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The Hook - Part 2

Hook Prep 1Hook Prep 2Hook Prep 3Hook Prep 4Hook Prep 5Hook Prep 6Hook Prep 7Hook Prep 8People often ask me how I attach the barbs to my hooks and make the transitions so seamless that they look like a single piece of metal.  The answer is simple – they are a single piece of metal.  I start by milling the end of the hook flat to give myself a little more metal to work with in the vertical direction.  Then I cut out the barb from the shank using a tiny jeweler’s saw.  Finally, I file and polish the barb and shank until the transition is so smooth and gradual that the barb looks like it was born on the hook.  For my spun hook, though, my usual method wouldn’t work.  I would have to solder the barb on.

Because I wanted an absolutely seamless transition from shank to barb, I couldn’t have any evidence of a soldered joint at that junction.  Instead, I decided to shape the barb and tip together from a small section of wire, then notch out the base of the barb.  To match the female notch, I formed a male wedge in the end of the rest of the wire that fit precisely into the notch.  When fitted properly, the two were soldered together.
Hook Soldering Diagram 1

Not only would this technique allow me to form the barb, but it would also allow me to polish the wedge/notch seam into a really dramatic gutter.  The gutter is an indentation made on the side of the hook at the base of the barb that is justified historically by the erroneous rationale that it helps, as a similar indentation on a knife blade might, a fish’s blood to flow after it has been pierced by the hookpoint.  In reality, fish bleed very little if at all when caught, because their mouths are quite bony and cartilaginous.  So the best rationale for the gutter is that it gives the hookpoint and barb definition and style.  For that reason, my hooks always have prominent gutters.

After the soldering was complete, the one major hurdle that remained was that of spinning the three strands of wire together to form the hook.  I was quite worried about that step and gave it hours of thought even though it would only take minutes to complete.  My worry was in the strength of the soldered joint when it was torqued during the spinning process.  While the joint looked solid after soldering, the only way to test its strength was to twist it with the other strands and see if it held.  If it didn’t, I had no contingency plan.

The other stressful aspect of the spinning process was in the positioning of the barb.  I had to make sure that it started in the right location for it to twist into the perfect final position relative to the other wires.  Usually, I am quite confident in working gold and rarely practice on base metals.  When I’m doing something particularly difficult or new to me, however, I will practice with copper first.  In this case, I’m glad I did.  When spinning the wires counterclockwise, I was expecting the barb to precess counterclockwise.  But when I twisted three strands of copper wire together, I found that the wires precessed clockwise.  Further consideration of the physics revealed to me the error in my initial thought process, and the practice run saved me from a serious blunder.  It also gave me greater confidence in my soldered joint holding, because it made me realize that the wire does not twist as much as it bends, precessing away from the direction of the twist.  I was much more confident in the joint surviving a little bending than a three-quarter-turn twist.  Now for the final test – the real thing.

The joint broke.  What’s worse, the joint gave out just as the final turns were being made.  Not only was that demoralizing, but my attempts to work around the barb also made the entire twisting process more difficult.  As a result, I was unable to pull the strands taut while twisting them, leaving many of the turns uneven.  In short, the results were disastrous - I had a broken hook with uneven twists.

Disasters have occurred to me many times before.  The worst happen when a fly is virtually complete.  Once I had a polishing wheel traveling at thousands of RPMs catch on a finished fly and fling it past my face in a blur of feathers and razor-sharp gold.  Considering how close I was to catching the barbed hook with my face, I was probably fortunate to have simply turned the hook into a pretzel.  On another occasion, I had a finished fly with at least 30 hours invested in it in my vise receiving its final coats of lacquer, and while I was away at work my three-year-old decided he wanted to tie flies like his daddy.  When I came home, I found my best tying scissors hanging from the fly, the jammed scissors having been yanked so hard that the hook was doubled over sideways.

I’d love to say that I handle these kinds of setbacks with grace, but that’s usually not the case.  The first thing I do is walk away from the fly until my frustrations are vented and my head is clear.  When I return to the tying bench, I resolve that the time spent to that point will not have been wasted.  Even if a fly must be started again from scratch, valuable knowledge is gained from being set back.  So when I sit back down to begin afresh, I pause, take a deep breath, and say to myself, “That’s OK.  I’m going to make it even better this time.”

Once the barb snapped off, it became much easier to put the necessary tension the wire strands to twist the wire evenly.  I used this opportunity to even out the twists and get the wire to look just the way I wanted it to.  One problem solved.  Then came a trickier part – reattaching the hookpoint and barb.  I first attempted to salvage the broken hookpoint and barb, but it quickly became apparent that that would be impossible.  Without any more gold wire in the gauge I needed, I had to use a scrap of a heavier gauge wire and polish it down to the correct size, a difficult task with a half-inch length of wire.  After a few hours of difficult shaping and polishing work, I had the new piece ready.  I had also very carefully prepared the wire strand on the hook to accept the new piece, a difficult task to complete without scarring the other strands.  The joint would have to be a simpler style this time:

Hook Soldering Diagram 2

I did not think this joint style would be as strong as the previous one, so I made sure to twist the new piece into the other strands in the hook prior to soldering so that the soldered joint would experience as little bending and twisting as possible.  When the piece was finally soldered onto the hook, I was extremely pleased with the fit.  I was then able to accomplish the tricky task of polishing in an attractive gutter without scarring the other strands, creating a seamless connection.  Without having to withstand the stresses of bending and twisting after soldering, the joint was quite strong.  What’s more, it looked fabulous.  My perseverance was rewarded, and a very difficult part of the fly was completed.


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