Pegboards filled with foam, feathers, furs, flosses, flash, and fake eyeballs. Tools with odd names (what the heck is a whip finisher?), tools that look alike but have vastly different prices. At this point, you should have read my first article in this series "Getting started in fly tying part 1 - Vises" and might have picked a vise. Now you need a few more tools before you can start to tie. But what tools does a new tier need?
The Cutting Crew….
The craft of fly tying involves lashing materials to a hook. Almost all of those materials come attached to something else, or need to be trimmed while using them. Hair needs to be cut off the skin. Feathers tips are trimmed after they’re wrapped. Flash materials are trimmed from a bundle. You can cut these materials with lots of different tools. Good quality scissors can make these tasks much more precise.
Before you grab that pair of office scissors in the kitchen junk drawer, there are some things to consider. Most tiers will gravitate to a certain style of scissor for most use. These tend to have very fine tips and very sharp blades. Scissors like these evolved from “Iris” scissors, which have historically been used for delicate work such as eye surgery. The fine points aid with precisely cutting thread, feather tips, or other materials close to the hook. The sharp blades cut without tearing or leaving fuzzy edges behind. Popular scissors of this type are Dr. Slick and Anvil “Ice”. The scissors may have straight or curved blades. Which you use depends on what you become comfortable with. These scissors look a lot like embroidery scissors, but most of the scissors sold at places like JoAnn Fabric are still too blunt for fine work.
Being so fine, these scissors are fragile. Most fly tiers have dropped a pair on the floor and for whatever reason they always land tips down. Bent tips make them worthless for delicate work. Also, over time the delicate blades can dull from cutting heavy materials. Synthetic materials (rug yarn for example) are hard on the cutting edges. Think of your scissors as a consumable item - even the most expensive ones will wear out eventually.
For heavier tasks (synthetics, wires, plastics), most tiers have a second pair of scissors. These may be an old pair of “primaries” that have been moved back to “backup” duty after being damaged, or they may be a pair bought just for this purpose. My favorite pair for heavier work came from JoAnn Fabric. They’re a small pair of Fiskars sewing scissors, and I got them during a 50% off sale for about $7. They are cheap enough that I don’t feel bad beating on them with heavy materials.
Whatever you get, try to hold them in your hands before you buy them. You’ll be holding them a lot – it won’t help if they feel like they’re cutting off circulation in your finger. Don’t feel bad if what’s comfortable for you isn’t what you initially thought. Comfortable scissors will help you tie longer, and may help you be more accurate in your cutting. Here’s a tip – the way you tell a “pro” tier is whether they “palm” their scissors – folks who tie A LOT will never put their blades down. I wear mine on my right hand, loop around the ring finger. When I sit down to tie, I pick up my scissors before I put the first hook in the vise, and it’s rare that I ever put them down.
Bobbin and Weavin’
Bobbins are another necessary part of fly tying. The purpose of the bobbin is to hold the thread spool securely, and to direct the thread through the tip to aid in precisely wrapping the thread on the hook. The bobbin aids the tier in putting the correct tension on the thread to wrap materials securely without breaking the thread. There are a number of companies that make dozens of bobbin variants - all of them do the pretty much the same thing. They use different materials or dimensions to accomplish the same task.
At the lowest end of the price spectrum you will find bobbins with steel tubes. These bobbins can work well, or they may cause you hours of frustration. Over time the threads used in fly tying cause small grooves to be worn in the tip of the steel tube. The grooves will fray the thread, or may cut it completely. If the tube is machined right from the factory this will not happen for a while. If the tube is NOT machined right, it might cut thread right out of the package. There are some tiers who love steel-tubed bobbins. These tiers get good at polishing the tips of the tubes with a small cone-shaped stone to keep them from cutting thread.
Companies have adopted a couple of strategies to address the problems with steel tubes. The first is to embed either a ceramic or ruby ring in the end of the bobbin. Think of a little smooth donut of harder material that won’t be worn by the thread. These bobbins are a bit more expensive but don’t require maintenance. Some of my favorite bobbins are of this type. The other strategy is to make the entire tube out of a ceramic material. These bobbins are typically a bit more expensive than the ceramic tipped ones, but they’re very good quality. The downside is that the ceramic tubes are somewhat fragile. Drop the bobbin on a hardwood or tile floor, and you’ll be at the fly shop shortly to buy a new bobbin.
Bobbins also come in a number of sizes. You’ll see terms like “standard”, “midge”, “saltwater”, and “magnum”. Almost all of them will work with whatever thread you choose, but the “saltwater” and “magnum” models are designed to work with the heavier threads used in saltwater and bass tying. They may have slightly longer tubes as well. “Midge” bobbins have shorter tubes to put your hands closer to tiny flies.
My advice in bobbins is to find one with a ceramic or ruby tip in a standard size to start. Griffin and Renzetti make great bobbins, as do a number of other companies. Find one that fits your hand well, and start using it. Don’t over think it. Over time you’ll either stick with that model or find another you like better.
Reaching in the toolbox…
The bobbin and scissors are the only specialized tools that you really need to tie flies, but a few other tools can make a tier’s life easier. The first is a whip finisher. A whip finisher helps you tie the knot that finishes the fly. These come in either Thompson style or Matarelli style - almost everyone I know uses the Matarelli style. Learning to use this tool is one of the more frustrating things you’ll encounter as a fly tier. Over time, using this tool will become second nature to you. If you don’t use a whip finisher, you will be tying a series of half hitches to finish your flies – which can be more frustrating than learning to use the tool.
I also keep a pair of needle nose pliers handy. I use these on every fly to crush the barb down. This is a personal preference, but I’ve managed to hook myself several times over the years, and having the barb crushed down certainly made hook removal less of a big deal.
A pair of “reverse action” tweezers is a big help when you’re using beads. This type of tweezers has a spring action that holds the tweezers closed when at rest. This allows you to load a bead into the tweezers to aid in threading it on the hook.
A bodkin is a just a needle with a handle. This is used for applying adhesives or lacquers to flies to finish the head. I make my own, normally by epoxying the loop end of a needle into a wine cork or wooden dowel.
A hair stacker is a tube that nests into a base. When tying a fly that requires the tips of the hair to be even, a hair stacker is loaded with the hair tips down, then rapped on a table or other flat surface a number of times. This puts all the tips even at the bottom of the tool. The tool is then held sideways as the tube is removed. The tips of the hair will all be evened at the end of the tube.
The final tool to consider is a pair of hackle pliers. Hackle is a feather (normally from a rooster) that is wound around a hook, causing the barbs to stick out perpendicular to the hook shank. Hackle pliers are reverse-action clamps (closed at rest) that are clamped to a hackle feather for better control while winding it around the hook. There are a couple of different styles available at the fly shop – they all work well.
Don’t go nuts buying tools right away. I try not to buy a tool until I have a need for it. Let your tying dictate what you buy for tools. Once you have a vise, a pair of scissors, a bobbin, and maybe a whip finisher, you’re set to start with most simple flies. You can probably scare up the needle nose pliers and materials to make a bodkin around the house. The need for tools like a hair stacker and hackle pliers will come as you tackle certain patterns.
Also, buy quality when you can. There are imported tools that look very much like the ones made by “name” companies such as Dr. Slick, Matarelli, Griffin, Dyna King, Renzetti, Anvil, and Tiemco. Off-brand tools will often be half the price of similar tools. What you should remember is that the tools you buy will be with you for a long time. Spending an extra three dollars to buy a whip finisher that rotates very smoothly will pay off in spades over saving that three bucks and getting one that skips on every turn. I have one of those skipping whip finishers – I replaced it with the one I should have bought in the first place.
Use your local fly shop whenever possible. They’ve probably got the right tool waiting on the shelf now, and you can touch it and see if you like it before you buy it. To me, spending an extra couple of dollars is worth it to hold a tool before I own it.
That pretty well covers a fly tier’s took kit. In the next section, we’ll cover a bit on how to start learning to tie, and some information on tying materials.
About the Author: Abe grew up on a lake in northern MN but didn't take to fishing until years later. Now Abe fly fishes for trout, stripers, and bass in his local Tennessee waters. He also travels to Florida several times a year to chase saltwater fish on a fly rod. He volunteers for his local Casting for Recovery chapter, and has demonstrated fly tying at several events. Abe has also managed to catch rainbow trout on a fly rod within the city limits of Las Vegas.