This FAQ will discuss recommended tools for someone just starting out in tying, and give some examples of some of the different types of tools that are out there and their uses-- including some you can make yourself, as well as some suggestions for folks on a budget.
Because of the wide variety of styles and prices of vises, and personal preferences of tyers, we'll leave them out of the this discussion-
First, a selection of basic tools, then we'll go in depth a little more in different options
Basic Fly tying tools for tying trout flies*, from left:
Standard English Style hackle pliers about $2
3 1/2 - 4" long scissors with fine point and aligned tips ranging from $5 imports to better quality Dr Slick or Anvil $13-20
Bodkin about $2
Standard size thread bobbin ranging from $7 for decent Griffin Metal Tube to more expensive ceramic tube bobbins 13-to $25. Avoid cheap imports.
bobbin threader- $2
double ended hair stacker
Optional but recommended:
Bottom row Matarelli whip finisher (about $20) (or "Materelli style" import for about $7)
Griffin Hook and Hackle Gauge about $5 (see hackle plier section)
Note: for folks primarily tying large saltwater flies, a hair stacker may not be necessary since bucktail can be roughly evened out by hand. But if you want a stacker for large flies look for one with a long enough barrel to accommodate the length of the hair you'll be using.
Let's take a look at different tools, and discuss their uses.
- avoid cheap imports, they tend to fall apart easily, have rough metal edges that cut thread. Minimum acceptable Griffin metal tube bobbin about $7, better are bobbins with ceramic tubes or tips ) less likely to cut thread) from Griffin and others ranging in price from $13-25. You'll eventually want to have several bobbins for different colors or diameters of thread. Rather than buying expensive bobbins right off the bat, if you're on a budget, buy a less expensive ones to start. As you add more bobbins down the road, use the best bobbins on the spools of thread you use the most.
Here's a pic of some different types of bobbins:
Standard size - recommended for best all around use with regular sized thread spools
Small- used on small size flies with regular sized thread spool
"Midge" or "Micro" bobbin- sized for small spools including Pearsall's silk used on soft hackles and other classic wet flies
"Magnum" bobbin - longer and built of heavier wire, magnum bobbins fit standard sized spools. Useful with strong thread used with heavy torque spinning deer hair bass bugs or tying large saltwater patterns.
- A decent pair of scissors will be a be a big help. Look for a pair with precisely aligned tips, a fine point, about 3 1/2- 4" in overall length, and big enough loops for your fingers. You may already have a suitable pair of "needlepoint" scissors sitting around the house. And there are some decent imports for around $5 if you're on a budget, but again make sure the tips align precisely before you buy. Better scissors from Dr Slick or Anvil ranging from $12-20 are popular among fly tyers and will last a long time. If you do upgrade, hang on to your inexpensive pair too, and use it for cutting rough stuff like bucktail, deer and elk hair, coarse synthetics and fine wire that will wear down the blades of more expensive scissors
Dr Slick Microtip (about $18)
no name Asian import $5
Hackle Pliers and Hackle Gauge
Luckily hackle pliers are inexpensive, so maybe you'll have better luck that I've had finding a pair that works well for their intended purpose- winding hackle. The English style or the pushbutton type seem to work the best for me, but others prefer different styles. For the most part though, I wind hackle by hand. But hackle pliers can be useful to wind that last 1/2" of tinsel or chenille, or to use as a third hand to hold wire or chenille in place by gripping an end of material and letting the weight of the pliers hold it in place while you're working with thread.
A hackle gauge like the Griffin Hook and Hackle Gauge (about $6) has a hole that fits the stem of your vise. It's helpful when you're starting out to quickly distinguish the size 14 hooks from the size 16 hooks, and to "size" hackle by bending the stem around the pin and reading off where the tips of the barbs fall on the concentric rings of the gauge to maintain proper proportions in your flies. (The gauge is used for sizing dry fly hackle where the length of the barbs is typically 1.5x the width of the gape of any given size hook.) There are other more expensive hackle gauges out there, but the Griffin is widely available, inexpensive, easy to read and also includes a gauge to size hooks.
Tools for winding hackle
1st and 2nd column Top row: English style standard and midge about $2 each
1st and 2nd column middle row: "Duplex" rubber pad non-skid type also $2
1st and 2nd Column bottom row: Tear drop hackle plier also $2, Griffin hackle and hook gauge about $6
3rd column: Rotating hackle plier about $7
4th column: Test clips from Radio Shack, (similar/odentical to but less expensive than push button plastic EZee Hackle Pliers found in shops) about $3.50 for a pack of 2
- for precisely aligning the tips of hair on patterns like the dry flies with hair wings and/or tails- including Elk Hair Caddis, Wulffs, Trudes, Stimulators, Sparkle Duns, Comparaduns etc. Having a double ended stacker is helpful for tying both small and medium sized flies. For larger flies, including bucktail streamers, saltwater patterns etc, “Magnum” stackers are available. But rather than having precisely aligned tips, such large patterns often look better with roughly aligned tips rather than a “paintbrush” of precisely aligned tips. On large streamers, this can easily be done by hand using bucktail and similar materials. Although a bit more expensive, brass is preferred by many tyers since it seems to be less susceptible to static electricity than aluminum or plastic.
Aluminum double ended hair stacker about $12
"Magnum" hair stacker for bucktail
- basically just a needle on a stick this is a handy tool for freeing hackle barbs trapped under a thread wrap, picking out dubbing on nymphs and wets, and for precisely applying cement to the heads of flies. Make your own by sticking a needle in a cork, or any import (about $2) is fine, but get one with a hex shaped handle to prevent it from rolling off your bench.
- no you don’t need one and you should learn to do them by hand. Still, a whip finisher can be very helpful for precisely seating the knot and for working on small flies. There are a couple different styles of whip finishers, but many tyers (including me) prefer the Mattarelli. A genuine Mattarelli will run $18-20, but “Mattarelli style” imports are also available from $7 and up.
Standard Matarelli Whip Finisher
Extended Reach Matarelli Whip Finisher for tying off at the rear of hook on patterns like Zonkers, or large streamers using mylar tube bodies.
That's it for the basic stuff but here's some more tools for some specialized purposes, and includes some you can make your self pretty easily or already have hanging around the house....
If you tie bass bugs or spin deer hair for patterns like muddlers, a hair packer can be helpful to get nice dense heads, although you can also just do it buy hand. Basically you just spin a clump of hair, put the packer over the eye of the hook and push to the rear to get a densely packed head, tying on additional clumps as needed. You can buy a brass one for around $6 or just use the top of a ball point pen. Single or double edged razor blades help shape spun deer hair heads.
Brass hair packer
pack of razor blades for final trimming of deer hair
homemade hair packer- just the top of a ball point pen
If you tie a lot of buggy looking dubbed nymphs, especially large ones you may want to use a dubbing loop instead of just applying dubbing to the single strand of tying thread. Dubbing wax will last a long time-- this tube of Orvington's Wonder Wax no longer made is probably older than many of our members. Any wax will work though, and you can run your thread through the side of a candle. There are all kinds of tools for picking dubbing out on flies, but you can make many of them yourself.
Dubbing tools from left:
2 Dubbing whirlers used for creating dubbing loops
Candle (can be used as dubbing wax)
Toothbrush and a velcro dubbing brush (homemade by Jimmie) for picking out dubbing on nymphs, leeches and other wet flies
Not really a tool I guess, but some sort of head cement is useful to have. Fly shops carry a variety of lacquer based cements, as well as water based cements that have less toxic chemicals. And Sally Hansen's Hard As Nails is great for larger sized flies because it's a bit thicker and covers well. It's also available from any drug store. Lacquer based cements including Sally's can be thinned with lacquer thinner from a hardware store (cheaper than fly shop thinners) and water based cements can be thinned with water or colorless alcohol (rubbing alcohol or vodka.)
More miscellaneous tools, from left:
12" ruler for measuring materials and proportions
Needle nosed pliers for crushing barbs on large hooks and smaller pliers for freshwater hooks
Hook file for saltwater flies and large freshwater hooks (ball point pen sized hook hones for trout sized flies are also available)
tweezers for plucking stray hairs or hackle barbs, picking up small materials etc
How to find your tools and save your marriage
If your tying desks is anything like mine, putting down a tool means there's a good chance you won't be seeing it again for awhile. having something to hold your extra bobbins, scissors etc and keep them within reach is a big asset. The Renzetti Tool Caddy (about $20) is great for this. You can also make simple versions yourself out of wood and a drill. And having somewhere to catch your snippings, bits of fluff and other waste can be wise. You can buy fancy ones, or rig up your own simple waste catcher.
More misc items on left:
Renzetti Tool Caddy
Waste-Trol attached to stem of vise to catch clippings and other waste
home made hardwood tool caddy attached to stem of vise with holes drilled for vise stem and for assorted tools like bobbins etc.
Home made waste catcher - just a plastic bag from grocery store with one handle slipped over vise stem.
Profile plates to eliminate background clutter. you can buy commercially made plates for $30-40 that fit on the stem of your vise, or you can make you own background out of cardboard. If you want to get fancy you could staple construction paper in a light shade as background on one side of the cardboard and dark shade on the other side.
Here's a "homemade" version- just a neutral gray color cardboard sheet propped up behind vise
commercially available light blue profile plate attached to stem of vise