Knock Knock

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Going back a few eons here…it can be fun to remember the progressions and epiphanies of our angling and tying journeys. From time to time I take a look at the odd tying tool, be it mainstream or nouveau, and how it fits into my tying.

For some years I tied flies using various kinds of natural hair, without bothering with any hair strand alignment at all. “Natural animal hair should be all over the place…like mine is,” I reasoned, looking in the mirror. “Wind exists out there, and we should mimic its effects in our flies. Bug wings are ratty and beat to hell, and fish wouldn’t have it any other way.” So my flies looked and held together like you’d expect: Horribly.

A Million Stackers

But there came a time when frugality motivated me to have a go at aligning the hair I was about to tie onto a hook–so as to use less of it, you see. Why waste half the stuff when a smaller snip and a bit of alignment would make the pattern seem full enough? So I began a years-long habit of pinching the tuft in the left-hand fingers while pulling out the longest hairs with the digits of the right. I found I could do a very good job by always taking out the next longest “outlier” strand and then putting it back into the clump with better positioning. It took time, but it worked well enough, at least for longer stronger kinds of hair. And part of my strategy involved choosing just the right scissors-snip direction when I harvested the clump from the skin.

But all that grew old. It was tedious, and prone to being rushed out of impatience, which made for a poorly-cobbled-together fly. Or an interruption would come that forced me to set the tuft of hair down and go do something (reset an electrical breaker in the house, or remove somebody’s favorite spoon from the garbage disposal, or blot up as much of the spilt buttermilk as could be drawn out before it all soaked into the carpet…always something at just the wrong moment). I’d set the tuft down and return a few minutes later to find it, uh, well, basically not to find it. A gust of air courtesy of someone rushing pell-mell past my little bench, and…you get the picture.

So frugality and tediosity (great word, eh?) got old. But still it seemed extravagant and wholly unnecessary to acquire a hair stacker. Hadn’t I gone this long without needing one? Didn’t I have some other tool with a, like, hollow handle? Couldn’t I just use a…let’s see…cap of a ballpoint pen or something?

But I eventually got hold of one. I assumed there were numerous good ones out there and a few that might be junk, so I just got one that looked kinda cool. And thus began my formal education about this ‘unnecessary’ implement. I came to realize how critical it was that the thing stand upright without falling sideways even if the table was bumped, since I’d often stack the hair but then get sidetracked into throwing a half-hitch or something before I was ready to use the aligned hair. And I came to appreciate a curved (rather than faceted) bell-shaped barrel inlet, and learned the importance of its inside being dry and smooth…and not prone to holding static charges, which is why many of these things are metal and some use conductive plastic for the same reason…conductivity being the sworn enemy of polarized charge buildup.

And I began to see how well it worked–how quickly it did the job, how any imaginable degree of alignment perfection could be dialed in. Load, then whap-whap-whap, pound-pound-pound, knock-knock-knock. Done! Six whaps instead of nine for semi-aligned…or whatever the repetitions proved to add up to, for the hair being aligned. I used the table-top, or my knee, or the vise base…whatever would annoy those around me most. Knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock!

The hair stacker was an invention on which I was getting unanticipatedly hooked. It was soon called up to the big leagues, taken from wallowing in the bottom of the toolkit to lounging in style in the natural hair bin itself–kinda like an erstwhile-undiscovered minor-leaguer being asked to hang out right there in the game-day dugout. Knock knock. I found myself aligning fibers that didn’t really need to be aligned. Knock knock…hey, using these things was somehow as fun as it was fast! I felt like I was really applying that professional touch…and the patterns instantly came together nicer too, because all the fibers were where they were supposed to be and the thread could hold them much more uniformly. Fly heads got cleaner as well, and easier to coat with head cement. And if spinning deer hair, starting with an aligned clump seemed to make a noteworthy difference in evenness of distribution–the thread was biting down on consistent crushability, fiber to fiber.

I’d assumed that ultra-thin natural hair wouldn’t stack very well, but if the barrel was dry and so was the air, almost anything would align (unless it was just too limp, like tinsel…or too fiber-to-fiber grabby, like marabou barbs). Like the old saying about the parachute that didn’t deploy, it’s the sudden stop at the end that tells the tale. Shaking does nothing but launch the hair back out the top and into your nearby lemonade; knocking is where it’s at. Let them all run to the front door for no reason–knock away, paying those complaining house-dwellers no mind.

Figure 2: The Stonfo Stacker

When my stacker disappeared after a few years (who knows, it could be way back under the couch even now), I got another one–the Stonfo, which has two barrel inserts of what seem almost the same size…I can’t imagine one working and the other not, but I’m sure there must be times. Anyway the Stonfo is just one of numerous models that experienced tiers rely on. I’ve never tried the Dr. Slick or the Cascade Crest, but they must work and they also meet my original “must look cool” singular criterion.

These little things are great. I use mine on a surprisingly high percentage of flies–I find some reason or other. I think one day I’ll find myself trying to use it for a Copper John or an egg pattern, just because I like using it (and like hearing “Someone’s at the door!”).

Seriously, when a little gizmo works so well and saves so much time, it becomes a favorite. We all have our pet tools–a really nice bobbin, or a hackle plier with the perfect gripping strength, or a sweet little whip-finisher. But the hair stacker has also become one of mine…and that surprised me, but so be it. Old-hand tiers will be murmuring “duh” or rolling their eyes skyward right about now…there goes Mike belabouring the obvious again…but for relative newcomers to the art who are still building up the toolkit and the skills repertoire, I’d recommend at some point getting hold of a nice hair stacker. You’ll use it far more than you ever thought.

Just teach your family to wait for the doorbell.

2 thoughts on “Knock Knock

  1. Mike Cline

    Mike,

    Nicely put. Hair stackers are invaluable for a great many deer and elk hair patterns. I’ve had a couple for well over 20 years. If you think about their design, they are easily crafted from common piping components found in any hardware store. A flared brass, copper or aluminum tube that fits inside a comparable end cap will do the trick. But, the fancier ones are nice as well. I have found that narrower tubes work with fine hair better than wider ones.

    Mike

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Agreed on all points Mike. My “fancy” one is very smooth, no burrs, and the integral rubber base is nice too–saves my knees when I’m using a knee instead of a table. But I’ve done the make-shift thing to death as well. Shifting partial gears here…do you know that my very favorite hackle plier is a wooden spring-type clothespin with the pinch-handles shortened and the nose ground to a dull point? The wood grips hackle really well and the spring is just right. Nothing slips, nothing gets damaged. I have at least three other kinds of hackle pliers but I reach only for the wooden clothespin.

      Tube narrowness and length all play a part, as you point out. No static charge helps (and the brass you mentioned would be charge-less too). They’re nice little gizmos for *almost* any kind of hair.

      Reply

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