Choosing the Right Vise
By Casey R. Smartt
Over the past 30 years, I have spent a shameful amount of time behind a fly tying vise. Beginning in the late 70’s with a homemade vise, and graduating through many different models over the years, I have learned to love (andhate) vises and my addiction to tying flies. If you are considering purchasing a vise for fly tying you may be a little confused on where to start. There are hundreds of different models to choose from, with prices ranging from 25 dollars all the way up to 400 dollars or more. Good vises aren’t cheap, so making the right purchase the first time is important. Here are a few tips I think you should consider when selecting a vise.
The absolute number one purpose of the vise is to hold a hook with a rock-solid grip… period. All the other bells and whistles are worthless if a vise can’t keep its grip on a hook. Saltwater fly tying often uses large hooks, heavy threads, and tying techniques that will test the limits of the vise’s jaw assembly and clamping power. I can tell you, nothing is more frustrating than having a nearly-complete fly slip or pop loose from the jaws of a wimpy vise. It is very discouraging.
Fortunately there are plenty of vises out there with extreme hook-holding power. Vises manufactured by Renzetti, Dyna-King, Peak, DanVise, Nor-Vise, and Regal are all good candidates. These are quality tools that will reward you with many years of service. If you are tempted to purchase a cheap vise just to get started, you may be disappointed with the results. The components of cheap vises (and cheap tools in general) are often inadequately machined and fitted. They look pretty and polished, but they don’t operate smoothly and after a dozen flies the shortcomings make themselves known. Likewise, vises included in inexpensive fly tying kits are typically not up to the demands of saltwater fly tying.
If you are shopping for a vise, even a high-dollar one, make sure you test it before you buy. Like a fly reel or rod, each vise will have a unique fit and feel. To test a vise, place a hook in the jaws and tighten them. Does the cam/screw assembly tighten and loosen smoothly? Does the hook align correctly in the jaws? Does the hook slip when you apply force to the eye? Is the rotary action smooth and balanced? These are things you should check out before you drop down your cash.
Years ago, all vises had fixed arm and jaw assemblies. This meant that when you mounted a hook in the vise, it stayed locked and oriented in the same position until you removed it. There was no way to view the bottom or back of the fly without removing it from the vise and rolling it over, or leaning over/around the fly to inspect it. It was a real pain. Engineers took note, and along came rotary shaft vises. The jaw assembly of these vises was connected to a floating (rather than fixed) shaft that could be manually rotated like an axle. This feature allowed tyers to spin the arm and view all sides of a fly as it was tied. It also allowed tyers to palmer materials onto the fly by rotating the arm and feeding thread to the hook rather than wrapping the thread/materials around a stationary hook.
“Rotary vises,” as they have come to be known, are now the standard. If you are shopping for a vise I strongly encourage you to go with a rotary vise. You might think you don’t need a rotary vise but if you ever tie on one you’ll love it. They make tying, gluing, and viewing flies monumentally easier.
C-Clamp vs. Pedestal
Vises are anchored to the work surface with either a c-clamp or a weighted pedestal. Each anchoring style has its benefits and limitations and whether you choose a c-clamp style mount or a weighted pedestal base mount depends on what flies you tie and where you tie them.
A c-clamp style vise has a small clamp fastened to the bottom of the throat of the vise. This clamp is usually tightened to the lip of a tying bench or table. C-clamp style vises are very secure and cannot be bumped out of position or toppled when tying. This makes them a good choice for tying methods like deer hair spinning where sideways, upper, and lower forces are applied to the hook. But, there are several disadvantages to c-clamps. First, they require smooth solid clamping surfaces and not all tables at all locations you might tie (like hotel rooms) provide this. Second, c-clamps tend to leave impressions on anything they are fastened to. So if you clamp your shiny new vise down on your wife’s prized coffee table, the clamp will dent it and you’re gonna’ be in hot water.
Pedestal style vises incorporate a weighted rectangular base with a non-slip rubber or felt pad on the bottom. Vises with these bases are highly portable and can be placed and used on nearly any level surface. They can also be moved around while the fly is tied. The disadvantage of a pedestal mount vise is that it is possible to pull the vise over with sideways thread tension, or knock it over with an errant elbow shot. A second disadvantage is that because the throat of the vise acts as a lever against the base when force is applied to the hook, the throat must be kept somewhat short. This means the distance between the clamped hook and the base is fairly short compared to a c-clamp model. Some tyers find this too confining.
Vises in action
My favorite vice is the Renzetti Traveler outfitted with Clouser jaws. There is honestly no way of counting how many thousands of flies I have tied on this vise, and I consider it perfect for saltwater tying. But the best way to evaluate which style and brand of vise is best for you is to watch them in action, ask questions, and try them out.