge in tying, here's what shook out: C&F Design recently introduced a selection of tools-machined from bar-stock brass and coated in matte pearl chromium-that are certainly among the most handsome and finely made I've seen. Two stand out. The Deluxe Rotary Twister Plus has wire "Y-arms" attached to a bearing on the end of the handle. Spin the knurled bearing housing with your thumb, and the impressively smooth rotation twists a dubbing loop in no time. One nice feature are wire clips at the base of the spreader arms. Once a dubbing loop is spun, you can secure additional strands of material (like Krystal Flash) in the clips, spin again, and incorporate the material into the dubbing loop for some pretty cool effects. Nice balance and flawless operation, but not cheap-$49.95. The C&F Bobbin has an unusual bullet-shaped barrel and short ceramic tube. Teflon-coated spring arms give exceptionally smooth spool rotation. The spool thread passes through a foam plug in the base of the barrel to maintain consistent thread tension and prevent slack loops of thread from coming off the spool. It's heavier than most bobbins, and I like the extra weight for a little more thread tension when the bobbin is hanging. A little unconventional, but it has a good feel in the hand and does a superb job at the vise. It comes in a standard model and, my favorite, a midge version, which isn't one of those pointlessly scaled-down bobbins-it just has a finer-diameter tube. They run $39.95, including threader. Only lately have I come to fluorescent fly-tying lamps, which are a far and pleasant cry from the buzzing, flickering, headache-inducing horrors of days past. Fly tier and friend Shane Stalcup turned me on to the Daylight Table Top Magnifying Lamp, distributed by Hareline, which uses an 18-watt daylight-simulation tube for illumination, and a five-inch, 1.75X acrylic lens for magnification. If you don't like a magnifier, this one can easily be lifted from its socket and set aside. If you like them, this one is sized to give a full field of view. Three features set this lamp apart from a number of similar products on the market. First, a full 22-inch gooseneck on the lamp (17-inch on the magnifier) that allows optimum light positioning and keeps the base conveniently out the tying area. Second, the table-top base-a six-pound steel plate-is rock steady, the best I've seen. Third is the price; you get a lot for $95. The Daylight Tyer's Lamp, distributed by Wapsi, uses the same daylight bulb (on a shorter 18-inch neck), the same admirably heavy base plate, and the same magnifier in a more tying-specific model. The lamp has an additional gooseneck arm outfitted with a clip for holding a profile plate or other accessories, and encircling the lamp base is a bowl-shaped tray for holding beads, hooks, tools, threads, whatever, keeping small items organized and right at hand but off the bench itself. A bit more expensive than the stripped down model, but serious tiers will appreciate the many functions served by a relatively compact unit. $129.99. For precision work, the Micro-Tip Scissors from Dr. Slick are among the best I've ever seen. Very light serrations on the blades give just the right amount of grip to trim a single hackle barb or an errant filament of floss. The shearing surfaces are sharp and maintain contact throughout the stroke so that they cut right out to the very tip. But the best feature is the ultra-narrow blade profile and delicate points that allow you to get in and trim clean and close. And from the standpoint of tools, nothing promotes neater tying than sharp, close-cutting scissors. The finger loops are properly sized for an adult human being, making these comfortable to hold during tying. (Word to the wise: don't drop these; the points are fragile.) They're available in three sizes: 4-inch hair scissors ($16); 4-inch all-purpose ($15); and my hands-down favorite, the 3-inch arrow style ($14). Another favorite are the Razor Scissors. Though the fine tips are suitable for close trimming, the somewhat stouter, longer blades are ideal for heavier-duty work-trimming hair from a hide or thicker bundles of materials on saltwater patterns. The name is accurate; these are extremely sharp, which is crucial for heavier work, since dull scissors tend to mash rather than slice. And since cutting thick materials often loosens up the blades so they no longer meet well, these have a knurled nut at the center that allows you tighten the tension and keep on cutting. They come in a 4-inch model ($24) and a 5-inch one ($25). Just this season, Dr. Slick introduced its line of Jumbo Fly-Tying Tools (threader, whip finisher, rotating hackle pliers, half-hitch tools). At the business end, these are well-made tools of conventional design. What sets them apart are the big, non-rolling, hexagonal aluminum handles that are 9/16-inches wide, which offer advantages to some tiers. They are easier to see amid the clutter of a fly-tying bench and easier to pick up than slim-handled, low-profile tools. (Since the handles are identical, I color-coded mine with bands of tape for quick differentiation.) And they have some weight, which I find, at least on some tools, makes for better balance in the hand and better control. So if you like a little heft to your tools or, like me, came equipped with more thumbs than fingers, this jumbo style is worth checking out. They run $10 each. Marc Petitjean got tiers talking this year about the Magic Tool; it's been reviewed in these pages before, but a brief word is in order. This tool does dozens of things, but is at its best in gathering and aligning CDC barbs for use in a dubbing loop. If you use a lot of CDC, you really should check this one out; I've found it indispensable. It simplifies handling, multiplies uses of the material, minimizes waste, and enables tying methods that really can't be achieved any other way. If you don't tie much CDC, you probably won't see what all the fuss is about. The Magic Tool set contains three table clips (for feathers of different lengths), two sizes of clamps, and three wooden dowels for handling synthetic materials. It retails for $29.95. In fact, the uses of the tool are so various that Petitjean now offers a 33-minute instructional DVD that demonstrates its versatility It goes for $29.95. Jade River has applied its patented "slide-lock tweezers" idea to a couple of tools. The Bead Nabber is essentially a tweezers with hemispherical indentations at the tips. Shake out a few metal or glass beads into a tray; they rest on the flattened side, where the hole is. Grip them in the tweezers where they are held, squirt-proof, in the indentations. Then slide the plastic collar toward the tips to lock the tweezers shut, and the bead is held firmly, holes exposed, ready to thread on the hook. With a bit of practice you can do it all easily with one hand. It's a simple, clever idea that simplifies one of the more maddening tying procedures. Two sizes are available, one for beads 1/8-inch and larger, and one, hallelujah, for those little suckers. It runs $12.95. The Hackle Nabber hackle pliers use the same slide-lock mechanism to hold a hackle (or biot or short piece of tinsel or whatever) in the tweezer tips. Insert your finger into a ring welded to the end of the tool, and wrap away. Precise manufacturing ensures that the tweezer tips are flat and parallel to give a good hold with a large contact surface that helps minimize hackle-stem breakage. This one holds and wraps as well any standard hackle pliers I've used and is far better made. It runs $TK. made 2 fly is on a mission to organize your tying area, and a couple of products caught my eye. For all you bead tiers, the Bead Tamer Rack is solid block of wood-grain finish, medium-density pressboard drilled with 28 holes. Each holds a three-inch x 1/2-inch plastic tube with a snap cap for storing beads, cone heads, barbell or bead-chain eyes, even small hooks. It beats sorting through a bunch of zip-closing bags to find what you need, and the tubes are more convenient to access than a partitioned plastic box. It's a simple solution to one of tying's most common dilemmas-organizing a large number of small things. $24.95 The item that really caught my eye was the Waste Basket. Unlike waste-catchers that mount on the vise stem (and are impractical with pedestal vises), this is a steel-frame drawer that rides on rails mounted permanently under your bench. It slides out to give access to fabric tray that catches tying scraps, dropped hooks, and so on. The tray is shallow enough so that it won't interfere with your knees, and it detaches for emptying. This is a solidly practical solution for one tying's enduring problems-just ask my wife. It goes for $29.95. The attention given the Magic Tool has, unfortunately, obscured a couple of other Marc Petitjean tools that are also worth a look. The MP Twister, a dubbing spinner, is ingeniously done. The spring arms that hold the loop open are closed by simply sliding a coil spring up the arm wires, and a thin-diameter handle means rapid spinning. Handle and arms are hinged so that the handle can be held parallel to the shank during wrapping-a huge improvement over most similar tools-and the overall length of the tools allows your hand to easily pass by the bobbin during wrapping. It's nicely designed, very functional, slim, and lightweight. It retails for $16. Similar in design, the MP Pliers are a hinged hackle pliers. The hackle tip is captured by a narrow hook at the end of the tool and secured by sliding a coil spring up the shaft and into the hook gap. The hinge allows the tool handle to be held parallel to the shank during wrapping, a little like rotary pliers, which I find gives far better control of tension, feather orientation, and hackle placement than conventional pliers; and the wrapping motion is more natural. The unconventional grip mechanism holds a feather as well as any other hackle pliers I've used, though very small feathers require a more careful placement in the tool. The downside is that these pliers don't work as well with some of the thicker or extremely thin materials we sometimes grip with pliers-V-Rib, for instance, or biots. But for wrapping hackle, it is an ingeniously functional, high-quality tool. It runs $16. River Road Creations offers a host of options in wing and body cutters-six wing styles (mayfly, caddis, stonefly, and so on), and eight body styles (beetle, Chernobyl ant, and damsel/dragon among them), in three-six sizes each. These cutters are intended for foam and synthetic wing film, not feathers. Shaped steel cutting blades are mounted in wooden handles and are used like punches against a high-density foam-like pad (included) that preserve sharpness. And they're sharp as the dickens, cutting attractive and useful shapes quickly, consistently, with little effort. If you tie a lot of foam bodies or synthetic-film wings, these cutters will truly save you a lot of time and give better results than scissors or fingernail clippers. Prices run $6.74-$14.25 per cutter, depending on style; sets with all sizes of one style in a tool caddy are also available, $38 to $49.25. All hair stackers work in the same way, but they are not all created equal. The Simka Stacker has a couple of unusual and intelligently engineered features. Because of the closed-end design (the hair is inserted in the tube butts-first) you don't need to hold a finger over the tube end when stacking, which eliminates the awkwardness that sometimes comes with using long or wide-barrel conventional stackers. The 4-inch tube accommodates very long hair, and is nicely sized for general-purpose use. The most interesting feature is a screw-adjusting collar that determines the length of the stacked hair tips the project from the tube-extremely useful when stacking very short hair (or hackle barbs) that often extend so far from the tube of a conventional stacker that they fall out of their own weight before you can grab them. A practical, very cleanly made tool for $18. Plastic storage tubes occasionally appear on the market, and then vanish-usually because of an anemic selection of lengths and diameters, and their annoying tendency to roll off the bench. Tyers Tubes from the Valley Flyfisher avoid these drawbacks by offering a good range of sizes, all with square end-caps to prevent rolling. These are hugely useful for storing, and giving easy access to, unruly materials-Krystal Flash, Flashabou, pheasant tail, peacock and ostrich feathers, thread spools, floss tubes, and so on, and they help protect natural materials from insects. I've found them a real plus in tidying up both my bench and travel kit. Versatile and practical, they are available in 10 sizes and configurations, from the eight-inch x1/2-inch Flash Tubes ($5 for six) to the big 1.5-inch x 23-inch Pheasant Tail Tubes ($4 each). The old J. Dorin bobbins (unavailable for years now) are back. Marcos Vergara purchased the operation and is producing the tool under the name Wishbone Easy Thread Bobbin. The innovation here is a small port just below the tip of the tube; the spool thread passes on the outside of the tube, through the port, then out the tip. Not only is threading simplified, but tension can be controlled by pinching the thread against the barrel while tying, which I find has a precise and natural feel. Thread contact surfaces are rounded and polished to eliminate cutting or fraying. Five styles, including standard; fine tube (my favorite for trout flies); and long tube for saltwater work. Retail is $13.95. Wade Deeper C&F Tools www.scientificanglers.com Daylight Magnifier Lamp 541-847-5310 www.hareline.com www.wapsifly.com Dr. Slick 800-462-4474 www.drslick.com Jade River 541-679-1100 www.jaderiverinc.com Made 2 fly 303-464-0083 www.made2fly.com Marc Petitjean tools www.petitjean.com River Road Creations Wing and Body Cutters 406-777-1046 www.riverroadcreations.com Simka Stacker 559-804-0275 www.simkaproducts.com Valley Flyfisher www.tyerstubes.com Wishbone Easy Thread Bobbin 541-847-5310 www.hareline.com