The principal purpose of a fly-tying vise is to hold a hook securely. In this article we will examine what makes a "good" vise. We will provide a run-down of what to expect of a number of popular vises, covering the range from low to high cost, and we will suggest what to look for when you plan to purchase a vise, whether it's your first one or an upgrade.
How to Select a Fly Tying Vise
Many of our fly-tying tools are personal choices, and none more so than a vise. Before making a purchase, you should test as many as you can.
The first consideration in selecting a tying vise is likely to be budget. Vises range in price from under $50 to a whopping $600! Fortunately, good tools are available within each price range. A $30 vise may hold most hooks well enough to tie a beautiful fly, so why should anyone consider spending more than ten times that amount for a tying vise?
The purpose of any tool is to facilitate some task. Some tools ease the task better than others, whether because of superior design, better components, or better finish. Thoughtful design, high quality machining, and the use of durable materials offer consumers real-world benefits, but these benefits come with a higher price tag. Whether the higher price of a fine tool is worth the money is a question only you can answer.
You should also consider the kind of flies you will be tying. If you tie flies on small hooks, working access to the hook is important. If you tie for the salt, or warmwater species, access becomes less important than the vise's ability to hold large hooks securely.
To help narrow the field, decide if you want a C-clamp or pedestal base, or if you expect specific accessories.
A primary difference between the many vises on the market today is rotation. Some vises have a fixed head, while others can be rotated to give better access to the sides or bottom of the fly, or to inspect the back side of the fly prior to finishing. The latter are generally referred to as rotary or 360-degree vises, but turning the head of the vise will take the hook shank out of the horizontal position, and adjusting the hook may be necessary to complete the task. A "true rotary" (sometimes referred to as "on-axis rotary" or "in-line rotary") positions the hook shank horizontally and on the axis of rotation of the vise. Therefore, the hook shank remains horizontal throughout rotation of the vise.
Thousands of skilled tiers use nothing other than a traditional vise, which leads to the most important consideration in vise selection: purchase a vise because it suits you, not because it suits anyone else!
There are essentially two types of jaws used in vises today: collet and lever-type (also called parallel clamp).
Collet vises employ one-piece jaws, which are in the open position, like a pair of tweezers. The jaws are closed by either pulling or pushing them into a ring, called a collet. This is generally accomplished by a lever and cam located at the rear of the vise barrel.
Most collet vises are "draw collet," meaning that the jaws are pulled into the collet. Examples include the venerable Thompsons to the more sophisticated HMH entries. DynaKing's line uses a forcing cone-collet design--or "push collet." The Renzetti Presentation 3000 and the Tiemco vises also use a push-collet design, but with these vises the jaws are closed and opened by turning a large knob located at the back of the jaws. Because of the great force exerted onto the collet, push-collet vises tend to have a substantial metal collar behind the jaws some tiers may find reduces access to small hooks. Draw-collet designs generally have a sleeker profile.
Lever-type jaws such as those found on Regal vises operate like a wooden clothespin, requiring two-piece jaws, a fulcrum, and a mechanism to close the jaws. On some designs, a small screw near the tip of the jaws provides adjustment between hook-wire diameters. Some tiers find that this screw interferes, especially when tying on very small hooks. Either a thumbscrew or a cam lever is used to close the jaws by separating the "tails" of the jaws.
There is no single best design, but there certainly are differences in how well the designs are executed.
The function of a fly-tying vise is to hold a hook so that it will not slip or move during the tying process, yet at the same time not cause any noticeable damage to hook finish or structure. Pressure on the hook well past this "secure" point becomes a liability.
A major challenge for vise designers is how to hold larger hooks securely. For small hooks, the designer has a different concern--how to provide the best access to the hook once it is mounted in the jaws.
In contemporary vises there are three approaches to holding larger hooks: ramp up the pressure; machine serrations into the faces of the jaws; or integrate one or more hook pockets. Each of these approaches, and many vises have a blend of them, has its pros and cons.
Ramp up the pressure. The pressure required to hold any hook is directly related to the amount of contact area between the jaws and the hook. In other words, as the surface area increases there is less pressure required to hold the hook.
The pressure required to hold a large-size (or long-shank) hook inside a smooth set of jaws is great. Unless the contact surface is significant, the pressure required will damage the hook finish and could cause structural damage to the hook. You should treat these kinds of jaws with some trepidation if tying on large hooks is important to you.
Serrated jaws. Serrations machined into the faces of the jaws bite into the hook, improving their hook-holding capability. The sharper or coarser the serrations, the more efficient the bite. Serrations can damage the hook finish, which may invite corrosion, and possibly weaken the hook itself.
Integrated hook pockets. Integrating hook pockets is another way to reduce the amount of pressure required, yet still retain a secure hold. However, hook pockets limit where hooks can be placed.
Hook pockets can be located in just one-half of a jaws set, or in both the facing sides to make up the set. They can be straight, linear indents, such as those on the DynaKing jaws, or they can be curved to follow the generic shape of a hook bend, as seen on the LAW jaws.
Perhaps the best all-round design is a finely marbled tip to hold small hooks securely, and one or two hook pockets to handle the larger sizes.
Best Under $100 Vise
Dan-vise (aka Danica vise)
This part metal, part Delrin vise has proven reliable and durable. It has some impressive features: true-rotary cam operated design, quality steel jaws capable of securely holding hooks from #2/0 down to the smallest the tier can handle, optional saltwater jaws for hooks up to #9/0 ($32), rear handle crank, and a flexible C-clamp that can handle tabletops up to 61/2".
While the Dan-vise is compact, the Delrin components are somewhat bulky. The crank rotates the jaws smoothly but is noisy. The stem has a diameter of 10 mm.
Verdict. The Dan-vise is a terrific value and a very sound tying tool. A vise mostly made out of Delrin may put some tiers off, but it is the vise to beat in the sub-$100 class. HW
Best $100–$200 Vise
The original HMH Spartan came out in the early '80s and was positioned as a scaled-down (and less expensive) version of the HMH Standard. It was a cute vise, nicely machined from good quality materials, but it never gained much popularity.
For 2001, the Kennebec River Co. has released a much-improved version of the Spartan that now shares many of the same components with "big brother." It takes the same jaws, which are easily changed. General purpose jaws (Omni) are supplied with the vise. Magnum (up to #6/0) and Micro jaws (#20-#32) are optional.
The cam lever is full size; the stem is 3/8". The HMH Spartan is supplied in either a C-clamp or pedestal version. The black, finished C-clamp opens up to a 2" gap. The black pedestal weighs 3 pounds. For deer-hair bass bugs, a heavier base would be an advantage.
Verdict. This traditional-design vise is one of the real deals in contemporary vises. HW
The Squire is at the lower end of the DynaKing line but incorporates the same push-collet jaw design as all other DynaKings. The head angle is set at a non-adjustable 30 degrees from the horizontal, with a spring material clip incorporated into the top of the chassis. The vise head rotates through the full 360 degrees.
Machining, fit, and finish are excellent, and the model I tested came standard with a machined-aluminum C-clamp. The gap of the cushioned C-clamp was only 17/8", which is insufficient for some applications.
Adjustment between hook-wire diameters is accomplished with the collar, and the locking cam lever is 3" in length. Lock-up occurs with a reassuring release of pressure on the lever, and hook hold is excellent throughout the range of sizes. The jaws are blunt, however, and hooks in the sub-20 size range are not easily accessible. Midge jaws are available for about $40.
Verdict. Although I prefer tying on a true rotary, I enjoyed this vise. For those who want a traditional vise with one frill (rotary head), this vise is a bargain for a high quality tool. BS
Best $200–$300 Vise
Renzetti Presentation 4000 Cam
The middle of Renzetti's line is the Presentation series, consisting of three vises. All are finely machined pieces, constructed of aluminum, stainless steel, and brass. The Presentation 3000 uses a push-collet jaw design, while the Presentation 4000 and 4000 Cam use lever-type jaws, with the former operated by a large knurled knob and the latter by a lever cam.
The recent addition of a lever cam to the jaws of the Presentation 4000 and Traveler models is a significant improvement over the thumbscrew design of the originals. Adjusting for hook diameter places the jaws in a nearly parallel position, and a quick flick of the cam lever results in a secure lock-up.
The jaws of the 4000 models are smaller than those of the Master, sacrificing some surface area. However, hook holding power remains excellent throughout the range of freshwater hooks, and suffers only with the largest saltwater irons. The jaws offer superior access to very small hooks.
The vise comes with either a pedestal base or C-clamp. Those who tie spun-hair bugs or large saltwater patterns would be well served to opt for the saltwater pedestal base at the time of purchase for an additional $30.
Using the vise is a pleasure. Tension on the rotary function is fully adjustable from free spin to lock, and rotation is silky smooth. Machining is first rate.
The jaws can be mounted in any of three positions on the arm to place them on the axis of rotation for a particular range of hook sizes. Final placement of the hook shank on axis is accomplished by the hook's position in the jaws.
The "rotary actuator" and associated parts are needlessly complex, and an internal spring to open the jaws, rather than an O-ring would be a welcome improvement.
Verdict. At $350 with either standard pedestal base or C-clamp, or $380 with saltwater pedestal base or C-clamp, this vise is not cheap. Many would say that the vise does nothing better than the Traveler, at less than half the cost--and they would be right. Nonetheless, this is such a finely built tool that it would be my choice in this price range. BS
Best $400 and Up Vise
LAW Bench Vise
Lawrence A. Waldron, of Seisdon, England, is a precision machinist who produces a limited line of fly-tying products, including three models of vises, two of which are reviewed here. The vises are only available by individual order.
The LAW Bench vise is an on-axis rotary model with lever-type jaws. One jaw is held stationary on the rotating arm, while the other moves on a fulcrum. There is no adjustment between hook wire diameters; the jaws are simply closed on any hook by a star-shaped thumb screw. Lock-up is straightforward and secure for the entire range of hooks and is achieved by less than half a revolution of the star wheel. The jaws incorporate two hook pockets behind the lightly scored jaw tips. On large saltwater irons, placement of the hook into the appropriate pocket may take the hook shank slightly off axis but perfect alignment of hook shank is rarely required.
For added clearance behind the jaws for very small hooks, the vise body can be tilted upward, though moving the
angle from horizontal renders the vise non-true rotary.
The barrel of the vise is machined Delrin, which also serves as the bearing for the vise's rotation. Disassembly is accomplished by removing a single brass fitting at the rear of the vise, which also serves as the adjustment for rotary tension.
The vise comes with either pedestal or C-clamp, or both, at additional charge. The pedestal is sufficiently heavy, with a footprint of approximately 6" x 8", and the bottom is lined with closed-cell foam. The pedestal has a depression for hooks or other small materials. The C-clamp is a machined aluminum, hard-anodized piece with a gap of 23/4", leather lined to protect furniture.
The vise also comes with a two-piece standrod. Standard length is used with the pedestal base, and a 4" screw-in extension is added for C-clamp use.
Verdict. This is the finest all-round vise available today. Perhaps the only drawback is that it is not readily available. It performs its function with an elegance and simplicity no other vise matches. At £350 (about $525), the vise is within the highest price range of those currently available, but you get what you pay for. BS
The Renzetti Master is the top of Renzetti's line of true-rotary vises. The Master's jaws are lever-type with a cam lock-up. Adjustment between hook-wire diameters is accomplished with a thumbscrew located toward the tip of the jaws, such that during lock-up jaw closure is parallel. Some tiers find that the thumbscrew location interferes with some tying techniques, but I never found it intrusive.
The vise is constructed of machined aluminum and brass, with tool steel jaws, and the design concept is versatility. The angle of the arm that holds the jaws assembly is adjustable to obtain perfect alignment of the hook shank on the axis of rotation, although this can be accomplished between a range of hook sizes by simply locating the hook at the appropriate spot in the jaws. A range of Renzetti accessories is available.
The arm with which you rotate the vise (the "rotary actuator" in Renzetti-speak) is mounted on a one-way roller bearing so that the vise may be turned by pumping the arm through an acute angle, rather than turning the arm through 360 degrees. The utility of this feature is a mystery to me, but the arm can also be locked into position by tightening a knurled knob at the rear of the vise. Tension adjustment on the rotary function is accomplished with a separate thumb screw at the vise barrel.
A clever material clip, consisting of a spring mounted on a brass arm, can be swung into position for use, or tucked out of the way when not in use. It works well. The vise is available with C-clamp or pedestal, both of which are well made, though the optional saltwater pieces should be considered to provide additional stability.
Verdict. The Renzetti Master is among the best in the world, and at a $600 suggested retail price, it should be. My only criticism of the vise is that much of the cost must be related to features that complicate the design for negligible gains in function, but if maximum versatility is your goal, and cost is no obstacle, this vise is in a class by itself. BS
Hans Weilenmann lives in Amstelveen, the Netherlands. He has been a demo tier at many U.S. and International shows since 1985.
Bruce Salzburg lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and is an avid fly tier.