I have been in discussion with Mike over this and, as usual, he has freely provided lots of information. Thank you Mike.
The type of wax you use depends on the effect or properties you want,
either while dressing ( sticky for touch dubbing for instance), or in
the finished fly. Although many people refer to "Cobbler`s" wax, there
is really no such thing as an individual product, cobblers used various
recipes for waterproofing and strengthening various threads, leather
thongs etc. These were often made with various additives which people
tried over time. The basic mixture is always pine pitch ( pine resin)
"refined" to some extent by heating, and skimming the dross, and some
fat. Usually beef tallow (known as "Pomatum" in many old recipes)but any
wax, (usually beeswax) fat or oil will work to "soften" the pitch. For
fly-dressing there were, ( and still are), lots of recipes extant. As
long as the final product does what you want there is no perceptible
advantabe in using various recipes. The basic recipe is merely resin and
fat or wax in appropriate quantities.
This is simply a a mixture of pine resin ( also known as pine pitch)
obtained by heating raw resin and skimming the dross, also the same
substance used for dressing the horsehair on a violin bow, and then
known as "rosin" or "kolophonium") with various other additives like
beeswax, olive oil etc , which change the properties of the wax. You can
collect pine resin easily enough and make your own. The colour of the
final "wax" depends on the type and age of the pitch and wax (or fat)
you use. The wax may also be coloured with other substances like
lamp-black ( simply carbon soot from a candle or similar) or things like
small amounts of coal tar pitch ( black coal tar ), but although I have
done this I found no advantange in doing so. The mixture of "wax/resin"
also darkens in time after being applied. This explains why some older
flies look a lot darker than one might think based on the materials
used. To obtain "colourless" or "transparent" wax, you need to use more
or less colourless materials to begin with, and care must be taken not
to overheat them.
For the majority of purposes nowadays, except for obtaining the
translucency in silk, and colour changes if desired ( dark waxes with
pitch ( black tar extract) or lampblack, ( soot, or fine carbon black as
the result of combustion), "wax" in its various forms is not really
One of the main reasons for using resinous wax was to "stick" the thread
to the shank of the blind hooks. Pine resin polymerises in time ( like
two component epoxy resin for instance, which is a condensate plastic
polymer, but the resin is basically a single component polymer of
course), and also ensures that the silk will not slip off the hook,
which would be a disaster when arming gut to blind hooks, This is no
longer of any real interest, as eyed hooks are now universally used.
Also, pine resin becomes even more translucent and solid in time. Amber
is "petrifed" pine resin.
Nowadays everybody uses bobbin holders, so "sticky" thread is no longer
required when fly-dressing. ( Stops the dressing unraveling at various
"Wax" is not necessary for dubbing, but one may use it if one wishes.
For "touch" dubbing I use a "paper glue stick" from Uhu or Pritt like this;
If you want colours you can touch the thread with a marker before you
use the wax.
There is a lot of discussion and controversy on the matter, and quite
apart from any basic considerations in regard to the use of wax, it is
mainly personal preference, knowledge, belief, and inclination. There
are hundreds of recipes for fly-dressing wax.
"Cobblers wax" which was made by the cobblers themselves and was used
for waxing the threads ( Waterproofs, and prevents fraying, resin is
also one of the few available natural waterproofing materials, used on
canoes, etc etc as is pitch) on various leatherwork is merely various
blends of resin and wax etc.
All silk has the same basic properties, basic silk is a single thread ,
although it may be twisted and prepared in various ways, so it doesn't
matter which brand you use. Dyes may vary though, and some modern dyed
silk is "too dense" in colour as a result. It does not turn translucent
in water or when treated with wax.( Or at least not as desired).
Some other observations;
At the last count, I had 127 recipes for fly-dressing "wax"! There are
doubtless also a great many more extant. Quite a few authors gave
recipes for various waxes. Often simply “Cobbler´s Wax” is stated. There
has been a very great deal of discussion and controversy over wax, how
to make it, how to use it, or whether to use it at all.
One of the main reasons for using it on nearly all patterns, has now
disappeared, as when one uses eyed hooks, one does not need to stick the
gut to the hook and silk!
Many of the authors of older books gave recipes using pine resin, and
pomatum. Pomatum is NOT hair gel or oil, as stated in a number of
dictionaries, it is tallow. Tallow is rendered animal fat, either from
mutton, beef, or other bovines, ( fat from pigs is called “lard”), and
was used for making candles among other things. You may simply
substitute ordinary white candle wax ( paraffin wax) for this.
The type of wax/tallow/fat/oil used affects the properties of the
resulting substance ( also known, and quite inaccurately of course!) as
If you want to make various waxes for fly-dressing, see here;
Somewhere I have a whole collection of various recipes in a file, but I
don't know exactly where it is at the moment.
Here is the recipe I now use;
An interesting and very scarce book with a lot of info on various hackle
flies. This was a local publication and is very hard to obtain. Some of
you might enjoy perusing it. You can download it, or read it online here;
A list of hackle flies from the book;
http://www.archive.org/stream/teesdalea ... 8/mode/2up
A wax recipe;
http://www.archive.org/stream/teesdalea ... 2/mode/2up
I also agree with his observations about "ordinary" shoemaker's wax here.
I have tried many more, but have never found much point in using more
than that on a regular basis.
Some further notes;
The problem here is mainly one of definitions, and nomenclature. Neither
"cobbler´s wax", nor "flydresser´s wax" are actually wax at all. They
are for the most part rosin, or pitch, although some recipes use very
little rosin and a lot of wax or fat etc.
Substances generally referred to as "Cobblers wax" are various types of
pitch mixed withn other susbstances. These may be pitch ( rosin ) from
pine trees, or derived from coal tar. Coal tar pitch is usually a very
dark colour, almost black. It is brittle with a low melting point and
generally useless for fly-dressing on its own. Pine pitch varies from
almost glass clear to dark translucent brown. Yellow to amber
translucence is common. Very clear and very dark resins are less common.
The majority of "cobblers wax" available, either in earlier times, or
now, is completely unsuitable for fly-dressing. I have no idea why this
expression became so universal. Not only is it factually incorrect to
begin with, the substance described is completely useless for fly-dressing.
This is the substance ( or one of them at least, commonly referred to as
This is a dark "wax" used ( in this case) for fixing and waterproofing
various bindings on bagpipes. Of course, it is not wax at all, but coal tar.
One might rub this up and down a length of silk until hell freezes.
Nothing will happen! The stuff has to be melted before it is usable. In
warm weather, it turns into a sloppy mess, which is equally unusable.
Even if one manages to apply this to the silk in a semi-molten state, it
will turn any silk black! This substance also does not "set-up"
(polymerise) like resin. It is merely a waterproof "glue" and protection
for the hemp, sisal, or similar stuff which is coated with it.
This is also "cobbler´s wax";
This stuff is absolutely useless for North Country Spiders or indeed any
other flies. It will darken the silk beyond recognition, and will
certainly not make it translucent. It is also extremely difficult to
use, even for its intended purpose, and if you get it on your hands in
the molten state, you will wish you hadn´t!
"Cobbler´s wax" is also defined thus;
* A gooey, sticky mixture of wax and tar. It is rubbed into the hemp.
Then the hemp is wrapped around the tenon in neat rows. The wax helps
the hemp stick to the tenon, and also protects the hemp against rotting
One may add stuff like this to various recipes with resin, but the
results will vary widely and some desirable properties ( that the
substance polymerises for instance) may be lost by mixing these things
Further confusion has arisen as a result of people actually using
beeswax and similar to wax silk in order to make it translucent. This is
absolutely useless for anything else. If you try to use silk waxed with
beeswax to attach gut to a hook, it will pull out almost immediately. It
possesses no adhesive qualities at all, and is indeed often used as a
solid lubricant, especially on sticking drawers etc in various cupboards
and other furniture. It is commonly used to line sweet moulds and other
things where sticky substances should not adhere. It is also used as a
mould separator in the plastics industry. Of course it is also quite
useless for "touch dubbing". One may however use ti to wax silk thread
for the translucent, waterproofing effects, and then dub using glue stick.
One may modify the properties of rosin ( which is cooked pine resin) by
adding fat, oil, wax, and other things. The exact nature of such
modifications, and their effect on the finished product is more or less
impossible to determine, except by trial and error. One might use a
recipe provided by someone else, or one must experiment until one finds
what one wants.
Without exact chemical analysis, and/or practical trial of many
substances which are incorrectly referred to as "wax", there is no way
of knowing what they are, or what they will or will not do.
Various Notes I;
Recipes for Summer Wax 621 (Harder) and Winter Wax 722 (Softer) The
numbers are the proportions of the material used. The proportions are in
ounces, but one may of course use any measurement as long as the
proportions are the same.
Summer Wax 6 ounces Pine Rosin 2 ounces Bee's Wax 1 ounce Castor Oil.
Put all these ingredients in a small pan (which will be forever a wax
pan once used) melt them over a low heat and stir gently until all the
ingredients have combined. Leave to cool slightly until all the bubbles
rise to the surface and the mix is clear. Reheat gently (Do not let it
boil or burn) Pour it into small silicone muffin moulds and leave to
cool. Do not use metal moulds! Ther wax will be inpossible to remove
from them. Methylated spirits will clean up any small spills. This is a
Various substances may be added to give colour, chiefly other coloured
Pine Rosin may be obtained in 5.5kg Buckets from Smith and Rodger,
Elliot Street, Glasgow http://www.frenchpolishes.com
They also have 500gm
blocks of bee's wax. You can buy castor oil at lots of places and olive
oil also works well but you may have to modify the proportions to get
waht you want. These complex substances like waxes, resins, and oils,
all have widely varying properties. Great care must be taken when
heating as they will give off inflammable and explosive gases.
Various notes II;
Make your own tying wax? It is not difficult or expensive. And there is
a big advantage: just as with tying your own flies, you can make exactly
what you need and what you like. Most tying waxes contain beeswax,
rosin, and a softening agent in varying proportions. The amount of rosin
determines the adhesiveness of the final product. I use as little as 10
percent rosin in a wax designed to be applied to your fingers instead of
the thread, to as much as 70 percent in my favorite thread wax. Pure
rosin is too hard to use alone. Beeswax provides some flexibility as
well as tackiness of its own. As softening agents I have used lard, beef
tallow, castor oil, and sperm oil. Lard or beef tallow were commonly
called for in traditional recipes. I use castor oil in most of my
current concoctions. Sperm oil makes some superb wax (with a catchy
name, folks sit up when I say I am using sperm wax) but, as no one is
rendering sperm whales anymore, supplies are limited.
Making tying wax is a matter of melting and mixing the ingredients. I
start by melting the beeswax then adding the rosin and the softening
agent. Use a low heat (number two out of seven on my hot plate) and mix
thoroughly. A long wooden stick makes a good mixing tool. CAUTION! This
stuff is hot and sticky; spill any on yourself and it will adhere and
burn. The mixture is also highly flammable. If the mixing pot begins to
smoke reduce the heat. Some instructions say to use a double boiler to
melt the ingredients. Much safer, yes, but much slower. I have never had
a fire using a saucepan directly on my hot plate. Use a saucepan you do
not mind dedicating to wax production. Cleaning the wax out of a pan is
possible but not easy (he said, understating the case).
I have seen recipes for extra-tacky tying wax, which contain little or
no wax. They are made of turpentine and rosin. The liquid waxes you
occasionally see advertised are made this way. The rosin is melted and
the turpentine added until the desired consistency is reached (talk
about flammable, what we have here is crude napalm). This makes a
substance that is truly adhesive, but has at least one shortcoming. The
turpentine eventually evaporates leaving a powdery residue. This is not
a problem if you do not care how long the fly remains intact. Waxes made
with beeswax and a stable softening agent stay flexible a long time.
Decades in my experience.
There are different waxes for a variety of uses: general purpose,
traditional (old recipes), finger wax, even wax to polish surgical gut
so it resembles silkworm gut. Beeswax is cheapest from a beekeeper raw
wax is easily cleaned by heating and skimming. Someone who wants to
make a little for themselves can find cakes of beeswax at craft and
leather stores. My last purchase of rosin was two-and-one-half kilos.
Rosin can be had for the picking off of wounded pine trees. The dried
pitch that has dribbled down the bark makes superior, and wonderful
smelling, tying wax.
Here are the recipes for my two favorite waxes. The first is designed to
be used on your fingers rather then your thread. Many tiers have
discovered that their fingers are too dry to dub fur easily. If they
could just make their fingers slightly tacky, dubbing would be easier.
This wax is designed to solve that problem. Just rub a little on your
thumb and forefinger then dub as you normally would. Rub and dub--sounds
like a sexual perversion.
Rosin: 15 parts
Beeswax: 30 parts
Castor oil: 5 parts
Paste fly floatant: 50 parts
Melt the beeswax, then add the other ingredients. Mix well. Pour the
melted mixture into any container you wish.
The second wax is designed to be used on your thread. Rubbed rapidly
over the thread it leaves a fine coating that is very sticky.
Rosin: 70 parts
Beeswax: 20 parts
Castor oil: 10 parts
After melting and mixing, the wax is poured into a small mold. I use
non-stick muffin pans for molds. After cooling, the mold is inverted and
struck lightly. If the wax cake does not fall out, put the mold into
your freezer. Leave it in there for a half hour or so. The wax should
pop out of the mold after this treatment. Note that the formula number
is actually the proportion of ingredients (C is for castor oil). I have
made so many different formulas over the years I had to start numbering
I asked him a direct question about colour:
If, as you say, these waxes were used to bind thread onto the hook and to retain tension on gut, then what in your opinion would you do to change yellow silk to a 'olive/green' hues as in the Waterhen Bloa and Greenwell's.
Any wax, including beeswax or paraffin wax,( white candle wax ), along
with a host of other substances like various oils, fats, etc, will cause
silk to become translucent, and the translucence is what causes the
apparent colour change. Wax has the advantage of not washing off quite
so easily as oils or fats, especially if the thread is well waxed.
Resinous wax lasts even longer and also makes the bodies of flies
intrinsically stronger once wrapped. It is also fairly easy to use and
tends to penetrate the silk better, although this depends heavily not
only on the type of wax, but on how it is used. Applying wax properly
can be quite difficult, especially pure beeswax to silk for instance,
and these techniques must be learned. The resinous wax is still
definitely the best type of wax for most applications. but primarily for
Independently of type and application, and for instance, in the cases of
the flies you mention, any yellow shade of silk changes to a shade of
olive when waxed. The apparent olive shade which results depends on the
yellow shade of the silk and the wax used. Ordinary beeswax on primrose
yellow thread gives an excellent medium olive shade. This apparent
colour change also applies to any other colour or shade of silk of
course, but the colour changes as such may not then be at all obvious.
The amount and type of wax applied also affects the eventual shade.
Resinous wax tends to give darker shades which also darken even more in
time, although this may take a very long time in some cases. Wax with at
least some resin in it is also about the easiest to use, and most
versatile for things like dubbing etc. Nowadays people use all sorts of
dedicated chemicals, lacquers, varnishes and other substances for
various purposes. Quite a few also use various types of wax for various
At one time, and for a very long time, the resinous wax which a dresser
either concocted himself or obtained from somewhere was the only
alternative available for all the things it was required to do. Although
primarily a basic glue for arming hooks, it also provided more final
strength and durability, waterproofing, anti-rot properties, better grip
while dressing, and made various dressing operations easier because of
its "sticky" qualities. Many of these things are now redundant due to
the use of eyed hooks, fly-dressing vices, bobbin holders, and the
resulting massive changes in techniques and requirements. Even just the
fact that varnish or "head cement" is used by many to finish flies.
Dressing flies on eyed hooks using a vice and bobbin holder differs very
considerably from dressing flies in hand using lengths of silk. For hand
dressing a good recipe of resinous and relatively tacky wax is still the
best choice. It is however imperative that one use a good recipe and
apply it properly.
If you just want the colour change in silk, more or less any wax will
suffice. I knew a couple of dressers who only used pure beeswax, and
one who used pure lard. The resinous wax recipes now often propagated
are really just the result of tradition, and the widespread perception
that various waxes are in fact required. It was originally used mainly
for sticking the gut, ( or horsehair etc), which procedure was known as
"arming", to the hook shanks. There is now no need to use it at all for
this reason, and most "reasons" currently given for doing so are
spurious at best. The effect of translucence, which was originally
merely a side effect of using resinous wax as a "glue", is however still
of considerable importance on quite a few flies. Many flies dressed
without it are considerably less effective. Using olive coloured silk on
a Greenwell for instance, instead of waxed yellow silk,often makes the
fly very much less effective, in many cases quite useless. This also
depends on what the fly is imitating and how it is used.
Quite a few older authors complained that "Cobbler's Wax" with various
additives and possibly even dark coloured, merely soiled the silk. In
some places ( notably Scotland in the case of the Greenwell and some
other flies), tradition is so strong that dark wax is still used
although nobody can give a valid reason for doing it. Fly-dressing
itself is heavily laced with, and influenced by, very many traditions,
quite a few of which will not bear scrutiny from a practical point of
view and in respect of current equipment and facts. People believe them
nevertheless, and many will simply not believe that they are no longer
necessary regardless of any facts involved.
So I hope you all get something out of it.