When I first began tying flies as a kid, I started the typical way—with an ultra-cheap, super-basic vise. It worked fine at the time, but I soon upgraded to a slightly better model that would most definitely still fall into the "cheap" category. Despite its price and lack of features, it worked well enough that I kept tying on that thing for probably close to 20 years. In 2017, that all changed when I FINALLY upgraded to an actual quality vise called the Griffin Odyssey Spider that offers a heck of a package for less than a hundred bucks.
In my opinion, buying a vise shouldn't be a super complicated deal. When shopping for my new vise, I wanted a few basic features and capabilities, no cheap materials, and an affordable price tag. There are some really high-end models out there that I bet look and function like a million bucks, but I personally can't see spending that kind of cash on something that basically just holds a hook. But hey, if you want to, go for it—I doubt you'll be left disappointed!
What are the things I now look for in a vise? Some folks may go into greater detail when shopping for one, but in my eyes these are the most important aspects to consider:
The Base: Fly tying vises are initially offered with a pedestal base or a C-clamp that grabs onto the edge of a table. A pedestal base is flat, somewhat heavy, and typically detaches from the main stem of the vise for easy stowage. This makes it a great choice if you want to take your vise on the road and tie anywhere you find a flat surface—on a desk, a picnic table, a boat seat, or wherever. If desired, the pedestal base also lets you use the vise anywhere on the flat surface rather than just on the very edge of it. This allows cut materials to fall onto the surface instead of onto your lap or the floor.
With that said, I personally like the clamp style. Sure, it can't be used on a super thick or oddly-angled table edge, but I rarely travel with my vise and I tie at two tables here at home that are perfect for the clamp. I just like the fact that the whole package is light, simple, has a nice height adjustment range, and is easy to store. One nice thing is that many vises offer optional bases you can buy separately. So, if you start off with a pedestal base but decide you'd also like a clamp style, you can often buy one on its own and switch back and forth whenever you want.
Rotary Feature: A vise with a "rotary" feature means the jaw assembly can be spun around 360-degrees allowing you to view all sides of the fly. If a vise has what's commonly referred to as a "true-rotary" feature, this means that the jaw assembly can not only be spun around 360-degrees, but when adjusted properly for current hook size, the hook will remain on the same flat horizontal axis. The above picture shows my personal vise which is a true-rotary. Note how even when the hook is rotated upside down, the shank still sits inline with the center horizontal plane of the vise. The true-rotary feature gives me the option of holding the thread/material and rotating the vise to actually do the wrapping onto the hook. This can be really helpful for wrapping material like dubbing, chenille, wire ribbing, or when palmering hackle to ensure it's going on perfectly even around the hook. With just a standard rotary vise, the hook rotates around awkwardly and makes wrapping more difficult.
Accessories: Look at the options that are available and consider what type(s) of accessories you'd like to equip your vise and fly tying area with. From profile plates to catch basins, there are some very useful products out there. I love keeping things simple and uncluttered, so all I really find necessary is a bobbin holder. Included with my vise, I went many years without one but do find it handy even when I don't have to use it. Since it can quickly swing completely out of the way, I also find it a good spot to hang flies on that are done or need to finish drying. If using a true-rotary vise to wrap on materials, you'll want a bobbin holder since one hand will be rotating the vise while the other will be holding and guiding the material onto the hook. When mounted and used as in the picture above, thread will not wrap or unwrap around the hook as the vise is rotated and the bobbin stays nice and still.
Jaws/Adjustment: One of the very first specs I looked at when I bought my new vise was what size hooks it could accommodate. Thankfully, for me this wasn't too tough since I'm typically tying everything between a size 10 up to a 2/0 or so. My current Griffin Odyssey Spider is rated for 28 to 4/0, so I'm well within that range and have plenty of wiggle room to branch out and tie bigger or smaller bugs. Some vises do offer interchangeable jaws better suited to certain hooks. Jaws can range from textured on the inside to flat and smooth. I've always used and done fine with the basic flat, smooth jaws.
My last cheap vise had a lever and dial adjustment in the back and held hooks okay, but my latest vise grabs hooks much stronger thanks to tighter and more efficient dual-screw adjustments. Different vises adjust in different ways, usually involving a cam lever or screw. I can't say for sure which or if any are truly best. If you're outside the realm of the really cheap vises, you likely won't have to worry much about gripping power—I guess it boils down more to just personal preference as to what you think you'd want to use.
Fly tying is A LOT more fun with good equipment.
All of those years tying on a cheap, non-rotary vise with old tools produced satisfactory results, but honestly it wasn't always that enjoyable and could be a straight-up hassle sometimes. Now that I've finally moved up to a nice little rotary vise, better tools, and better resins, it's really refreshed my enjoyment of fly tying and actually helps me produce better quality flies. I totally regret waiting so long. Take your time and shop all the brands, read the reviews, go check some out at the local shop, and think about where and what you tie to make the best possible choice!
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