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The humble hackle pliers
Hackle pliers are simple tools for a simple task: handling hackles. But there might be more to the story of these humble tools.
Some tyers hardly tie a fly without using a set of hackle pliers. For hackling or for holding materials, hackles as well as other things like thread. The third hand can come in... eh... handy... when you need to control something and have run out of thumbs and index fingers. It also enables you to grab materials that can be hard to pinch between your fingers like really fine and short hackles.
The absolute most common job for the hackle pliers is to hackle: grabbing a feather and wrapping it around the body, a shank or a post.
The pliers have a good grip, allows you to control position and direction – and not least twist – of the feather. Some tyers can hardly wrap a hackle without this tool.
For some types of feathers, the tool is almost essential, like a really short partridge, pheasant or hen feathers, simply because it's hard to grab the short feather stem with your fingers.
Sometimes the pliers also serve as a weight, keeping the hackle taught while doing something else, allowing you to leave it freely dangling while finishing another step and then continuing working with the hackle.
In spite of being called hackle pliers, the tool can of course also grab and wrap yarn, tinsel, herl, quills, tying thread, material loops and much else.
The basic pliers
The basic plies is a simple tool: a piece of metal, flattened in each end and bent and crossed to form a set of spring loaded jaws. You press the pliers to open the jaws and the spring closes them again. This model is often referred to as the English style pliers.
The jaws are mostly just flattened metal, maybe serrated a bit on the inside, and it should seem trivial to make these grab a feather.
But don't be fooled: if the jaws aren't well made and precise, they won't be able to grab the thin hackle stems or thin materials like tying thread. At the same time you don't want the jaws to be extremely tight or have any sharp edges that can potentially cut or fray the material.
For the same reasons you will find lots of hackle pliers that have different types of plastic or rubber padding that will make them softer and let them grab the material more securely.
Traits of good pliers
They are easy to open, but still close with adequate force.
They grab the material securely and don't allow it to shift or slip.
They have no sharp edges on the jaws, avoiding the risk of cutting or marking fragile materials.
They can be handled easily when opening and wrapping.
They are not too heavy, but sufficiently heavy to hold materials tight when dangling.
Even though the classic pliers are simple tools made from one piece of wire, there are many other models, ranging from something almost as simple to something really advanced and intricate.
The most basic ones are simply bent steel wire with a set of jaws. They allow you to put a finger through the tool and wrap by simply passing the finger around the fly. This is sometimes called the English hackle pliers.
Some pliers are made from plate in stead of wire making them easier to grip and handle. The basic function is still the same.
Another variation is adding small handles or grip plates that gives a better grip on the round wire.
Some clamp style pliers are shaped more like tweezers, sometimes referred to as nabbers. They are flat and have no room for a finger, so some have a ring attached.
The drop shaped model is not crossed but opens by pressing the rear end of the drop together, forcing the jaws to open.
If the the plate type is made small enough and has a slit cut in the rear, it can be mounted dangling on a shaft, giving you a handle to grab and making wrapping the hackle even easier.
On many models the shaft is replaced by a ring, which allows you to use a single finger to hold the tool, still with more flexibility than the simple, rigid model.
Some clamps come with different mechanisms to protect the feather you are grabbing. Springs or rubber is the common solution, adding an elastic link between your fingers and the clamp itself, allowing for some movement without risking damage to fragile materials.
Look at the TyFlyz mode not to mention South African Jay Smit's pliers and you will see that the variations are endless. Some simplify, some make more complex, but all strive to grab hackle as firmly as possible and make wrapping as easy as possible.
While the classic jaws are by far the most common way to grab the material, there are alternatives.
Hook and tube
This consists of a tube and a hook, which can slide inside this tube - or in some cases the tube slides outside the hook in the form of a sleeve. The function is the same. The material is grabbed by the hook and secured by the tube as the hook retracts or the tube slides over it.
Bar and hook
This type of clamp, which is often made from one single piece of round wire, simply grabs the material by having one end of the wire press it into a hook bent in the other end of the wire. Its shape makes it springy, and not only does it hold onto the material quite well, but it's also easy to handle and lightweight.
The nabbers look like a pair of tweezers, where the jaws are closed by a sliding sleeve, so that they can be kept closed as you work with the material.
Personally I actually rarely use hackle pliers, even for short hackles such as partridge or feathers with fragile tips like delicate hen feathers or golden pheasant body feathers. I do sometimes give in, but in most cases I prefer using my fingers. For longer and larger hackles such as dry fly saddle hackle, streamer hackles, wet fly hackles and such, I personally feel that I have better control using my fingers. For finer feathers I find that I often end up breaking the stem when I use a tool. When I use pliers I prefer the classic model, which is lightweight and easy to handle, and I have had a pair of simple Tiemco plate steel hackle pliers in my box for more years than I remember, and prefer this simple model.
Please note that this article isn't - and is not meant to be - a complete test or overview over the market.
I try to cover as many products and brands as possible, mainly with the purpose of covering the different basic types.
There are brands, which aren't mentioned, but I hope that there are no essential types of hackle pliers left out.
The list below is simply based on what I could get my hands on.
The ones I used
Japanese C&F makes some really nice tools, but also know what to charge for them. Where an ordinary set of pliers from other manufacturers will typically cost about 4-5 US$ and a great brand name set maybe costs twice that, C&F charges a galloping 45-50 US$ for their simple CFT-120 and CFT-140 ring handled models and up to an even wilder 65 US$ for their long handled rotary model.
These prices are in no way justified by the nice finish and good function. Sure the tools are nicely made and work really well, but they are simply too expensive!
A lot of way less expensive alternatives do just as well.
C&F Design fly tying tools.
This is one of those things that surprises you with its simplicity and efficiency. It's a very simple clamp, which is bent from one piece of round wire and has a hook in one end, into which the material is pinched by the other end. Simple, efficient, easy to handle. By covering the non-hook end with a plastic tube, the grip is made very reliable, and the tool is really good to use.
Dorin also has a teardrop shaped set of pliers, much like the ones from Griffin.
Both Dorin tools are very hard to find on the market, though. Many shops list them, but can't deliver. When you find it, expect to pay about 5-6 US$ for each.
Dr. Slick hackle pliers
Dr Slick is the tool maker par excellence and of course has some excellent, no frills hackle pliers in their assortment.
I had a handful to play with, from the simple spring clamp to the complex rotary model. All are well made and work just as expected. Dr. slick has four different clamp models: brass, steel, plate steel and plate tool steel. The plate models have a rubber pad that locks against a small plate and have a very firm grip. The simpler clamps have a piece of plastic over one jaw to aide the grip.
On top of that Dr. Slick has two rotary models with small plate clamps, one long and one short. The long model can be had with a bamboo handle. All work really well and are very well made.
The Dr. Slick tools are probably the most widely copied tools in the trade, but if you have tried handling the original next to a copy, you will notice an obvious difference. The Slick tools use better materials, work with way better tolerances, and it attests to this fact that the cheap Pakistani copy I have of Dr. Slick's Rotary Hackle Pliers has both rust and oxidation on the brass parts.
Dr. Slick isn't an expensive brand, but not the cheapest either. Prices are very fair considering the quality, and buying their tools is always a safe bet. The tools are probably among the most widely available ones you can find, and basically any tackle shop with some self respect will have Dr. Slick tools on the shelves.
The Grffin pliers I handled are teardrop shaped, made from flat steel. They grab materials really well, but the grab comes at a price: the pliers are pretty tight to press together and open. The jaws also only opens slightly, and passing them over thicker materials like yarn or a fluffy feather might be a problem. That makes them quite awkward to use, particularly on brittle materials, where it's difficult to release them without using a lot of force and risk tearing or breaking something.
The pliers are quite cheap at 3 UK£ or about 4 US$, and have a very nice finish, but I still wouldn't recommend them because of their tightness.
Griffin has other alternatives, which include a keyhole shaped model at 3-4 US$ and a handled rotary one typically sold at 10 US$. I didn't handle other models than the teardrop shaped, but Griffin tools can be found many places.
South African Jay Smit is probably best known for his Jvice, which is a fly tying vise beyond the usual. The hackle pliers that Smit makes are also beyond the usual – large, complex, sturdy, beautiful. Most pliers are simple constructions of wire or plate bent into shape, but Smit's are complex and made from many pieces, screwed together with springs and hinges. The workmanship is impeccable and the function as expected. The pliers are slightly on the heavy side, and some tiers will not find them suitable for the finest materials. They are certainly an impressing tool in any fly tyer's arsenal. And compared to the complexity, they are surprisingly inexpensive, sold at only 14.50 US$.
Jay Smit's JVice site.
Swiss Marc Petitjean also has different approaches when it comes to designing tools, and his MP Plier is also very different from anything else in this article. It's a hook model, but in stead of locking the material inside a tube using the hook, it has a spring running on the shaft of the hook, pressing the materials into the hook as you slide it. The construction is simple and pretty ingenious at the same time, letting the spring both grab the materials securely and protecting them by yielding a little.
The tool really comes into its right when wrapping fluffy feathers such as marabou and in particular CDC, which is Petitjean's trademark material, but can also grab hackle stems and tips. But it's not quite as elegant and easy to use when you need to grab really delicate and soft hackle tips or barbs on short feathers such as partridge or golden pheasant. Once it sits there, it's usually locked very well in place. Getting a hold of the finest things such as tying thread or single flash straws is almost impossible. These just slide between the coils of the spring. Thicker materials like zonker strips are also a no go. They simply won't fit into the narrow hook.
But for wrapping fluffy feathers, CDC in particular, as well as ordinary hackle and most other materials, the MP tool is easy and efficient to use.
As is the case with most of Petitjean's tools it's not cheap. In spite of its seemingly simple construction, it will run you 25 Euros or about 27 US$. If you order from Petitjean's web site, add 13 Euros or 15 US$ in postage. You can find the MP tools in other shops - online and out in the real world too.
Thanks to Barry Ord Clarke from The Featherbender for providing a tool.
This set of pliers is a really, really large and crude construction made from the lousiest materials with the worst finish I have seen in a tying tool for a long time. It's the first time ever I have received a new tying tool with rust on it! And not just a few stains, but large amounts of deep rust. And on top of that, the only place where it has an effect, namely inside the ring where you hold the pliers while wrapping. It simply makes it impossible to use the tool as intended.
It's called the Swiss Hackle Pliers, but has definitely never seen even a hint of Switzerland. Pakistani Hackle Pliers is more like it, and not anything nearly worth the 3 UK£ I paid for them. Inexpensive or not, they are useless.
I bought mine online at Glasgow Angling Center, who ought to immediately take the remaining stock off their shelves and do some better quality checks on their products - both before they stock them and before they send them to customers.
Glasgow Angling Center
Italian manufacturer Stonfo has quite a few fly tying tools in its catalogue, including a series of hackle pliers. All are characterized by the round plastic handles, which fit nicely on a finger. There are two basic constructions: the standard clamp type and the tubular pinching type referred to as hook and tube above.
The clamp type has a spring between the handle and the clamp, protecting the material and allowing for some play as you use the tool. The tube type have a sliding tube, which locks the material against a hook, and have a really firm grip. They will grab basically any material from the finest to thick ones such as skin strips, and also grabs several feathers at once.
Both types are very well made with a great design and finish, and are fairly lightweight. Prices range from less than 10 US$ for the simplest clamp model to about 15 US$ for the tube and hook models, which must be said to be very fair prices for these excellent tools.
Stonfo has become widely available with lots of dealers, both online and in bricks and mortar.
Stonfo's web site.
This was a set of pliers that I ordered online, attracted by their good looks and the option to get my hands on the so called "non-slip" model where a rubber pad secures the grip.
The tool is cool looking in its blue varnish, and has a good shape. It's a little too tight, though, and paradoxically enough the rubber pad and the tightness does not lead to a good grip, and the pliers are among the more slippery of the ones I have used. I paid 5 UK£ or about 6 US$ for my set, but the list price is just 4 US$ on the Streamworks site.
Streamworks also has two handled rotary models at pretty good prices.
Streamworks is a Nevada based brand specializing in inexpensive tools, which are sold by a number of dealers worldwide, but you can also order online on their own site.
Tiemco has a handful of different models: a simple flat steel model simply called TMC Hackle Pliers, the ring handle model called TMC Ring Hackle Pliers and a handled rotary model called TMC Spinning Hackle Pliers.
All are well made with excellent material grip, very fairly priced at about 5.-, 8.- and 20.- US$ respectively, and definitely a great value for the money, especially for the two less expensive models.
The simple pliers are perfect: has a good grip, but is still easy to open. They can grab even very thick materials and are suitably heavy to keep things tight when left alone. The rubber ringed model is neat, compact and great for small feathers since the rubbery ring protects from hard or sudden pulls.
Tiemco is widely available and can be bought in most fly tackle shops.
I have bought tools and materials at Romanian Troutline before, and can only recommend trying this excellent online shop.
They sell quite a few brand name products, but also have a selection on no-name tools, usually in quite a good quality. I handled a couple of their simple sets of pliers – called Finger Grip and English pliers – as well as an exquisite bamboo handled rotary model, most likely a Dr. Slick copy, but very well made.
Prices are fair and compare well to the quality. The simple models are about 1.5 Euros or less than 2 US$ and the bamboo model about 17 Euros or 18.50 US$.
The model I bought is essentially a copy of the Griffin/Dorin style teardrop clamp. It's slightly different in its hinge design, but similar in the function and has a really good grip. The finish of the tool isn't impressing, but the price is on the other hand very reasonable.
I paid about 2 UK£ for my tool, and at that price it's a bargain. The pliers are better than the Griffin model that they were probably "inspired by" and will make an excellent tool for those who like the teardrop shaped tools. Personally I prefer models that open wider.
Turall also has a cable test clip model as well as a couple of plain pliers, which I didn't try.
Turall tools are sold by a number of dealers, and are mainly available in the UK.
In spite of its simple shape, this is actually a quite complex little tool. It's really neat and efficient, very lightweight and very easy to handle and use.
It's a single piece of steel wire bent to a D-shape and mounted with a brass sleeve on the straight piece. This brass tube has a hole in it that allows the wire to pass through. This wire is then bent at a perpendicular angle and presses the material against the flattened end of the tube. Simple, reliable and very good to work with. Price and availability varies, but expect to pay 8-12 US$ for the TyFlyz depending on the dealer.
TyFlyz is sold by a number of dealers, and are quite easy to find online. I bought mine from Trout Line in Romania.
TyFlyz by Troutline
If you buy hackle pliers in most fly shops or order the cheapest tools online, you are most likely getting Pakistani or Chinese tools. These are generally crude copies of the brand name products, and while you can sometimes get some decent tools at a good price, you mostly get some pretty lousy tools, often made with no idea of the basic function and purpose and oftentimes made with really bad tolerances and miserable finish.
So while you can get something useful, you also risk getting something basically useless. But of course they are cheap. Prices start as low as 1 or 2 dollars depending on the model, but spring 5 dollars for a Dr. Slick or Tiemco tool in stead or make a tool from a cable test clip yourself.
The ones I didn't handle
I would have loved to play with Wasatch's different models, which are nice and quite different with beautiful wooden handles. Griffins models other than the teardrop. More of C&F designs vastly overpriced models. They could be worth the price, maybe?
The story of my life
As always when doing these in depth articles, I reach out to all relevant manufacturers and try to get samples to try and to photograph.
Italian Stonfo always reacts promptly, and Romanian Trout Line are also very alert and service minded. Thanks guys! In all fairness I have to say that also I got a reaction AND products from Dr. Slick. That's a first, and I thank them for their cooperation.
And as always I'm surprised how appallingly bad most companies are are returning to me. In a surprising number of cases I get no reaction at all. None! Not even a formal confirmation that they have received my mail. Some return with an automated mail and then nothing. I feel lucky when a few actually react and provide information, images and sometimes even products.
I really, really (lie REALLY!) don't understand why. Are they constantly overrun by requests for free stuff, and simply choose to ignore such contact attempts? Are they overloaded by requests and can't find the time to reply. Does their systems simply store all mails in the eternal bitstream, never to be found again? Why have contact email and forms then?
It's free marketing for crissake!
Provide a bit of info and get free coverage on one of the largest web sites on fly fishing and fly tying. Like in free, no payment, cheap, inexpensive. A few wholesale samples and some postage or even just some good press images will bring you more customer contact than any paid magazine ad can.
I tried the usual suspects plus a few new names:
Petitjean: No reaction. When whining on Facebook I did get a reaction from an online tying friend, Barry Ord Clarke from The Featherbender, who had a tool available.
C&F Design: No reaction. I borrowed one model from a friend.
Griffin: No reaction. I bought a set online.
Tiemco: A automated reply, then no reaction. I used what I had and bought a set in a shop.
Wasatch: No reply to my mails, which surprises me. Wasatch has been very helpful before.
Dorin: I tried to find the manufacturer of these tools, but could not track them down. No trace anywhere. A friend had the wire model, which I borrowed.
Tom Trozera Hackle Nabbers: No reply from the only place I found them online - LaFontaine Private Label.
These companies have interesting products, some very different from what I already had, and it's really a pity for both you and them that I can't cover them in detail.
Some products I simply buy myself or borrow from friends. Getting hands on cheap Pakistani and Chinese tools is much easier to do on eBay or Amazon than through any formal channels. They're cheap, and I don't mind spending the money. As I've said before: I'm not in it for the freebies. Heck, I even don't use hackle pliers that often, so it's not the aim to fill the toolbox.
What I use
As I started out saying: I'm not as dependent on hackle pliers as many tiers I know. I can tie for weeks not missing one, but when I need it, I mostly use my simple, no frills Tiemco pliers. These 5-dollar pliers have served me well for decades and are fine for what I use them for most often: grabbing really short feathers like partridge and golden pheasant and holding on to loose materials while I finish other tying steps.
Depending on your temper you might want a hook model. I recommend trying a simple cable test clip first. A lot of tiers do very well with that. Alternatively the Italian Stonfo tools are innovative, very well made and priced, and will serve most tiers well. The same goes for Dr. Slick's tools, which are more traditional if you prefer that. If you are more in favor of the long handled rotary style, Dr. Slick has some great tools and some of the alternatives like the ones from Trout Line will also do the job well.
The absolutely cheapest tools can be good, but when Dr. Slick's or Tiemco's simple models can be bought for as little as 5 US$, there's no reason to go cheaper.
I would also personally shy away from any of the really expensive tools in the 20 US$ plus range. In my experience they don't do anything that the less expensive alternatives can't do. You might like the high end luxury or the brand names, but I'd spend the money on good materials in stead.
You can make your own hackle pliers. The easiest model to make is the ring handled cable test clip. Buy a set of test clips on eBay or in your local electronics store. They ought to be less than a dollar a piece. You may have to buy 10, which will enable you to make gifts for fly tying friends. Buy a handful of simple, round split key chain rings, 1 inch or a little less in diameter. They should run you less than a dollar for 10.
Get out a drill and drill through the "handle" of the clip. It typically has a hole in one side already, meant for an electrical plug. Once the hole goes all through, simply mount a key chain ring in the hole, et viola! You have a set of 1 dollar hackle pliers.
If you are a little more adventurous, you can embark on some wire bending and make yourself a simple tool. I have found that stainless steel bicycle spokes are perfect. If you don't have any, most bike smiths have bunches of them that have been cut off wheels and are thrown out and can be had for free. Buying them from new won't break the bank either. Get some with the "head" still on. That enables you to use the head as a "hook" as you can see on the pictures, and saves you shaping a hook yourself.
The bending isn't critical as long as the bar and hook are made right and pressed together by the springy wire. Simply make sure it's flat, and open it so much that when you close it and pass the bar around the head/hook, it sits as tight as possible. Draw some rubber, silicone or heat shrink tube over the bar to give the tool a better grip.