Tales from the Tying Bench

Guest Blogger: Tom Corbiere, Tom is a J Stockard Customer who lives in Oregon

You’re finishing tying an intricate fly. The tail is exact length, rib evenly spaced, perfect hackle tied in without stray barbs sticking out. All you need to do is whip finish and “PING!” Your thread breaks. Hackle unravels, Ribbing now sticking straight up, and the tail is laying at the bottom of your vice on the bench. You either internally (or externally) scream. Am I the only one this has happened to?

If you are lucky, the fly doesn’t fall apart. You quickly thread your bobbin and capture the broken thread and save the day! All that work saved. A great accomplishment. Obviously, the tying gods were looking down on you. So you go back and finish off the fly and “PING” another break. Then the next sound you hear is “&$!#%” and its coming out of your mouth like an out of body experience.

Thread breaks happen to every Tyer. The first reaction is to blame the thread. You thread the bobbin multiple times but the thread keeps breaking. It must be a bad spool of thread and you toss spool in trash and grab a new spool. Still the thread keeps breaking with the new spool of thread. What the heck is going on?

I am going to review bobbin care and maintenance. There are many types and styles of bobbins. I am going to address the stainless steel tube bobbins and ceramic tube bobbins.

Continued thread breaks could be from a damaged bobbin tube. Inspect the tube where the thread goes in and where the thread comes out. There may be a nick on the tube that the thread is snagging on. You can use a magnifying glass to inspect or cell phone camera. Camera will allow you to use the light and zoom features. If you find any damage, it might be repairable with a jeweler’s file or an extra fine sand paper. Damages are usually caused by bobbin being dropped or a Bobbin Threader.

Bobbin threader’s can be great tools to push through the bobbin tube, feed thread into and pull back out. However they can cause damage to the thread tube. A threader is made from spring steel. It collapses as you feed it through the tube. If there are any nicks on the spring steel, there is the potential of scratching or causing burrs inside the thread tube. If you use a Bobbin threader, inspect the wire for any damage and fix or discard if any damage is found. In my experience, there is a higher risk of causing damage to a ceramic tube than a stainless steel tube when using the spring steel type bobbin threader.

Another potential reason for thread breaks is a plugged bobbin tube. It sounds crazy but I have seen this problem many times. The thread as it moves back and forth coming off the spool can rub on the edge as it enters the tube. As the thread moves through the tube, micro fibers from the thread collect in the tube. This actually creates a “Dust Bunny” inside the tube. Again, inspect the tube with a magnifying glass and/or camera as mentioned above.

My recommendations:

I no longer use a spring steel bobbin threader. I have found a different tool that works great. It’s a dental floss threader:

These can be found in the dental care section of any drug store. They are made a soft nylon material and extremely flexible. They are reusable and you can you can get a pack of 25 for under $4.00. I keep a couple of these floss threader’s right on my vise. Pack of 25 will last many, many years. The large loop makes it easy to thread and it is easy to push & pull through the bobbin tube. The fact that it is made of soft flexible nylon, the floss threader will not cause any damage to the bobbin tube. To clean bobbin tube, I will run one of these threader’s through the tube multiple times. It keeps the dust bunnies away! If you use waxed threads, this will also eliminate wax build up inside the tube.

Other Mistakes I have seen. I have come across beginning and novice tyers that have tried to add a drop of lubricant to the bobbin tube or use a dry spray lubricant in the tube. These are extremely not recommended. These will only become a magnet for dust and micro fibers and guarantee you will have issues with thread breaks.

I hope the information and tips help you with your tying adventures and reduce any frustrations!

16 thoughts on “Tales from the Tying Bench

  1. Sam

    Thanks a lot for that information. I learned a few things that I hadn’t heard before, I will definitely check some of these ideas out and check my bobbins for burrs. Thanks

    Reply
  2. Bob Betts

    A dental floss tool works well and I pass them out to my students. But most of the time I thread my bobbin carrier by sticking the tip of the thread at the rear of the tube and sucking the thread through the tube. It saves me looking for the dental tool. For that matter, I eliminated the use of a whip-finishing tool years ago by just manually whip-finishing. It seems more precise and quicker. I have no problem using a five-turn, manual whip-finish on a #24 midge head. It just takes a little practice.

    If I am tying a fairly complicated fly, I might thrown in a half-hitch to keep my tie stable if my thread breaks or I am interrupted.

    Reply
  3. Michael Vorhis

    Nice article Tom, thanks. I do what Bob does–put the dry thread in the dry tube and suck it through–works every time, and the convenient “mouth tool” is always exactly where I last left it. (It is occasionally faintly aromatic of a sip of cheap beer though.)

    But I didn’t know those dental floss threaders existed. So that’s interesting; I might stick one in a fishing vest pocket for those rare moments when the light or the hook eye (or both) conspire to complicate tying fly to tippet.

    Regarding broken tying thread, the first (and I think most impactful) thing I did to alleviate that problem was to quickly identify the size thread that I practically never break. For me it’s a 6/0 Uni–thin enough for very small flies, strong enough to break no more than once per year or so. I had started with 8/0 a long time ago, with very frustrating results. And for big streamers I actually use sewing thread, not only for its strength and ready availability in any color, but because building up thread mass on the hook doesn’t take fifty yards of thread.

    Anyway thanks for the tip!

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. Bob Betts

      Mike,

      Choice of thread is important. I always consider bulk and color when I choose a thread. Using something like 3/0 or 200 denier thread to tie midges would be an exercise in frustration. GSP thread is the strongest for its diameter, but I don’t use it that often, because the color is anemic compared to nylon or polyester. But GSP thread forms quite a weld when coated with CA or some other adhesive, a plus for saltwater flies. I find I use Ultra 70 or 140 thread much of the time, because it is unbonded, multifilament where I can flatten, cord, or split for dubbing. For nearly all midges, say #18 – #24, I can get away with Ultra 70 thread. I do use Uni thread when I don’t need to flatten, cord, or split. It’s semi-bonded. It will flatten but not as much as Ultra thread.

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        Hi Bob, when I said 6/0 it means I go with somewhere around 150 denier, so you and I agree on that. I have tied a grand total of two #20 flies, two #22 flies, and one #24 fly in the last eight years. For those I did go back to the ~70 denier because the hooks were so fine I couldn’t bear down on them anyway. I myself don’t worry about roundness or flatness of thread since I stay within the #18-and-bigger range. And when I’m not dubbing via a noodle, I loop-dub rather than split-thread-dub (although I’m going to rethink that habit one day).

        So I keep it rather simple, all in all. When I play with something out of my standard comfort zone it’s something bigger, not smaller–Intruder or crawdad or dragonfly or something like that.

        The last time I broke a thread was about 20 seconds after saying, “It’s been more than a year since I broke a thread…guess I’ve got the touch down pretty good these days.” So Tom may be right about the bobbin tube being culpable, but for my money it’s ghosts.

        – Mike

        Reply
        1. Bob Betts

          Mike, I try to ignore the aught measurement of thread. Denier measurement is a more accurate measurement but not perfect. The aught measurement is hardly uniform among manufacturers. For example, Uni 6/0 is around 140 denier, but Danville 6/0 is around 70-74 denier. Neither measurement describes breaking strength. As far as dubbing goes, I use a dubbing loop on larger flies, esp. for a buggy look, single thread noodle for most smaller nymphs and dry flies, and split thread dubbing when I want just whips of dubbing on smaller flies. The ability of a multifilament, unbonded thread to flatten or cord a body really is effective for something like a Zebra Midge. After I had a colleague who didn’t believe a Zebra Midge in #20 or #22 could catch a big trout. He finally caught two 24″ rainbows on a #20 Zebra Midge. I netted and measured both of them while he stood there stunned. Then there is the San Juan River, NM, which I’ve fished several times. Really big fish with #24 – #26 midges are routinely caught.

          As far as breaking thread, I recall reading what the great master fly tier, A.K. Best, wrote that if you aren’t breaking thread occasionally, you’re not tying tightly enough. The more you tie with a particular thread the more you get a feel of its breaking strength and tie firmly just below it.

          Reply
          1. Michael Vorhis

            Makes perfect sense Bob. What I’m doing has been working well for quite some time (ghosts notwithstanding), but then I do tend to stay with the same brand of thread. Deviating from one’s normal techniques, sizes & materials will always expose not only new strengths of any given approach, but new thread-breaking risks too. My flies don’t come apart in use (I have many that have caught fish across three or four outings and are still quite serviceable). Maybe I’m just lucky.

            In the vein of the “if you’re not breaking thread you’re not tying tightly enough” advice, I’m reminded of similar gems from a long-time hang gliding/skiing buddy, including the dual priceless tenets: “If your boots aren’t horribly painful they’re not tight enough,” and “if you’re not falling a lot you just ain’t skiing hard enough.” Gotta tell you that my interest in taking such advice seriously has deteriorated as I’ve aged–self-maiming by boot, skeletal disfigurement from excess falling…and having a piece of a shattered hook go ‘ping’ and hit me in the eye because I bore down on it until it shattered are all items on my “avoid” list these days. 🙂

            I never use (therefore I never tie…therefore in turn I never use) zebra midge or copper john patterns. I know they are said to work! I’ve just gotta break through my lack of confidence regarding them. I’ll open the fly box, there they are…should I try one for once?…and I always go back to one of the soft-hackle wetflies that have been my bread and butter for years. One of these days I’ll tie one of those things on.

            – Mike

  4. Jim Wood

    I learned form someone to thread a bobbin by inserting loose thread into the tube and then sucking on the other end of the tube. This is a faster and easier method. No, the thread doesn’t go down your throat.

    Reply
    1. Bob Betts

      Jim,

      Yeah, a tier can’t gag and tie at the same time . 🙂 No worry there. But I had a sneezing fit once and my careful wraps took on the appearance of a spiderweb.

      Reply
  5. Malcolm Welch Sr

    Great article! I use the dental floss threader! I have a SS threader that I keep in a plastic straw so that it doesn’t get bent out of shape or nicked. I too will suck the thread through the bobbin. Another trick I use to keep from breaking my thread on the hook point is to put a piece of tubing on the hook point.

    Tight Lines!

    Reply
  6. North of Bangor

    When tying I always keep a hackle plier near at hand. In the event of a thread break, I can usually clamp the plier to the broken thread before it unravels and the fly falls apart. The weight of the plier will keep tension on the broken thread until I can rethread the bobbin and reattach thread to fly. Lastly, an occasional half hitch thrown on while I build a fly will limit broken thread unraveling too far. I call this my “auto-save”.

    Reply
    1. Bob Betts

      Your remedies are exactly what I tell beginner tiers before they start to tie. I caution them that some of them may break thread, because they nicked the thread on the hook point or they applied too much pressure while wrapping the thread and went beyond the break-strength. I tell them, “Don’t panic when you break the thread. Your fly can be rescued.” I show them the half-hitch and whip-finish before they learn how to tie their first fly. For that matter, I occasionally break thread, but its no big deal.

      Reply
  7. Jim Neckers

    Hi Guys When I am working with tiers, and the thread break. I tell them don’t touch the fly. Get the bobbin rethreaded and start the thread over the broken thread. Most of the time when someone breaks the thread they start touching the broken thread, and it unwraps. If you don’t touch it, it doesn’t unwrap.

    Reply
    1. Bob Betts

      Jim,

      Good advice. The first thing I tell tiers is don’t panic, fasten a hackle plier on the tag end, re-thread the bobbin carrier, and wrap over the spot where the thread broke.

      Reply

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