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The tube fly needle
If you are embarking on the tube fly tying journey and don't have the tools, don't despair - a simple and inexpensive tube fly needle is all you need.
Being a gearhead and generally very happy with equipment, it does nag me a bit what I'm about to say now: save your money and don't buy an expensive vise or a special adapter for tying tube flies. In my opinion the absolutely best tool for holding a tube in the vise is a cheap needle!
Not any needle, but still - it's cheap and it's simple.
Vises and virtues
There's a wealth of more or less complex tube tools on the market. They come in a four distinct groups
- specially designed complete vises
- heads or conversions meant to replace the jaw assembly on your existing vise
- different contraptions that you insert into your vise's normal jaws
- tapered needles
Most of the solutions from the first three groups actually aren't really good. The problem with tubes is that they loosen in the vise and rotate, and no matter what mechanical gizmos or thingamajigs the tool has to keep the tube in place, it will eventually loosen and disaster will be waiting just after the next turn of thread.
Many tools work by squeezing the tube from both ends, and while this might sound like a good way of holding the tube, the thing is that sheer force isn't usually enough to hold it. You need some other kind of holding mechanism, which traps the tube. Some tools have that, and grab the tube in one end to hold it. And still it's not optimal.
Be it a brand name vise or a cheap Indian copy of different tube tools they actually don't do a really good job. I know that lots of tyers use these tools every day, and many are happy. Good for them. But most times I will personally rather use a simple needle.
The classic HMH tool and the Danish Fisker tool (which is no longer available) are some of the only tools that really hold the tube because they grab it. But finding mandrels for all types of tools can be a chore and not all modern tubes sit equally well.
Good for them. But most times I will personally rather use a simple needle.
During 2014 we saw some really large tubes coming out, made for pike and musky flies as well as larger saltwater flies. These tubes are so large that they won't fit on any ordinary tool or needle, but will require something special. The Danish company FutureFly, who markets some of these large tubes called Predator Tubes, 4.6 millimeters or about 1/5 of an inch in diameter, has an adapter that will hold them securely. The Canadian Tube Fly Company also recently added a tapered needle to their lineup. This needle has such a steep taper that it's very unlikely that it won't securely hold any current or future large diameter tube. Bot these tools fit in an ordinary vice without any modification.
The tube tool with an edge
Needles for tubes have been around for a long time. I have recommended plain darning needles before, and there has been a large number of different tapered needles on the market for ages.
Needles are OK, but have problems too.
You press the tube over a round, tapered needle to get it to sit tight, and then start tying on it. Plastic tubes will compress while you tie and become very hard to remove and metal tubes with plastic lining won't stick almost no matter how hard you pressed it on in the first place.
I don't know who was the first to come up with the simple solution, but I saw it first in Morten Bundgaard's ProSportfisher needle: edges!
Since then I have seen it in many other needles.
Simply add sharp edges to the tapered part of the needle, and they will bite into the plastic of the tube itself or the lining inside metal tubes. That will keep the tube from rolling.
You don't need much pressure to get the tube to sit, and once the fly is done, it can usually be slid off with very little effort.
Triangular, square or flattened
There are several ways of adding the edges. Some manufacturers grind or file the round needle down to get a triangular shape with sharp edges. Others seem to simply flatten the needle, creating either a square shape or simply a broader part with rounded but still sharper edges. A few manufacturers have needle with serrations or "barbs" that help retaining the tube. They are not needed and many of the serrated needles are actually just felting needles sold (expensively) as fly-tying tools. More about that later.
The net result is a needle that bites into the plastic and holds the tube firmly without the need of unnecessary force.
These needles are simple, straight pieces of metal with a slight taper, and they are fairly inexpensive to buy and easy to mount in almost any vise.
If you select your darning needles with care, you can obtain the same effect, pressing the tube over the eye of the needle. This is also flattened and although it doesn't have sharp edges it still has the ability to go into the plastic and keep the tube from rotating.
Needle felting is a technique where you poke a tapered needle through some fiber or yarn into felt to attach it. It works by burrs on the needle pulling single fibers into the felt and mixing and bonding the fibers. The needles are bent at a 90 degrees angle in one end for handling.
To add to the usefulness of these needles, many of them are even triangular and available in several sizes (diameters).
Taper, burrs, triangle, bend... does that sound familiar?
Yup! Tube fly needles.
And what do you think: More or less expensive than fly tying needles?
You guessed it!
Nothing is more expensive than stuff sold to fly-anglers and fly-tyers while tools sold to people who do needle felting (read: women) are dirt cheap. So a set of felting needles, 5-10 needles of the same or different sizes in a pack can be had for about a dollar a piece, and if you want to buy bulk and share with about 48 fly-tyng friends, a pack with 50 of the same size is typically under 30 US$.
You can't use just any felting needle, because many of them are quite thin and have the triangular shape and burrs on the very thin part. You probably want the heavy or coarse versions in most cases, but just buy a handful and try, because they are really inexpensive.
The sizing starts with 42 being very thin and then numbers go down as sizes go up. You will most likely want sizes like 38 and 36 and maybe even coarser. You can get both triangular and star-shaped needles. Buy a mixed pack, and see what fits your tubes. And make sure you get the simple, bent ones, and not the ones with fancy handles that won't fit in your vise.
...does that sound familiar? Yup! Tube fly needles.
A large selection
I actually don't have one personal preference. I tie on a wealth of different tubes, and it seems that they all have their own inner diameter and all fit on different needles.
When selecting a needle, I aim for one with a round part that fits inside the inner tube as snugly as possible without being tight, and a taper that isn't too steep, but offers a "slow set", meaning that it bites slowly into the plastic as I push the tube over the needle. The steeper the taper, the worse the grip and the larger the risk of the tube slipping.
The needle needs to go all the way through the part of the tube you are tying on in order to support the tip too. This is particularly important if you tie on the thin inner tube or the thin part of a compound tube.
The needle also needs to have a suitable shape where it's inserted into the vise to ensure a proper grip. You don't want the needle to suddenly tip down as you pull the tying thread. Some needles are simply bent while others are embedded into a small flange, that is easily caught in the vise's jaws.
I have needles from Würm, Eumer, Guideline (FITS), Falkenberg, Pro Sportfisher, Dr. Paul and many more plus an assortment of felting, sowing and darning needles, and most of the ones that I use regularly have edges.
I change between them as I change tubes. Since the needles are inexpensive, I can afford to have many, and I tend to buy new ones whenever I see a brand or shape that I don't have already. There's no reason to limit yourself. Needles are only a few dollars a piece, so get a selection.
A' waggled me wig!
Just as you don't want the tube to rotate while you tie, it's also an advantage if it doesn't tip or wiggle too much.
This can be a problem because the thinner the tube is, the thinner the needle needs to be, and being thin of course means being more flexible. The best solution to this problem is to get the thick and stiff part of the needle as close to the vise as possible. The closer the tube is to the vise, the less wiggling.
Some needles have two tapers or even three, one on the thick part close to the vise for thicker tubes and one or two in the middle for thinner tubes. This is usually not a good solution. Two different needles for each thickness of tubes is better in my opinion.
Needles have points!
I haven't counted the number of times that I have poked myself on tube needles! Almost all needles and inserts into other tube tools have very sharp points. Just touching them will have you bleeding.
Take a pair of sturdy pliers and a fine file or some fine sandpaper. Clip off the outer point. Just a fraction of a fraction. You want to retain the tapered tip, but just make it blunt. One it's cut off, you can file or sand the edges. The tubes will still slide over the tip, but you won't be cut to pieces every time you tie a tube fly.
I haven't counted the number of times that I have poked myself on tube needles!
Sources for needles
Canadian Tube Fly Company - has an inexpensive selection of what seems to be felting needles in different thicknesses.
Dr. Paul/Fly Tying Shop UK - has a set of very well selected felting needles
Eumer - has very well made smooth, tapered needles. They call them Tube Fly Pins
Falkenberg - has a huge selection of needles and even makes custom made models (web site in Danish)
Guideline - has the FITS "four-step" needle
Prosportfisher - has the now-classic flat needle in two sizes
Würm - has two smooth, tapered needles
Felting needles and ordinary sowing and darning needles can be found in almost all hobby shops that carry fabric and yarn as well as online in similar shops and places like Amazon and eBay.