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Most people use a bobbin holder when they tie flies. In spite of being a simple tool there are some pretty advanced models out there. This is a look at the ins and outs of bobbin holders.
A bobbin or a thread bobbin is the spool that holds your fly-tying thread and if you aren't one of the magicians who tie in the hands with basically no tools, you need something to hold that bobbin. You need a bobbin holder.
Some people just call the tool a bobbin, but to me the bobbin is the thread spool, and the bobbin holder holds that spool. Your mileage may vary.
In most cases the bobbin holder is a very simple tool with two wire legs that grab the thread spool under tension and feeds the tying thread through a tube. The construction gives you something to hold on to and makes sure that the thread doesn't come uncontrollably fast off the spool simply caused by the friction between the holder and the bobbin.
You can even let it hang under the fly while pausing your tying, preparing materials or assessing your work, and the weight of the bobbin and the holder will provide enough tension to keep the fly from unraveling.
Broken down in its basic parts most bobbin holders have three of which the two are basically identical. There's a tube and two legs.
The holder is mostly Y-shaped or wishbone shaped, and you pinch the spool between the two legs and feed the thread through the tube. You are ready to tie.
But in spite of being really simple there's a lot of different models out there from the really primitive, just consisting of the above parts, to the very complex and elaborately constructed with nuts, springs, washers, tension adjustment and many intricate details.
Even the simple ones may not be as simple as they seem. The material choice in the arms and not least in the "hubs" which hold the bobbin is critical. Some manufacturers use plastic, some use Teflon, nylon or delrin while other use metal - steel, brass or aluminum.
Metal, ceramics, foam
One other really critical part of the bobbin holder is the tube and in particular the inside of the tube. In principle this could simply be the inside of the metal tube, but for practical reasons it's often lined with an other material.
The reason for this is that the tube metal has a tendency to wear the thread unless polished to perfection, which is difficult on the inside of a thin tube.
Wearing the thread is undesirable because the worn thread will break or at least fray, which is very unwelcome when tying. Some of the cheap and really badly made bobbin holders will simply cut the thread under the least bit of tension, and are essentially useless for normal tying threads.
Lining with ceramics is the most common method of countering the wear, and most modern bobbin holders have an inner tube made from a ceramic material while others simply have a full ceramic tube with no metal around it. Other high-end bobbin holders have a meticulously polished metal tube, which will of course work just as well. An important difference between ceramics and metal is that metal leads away heat much better than the highly insulating ceramic materials, thus keeping the thread from heating up, which is undesirable and can weaken the thread, affect waxed thread and have infleunce on the tying.
One single brand - C&F Design - offers a slitted foam plug in the rear of the tube, which will keep the thread from accidentally being pulled out of the tube, but also always requires that a stiff threader is used to thread the bobbin holder.
One of the prime tasks of the bobbin holder is to feed out the thread perfectly, preferably under a constant tension, which should ideally be close enough to the breaking strength of the thread to enable you to tighten your wraps as much as possible without risking to break the thread.
On most plain holders you obtain this by bending the legs to the desired pressure on the spool. Others have different adjustment systems that let you adjust pressure by screwing on a screw, a nut or a threaded knob while others again have a sleeve that slides over the legs to increase and decrease tension.
No matter whether the adjustment is done one or the other way, the final friction in these holders is partly dependent on the thread spool material, the shape and size of the hole and the bobbin holder hub and even the material of the label if that is still on the bobbin.
The bobbin holders that promise more constant tension mostly grab the spool tightly and relies on friction between parts on or in the bobbin holder rather than between the bobbin and the tool to keep the tension constant. Some of these have fairly advanced spring based tension systems, a main feature of the retracting bobbin holders covered later.
A few bobbin holders are wishbone shaped and use the spring tension of the legs to control the thread, but are made from plate rather than wire.
This gives a sturdier construction and more surface to hold on to and also enables the manufacturer to control the orientation of the "hubs" better, which keeps tension and friction more constant. But it also limits the flexibility when it comes to using different spool sizes and adjusting tension by simply bending the material, because the plate is often stiffer than the wire.
Some wire bobbin holders are symmetrical on one axis but curved on the other, mainly to offer a better fit in the hand. The curved models are mainly standard wishbone bobbin holders that have been slightly bent in the legs, and if you aren't intimidated by the thought, you can easily convert your own straight Y-shaped wire bobbin holder to a curved ditto.
While the standard construction is a basic Y-shape, a few bobbin holders are asymmetric. Some have just one leg, but are fundamentally made like the symmetrical ones, while others are really asymmetrical made in that way to better fit your hand and aide the hand and thread position while you tie. Both Ekich's, Rite's and Stonfo's bobbin holders belong in the first category while the JVise Bobbin from Jay Smit is the only truly asymmetrical bobbin holder I know of.
A couple of the bobbin holders covered here feature a retraction mechanism. I have included the only two I know of in this article: Norm Norlanders Norvise Bobbin and Faruk Ekich's Ultimate Fly Tying Bobbin.
When using normal bobbin holders, the tyer manually winds the surplus thread onto the spool while keeping tension on the materials and the thread. The retracting tools have a built-in spring mechanism that makes them release and pick up thread as you move the bobbin holder closer to and away from the fly.
The advantage is of course that you don't have to rewind thread, but simply move the tube of the bobbin holder wherever you want to, and it will immediately pick up any slack. Tying with such a tools requires some getting used to, but once you have tried it, you quickly learn to appreciate it.
Since the spring mechanism in such holders cannot feed an infinite length of thread and still retain the same tension, they have different mechanisms for releasing and re-tensioning the spring and the thread. The Norvise Bobbin allows the bobbin or spring mechanism to "slip" when it reaches a certain tension and that way resetting the spring. Faruk Ekich's bobbin holder requires that you release the bobbin from the contact and clutch plate, resetting the spring. The operation sounds more cumbersome than it is, and it can easily be done with one hand while tying.
A few bobbin holders have more functions, and one function that has been built into bobbin holders is the dubbing twister.
This makes pretty good sense since the bobbin holder essentially already has the shape and weight needed. All it needs is a way of holding the loop. Two of the bobbin holders mentioned here have this function: Mitch's Bobbin Whirler from Wasatch and the MP-TT Bobbin from Marc Petitjean.
They can both grab the thread and spin dubbing and hackle loops, but have two different ways of achieving this and also come at two different prices, the Petitjean bobbin holder being about twice the price of the one from Wasatch.
Most traditional bobbin holders will hold bobbins from different manufacturers. These are generally quite identical, but can vary a bit in dimensions and capacity and quite a lot in shape.
A few bobbin holders are less flexible due to their more rigid construction like the J Bobbin, C&F design and others made from plate. They can still handle most bobbins, but the ones too extreme will not fit perfectly.
Some bobbin holders are made for one size of spools, and the Ekich Ultimate Bobbin is designed for standard spools and need a bobbin that has the proper outer and inner diameter as well as some sprocket holes for the clutch plate to engage in. Many spools will work with Ekich's holder, and both UNI's, Danville's, Wapsi's, Bennechi's and Veevus' spools and many more work fine.
Norlander's bobbin holder holds only the specially designed Norlander spools.
Other bobbin holders are built to hold the older, narrow bobbins, which are about a third of the width of the modern ones, and will not fit in a bobbin holder made only for standard spools. Some types of thread, mainly the classical Pearsall's Silk, comes on these narrow spools and will require a special bobbin holder that can apply enough tension on the smaller spools, You will also see tyers that re-spool their thread to sewing machine bobbins, which are much smaller than the standard tying thread spool. Most plain wire bobbin holders can be bent to fit these smaller spools, but you can buy tools that are already dimensioned for the narrower spools.
If you are a tyer who uses many brands of thread, you need to make sure that your bobbin holders can hold many types of spools - or you may be forced to buy bobbin holders for these special cases or even re-spool the thread to more common spools.
People make their own bobbin holders, which may sound like a good idea given the simple construction, but it hardly yields a product which can match the commercial products. Considering the moderate prices of decent bobbin holders, I'd stay off the DIY path, but for people with access to good tools and materials, it might be worth a try. But don't expect to save much money. The least expensive quality bobbin holders cost just 10-15 US$, which can hardly be matched if you want to make a quality product yourself.
The cheap ones
Most of us started out buying cheap bobbin holders in spite of all good advice. So we now have one or a couple of Indian or Chinese tools laying around, way inferior to the brand name bobbin holders, and not very useful for tying with normal tying thread.
But they can be useful anyway. Use them for chenille, wire or very thick thread or thin yarn. This will enable you to control the material, and even the lousiest thread-fraying bobbin holder won't be able to do much damage to chenille or a copper wire. More like the other way round.
You might not have the material on a suitable spool, but you can either re-spool it on used thread spools or simply leave the spool or loose material dangling, and just use the bobbin holder for control.
Even though it's often recommend using a bobbin holder for floss, don't be tempted to use a degraded non-name tool for this. Floss frays like nothing else, and will require a top notch tool.
What to choose
Personally I have chosen a long time ago and have been tying with Griffin Enterprises' ceramic bobbins for a very long time. While visiting the manufacturer in Colorado a couple of decades ago I purchased a handful, and they have served me very well ever since. Since I like to keep my thread on the bobbin holders and not have to change whenever I change thread, I purchased an extra handful of bobbin holders soon after. I don't remember where and I don't remember what brand they were - if any. They are ceramic, nicely made and slightly larger than the Griffins and have worked equally well.
I have tried a number of the more complex and fancy models but always returned to the simple ones that do the job well for me.
I can see the idea with the retracting bobbin holders and could get used to tying with one, but find the resetting of the spring and the extra "thinking" involved a little tedious. The same goes for holders with adjustable tension. I'm sure some people love them, but I have adjusted thread tension by bending wire legs for decades, and that has worked fine for me and have no desire for a more precise adjustment mechanism - especially not when it comes with complex spool shifts and loose parts.
Here's a list of different bobbin holders. I own or have tried most of them, but not all of them, so some of the opinions expressed here are based on what others say and what I have picked up from written material and photos of the different tools.
I have tried to get samples of all the tools, but not all manufacturers have replied.
You can click on the manufacturer's names to go to their web sites. Some have direct sales, others link to retailers.
Standard wishbone/Y-shape bobbin holders
There's a whole bunch of these good quality, polished steel or lined bobbin holders on the market from well known manufacturers as well as some lesser known brands.
Look for Griffin's, Dr. Slick, Renzetti, TMC, Orvis and other brand names.
I have also stumbled on some lesser known names like Ken Newton, Turall, Zona and others, which seem fine but not that widespread.
The tubes are either polished inside to high standards or lined or tipped with smooth ceramic, titanium or even Teflon to protect the thread.
Dr. Slick tools need little introduction and the bobbin holders live up to the quality known from other tools this company. Three lengths with Delrin hubs are available and you can choose between ceramic and titanium oxide funnel inserts.
Price: From 13-23 US$
Simple, no-nonsense and high quality bobbin holders with nylon hubs. Available in several sizes and models, both with bare steel tubes and ceramic inserts.
Price: From 8-13 US$
Available in several models including a curved one.
Price: App. 16 US$
From the well known vise manufacturer and fully up to their standard. Several models available including Teflon lined and ruby tipped ones as well as a cruder one meant to be used for wire.
Price: from 17-24 US$
Semperfli Fly Tying Bobbins
The Semperfli bobbin holders are very no-nonsense and made to high standards. They are available in several models with different shapes and sizes, different "handles" and different hub materials all lined with ceramics to protect the tying thread..
Price: From less than 15 US$
Solidly made, simple with full ceramic tubes. Available straight and curved in standard and heavy duty versions.
Price: From 16-20 US$
US manufacturer and distributor Umpqua has several bobbin holders, quite plain, solidly made and with full, ceramic tubes. The Standard model has a flat brass handle while the Suregrip series has a larger rubber handle providing a better grip.
Price: From about 10 US$
All of the above are typically simple, very well made and pretty inexpensive. They do exactly what they are supposed to: hold the spool and feed thread under constant tension.
The tension is simply adjusted by bending the legs and loose thread is rewound manually.
Price: Typically between 10-25 US$ depending on brand and model.
Pros: Simple, efficient, inexpensive.
More bobbin holders
The group below consists of some bobbin holders which are not just two wire legs and a simple construction and some with the usual construction - some with variations like the Norlander bobbin holder, which has a normal shape holder, but different spools or the Wasatch holders with wooden handles and added functions. Some don't use wire but plate, some use far more intricate constructions. Some don't even grip the bobbin on two sides.
The Japanese C&F brand is known for its modernistic products featuring designs that differ from tradition, and that is also the case with their bobbin holders. The construction and shape is different and the bobbin holder is the only one in the market to feature a foam core in the rear of the tube to add tension to the thread and keep it from slipping out when it's slack. This does mean that the bobbin holders require a stiff threader to pull the thread through the tube. The threader comes in the package.
Price: 45 to 50 US$
Pros: Solid construction, foam retains slack thread.
Cons: Fairly expensive, requires included tool to thread.
Ekich Ultimate Bobbin
AKA the Ekich automatically-retracting bobbin. With a price tag of 100 US$ you are allowed to expect something else, and that's what you get. It's by far the most expensive bobbin holder out there even counting the steeply priced offerings from Marc Petitjean and C&F Design, but it also offers supreme craftsmanship and a very sublime and precise retraction mechanism.
The prime virtue of this bobbin holder compared to other models is of course that it automatically rewinds the thread. It also works with a very constant and precise thread tension, specifically set to protect the finest thread such as UNI's 17/0 Trico, offering the maximum thread control and force.
According to some this leads to greater tying speed and better hold on material per wrap, which of course might be true, but then again should be obtainable with most good bobbin holders provided you adjust tension properly.
It's a very beautifully made piece of mechanics and when tying with it you soon learn to appreciate and master the delicate function. Many avid Ekich bobbin holder fans declare that they will never go back to a normal tool after having tied with this model.
Ekich has brought a new model to the market called the S-Series, made with a slightly simpler production method and also less expensive than the hand made original. The S-Series was introduced in the Fly Tyer 2014 Winter Issue and at the International Fly Tying Symposium - both in November 2014.
Price: 100 US$ plus shipping. The S-Series model is 70 US$.
Pros: Retracts thread, no adjustment needed, easy spool change.
Cons: Manual reset of spring mechanism, expensive, doesn't fit all bobbins.
Jvise J Bobbin
The J Bobbin is a peculiarly looking construction, which definitely takes the prize as the "most asymmetrical bobbin holder". The construction made by South African Jay Smit is pretty complex, but the result is a bobbin holder that is more ergonomic and gives you better control and a better hand position while tying. It's very comfortable to tie with and allows for very precise tension adjustment. It's surprisingly inexpensive considering its complexity and quality.
Changing the spool requires a screw to be loosened and the spool to be slipped in. After that you adjust the tension with the same screw.
Price: 30 US$
Pros: Ergonomic, finely adjustable.
Cons: Slightly complex spool change requires readjustment.
Loon Ergo Bobbin
The Loon Ergo Bobbin is a man's bobbin holder, in the sense that it's a very sturdy and large tool. This may not appeal to everybody, but for people tying larger flies using heftier threads, this is the answer to a long standing prayer. It's not like you can't tie small flies or use thin threads with the Loon tool, because you can, but it stands out in size and reach, and will outdo most other bobbin holders in that respect.
It's characterized by a large, soft, yellow grip – a trademark for the whole series of new 2016 Ergo Loon tools – and is made with plate legs and a long steel tube.
The mounting and adjustment is easy and straightforward and tension can be set from very hard to almost free run. My only grudge with this excellent tool is that I had a squeaking noise from some bobbins, probably due to the steel hubs, which are hard and slightly coarse. The noise disappeared once the inside of the plastic bobbin had literally been ground down a bit by the steel in the hubs. It's an extremely durable construction, no doubt, but nylon or Delrin might have been a better choice.
I still like the way this bobbin holder handles and have been using it extensively for tying pike flies and larger streamers ever since I got it.
Price: US$ 19.95
Pros: Solid construction and great size for larger flies. Very good value for money.
Cons: Slightly large for some applications. Squeaky hubs with some bobbins.
US fly tyer Norm Norlander is best known for his rotary Norvise, and to go with that he has made the Norvise Bobbin, a bobbin holder that retracts thread and should work particularly well with his special vise.
The holder requires a special spool, so you can't mount your ordinary spools right out of the box, but have to re-spool the thread to specially designed narrow and large diameter metal spools. The bobbin holder comes with one, so unless you tie with one color thread only or are willing to constantly re-spool (very impractical), you can get a kit with a bobbin holder and four spools and buy extra spools as you need them. Ten spools will run you about 35 US$.
Re-spooling can be done with an electrical drill or on Norlander's own spinning vise using an arbor that comes with the kit or can be acquired separately.
The tool is very well made and after a little getting used to, you soon learn to appreciate the function. It retracts thread in a very controlled manner and can be reset simply by pulling out enough thread thanks to a slipping clutch mechanism built into the spring hub. In spite of its odd shape - or maybe exactly because of this - it fits very weill in the palm of your hand.
Price: 45 US$ and 65 US$ for the kit.
Pros: Rewinds thread, ergonomic.
Cons: Requires special bobbins and thread re-spooling. Relatively expensive.
The MP-TT Bobbin is made with a number of extra features as it's often the case with Swiss Marc Petitjean's products.
The bobbin holder can be threaded from "the outside" without tools and without having to pull the thread through the tube.
The tube also has a hook which enables the bobbin holder to double as a dubbing twister and the bobbin holder has a sliding tension adjustment, which allows you to easily adjust the pressure on the thread spool.
Price: 46 Euros or about 60 US$
Pros: Easy threading, spinning feature, easily adjustable thread tension.
Cons: Fairly expensive.
The Rite Bobbin uses a slightly different way of holding the thread spool than most bobbin holders. Having just one leg and utilizing a number of washers, a loose end piece and a "screw", the Rite requires you to unscrew the bobbin holder assembly to change spools and set the tension for each new spool. The operation is easy and works smoothly, but does take a little time and involves loose parts.
But it leads to what Rite refers to as micro-adjustable tension, in other words very precise and constant tension on the thread, which combined with the well constructed bobbin holders lead to very good thread control. The bobbin holders do only have one leg, which might feel strange to hold for some tyers while others will love it.
Price: 22-32 US$ depending on model.
Pros: Micro-adjustable tension, solid construction.
Cons: Loose parts, complex spool change, adjustment required after spool change.
The S&M is a classic bobbin holder, which has been around for a very long time. And it does look kind of fiftyish in its design, which is loved by many.
It was originated by the late Walter Stockman & Charlie Malley of the S&M (Stockman & Malley) fly tying shop in Bristol CT back in the late 40s early 50s. Later it was purchased and distributed by John Marona & Kevin Pelletier of Quiet Sports on the banks of the Farmington River. Their shop closed around 2006-2007 and Nick Masi took over in 2011. It's still manufactured and assembled in New England, USA.
It's a plate bobbin holder, holding the bobbin with wide, springy plate legs, which due to the construction will fit certain spools way better than others. Too large or too small bobbins can be hard to give the proper hold and tension. There's a short and a long tube version with no frills steel tubes. This old school bobbin holder is still used and loved by many tiers, and is very inexpensive in spite of being US made. Unfortunately it doesn't ship outside the US from the manufacturer, but it can sometimes be found in other shops. Wasatch makes a wood handle version on the same base, which can also be hard to find, but might be easier to track down outside the US - at a higher price though.
Price: 5 US$
Pros: Simple and no frills construction, very inexpensive.
Cons: Quite rigid. May not fit some bobbins.
These Danish produced bobbin holders are visually very different from most bobbin holders and also use a unique way of tightening the legs to hold the thread.
The bobbin holders are two legged of the plate type, having flat legs and a separately mounted round metal tube, which holds a ceramic tube that feeds the thread. The greatest difference to other bobbin holders is the tightening mechanism, which allows you to screw and unscrew a central, elongated nut that grabs a small bolt in each side. The springy action of the legs press them apart, while the bolts and the nut is used to bring them back together.
You loosen the legs, mount the bobbin between the hubs and tighten the legs to your taste. Then you feed the thread through the tube and you are ready to tie.
The process is a bit cumbersome, but once the leg pressure is set, the control is extremely good, and the bobbin holders feel really great in the hand. The SMHAEN bobbin holder comes in two sizes: long/red and short/blue (AKA midge). The long model fits perfectly in my hand and suits my style of tying very well, but I wouldn't have problems using the shorter model on a daily basis. I just like the slightly longer reach.
Altogether a great product with a really nice and cool design.
Price: 54 Euros or approximately 45 UK£ or about 60 US$.
Pros: Very nice design, solid make and feel and extremely good thread control.
Cons: Slightly complex bobbin mounting, which requires an adjustment for each thread change. Fairly expensive.
Stonefly Thread Bobbin
The Stonefly bobbin holders are made from a material rarely used for these tools: plastic. Stonefly produces two models SF2 Thread Bobbin and SF26 Long Tubed Thread Bobbin with a wide Y-shape and a rubber handle.
Thoughts about these bobbin holders vary quite a bit, but several tyers report that they are brittle and break easily.
UK manufacturer Stonefly makes several other fly tying tools, but one really brilliant little item is the Bobbin Spacer, which allows you to use narrow thread spools in normal width bobbin holders.
Price: app. 16 US$
Pros: Rubber grip.
Cons: Can't be adjusted, reported fragile.
Stonfo Elite Disc Drag Bobbin
Stonfo is an Italian manufacturer of a large variety of fishing tackle and tools, and amongst them you will find the Disc Drag Bobbins.
As the name implies the bobbin holders have a drag system, and have a threaded axis that enables tension adjustment. The construction is traditional wishbone, but one-legged with a flattened piece of metal at the Y-junction - which is of course not a true Y due to the one-legged construction.
The tools are very well made and all have ceramic bushings in the outer end of the tube. They allow for very accurate and constant tension to be set. Spool change requires the tension system to be unscrewed and the nut as well as the disc to be removed and reset and readjusted once a new spool has been mounted.
Like the Rite bobbin holders the one legged construction falls well in the hand, and the precise thread tension makes these bobbin holders very nice to tie with.
Price: App. 25 US$
Pros: Easily and precisely adjustable tension, solid construction.
Cons: Complex bobbin change requires readjustment, loose parts.
Tiemco TMC Adjustable Magnet Bobbin
The TMC Adjustable Magnetic Bobbin controls thread tension with magnetism, which is a novelty... that comes at a price. These are announced at 6,600 Yen, which translates into more than 60 US$. And that's before they have been exported from Japan. As with most Tiemco products they are most likely good quality and feature such design details as vertically adjustable ceramic tube, thread keeper, and self-standing design. As it can be seen from the video below, the construction is pretty complex, and adjustment takes several steps.
Price: 60 US$ (in Japan)
Pros: Nice design, potentially very smooth operation. Adjustable tube.
Cons: Price. Complex adjustment with several loose parts.
Oregon based Wasatch has a number of different bobbin holders all featuring cocobolo wood handles and varying shapes and functions. They manufacture both standard wire bobbin holders as well as holders formed from plate. Wasatch also offers Mitch's Bobbin Whirler, which has a built-in hook that allows the tyer to spin dubbing loops with no extra tool.
All the tools are beautifully made and the tyer who wants something a little extra when it comes to looks and style as well as quality and function is very well served by the Wasatch offerings. The lineup also includes wooden accented versions of basically all other common tying tools, so the style can be maintained through your whole tool collection.
The prices for the plain, ceramic bobbin holders are very reasonable, and even the more complex spinning version can be had for just about 30 US$.
Wasatch recently introduced a radically different bobbin holder called the Sidewinder. It's constructed with the spool sitting on the axis of the tool, and feeds off the thread to the side. Being able to revolve, it allows the tier to wrap the material without introducing any twist, which makes the bobbin holder very suited for wrapping floss and other materials – more than being used as a normal tying thread holder. The sidewinder costs about 30 US$.
Price: From less than 15 US$. App. 30 US$ for Mitch's Whirler and the Sidewinder.
Pros: Beautifully finished with wood, many models, reasonable price.
These are the really basic, metal tube bobbin holders that come with any beginner's kit or can be bought for as little as a couple of dollars. They might work... but mostly they are crudely made and will often fray or break the thread. Some can be well made and work fine, but you don't know before you have used it. I advise you to stay away from these for other applications than wire and coarse yarns.
Price: typically 2-5 US$ depending on source.
Pros: Simple, very inexpensive.
Cons: Crude, often wear and break tying thread, inconsistent quality.