Revolutionary Ideas

Revolutionary Ideas

The Rotary Round-Up

  • By: Ted Leeson
Some months back, I was asked (along with 75 other people) to participate in a fly-tying exposition held locally every year. My annual appearance at this event is solicited, I believe, primarily as a stern warning to the young: "See Timmy? If you don't practice, your flies will turn out like that poor man's." Little Timmy shields his eyes and gasps, "Please Daddy! Don't make me look!" Reactions like this give me plenty of time to poke around the expo. Because I am a trained professional, I take note of the vises people use.

And every year it seems a few more tiers have gone rotary. Though still in the minority, rotary vises are now firmly ensconced in the culture of fly-tying, and I'm certain their popularity will only continue to grow, particularly among new tiers, who bring no preconceived ideas to the craft. To them, rotary vises do not represent that mildly suspicious, "other way" of tying, but a serious and credible option from the outset. And those options are getting more serious and more credible every year, as new vises appear on the market, existing designs are tweaked, and the price of going rotary drops.

A quick distinction: Many standard vises are "rotary capable," that is, the jaw barrel will rotate. But since the hook shank does not lie on the axis of revolution, these aren't suitable for rotary tying. On some vises, you can position the jaw barrel horizontally, but the best you end up with, in my estimation, is faux rotary. The axis of rotation runs through the center of the jaws, not along the hook shank, so the hook wobbles when spun. Placing the hook lower in the jaws pretty much eliminates access to the rear of the shank. And in such cases, the rotary mechanisms on such vises are typically primitive-sloppy, sticky, and cumbersome to use.

"True rotary" vises, our subject here, place the hook shank, but not the jaw barrel, on the rotational centerline. (The one exception here is the Nor-Vise, which is a creature unto itself in many respects.) The jaw height is usually adjustable to permit aligning hooks of different sizes on the rotary axis. And true rotaries have an arm specifically designed for smooth revolution (sometimes using bearings); a practical method of rotating the arm; an adjustment for rotational tension; and a bobbin rest to hold the thread when the jaws are spun. In other words, a true rotary vise is, unsurprisingly, designed for rotary tying procedures.

I took 13 of these vises for a test spin. Here's how it turned out.Abel As you might expect from Abel, the Supreme Vise is built for function and handsomely manufactured-in this case from a striking combination of brass and copper. The screw-closing parallel jaws, machined of stainless, are as substantial as the rest of the vise, and really more at home with #2/0 hooks than #20, though they hold both solidly. Jaw height is easily adjusted with a set screw that frees the jaws to slide up and down in a housing. A comfortably long finger lever drives a smooth, wobble-free rotary mechanism, and the tension control is usefully precise. There's also a hook-centering gauge; a straightedge placed in a slot on the rotary arm functions as a guide to shank alignment-an aid to beginners that most tiers will outgrow with practice. The drawbacks here are mostly minor. Despite the brushed finish, there's still some glare from the brass, particularly under stronger light. The jaws are rather bulky for easy access to hooks smaller than about #16, and they aren't helped by a hook-gap screw that is unnecessarily large for a low-torque adjustment. There's a bit of play in the rotary shaft-of no consequence in rotation but slightly noticeable in stationary tying. The only real disappointment on this vise is the use of an O-ring for tension at the rear of the jaws-absurdly low-end engineering for an expensive, high-end product. And the absence of a material clip in the vise package is an annoyance, since rotary tying often demands one. There's nothing particularly innovative here from a design standpoint; instead, the Supreme is a good embodiment of proven ideas, executed with high-quality materials and manufacturing, in a stylish package. It's probably better suited to the saltwater angler than the midge fisherman, but is a serviceable all-around vise. It runs $500 with foam-lined case. Dan Vise The first thing you'll notice about the Dan Vise is that practically the only visible components made of metal are the vise stem and jaws. The rest is a type of plastic or composite. Yes, I know. But keep an open mind. The cam-operated parallel jaws apply enormous clamping pressure for larger hooks, yet are usefully shaped for very small ones. Jaw height adjustment is quick and simple, with a thumbscrew that allows the jaw assembly to slide up and down in a housing. A second thumbscrew atop the rotary arm can pose a slight nuisance in positioning the left hand. Hook gap adjustment, again with a thumbscrew, is a bit fussy and slow. The jaws are rotated by a small crank-an approach that I think offers no real advantage over a simple finger-spun lever. A crank demands more, and more coordinated, movement of the left hand, and requires awkward wrist position. Rotary tension is changed by holding the jaws stationary and screwing the crank assembly in or out; it's serviceable, though not particularly sensitive. There's a little flex in the vise during tying, and it wouldn't be my top choice for big flies, long-shank hooks or patterns requiring heavy thread pressure, such as deer-hair bugs. Despite its somewhat Rube Goldberg-ish appearance, slightly off-putting materials and the limitations noted, the Dan Vise offers a level of functionality that really surprised me. It holds hooks firmly, rotation is right on the money, and there is uncommon sense in some of the details. The bobbin rest is intelligently designed for minimum interference in the tying field. And the clamp base is cleverly done; there's no knee-bumping hardware beneath the bench, but stem height is still adjustable. It may not be much to look at, but it is impressively practical-doubly so for the money, about $80 (with bobbin rest). This one is a value. Made in Denmark by ATH-Fiskars, which may account for the "Dan-Vice" (sic) stamped on the base. Guess they know us better than we know ourselves. Dyna-King The Barracuda brings an impressive package to the bench-practical engineering, first-rate materials, clean manufacturing and durable construction. The bearing-mounted rotary arm spins flawlessly true, operated by a simple lever and controlled by a sensitive tension adjustment. Sensitive adjustment is necessary, since these are heavy jaws; the center of mass of the jaws lies off the rotary axis, and so the whole rotary arm is unbalanced. This is true of virtually all rotary vises, and in free-spin mode the jaws, when positioned above the rotary arm, will "fall" downward to their normal position, producing a distinct "thunk" in the rotation. Tension must be adjusted precisely to prevent this free fall but still allow easy, one-finger rotation. Jaw-height adjustment is as fast and effortless as you'll find anywhere, and a knurled knob automatically locates and secures the jaws in the normal orientation for stationary tying. The jaws use a push-cam mechanism. Operating the cam lever advances the jaws through a tapered cone, forcing the tips closed. The mechanism is pleasingly smooth, and a location notch on the cam clicks into place when the jaws are closed. A centering gauge snaps onto the rotary arm to locate the centerline for hook placement-mostly an aid to novice rotary tiers, since a feel for hook placement develops pretty quickly The Barracuda is overall a rather large vise with a long rotary arm, giving excellent clearance during rotation for large flies with feathers or fur that extend well beyond the hook bend-a real plus for saltwater tying. But this vise wouldn't be my first choice for dressing lots of small flies. While access to the rear of the shank is excellent, the jaw tips project into the tying field beneath the shank and diminish the working space, and the bulky forcing cone obstructs working room around small hooks. If you routinely tie smaller than, say, #16, you should look into the optional midge jaws or the 2/3-scale Barracuda Jr. The Barracuda is a fine execution of the rotary idea-completely functional and a pleasure to tie on-that will probably outlast you and several generations of your progeny. Vise with bobbin rest, centering gauge and instructional video runs $329 (pedestal or clamp); the Barracuda Jr., similarly outfitted, is $319. The Signature vise is a kind of hybrid between the Barracuda and the old Sidewinder vise. Mechanically, it's almost identical to the Barracuda except that the rotary drive is not a lever but a brass wheel and crank at the end of the rotary housing, which, as noted earlier, is less practical than a lever. It's a smoothly operating and impeccably made piece of equipment, though I think most tiers will prefer the drive mechanism on the Barracuda. Retail is $349. Griffin The Griffin Odyssey Spider is, by design, about as basic a rotary vise as you'll find. The screw-closing parallel jaws hold well through a large range of hook sizes, though the slender profile and narrow tips make these particularly good for the trout-fly tier. Height is adjusted by moving the jaws vertically in a slot in the support arm. Rotary tension is adjusted by two knurled nuts on the shaft, and a simple finger-spun lever turns the jaws. The concessions to low cost here come mainly at the price of speed and convenience of adjustment. Jaw height must be adjusted with an allen wrench. Changing rotary tension takes both hands. And thumbscrew jaws are inherently slower than cam types. None of this compromises the practicality of the vise; it just requires a bit more fiddling around. A few design choices, however, are less than optimum. The arm supporting the jaws is positioned about 5/8" from the vise stem, and tying on this vise can feel a bit crowded at times. The parallel jaws require spring tension somewhere in the mechanism to allow hook-gap adjustment. Here the tension is provided by an O-ring-less than ideal, since it will eventually need replacing, but excusable in an economy vise. Lastly, the bobbin rest, held to the stem by a pinch-spring, is awkward to operate, makes no provision for tension adjustment and dictates a fixed distance between jaw tips and thread rest. None of these limitations really diminish the functionality of this vise; it's just a bit slower and less convenient to use than some of the more elaborate vises. But it's hard to beat for the money. At $70, this is the least-expensive true-rotary vise I've seen. The Odyssey Cam is a souped-up version of the Spider. Though architecturally very similar in the rotary mechanism, it's outfitted with tight, sturdy cam-operated jaws, a fully adjustable (and easier to use) bobbin rest, and a two-piece stem that increases the packability of this already compact unit. It also shares some of the Spider's limitations. Changing rotary tension and jaw height is slow; crowding of components near the vise stem make some adjustments a bit cramped, particularly since the bobbin rest has a short vertical drop which positions the horizontal arm high up in the tying field. This vise is also fitted with a rotary crank rather than the more convenient lever. But like the Spider this is a workmanlike, functional vise. The real reasons to choose it are the cam-closing jaws, which are faster and more convenient to use, and the compact size and breakdown stem, which make it a nice choice for traveling. It runs $139.95 with C-clamp. Marryat The Marryat MP-Vise designed by Swiss tier Marc Petitjean is an ingenious piece of engineering. A travel vise that fits in its own pedestal base, the MP can be configured in a variety of ways-as a standard vise, tube-fly vise, dubbing-brush spinner and the chief interest here, as a rotary vise. The rotary features are entirely serviceable and sometimes quite shrewdly unconventional, though on the whole the vise is a bit slower and less convenient to use than other rotary vises. In some cases, general design features are the cause-mounting a hook, for instance, requires placement of the hook precisely in the correct jaw groove, then two screw adjustments and a cam lever. Jaw height adjustment is similarly fussy. In other cases, concessions are made to the fact that rotary tying is just one of the various modes of the vise-the bobbin rest, for example, is awkward to use. The rotary mechanism isn't as silky smooth as some, and the tension adjustment could allow for finer adjustments. For a stay-at-home bench vise, I'd probably go another route-unsurprising since this vise was designed with a different purpose in mind. But if you have your eye on a marvelously versatile travel vise that is fully functional for rotary tying as well as standard tying, you owe this one a look. It is carefully thought out, offers a wide range of features and is nicely made. Broken down and stored in the base, it makes a tidy and portable package. It's clever, but not gimmicky. Some convenience and speed are traded away in the interests of portability, but this is a vise for serious tying designed by a serious tier, and seriously priced at $389 (includes ballistic nylon carry case and instructional CD). Nor-Vise The Nor-Vise, certainly the most unusual vise of the group, is engineered entirely around rotary tying. The bearing-mounted, horizontal rotary head spins easily enough to generate alarming rpm's, which make possible rotary procedures with dubbing, hackle and dubbing brushes that are impractical with other vises. Rotary tension is provided by a set screw; for stationary tying operations, the jaws can be locked at positions 90 degrees apart simply by pushing the rotary hub inward. The bobbin rest is a separate post mounted about a foot from the jaw tips, a distance that facilitates some rotary operations and keeps the tying field uncluttered, though it does make the use of the Norlander Automatic Bobbin (see sidebar) highly advisable. The standard horizontal "in-line" jaws are parallel-closing, and recently a quick and simple cam lever has replaced the more cumbersome thumbwheel on previous models. There's no height adjustment on the in-line jaws; shanks are aligned with the rotational axis entirely by their vertical placement in the jaws-an approach that works well enough down to about #2 hooks. For larger hooks, the optional large in-line jaws are necessary. There's a limitation at the other size extreme as well. The horizontal jaws limit access to the shank-when tailing a fly, for instance-on hooks smaller than about #16. To better accommodate smaller hooks, there are fine-point jaws, mounted on an angled rotary arm in the configuration typical of most rotary vises. The angled jaws give better working room around the rear of the shank, but the center of mass on the jaws (like that on most of the vises reviewed here) is far enough off the rotational axis to make high-speed spinning impossible. Ordinary rotary tying, however, is still practical, and with the fine-point jaws, the Nor-Vise functions much like a conventional rotary vise. Because in some respects the virtues and advantages of this vise are unique, it's really an item you need to check out for yourself. I think it's best suited to tiers who routinely dress somewhat larger flies, where the benefits of high-speed rotation really come into play, and to those who are willing to learn new tying methods. More than any other vise reviewed here, this one requires tiers to adjust their techniques to the equipment in order to take full advantage of its capabilities. But learning the Nor-Vise is not difficult and it makes possible some rather astonishing rotary methods. Retail, with standard in-line jaws, is $245; optional jaws $75. Peak Introduced last year, the Peak Rotary is a substantial vise, machined from stainless and brass. Jaws are the familiar draw-cam style, operated by a large lever with flats ground on the cam for a secure lock-up. The standard jaws (supplied) hold well through the normal range of trout sizes; optional midge and saltwater jaws take over at the extremes. Trout-fly tiers, however, are probably best served overall by the midge jaws, which hold securely in the typical size range and give better access to the hook. There are a few rough spots here. Some play of the rotary shaft in the housing, though a minimal concern during rotation, does permit a slight jaw wobble under thread pressure in conventional tying procedures. The jaws are stout and heavy and can produce that off-balance feel during rotation unless rotary tension is precisely adjusted. But the tension screw here is rather coarsely threaded for fine tuning. Jaw height is fixed, so putting hooks of different sizes on the rotational centerline is entirely a matter of their placement in the jaws. Through the middle range of trout sizes, this isn't a problem, but saltwater tiers may find that large hooks may need mounting so low in the jaws that hook access is restricted. Still, this is a sturdy vise that holds hooks well and has pleasing cosmetics; it's probably best suited to those who tie with rotary methods occasionally rather than as a mainstay. The real surprise here is the price-this is a serious piece of metal, made in the U.S., for $119.95; extra jaws $35. Renzetti Renzetti offers the most extensive line of rotary vises; I tied on four models. Though differing, obviously, in specifics, these vises shared a few common features: compact, slim jaws that offer excellent access to the hook; a simple, clean, open architecture that gives ample working room around the shank; and smooth, true rotation driven by a simple finger lever. Design simplicity makes these among these easiest rotary vises to use. On to cases: As the name implies, the Cam Traveler is the most compact of the Renzetti vises. Aluminum stem, rotary arm and rotary head also make it the lightest and least expensive. Cam-operated parallel jaws are nicely shaped for small hooks but grip securely well into the saltwater sizes, and in fact the holding power of these modestly sized jaws is really quite surprising. Gap-size adjustment is sensibly unobtrusive, though the jaw height mechanism is cumbersome; large changes in hook size require unscrewing and remounting the jaws in the collar. The spring tension necessary on parallel-closing jaws is provided here by an O-ring-not the optimum in durability, but an acceptable compromise in holding down cost. The finish on this vise is rough compared to the upper-end vises, but tying on it is remarkably similar in convenience and feel to tying on the more expensive models. Simple and wonderfully functional, this is as good a bench vise as it is a travel vise, and overall a serious piece of tying equipment. With pedestal base, $164.95. Larger and more substantial than the Traveler, the Presentation 4000 Cam represents as well a significant upgrade in materials-pretty much stainless steel and brass throughout. The rotary mechanism is smoother and more versatile; it can be configured for a one-way, ratchet-style drive (which, admittedly, I have never found a purpose for) or for a more conventional bi-directional drive. Jaws are very similar in design and grip to those on the Traveler, though finished with a higher grade of corrosion-resistant coating. But the larger size of this vise, the longer rotary arm and the heavier base make it more suitable for saltwater work. On the downside, jaw height adjustment involves the same, somewhat slow remounting procedure, and I find an O-ring to be an appallingly primitive solution to providing jaw tension on a piece of equipment in this price range. But this vise has a wonderfully solid, smooth feel in tying, is beautifully machined, and handsomely finished. It's a good choice for tiers who want a high-quality vise that can reliably handle a wide range of hook sizes. $354.95, with pedestal. The Presentation 3000 is identical to the 4000 in every respect but the jaws. In this screw-cam approach, turning a knurled knob at the base of the jaws forces the jaw tips through a collet, which closes them. The basic design here goes back at least half a century, and perhaps a good deal farther, and is not often seen now in the modern fetish for cams. But it is a highly practical approach, and in this particular incarnation, a sublime one. The small but strong tips give a solid hold with superb working room; the absence of a hook-gap adjustment screw cleans up the vise head and gives perhaps the most uncluttered tying space of any rotary vise made. The jaw-height adjustment is cunningly done, if a little slow; loosen a set screw and screw the jaws up or down in the housing. Though these jaws hold securely into the single-digit hook sizes (and in fact are wonderful for lighter saltwater tying), the Presentation 3000 is at its very best for trout flies. Possibly the best small-fly rotary vise made, this one is a joy to tie on and certainly my favorite of the Renzetti line. With pedestal, $329.95 Looking a bit like a robotic arm for high-tech manufacturing, the Master is engineered for versatility. The jaw tips give excellent working room around tiny hooks, but the jaws are deeper and beefier than on other Renzetti vises and will solidly hold huge saltwater hooks. Overall, this is the most heavily built vise in the line. The cam is exceptionally nice and will secure a fair range of hook sizes without the need to readjust the jaw gap. Bearings in the rotary head give ultra-smooth rotation. Jaw height adjustment can be accomplished in two ways. The jaws can be unscrewed and remounted in one of three height positions, or by means of a pivot on the rotary arm that swings the jaws up or down. If there is a flaw in the vise, however, it's in these adjustments. Remounting the jaw is slow; adjusting the pivot arm-using an allen wrench-is easier, but a final re-tightening the arm often causes it to shift position a bit, which is an annoyance in making fine adjustments. But the versatility is worth this fussiness, since the pivot arm allows positioning the jaw tips above the rotational centerline for optimum access to small hooks. This is one for the tier who needs (or wants) a very high-end vise that offers easy tying on everything from midge hooks to billfish irons-and is willing to pay for it. $599.99 (w/pedestal). Thompson Dubbed the "Klingon vise" almost immediately upon introduction, the Thompson Cobra certainly offers one of the more unusual vise architectures. It is not just for show. The holes in the vise stem are plug-in mounts for various accessories-bobbin rest, back mirror, hackle gauge, material clip (all sold separately)-and the curved jaw support gives a bit more left-hand clearance in some tying operations. The parallel-closing jaws have a nicely simple height adjustment, and close with a T-handle knob which is more comfortable to use but a bit slower than an ordinary knurled knob-ultimately about a wash in terms of convenience. The jaws have a solid grip, though I find getting a good hold on large or long-shank hooks takes some trial and error; trout sizes are trouble free. The rotary mechanism is pleasingly smooth and operated by a practical finger-spun lever. Tension is controlled by a precisely adjusting knurled screw. This interesting design could still use some tweaking. The jaw-gap adjustment knob is overly large, projecting a full inch into the tying field. The pedestal base has the weight but is a little small; heavy thread pressure can tip it forward. (There are plans for a base extension that will solve the problem.) Probably the weakest component from the standpoint of rotary tying is the bobbin rest. Because of the plug-in mount the thread rest must pivot downward, which keeps the horizontal support arm close enough to the tying field to interfere occasionally with bobbin handling. And the rear end of the bobbin rest arm can interfere with operating the rotary lever. The basic requirements-good hook holding and smooth rotation-are here; a few of the details could use some modification for optimum rotary capability. But to my mind, this is the best-quality, most interesting vise that Thompson has ever produced. The vise is available in a variety of finishes, some traditional, some (like camo) are pretty far out there. It runs $165 (including a rigid carrying case); bobbin rest is $25.50, and material clip $12.50. The Ups 'n Downs Through a combination of personal torpor, professional necessity and the universal tendency toward ever-increasing entropy, I always have at least two vises, and sometimes as many as four-both standard and rotary-set up at any given time. I use both types routinely. Here are what seem to me the strengths and limitations of the rotary approach. On the Upside: I don't think rotary vises offer one, definitive, overwhelmingly large benefit over standard vises. Rather, they have a number of smaller, more local advantages-some that increase tying speed or efficiency, some that simplify specific procedures, some that simply make a neater fly. *On large or long-shank hooks, wrapping stranded materials such as chenille or yarn is significantly faster. The gains in speed diminish with hook size, but even on trout flies, I find some materials, such as floss or flexible floss can be applied more consistently with the rotary method; controlling tension is easier and the material requires less handling. *On all sizes of flies, hackling-and particularly palmer hackling-is generally faster and more precise. I find this a particular advantage on small flies. Tiny hackles have fragile stems that easily break when the hackle pliers are shifted from hand to hand and the thin stem is levered around the plier tips. Holding the hackle stationary while spinning the jaws results in less breakage and a neater hackle. Ditto with quill bodies. - Ribbing is faster and more uniform. - One of the biggest advantages to me is in securing components such as side-mounted legs or throat hackle. The side or underside of the shank can be rotated to the top, which simplifies mounting the material and gives a neater result. - The fly can be viewed from an angle during tying, ensuring, for instance, that dubbing uniformly covers the shank all the way around. - Inverting the hook-when tying Clousers or Crazy Charlies, for example-is quicker on a rotary vise. - I find trimming deerhair bodies to be much simpler in a rotary vise, which gives easy and uniform access to the entire circumference of the fly. On the Other Hand: - Rotary vises are mechanically more complicated, involve more materials and labor and cost more than standard vises of equivalent overall quality. - In rotary tying procedures, the thread is draped over the bobbin rest to hold it on the rotational centerline and prevent it from winding around the shank. This entails two inconveniences. When positioned to hold the thread, the bobbin rest presents an obstacle in non-rotary procedures, so it must be moved in and out of the tying field when rotary techniques are used. It's a bit of a nuisance. You get used to it, but it could be made much less intrusive if most bobbin rests were more functionally designed. The second drawback is that the bobbin rest must be positioned far enough from the jaws to give some hand clearance, which often requires lengthening the thread for rotary tying, then shortening it afterward. There's nothing particularly difficult about this, but it is a bit of a bother and slows you down. - Adjusting jaw height when making significant changes in hook size-necessary to keep the shank on the centerline-adds another step. On some vises, it's quite simple; on others, not so. - A rotary vise may require some alterations in your technique. One of the biggest adjustments is in left-hand position. Consider mounting a tail on a fly, in which you pinch the material in left thumb and forefinger. Many tiers, when positioning the material atop the shank, hold the palm of their left hand facing the vise stem on a conventional vise; the bottom edge of the hand drops well below the level of the hook shank. On a rotary vise, this hand position-quite common in many tying procedures-is not possible. The rotary arm is an obstacle, and the left hand must be rotated slightly so that the palm faces downward. Some people learn to tie this way from the start and can't see what all the fuss is about. Others adjust quickly. Some never manage it. If you're an old dog who avoids new tricks, this kind of adjustment may be the deal-breaker in going rotary. - You gotta wanna. Taking full advantage of a rotary vise means altering your tying style somewhat. There's a learning curve. You've got to be patient, consciously apply the new methods and make them second nature, or you gain nothing over a standard vise. The Norlander Automatic Bobbin I have no idea how it works, but basically this bobbin automatically retracts the tying thread, but at the same time, it hangs in position under the shank without "reeling" the bobbin up to the hook. It's quite handy for rotary tying-simply drape the thread over the bobbin rest during rotary procedures; when you're finished, lift the bobbin, bring it back to the hook, and all the extra thread is automatically rewound. It eliminates that slow and clumsy turning of the thread spool with your thumb to respool excess thread. It's especially useful with the Nor-Vise, where the bobbin rest is 12" away from the jaws; manually rewinding a foot of thread, perhaps two or three times during one fly, is tedious. But this bobbin can speed up tying on virtually any rotary vise. The downside is that the bobbin requires its own special spools, and tying thread must be rewound on them, either with an electric drill or an attachment that mounts on the Nor-Vise itself. But I suspect that tiers who use rotary methods very often will find this inconvenience is minor compared to the efficiencies that are gained. The bobbin retails for $35. Contacts: Abel 866-511-7444 Dan Vise BT's Fishing (includes a short Al Beatty instructional video) 888-243-3597 Orvis 888-253-9763 Dyna-King 707-894-5566 Griffi 800-344-3150 Marryat 800-332-3305 Peak 970-622-9601 Renzetti 321-267-7705 D.H. Thompson Tel tk