The Right Stuff

Traditional lacquer, still the best fly-tying head cement money can buy.

by Scott Sadil

I hate to give advice.

No sooner do I suggest the brand of olive oil you should use in your fish camp pesto than somebody from Genoa says his family name is Pestare and on summer trips to Tuscany for the dry-fly fishing for brown trout he and his uncles always carried Nana’s famous sauce, the oil from olives produced by trees planted during the reign of the Medici, the basil itself grown from heirloom seeds dating back to the Roman empire.

Or God forbid I should mention a word about preparing machaca during your next Baja adventure.

So I hesitate to share the good news about traditional lacquer, still far and away the best fly-tying head cement that money can buy.

And if you don’t like the idea, I can always blame A.K. Best.

Thirty years ago, on arrival of Best’s first book, Production Fly Tying, I was surprised to read Best’s unequivocal claim: “The point is, how can you improve on something that’s as perfect as good lacquer?”

Lacquer is a tool, not a toy.  Use with caution.

Of course, we all know it’s hard to argue with a guy who said, famously, that he doesn’t really get to know a pattern until he’s tied a hundred dozen of the same fly.

Rather than buying tiny amounts of the latest head cement at your local fly shop, Best recommended investing in a quart of lacquer, and a pint of thinner, at the paint or hardware store.  

I’m not sure what prompted me to buy a gallon.

I was working as a finish carpenter back then; maybe I got a deal.

I also bought a 60 ml plastic syringe for decanting small amounts of lacquer into a little apothecary bottle sealed with a well-fitted cork, through which I ran a long needle that works as an applicator. 

If all that seems like a lot of trouble to go through, I need only add, in my defense, that this entire system, including that original gallon of lacquer, has served me all these past thirty years.

And, just so I’m clear, my suggestion to follow this recipe has nothing whatsoever to do with money, and maybe not even resources, I’ve saved by not throwing out bottle after bottle after bottle of individually packaged small doses of head cement, all of which, in my experience, grow increasingly viscous and, eventually, unusable, well before I make it through fifty dozen flies, much less a hundred.

Instead, rather than argue economics, let me reiterate what A.K. Best stated in so many words: nothing strengthens, preserves, and protects tying thread as well as lacquer.  

It’s as simple as that.

I have a wading staff and tiller handle decoratively wrapped in plain cotton twine that, when knotted off, I saturated with varnish, lacquer’s close cousin. Untold hours of usage, occasionally under pressure of my most urgent death grip, have produced no signs of wear and tear on either of the two handles.

Tying thread soaked in penetrating lacquer is just as tough. 

Also, incredible though it sounds, every time I go to refill my bench jar, I pry the lid free of that original gallon can and find the lacquer inside remains as clear and clean and watery as the day I brought it home three decades ago – the color and consistency of, say, your favorite Scotch.

Needless to say, working with a substance like lacquer demands caution.  

But, like lead ballast in a boat, there’s just no substitute that approaches the efficacy of lacquer for finishing flies.

Not even UV-activated epoxy. 

If you don’t agree, take it up with Best.

Or the Pestare clan.


It’s been a decade now since Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil began writing the fly tying column “At the Vise” for California Fly Fisher.