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Creative Foam Fly Tying
Dremel Bugs
By Jim Hatch
Photo Shad Slider by Bruce Harang

I'm not sure who first came up with the idea of using a Dremel motor to spin foam plugs while turning them into buggy critters with a common emery board. Capt. Paul "Qrrfish1" planted the seed in my mind last spring. Since then I have spent hundreds of hours doing just that. I have made some money at it as well as a number of new friends while sharing information on the process. I continue to get requests for information and hope that you too will find this useful.

Generally, the top water foam flies are thought of as warm water bluegill and bass patterns. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are few fisheries that do not entail some surface fishing. That said, foam flies do NOT have to be fished exclusively on the surface. A bit of lead wire can make sinking or suspending flies of most patterns. It may well be that you are committed to fishing creations of fur and feathers exclusively. The fact is fur, feathers and foam can be combined to create some very effective flies. It is an area that has not been fully explored and there are many patterns begging to be created. This article is intended to provide the basics of working with foam as well as a few ideas for effective fly patterns. It is intended to provide you the tier with another tool and perhaps spark an interest in creating something a bit different.

    1. Dremel: The dremel is a motorized tool that is well designed, readily available, economical, and easily repaired or rebuilt with readily available parts if necessary. There are other brands of rotary tools on the market that can be used but my preference is for the Dremel for the above mentioned reasons. I do not recommend the battery powered models based on my experiences with them. The usual disclaimers apply.

    2. Foot Control: A foot control for your motor is a very handy accessory which leaves both hands free for working on your creations. The variable speed foot control made by Dremel is pricey and is used only with the single speed Dremel. The variable speed Dremel however can be rigged up with a simple spring loaded foot switch to turn it off and on. This is more than adequate and much less expensive.

    3. Extended Flex Shaft: Using the extended flex shaft sold by Dremel will simplify construction of a Dremel lathe as well as extend the capabilities of the Dremel for other tasks.

    4. Foam: There are many sources of closed cell foam available for making foam bodied flies. My favorite is the foam flip flops (not to be confused with the sponge rubber ones) and they are available at many locations in season. They come in a multitude of colors. Childrens foam puzzles are another colorful source of foam. They can often be found in the toy sections of thrift shops quite inexpensively. I have also found colored foam garden kneeling pads to be suitable and very economical.

Constructing your Lathe

The photo below shows a very simple design for a foam turning lathe. It uses a piece of scrap 2" x 4" wood stock, two conduit clamps, 4 wood screws, and two small pieces of flip flop foam. Simply attach the chuck end of the Dremel flex shaft to the 2x4 with the two conduit clamps and 4 screws using the foam to pad the shaft.

Dremel Lathe

If you elected to use Dremels variable speed foot switch, you can skip this part. If not, you can purchase a simple push switch, not unlike a doorbell switch, that makes contact when depressed and turns off when pressure is removed. This is a very handy feature to have while turning foam as it will leave both hands free to work with. For simplicity you can wire such a switch into either leg of a simple extension cord and plug your Dremel motor into it. Place the switch on the floor where it is comfortable to reach. Take care to ensure compliance with local electrical codes as well as common sense. An exposed electrical connection is an accident looking for a place to happen.

Lathe Setup

The first step in setting up your lathe is attaching an upholstery needle to support your foam stock for turning. I purchased a Dremel collett from my local hardware store to fit the 2 " straight upholstery needle I selected from an assortment at Walmart. It is imperative that the collett fit the needle to prevent unwanted vibration. I have used the one needle for several hundred hours without the need for replacement. The tools you use with this lathe for removing the unwanted material from your creations is a common emery board. A package of 10 should be under $1.00 and will last for some time.

Preparing Foam Plugs for Shaping

Initially, I used short sections of sharpened copper tubing chucked in my drill press or electric hand drill motor to punch plugs of foam for shaping on my lathe. I recently found a set of gasket punches that work much better and the plugs are self extracting. They came in a set of 12 ranging in size from 1/8" all the way up to " at a price of only $5.50 for the set. I am told that Harbor Freight has them as well and I know that they are sometimes available on E-Bay for similar prices. Highly recommended! The larger four sizes of punches were too large to chuck in my drill press. A friend turned them down for me on a metal lathe. He charged me a dozen foam flies for doing so.

Making "Dremel Bugs"

If you have stuck it out this far, you are now down to the meat and potatoes of dremel bugs. You will begin by attaching a suitable foam plug to the needle chucked in your lathe. Carefully push the plug onto the needle while applying several taps to the foot controller supplying power to the dremel. After you do a few, you will find they are centering much better and you will be more competent at doing so. Begin your shaping by running the rough flat side of the emery board lightly across the spinning foam plug. This will quickly center the plug should it be off a bit. Now, by applying either a rough edge or a smooth edge of the emery board to the plug, you will be removing material at a good rate. You should ensure that your emery board remains 90 degrees in relation to the needle. Of course the rough edge will remove material more quickly where as the smoother edge of the emery board will provide more control. You will quickly be able to discern which is appropriate and when. A smooth steady hand lightly applying pressure is the key to success. If you are too heavy handed either the foam will spin on the shaft glazing it and causing further spinning or the material will disappear quicker than the speed of thought resulting in very unusual designs. A few plugs turned on the lathe will quickly show you what works much better than I can put into words. Just keep in mind that a light smooth touch will result in a much nicer finished product.

In operation

Okay, that jerk has talked you into buying a Dremel, building a lathe, and spending considerable time searching department stores for suitable foam. Let's make something useful! Set the speed on your Dremel to about half speed. Chuck a foam plug. Lightly center it by applying pressure with a flat emery board. Not too much. Start at one end with the emery board at an angle and apply a taper to the foam. You just made a popper body. It should have taken you about 15 seconds. Have you priced unfinished popper bodies lately? You just saved some money. Do it again. This time add a bit more shape to it. Now with any luck at all, you have a "sexy" popper body. Not the standard taper, but something just a bit nicer. How about that. Just saved more money. Let's try another. Remember the old Hula Popper by Fred Abergast? Piece of cake. But yours will be a genuine light-weight fly, not a hunk of wood or plastic that would take your head off.

If you rest the end of the emery board against the needle and the foam where the hook eye will eventually protrude, you can cup it like the original Hula Popper. Zara Spooks, diving crank baits, floating clousers, jitterbugs, floating nymphs, or sinking nymphs with a bit of lead wire. The sky is the limit. Remember those neat round headed sliders that worked so well on your gills before they got so hard to get? I think they were called Dennies or some such. Well, they just got easier to find. Pop another piece of foam in the lathe and turn some balls. When Pigs Fly How about a mayfly imitation that really will float all day? Yep, it's hiding the same place these other kritters were. Right there on your little foam lathe. Add a bit of imagination and the possibilities are virtually endless. I have worked my way through a book of entomology with foam reproductions of the kritters within and have yet to be stymied. Shape got you stumped? Think multiple shapes. Yes, you can easily and permanantly attach different shapes together with CA adhesive.

You can also use it to attach your foam bodies to a thread wrapped hook with your choice of hackle or hair. The CA purchased from model hobby shops is available in different viscosities and drying times. I find that the 25 second thick CA is ideal for use with foam. Not only is the marriage permanent but the 25 second drying time should allow you to position the body on the hook before it cures. LadyFishers Pink and Purple Nymphomie Speaking of hooks, I find that the standard Aberdeen style hooks are well suited for almost all of my foamies. And at about $3.00 per hundred instead of what you have been paying for hooks. The Mustad or Eagle Claw Aberdeen hooks are stocked by almost all angler or bait shops. See, you just saved some more money. It want be long before you are in the black on this new foamie lathe setup. Go ahead and play with it for a bit and don't be afraid to try different shapes. They will become easier with practice.

Finishing your Creations

Well, here you are with a pile of foam bodies. Now we need to convert them to flies. Many of you need no further coaxing but I will elaborate anyway. Even though you were just playing, er, uh, practicing with your new Dremel lathe, you undoubtedly came up with some neat new bodies that just happen to match the desired hook size. Oops, didn't I mention that? Yes, it is entirely possible and highly recommended that you design your Dremel bugs to fit specific hooks. With the Aberdeen style hooks you need concern yourself only with the length of the shank and the hook gap. Got to have room for Moby Fish to get to the point. In the case of many fly styles, you will begin by making a thread wrap on the hook shank and tying in suitable hackle or hair for tailing. Then after applying a scant drop of CA adhesive to the thread wrapped hook shank, you can slip the body over the eye of the hook and quickly position it before the glue sets.

Head in steps

Whenever possible, I prefer to pre-finish my bodies prior to gluing them to the hook. In some cases this is simply gluing on or painting on eyes or in others applying a scale effect through a piece of sheer curtain fabric with canned spray paint. On some flies you may desire to add other details with pens or paint sticks. Often times I will apply an epoxy finish to a completed body. The epoxy results in a high sheen and provides long term protection for the body. In any case I prefer to make my flies using foam of the desired color for my basic body color and adding the accents I deem necessary or appropriate for the pattern. When I have glued the body to an already thread wrapped and tailed hook, the fly is completed unless legs are desired. You can insert a needle through the bodies in the desired locations to add appropriate rubber legging materials. I like to apply glue to the legs near the body and pull the glued area back into the body to ensure they stay put.

Shad Slider

Here's my set-up:

My set-up

I have found fly tying with foam to be very enjoyable and every bit as addictive as any other style. I do hope you will decide to give it a try. If you have questions or comments please email me at: ~ Jim Hatch

Happy Tying

Be creative

For more great flies, check out: Beginning Fly Tying, Intermediate Fly Tying and Advanced Fly Tying.


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