Bob Boese, Louisiana

March 30th, 2009

All About Scissors
By Bob Boese, Louisiana

As usual, when it comes to ancient inventions, there is debate as to who was first to design scissors. Apparently shears showed up between 100-300BC in Mesopatamia and Egypt and Italy and probably wherever there were sheep. Not long after the first shears were introduced, smaller versions of scissors (a word we derive from the Latin for cutting – cisorium) appeared. Hence the Italians win, at least as far as the dictionary is concerned. Thereafter, advances in metals and improvement of the pivot (or hinge) connecting the blades were the primary advances in scissor design. Today the variety of scissors is mind boggling and difficult for a fly tyer to decipher.

Technically, scissors use the hinge as a fulcrum to provide the mechanical advantage of a lever for cutting. The further away from the fulcrum your fingers are and the closer to the fulcrum what you are cutting is, the greater mechanical advantage you gain over whatever is being cut near the fulcrum. (That's why many scissors with the hinge spaced evenly between finger holes and blade tip don't cut very well near the tip.) To make things easier for use in the human hand, the scissors blade held by the thumb (the upper shear blade) is designed to overcome lateral forces generated in closing a human hand. The blades on right-handed scissors are set so that, whichever way up you hold them, the right blade is always on top. This means that the cutting action of the right hand pushes the blades together to give a smooth cut the whole length of the blades and also that a right-hander has a clear view of the cutting line. When a left-hander uses right-handed scissors, he has to push the thumb and index finger together in an unnatural way to make the scissors cut and must look over the top blade, which obscures the cutting line. Right-handed scissors mean just that, and trying to cut left-handed with right-handed scissors will often produce less than satisfactory results.

Modern scissors can be found in hundreds of shapes, sizes and designs, not all of which are suitable for fly tying. Fly tyers are as demanding as scissors buyers get and most have a love-hate relationship with their tools. General fly tying related scissor types include: (1) rounded (children's style); (2) serrated-blade (minute ridges on the blade for cutting difficult items like leather), (3) ceramic blade (never needs sharpening), (4) surgical style (medium width blade, pointed but not necessarily fine), (5) fine-point, (6) curved-blade (may have fine point); and (6) spring-type (squeeze to cut release to open). The sharpness of scissors is determined by the alignment and finish of the blades. Objects being cut want to force the scissor blades apart so designers have the blades draw (they are bent slightly against each other) and turn (slightly twist). Consequently, quality scissors sit together tightly from the point to the joint area when closed. Be wary of scissors with an adjustable screw (the "stud") at the hinge. A good stud never needs adjustment. If the screw is tightened, they may become sharper but also stiffer to close. If the screw is loosened, sharpness is reduced and the scissors may loss their run and seem to wiggle. The "run" is the smooth feel you get when you cut. A good run produces an even, clean cut for the full length of the blade without hesitation or roughness. The blades must remain in contact when the scissors are closed but, when cutting and closing, they should only touch each other at one point.

For fly tying, items to be cut include the finest hackle to the densest hair from a hoofed animal's winter coat. Cuts may be measured in microns or inches and each one can spell success or disaster for the fly. All tyers know the misery of an innocent nip on a dangling piece of material that suddenly bisects the critical tying thread, causing the entire fly to unravel and a meticulously assembled nymph masterpiece looks like a hair ball a cat coughed up on the vise. At that point the tyer needs someone to blame, and why not blame the scissors? Inevitably this leads to abandonment and divorce. I have a drawer full of ex-best scissors.

The predominant scissor manufacturer for fly tyers is Dr. Slick ( Dr. Slick does not sell directly to the public but can be found in most fly tying equipment catalogs (e.g., ,, In 2004 I inherited scissors from my father, the surgeon. They are hospital quality tools called "iris" scissors and look like the pair in the drawing (with the curved blades). With short very sharp blades near the fulcrum and the finger holes several inches away, they have great cutting leverage but the fine point can still handle very delicate cuts. Go to any Internet search engine (e.g., put in "iris scissors" and you will get several sites that offer 4.5" iris scissors from as little as $2.49/pair. Dr. Slick actually has nice iris scissors, and for those I again prefer the curved blades.

Look at finer tools made with a higher class of steel, and you will note that the price increases rapidly. Considering how excellent my father's scissors are, you might want to look for surgical tools at Robbins Instruments and you will find iris scissors for $35. Iris scissors come with flat or curved blades, which is a matter of the tyer's preference. The pair I inherited are curved and 6" long rather than 4.5" and I have found a similar scissor called "kelly's scissors" at which run $5/pair. You may prefer the smaller version, but then again, many things may affect a tyer's preference.

Dr.Slick Iris-type Spring Scissors SCISSORING OPTIONS: Here are a few things to look for in scissors, but remember that every pair of scissors will have a certain "feel" which may differ for each fly tyer. The "rightness" or "wrongness" of feel can be dependent upon any of the items below.

    1. Finger holes (called "eyes") come in oval, round or open loop. Many production tyers constantly hold their scissors in their palm. Consequently, "fly tying" scissors are designed with large eyes so the scissors be held deep in the palm while other tying activities are taking place. Without large eyes this technique is painful, usually not possible, but even with the right scissors, this technique takes practice and getting used to the unusual feel. Spring (or "squeeze") scissors are intended to be held in the palm at all times. [Note: when buying spring scissors you should insure that they have a smooth run and spring back sharply, without hesitation.]

    2. Weight. Scissors should be balanced and light enough to allow the tyer to move them around the fly small fractions of an inch without effort. Few of us have the steady hands of a surgeon and many scissors feel "butt heavy" or simply don't move into position as easily as a tyer would like. This is generally a weight or balance issue. Curiously, while tiny cosmetic scissors can feel almost weightless, a little weight may actually allow the tyer to hold the scissors steadier. Steel scissors obviously weigh more than aluminum scissors.

    3. Overall Length. Functional scissors range from 3 inches to 10 inches from tip to butt. Some tyers choose small scissors because they feel they have more control if their fingers are right up to the fly as they are cutting (if the scissors are deep in your palm you have no other choice). Occasionally, however, fingers can obscure vision of what you are cutting or the lack of length will seriously effect the cutting strength. Longer scissors may provide a better view of the work area and also afford the opportunity to steady the scissors along their shank with your non-cutting hand.

    4. Blade style/length: The longer the blade the less leverage advantage the tyer has toward the tip of the blade. As most fly tying cutting does not involve long straight cuts, shorter blades are almost always better. For cutting strips of material (i.e. fun foam) longer blades are preferable and curved blades will not work well at all.

    5. Quality of the closure. Open and close new scissors before buying to insure a smooth run. Any hesitation or rough feel is not a good sign. The tips of good quality scissors always meet perfectly in closed position and will cut along the entire length of the cutting edge to the tip. Don't buy scissors that have overlapping tips. This is a sign of the maker compensating for poor quality. Look at the scissors sideways before buying and make sure no light shows through along the entire line where the blades meet.

    6. Fine tip. Tying scissors should have a tip that comes to a fine point. "Fine" is relative depending on the size of the scissor blades, but generally the tip should be able to selectively cut a single barb on a hackle.

    7. Different textures, different scissors. Some edges are simply better for cutting certain materials. Serrated blades make short work of thick hair and tend to squeeze the hair less toward the tip when cutting. Long blades are better for cutting sheets of materials (i.e. fun foam), fine points are needed for trimming, and some tyers simply prefer curved to straight blades. Owning a single pair of scissors is putting the tyer at a disadvantage that current discount prices do not warrant.

As noted above, the usual suspects carry scissors (Cabelas, Feather Craft, etc.) You may want to look at This is the Dr. Slick web site and many varieties of fly tying scissors are shown (I am divorced from some of these).

Like your Mom couldn't tell you what girls to date, I can't what scissors to buy. I'll just sort of point you in the right direction and hope for the best.

Iris kelly scissors
~ Bob

About Bob:

Robert Lamar Boese has fly fished for five decades. He is an environmental negotiator, attorney and educator who has provided environmental legal services for more than thirty-three years including active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Justice. He is a well known fly tyer with several unique patterns to his credit. He has developed and authored federal and state regulatory programs encompassing a broad spectrum of environmental disciplines, has litigated environmental matters at all levels of the federal and state court systems, and is a qualified expert for testimony in environmental law. He has authored over 60 published text chapters, comments or articles on environmental matters, is a member of the Colorado, District of Columbia and Louisiana Bar Associations, and is a certified mediator. In addition to his legal practice, Mr. Boese has been a high school teacher, an associate professor of Environmental Law and Public Health, has authored numerous fiction and sports publications, and is a softball coach and nationally certified volleyball referee. He is the president of the Acadiana Fly Rodders in Lafayette, Louisiana and editor of Acadiana on the Fly. He has been married for thirty years and is the father of two fly fishing girls (25 and 21). For additional information contact: Boese Environmental Law, 103 Riviera Court, Broussard, LA 70518 or call 337.856.7890 or email

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