D.I.Y. Kebari & Fly Tying

Handmade Safety Pin Fishing Hooks

We wouldn’t be very accomplished anglers if we didn’t have the fish hook. That single device is the foundational piece on which our entire understanding on angling is built upon. If we didn’t have the hook, we would not be fishing.

There are some things I know and I few things I could have surmised correctly about hooks. Like fish hooks have been around for a thousand years and early hooks were made of bone and wood. If that is all I knew it wouldn’t get me to deep into a Jeopardy! column would it?

Ancient Hooks of Bones and Shells

In reading about hooks recently I read about a pair of hooks unearthed at Sakitari Cave on the southern coast of Okinawa, Japan. Those snail shell hooks date back 23,000 years. You can read about that here. That is so much older than I ever would have guessed. One of the first written mentions of steel hooks is often credited to “The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle”, published in London in 1496.

How would I have crafted my hooks if I was fishing hundreds of years ago? I suppose it would have been like everybody else did. I hadn’t considered attempting it until a friend wrote about his efforts to craft hooks for himself. Dennis Vander Houwen shares insights he made and steps he followed which can read on his Tenkara Path blog here.

For my exercise I played with a few options like straight pins, safety pins and the “T” pin he mentioned. I bought a box of assorted size safety pins from a discount store. It was a wasted dollar as they were thin and suitable only to pin a cotton ball to a marshmallow. I found a mixed set of two sizes that seemed to be made of a much stronger spring steel. After a few quick bend tests, I had a good feeling it would work.

The Learning Curve

When this started, I was clipping off the long straight pointed end of the pin. I opened the pin and used diagonal cutters to clip it as close to the spring coil as I could. From there I took a file and softened the rough edge left by the cutters. My de-barbing pliers are essentially needle nose pliers without serration in the jaw. I used them to grip the pin and started learning the mechanics of bend control.

Jason Sparks - handmade safety pin fly tying hooks

I was prepared for mistakes during the learning curve period. There were some I over bent. There were some I misjudged the apex several times. Others I just messed up the dimensions completely. I learned that the steel pins I had were strong enough to withstand my manipulation without a need for tempering. That was good news. Getting a good bend profile is hard. Repeating it is just as tough.

For the bends, I started with a two axis and very angular hook shape. I thought a longer point may help with hook sets and holding the fish. After a dozen I was paying attention to the pin placement in the pliers each time and gauging how much bend to put on it. Then I tried one where I just bent the pin around the pliers to create the hook shape. This produced a three axis bend on the hook. It sure did look good too. I worked out a couple and did some strength tests on them. They held up nicely. Better yet, it was easy to replicate the bend each time.

Now that was settled, I needed to tackle my next issue before getting into production. How do I successfully tie on the loop eye to these straight shafts? I know the premise and chose to use 20lb Dacron backing line that I have handy and did a few. I added some Sally Hard As Nails to the first layer of thread and set in my loop. Several turns over that Dacron and I snipped off the long length extra and secured it in. I’m not sure this won’t slip when the hook gets into an action sequence fight with a fish. Unfortunately, I can’t locate my head cement and am not sure if that is the best option either. I’ll come back to this.

Jason Sparks - handmade safety pin fly tying hooks

A Small Light Bulb

While I was sitting at the fly tying desk I saw the answer right in front of me. How about using the spring coil as a giant eye for my hook? A quick calculation had me picking up the cutters and a new pin. I snipped the pin on the other side of the coil. Perfect looking “hook blank” to work with. I pinched it in the jaws of the de-barbing pliers and gave it a tooling. Perfect looking hook!

Jason Sparks - handmade safety pin fly tying hooks eye

I did the work to clip a half dozen of them to include the coil. I filed the rough edge off the coil on them all. Then I started my bending process and came out with six nearly identical hooks. I pinched on in the vice and worked on sharpening up the pin point on several of them. No doubt that sharper hooks are better right? I left several with the manufactured pin point and plan to test them for effectiveness.

Lining Up the Eye

When I was choosing my hook shape I was aware of how the hook point and the eye aligned with the fishing line itself. This is important because when you move to set the hook there needs to be a straight force on the hook. This spring coil makes an excellent giant eye for the hook. It is however, offset a bit and isn’t ideal for the hook set force. It may not be that much of an issue. I did find a quick fix for it though. I put a small bend in the pin as it comes out of the coil. You can see here in the images what I’m talking about. This is a surefire solution that lines everything up.

Now I have a hook shape and eye that I can replicate. There is a perfectly inline giant eye for my tired old eyes to tie into. The hook points are already there or sharpened a bit more with my metal file. I’m all set with these.

Is It Sharp Enough?

Here is the manufacturers pin point on the hook.

Jason Sparks - handmade safety pin fly tying hooks point

Here is a hook point I’ve fashioned by hand with a fine metal file.

Efficient Use of Materials

Now, let’s not forget about the loop eye dilemma. I’ll need to research that a bit more to get it right as I still need this as a connection. The reason is that I can use the backside of the pin also. If I dislodge the fastener head off the pin it reveals another 5-6 mm of pin. Now I have another “hook blank” to build with. The point needs to be sharpened completely by hand. I can put my bend into it just fine. This gives me two hand made hooks from each safety pin. I think that is pretty cool.

These steps I am doing work on both sizes of pins that I have. I’m creating hand made hooks in two sizes. The smaller pin produces something near a #14 – #12 and the larger pin at a #8 – #6. This will cover fly sizes for the typical trout in the Blue Ridge mountains as well as the panfish and bass in the warm waters of the Piedmont here in N. Carolina.

Tie Up Those Flies

Now I tied up some flies on these hooks so I could test them out in the water. Here are a few in a sakasa kebari style, a few in my GnarlyFly style on the coil eye pin hooks. Once you have the hooks, you can put any pattern on them you want to .

Jason Sparks - handmade safety pin fly tying hooks kebari

Protect Your Hook Gape

Here is something I noticed also and adjusted on the fly for a few hooks. The coil eye may bend down into the hook point a bit and may hinder the hook set, especially on the smaller pin hooks. My adjustment for this was to put my bend at the coil in like before. Then I turned the pin 90 degrees before I put the bend in the hook. This turns the coil and gets it out of the way. It should make no difference in how the fly fishes. This effectively removes the slight obstruction of the large eye.

Jason Sparks - handmade safety pin fly tying hooks

Safety Pin Hooks in Action

So how do these flies on homemade hooks perform in the creek? Here is what I found out about them on two different outings. I took several flies to one of my favorite trout streams in the High Country of North Carolina. My flies brought on strikes from one dozen brown and rainbow trout. I only landed one. The sharpness of the factory pin point and my first round of sharpened points was just not enough. Don’t overestimate your attention to this detail.

Jason Sparks - handmade safety pin fly tying hooks brown trout

When I got home I took several of those flies back to the vice. I tooled the hook points again with a fine crosscut metal file to sharpen them up a good bit more. You need to make sure you don’t get the tip too thin, or it may bend over on you. Finding enough strength with a sharp point is where you want to end up. I was at about 50/50 on hook sets with these. It is clear I still need to find that sweet spot in finishing the hook point.

What Did I Learn?

My daughter asked my why I was teaching myself to make hooks out of safety pins when I have bags of hooks stowed everywhere. Fair question. My answer was that I wanted to teach myself something through trial and error. I wanted to take what I knew and apply it. That would create obstacles that I’d work to resolve and in turn would teach myself something that I didn’t know. I like learning through self discovery like that.

Going into this I did not do additional research. I read Dennis’ blog some months ago and had this project in my head. When I found time, I started working it out. Once this was written, I did a quick YouTube search just to see what was out there. I found this one pretty quickly:

It kind of burst my bubble of originating the whole “coil eye” thing. I did get there and did it from my mind. That was the project.

Thank you for letting me share this with you. You might be inspired to try this challenge yourself. Maybe you will choose another medium, like piano wire or long thin brads. If you do, please share back in the comments so we can see what comes of it.

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1 comment

  1. 10-18-20, Gladstone, Missouri, US of A. I tried to make hooks today using ball headed straight pins. The ball was squished and pulled off, leaving a straight but sharp wire. I used a cigar torch lighter to heat up the metal and bent the wire with forceps. I then heated the wire up to red hot again and quickly dropped it in ice water for a quench. My not so scientific theory is that will strengthen the metal somewhat. For an eye, I tied in a piece of silk thread and coated that with Crazy Glue. After tying the fly, I could not pull the thread loose…well, I probably could, but it would take more force than an average fish would exert! I still haven’t fished these, but I’m pretty sure they will take fish quite well. I’m thinking of getting my hook hone out and working the point over, just because.

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