Charlie Craven for FlyFisherman Magazine June 27, 2018
Let’s talk about dubbing. In fly tying, the word is both a noun (the material) and a verb (the act of applying said material) and is the cause of more headaches than it really ought to be. The act of skillfully twisting fur tightly around the tying thread is one of the most basic tenets of fly tying itself, yet one that so few tyers have mastered or even feel very comfortable with. I have to admit, I often judge other tyers by their dubbing and woefully, I am often disappointed. The best tip I can give any tyer, right off the bat before we even get into this, is; “you’re probably using too much”, but we’ll get more in to that later.
To dub well, I think a person has to really understand what exactly it is we are trying to do when we twist some fur onto the thread. Watching someone else dub thread well makes it seem pretty straightforward and simple, but once we get to our own vises, we all find out that there is maybe just a bit more to it than meets the eye. To that end, let’s talk a bit about dubbing and how to go about the job with some sort of a plan.
There are many factors that come into play when dubbing. Thread size and texture, the use of wax, the texture, staple length and sought after effect of the actual dubbing material on the finished fly, as well as the size of the fly we are tying.
Let’s start with the thread. Tying threads are most often made of nylon or polyester (see A Tangled Mess) and given the choice between the two, polyester threads are more textured and grip dubbing better than their slicker counterpart. This is not to say that you can’t dub well on the nylon threads like Danville or UTC, but rather, textured polyester threads like UNI and Veevus have a bit more texture and “tooth” to their surfaces and really do grip dubbing fibers more tightly. If you are just learning to dub, it’s probably best to start off with one of the polyester threads to ease the path and work your way up to the slicker stuff as your skills progress. Thread size should be considered as well as it relates to the size of the fly being tied. As the thread is the core of the dubbing, it determines, particularly in the smallest sizes, the starting diameter of the dubbing strand. Thick thread with a thin layer of dubbing is simply always going to be thicker than thin thread with the same amount of dubbing. On small patterns, the bulk of the thread will build the majority of the body shape. Think of it this way, if it would take fifteen turns of thread to build a body, you’d want only 8-10 turns of dubbed thread to do the same job. The thread itself adds more bulk than you’d think and the thread size needs to be accommodated when applying the dubbing.
Thread color is also a consideration, as it typically shows through the dubbing at its finest points. Choose something that matches.
As for wax, I use it every time I dub but that does not necessarily mean you need to, or even should. I have baby soft, smooth, dry fingers ode to a life of luxury and abhorrence for manual labor, so dubbing fibers tend to slip and slide within my grasp without a touch of wax to add some traction. Some people come pre-waxed from the womb and have a bit more moisture in their skin that will allow for the same amount of traction that wax gives me, but the rest of us generally need a bit of wax to ease the job.
Types of Dubbing
Dubbing is natural or synthetic fur that has been cut closely from the hide in the case of natural products or cut from yarns and the like in the case of synthetic. Once cut, these furs are then blended using a mixer of one sort or another to mishmash the fibers and mingle them together in a random pattern. Some long fibered synthetics are mixed and aligned using wool carding brushes to the same effect.
Dubbing textures can be broken down into long & fine, short & fine, long & coarse and short & coarse. From right to left: Superfine Dubbing (LF), Natural Beaver Fur (SF), Antron (LF), Ice Dubbing (SC), Buggy Nymph Dubbing (SC), Dyed Hare’s Mask (SC and SF), Arizona Mega Synthetic Dubbing(LC) and Arizona Mega Simi Seal (LC). All of these dubbings can be applied tightly to the thread with the correct method. Tyers must be careful to only apply small amounts in a continuous strand to form smooth, even bodies.
Now we’ll talk a little bit about the 817 million different types of dubbing available these days. We can all wander into the fly shop and locate natural fur dubbings from every critter imaginable, from the common rabbit and hare to unicorn and Bigfoot, as well as synthetic fibers of varying textures and length and even blends incorporating two or more different types of fibers! Fortunately, these can be broken down into just a few different categories pertaining to the fiber thickness and stiffness (coarse/fine), and their staple length, which is the length of the actual dubbing fibers.
Basically, there are short, coarse fibered dubbings (Ice Dubbin), coarse long fibered dubbing (Angora goat and many “leech” style synthetics), short fine fibered dubbings (rabbit and beaver) and long fine fibered dubbing (Superfine, Ultra fine wool and Antron). Coarse, stiff fibers of any length are harder to twist around the thread than softer fibers and generally result in a buggier overall look. Of course there are also those blends of different dubbing types as well and sometimes, short, coarse fibers are smartly blended with a longer staple length fiber in a finer diameter to allow the soft stuff to “carry” these coarse fibers along in the twist (naturally occurring on a properly prepared Hare’s Mask), and to add a degree of “bugginess” to the finished product. I tend to categorize blended dubbings by their coarsest component, so if I had some angora goat and rabbit mixed together, I would call it a coarse dubbing rather than a fine…the fine stuff added into the mix helps with the application, carrying the coarser fibers along with them, but twisting those longer, stiffer fibers still has to be dealt with.
Of course, all of these factors need to be considered in tandem with the size of the fly we are tying. Finer dubbings, obviously, lend themselves better to smaller sized flies, while coarser dubbing is more at home and appropriate on larger stuff, but there are times when the opposite of both of these rules can be true as well. Coarse dubbing on, say, a small scud pattern makes for a very translucent effect and fine dubbing on a larger pattern, where a hard base is needed say, to palmer a hackle over, is often employed on well-known patterns like the Stimulator. While I am on the subject, coarse dubbings tend to be more porous and sink better/float worse than their finer, tighter counterparts. Just file that away for later. I make little use of waterproof dubbings as the only way to go for dry flies, as it ain’t the water that makes your fly sink, it’s the fish slime. Ever notice that when you aren’t catching fish you have no trouble at all keeping your dry fly afloat, but when you’re catching them one after the other it’s all you can do to get the dang thing dried out? It’s fish slime, not water. Modern floatant can waterproof dang near anything, but it can’t overcome porous materials that are loosely applied.
I find my best results using coarser dubbings on sinking flies and streamers where their stiffer nature and coarser fibers allow light to pass through, create bulk more quickly and generate a larger silhouette without density. I like more finely textured dubbings for floating flies, as they are less porous, more easily shaped and lend themselves well to smaller applications. I also find that I use fine fibered dubbings on many of my small nymph patterns, as I am able to control the shape and taper much better using materials scaled to the hook size.
Preparing the Dubbing
Most dubbing comes packaged in a neat little zip-loc bag that makes it easy to store and identify. Unfortunately, these little bags can compress many dubbings into a matted clump, making individual fibers hard to separate and leading to difficult and heavier than needed applications. Fine, long fibered dubbings seem to be immune to this fault and work beautifully straight from the bag, and the bag acts as a sort of dispenser to allow you to draw out just a few long fibers at a time. Shorter fibers, coarse or fine, however, are often packed tightly together from their time in confinement and may need a little help. I’ll often pull a larger clump of these dubbing types from the bag and loosen it in my fingers by repeatedly pulling the dubbing apart and loosely restacking it into the clump. If I am tying a large batch, I’ll even go to the trouble to re-mix the dubbing using my canned air trick or a dubbing blender (coffee grinder) to loosen and separate the dubbing fibers. Working from loosely packed dubbing allows the tyer to separate much smaller amounts and as the fibers are no longer matted together, you get a much better idea of how much material you are working with at a time. If you pull a clump of dubbing from the package and it’s matted tightly together like something you brushed out of your dog’s coat, you’re probably gonna want to loosen that stuff up. Think “dust bunny” rather than “felt pad”.
The act of dubbing can be aptly described with the words, “controlled tangling”. When properly executed, a strand of dubbing, or noodle, as it is sometimes called by old men with long, gray mustaches, should be tightly tangled around the thread. I see lots of dubbing twisted into a nice tight rope right next to the thread and that just ain’t right. The idea is to twist the dubbing fibers around the thread, tangling them amongst themselves to form an even, continuous strand with the tying thread at its center. The dubbing and thread become a single unit when done right. I don’t ever make tapered strands of dubbing as so often recommended in the tying books of yesteryear where the “experts” advocated building the taper of the abdomen into the strand of dubbing, starting thin and fattening up as you worked down the thread. The catch to this method is that the skinny end of the fly is dubbed tightly, and the fat end is much more loosely applied. Loosely applied dubbing loses its shape easily and you’re left with a ragged mess that no one is proud of. I have found that a tight, thin, consistent diameter strand of dubbing, gives me much more control in building smoothly tapered bodies and thoraxes and the tight dubbing holds its shape much better than a loose application. Dubbing is one of the few fly tying materials that a tyer can overlap back and forth on top of itself without consequences, and a thin strand makes these moves much more precisely than a thick, ragged cord. Another misguided variation on dubbing I often see is when folks take a small pinch of dubbing and twist it tightly onto the thread, grab another pinch and twist it on directly below the first and then pull the bottom pinch up to the top pinch and try to weld them together with yet another twist. This old school approach often yields a “chain” of dubbing, with distinctly separate links, as opposed to the continuous rope we are really after. A single, continuous and interwoven strand will build a body or abdomen with no bald spots or lumps, and a consistent diameter will make building tapers and shapes much more easily than a lumpy, bumpy, clumpy mess might.
Let me walk you through the application of a thin strand of long fibered, fine dubbing, in this case Superfine Dubbing to build a dry fly body. Superfine is a polypropylene fiber with a slight crinkle and a staple length of about 1.25-1.5 inches. Truth be told, I use a very slight variation of this technique one way or the other, to apply dubbings of all types, so the technique is fairly universal with but minor adjustments to material.
I start by lightly swiping the pad of my dominant index finger across the top of my wax, getting just enough to notice but not so much that I’m gooey. I’ll then touch my thumb pad to my index finger to lightly coat both surfaces.
I pull a tiny clump of fibers straight from the bag of dubbing itself. I try to withdraw the fibers such that they align themselves and lay relatively parallel to one another as they come out of the bag. I don’t use dubbing boxes of any kind, as I find wadding up these beautiful long, straight fibers up into a clump and shoving them in to a small compartment misaligns the fibers and creates folds along their length. Boxes are fine for the short fibered stuff, but can really detract from the inherent qualities of the longer, finer dubbings. As a general rule of thumb, each time you draw out a clump of dubbing from the pack, say to yourself, “Self, use half that much” and keep doing that until you get it right. It’s truly astonishing just how little dubbing is needed for a small fly and it doesn’t take much more for a big one. Use this stuff like it’s $50 a bag.
Once a small bunch is free of the bag I bring it to the hanging thread, about a thumb width from the hook. There will always be a short length of bare thread between the top of the dubbing strand and the hook, so I place my hanging thread toward the mid-point on the shank to allow me to evenly distribute this bare thread on the way back to the bend to create an even underbody and start with the thinnest tip of the dubbing right at the bend. I don’t like applying the dubbing further down and then sliding it up the thread to get it closer to the hook as this always loosens the dubbing’s grip on the thread and makes it harder to manage.
I transfer the clump from my top “twisting hand” to my bottom “distributing hand”. I align the dubbing clump so the fibers are relatively parallel to the thread as I take a loose hold of the main, lower end of the dubbing clump with my bottom hand and begin to twist a very few top strands at the other end of the dubbing clump onto the thread with a long, tight roll to create an anchor point. I roll the pad of my thumb toward the tip of my index finger and only twist in one direction. That is, once my thumb has reached the end of my index, I open my fingers and start back over again at that first knuckle. Twisting in two directions twists the dubbing on and then off again and that is definitely not what we are after. At this point I am only worried about the very top end of the dubbing attaching to the thread and I want it to do so as thinly as possible. The very top of the dubbing strand will be the first turn of dubbing around the bend of the hook and if it’s thick, the abdomen can only get thicker from there, but if it’s slim and narrow, you have a much better chance of creating a beautifully tapered body.
This anchor point should be as small as possible as it will be the very first turn of dubbing around the hook and a thin strand here will leave you the best chance to create a thin tapered abdomen from the hook bend forward.
While holding the anchor point in place with your top hand, draw downward on the main clump of dubbing, pulling it loosely down and parallel to the thread as you begin twisting the dubbing onto the thread from the top down. Make long, smooth rolls, pushing your thumb across the tip of your index finger to roll the dubbing onto the thread. Notice that my middle and index fingers are stacked in this photo. When I twist dubbing onto the thread, I am doing it as tightly as I can and overlapping my fingers adds a bit of strength to the roll and makes for a tighter strand.
Your bottom hand controls the amount of dubbing in any one place by distributing it as you go. If your bottom hand slows as the top keeps twisting, the dubbing will pile up in one spot and make a lump. If your bottom hand moves too quickly, however, you’ll pull the clump apart and have a non-continuous strand. The trick is to distribute the dubbing with your bottom hand by drawing it out as you follow with the top hand twisting the dubbing onto the thread from the top. Longer fiber dubbings allow you to move your hands further apart than shorter fibers and in the case of very short fibers like beaver dubbing, your hands may be stacked right on top of each other. The bottom hand’s job is to tease the dubbing out into an even strand, as if drawing a Kleenex from the box, taking care not to pull it all the way out but just enough to keep the next one feeding right behind it.
Once your top hand has worked down the length of dubbing to attach it to the thread, go over it one more time, making long rolls from top to bottom to tighten it on the thread. Be sure both the top and bottom end of the strand are tapered and tight. Tight ends will create a smaller starting point for the body and a cleaner finishing point at the front.
Use the short length of bare thread between the dubbing and the hook to work back to the bend. Make the first, finest turn of dubbing right at the base of the tail.
Work the dubbing forward in tight concentric turns to the front, and then double about halfway back to fatten up the front end of the abdomen. You want smooth transitions from the first layer of dubbing to the second so you can see now why a thin strand of dubbing is desirable here. For scale, note the diameter of the dubbing strand as it relates to a size sixteen dry fly hook diameter.
Angle the dubbed thread sharply forward as you wrap to jump up onto the front third of the body to finish out the taper.
Stack the last few fine tight turns of dubbing at the front edge of the abdomen to create a sharp shoulder and finish with a few tight turns of bare thread at the front edge.
Now let’s say you made a rare but preferable as far as these things go, mistake of not applying quite enough dubbing and finding you now need to add a bit. Don’t just randomly twist some more onto the thread because you’re bound to end up with a bit of bare thread showing in between.
To properly add a skosh more dubbin, first unwind the last few turns of the existing dubbed thread so it hangs below the hook.
Now take another tiny tiny TINY bit of dubbing and apply it to the thread, making your anchor point the bottom end of the existing strand. Melding a bit of extra dubbing in this manner will assure a seamless body as opposed to a lump of dubbing thrown on as an afterthought.
Now wrap that little extra bit of dubbing to finish off the taper and you’re good to go. That’s enough for now, thanks for sticking with me.