It is not difficult to dress a fly. It’s simply a matter of learning a few basic techniques. Having the right tools and materials makes the job so much easier.
As a beginner, you will face the combined weight of many different companies’ advertising campaigns, telling you why you should buy their vice or bobbin holder. You will also encounter the enthusiastic fly tyer who swears by the vice he’s used for 45 year which is no longer available but really “nothing else will do”.
Choosing your first vice and tools is a bit like buying your first car: very exciting, potentially expensive, but easy to end up with something poorly made and not up to the task.
The Fly Dressers’ Guild does not represent any particular company nor do we endorse one product over another. However there are a few basic principles which – if applied to fly dressing tools and especially vices – will help you avoid the pitfalls caused by lack of knowledge.
Firstly the vice. Prices vary between £20 and £600+. These prices reflect quality of build, number of functions, design features and in some cases an inflated profit margin. Before choosing a vice ask yourself this going to be just another hobby or something you will do for the rest of your life. If the answer is “a hobby” or “don’t know yet”, then just spend a little on a basic vice. It will serve you well enough until you decide whether you’ll be tying flies for a while or moving on to another hobby. If you just know that fly tying will be a lifelong pastime, then buy the best vice you can afford. It’s worth bearing in mind that cheap vice will have little or no resale value but a good quality top end vice could return you up to 75% of cost if in good condition.
When you have decided on your price range, look for a vice that is suitable for the type of flies you wish to tie. Make sure the jaws hold the sizes of hooks you need for those flies. Some vices work well on small hooks and less well on larger ones and vice versa.
Next, decide which features you need (or want) on the vice. Cheaper models tend to have fixed heads, so you can’t adjust the angle or rotate them horizontally. But some vices with adjustable and/or rotating heads have poor quality screws and fittings, so will not stay tight, despite the higher price tag. Ideally the head on your vice will rotate and have an adjustable angle, although these are not imperative features.
How the vice is attached to the table is the next question. If your mother/ partner/ wife/ husband is particularly proud of the dining room table, then fitting a dirty great metal clamp to the edge may not go down too well. On the other hand, nor will scratching the surface with a pedestal stand – if the clamp or pedestal come with no protection, stick some felt or cork on the bottom. As for which option to go for, both clamps and pedestals have their uses: if you are tying in the same place all the time, a clamp works well enough but if you move from room to room, or will be taking your vice to fly tying lessons and may not always have a table edge to use, a pedestal may be better.
When buying your vice, make sure the stem is long enough for your hands to work underneath the head. As a novice fly dresser, you will probably be grateful for a few inches extra stem length that stops you rapping your knuckles on the table edge.
Some well-known brands that have stood the test of time include (in alphabetical order): Atlas, Dyna-King, HMH, Peak, Regal, Scottie, Snowbee, and Sunrise. Many of these have been copied.
Fly tying tools
For tools, a basic selection will suffice until you feel like progressing to more and/ or more exotic and expensive tools.
Scissors are the most important item. Ideally you need a pair that are sharp, cut right to the tip and have a fine point. This allows you to trim waste materials close to the hook without leaving unsightly residue. A second pair with a strong serrated blade is idea for cutting thicker materials. Many advanced fly dressers hold the scissors in their hand all the time to save time, so you might want to choose a pair that is comfortable with large finger holes. Instead of traditional scissors, spring scissors can also be used.
The next three tools are of most use to a new fly dresser.
There are many types of bobbin holder (again, with a wide range of prices) but essentially, it is a device with two arms that clip onto a spool of tying silk (or thread) and a tube at the top through which the silk runs. The bobbin holder enables the fly dresser to hold a reservoir of silk and adjust tension as required, by squeezing the arms of the holder while tying or through ratchet or slide mechanisms on the more expensive models.
Hackle pliers (or a hackle clamp) are a device, often spring loaded, that hold the tip or stem of a feather so that it can be wound around the hook. Very useful for small feathers and soft hackles where fingers are too large to get a good grip or the feathers are too small. A variety of types and sizes can be purchased. Check that the edges of the jaws are not sharp or they will cut through your materials. A quick rub with emery paper or the addition of a small piece of silicone tubing will cure this problem.
The dubbing needle has many uses in fly tying – picking out dubbing, applying varnish to the heads of finished flies, clearing dried varnish from the eye of a fly, undoing knots, picking up small sections of feather, separating feather fibres, etc. A large darning needle with a fine point embedded in a piece of balsa wood works as well as the most expensive needle. Grandma’s hat pins (or non-related ones from your local charity shop) are also good options.
Last, but not least, to finish off a fly, a whip finish tool is often advocated. Unsurprisingly, these creations come in many different sizes and shapes and suit some fly dressers. Others hate them with a vengeance. Learning to do a hand whip finish is preferable – it avoids spending time on learning how to use the tool and then hunting it out on your table each time you finish a fly. An equally good way to finish a fly is with a series of half hitches applied by hand or with the aid of a half hitch tool (such as the outer casing of a basic biro or purpose-built equivalents).
A look on the bench of any experienced and dedicated fly dresser will reveal dozens of varieties of these tools, in all the colours and all the sizes, often home-made or adapted to suit the individual. As your fly dressing progresses, you are probably going to be tempted to acquire more of these “toys”, but it pays to spend some time first working out which ones you really like and/or would use!
To get a good idea of what you want, talk to other fly tyers and visit your fly tying shop. They will hold a selection of vices and tools and allow you to handle them and get an idea of how they work. Then please do try to repay the time and knowledge they’ve invested in you by buying your vice or tools from them. The British Fly Fair International and other fly tying shows are good places to meet the sellers and compare vices and tools. You should also look out for FDG branch auctions, which are often a good source of bargains.