Realistic Legs with Heat Shrink Tube by Ulf Hagström

Articles — By on January 1, 2006 11:33 am

I have never been afraid to experiment when it comes to using different materials in fly tying. Sometimes it’s almost been like the experimenting has been more important than the function of the fly, but more often the end result has been surprisingly good! I will advise anyone to think a bit outside their normal fly tying frames to discover that there is a whole world with strange materials just waiting to be tied on to a hook!

Considering my interest in different materials and willingness to experiment, it was a bit unusual to see the heat shrink tube lying around for almost a year before I got to trying to use it for fly tying. It was when I first got into realistic tying and got inspiration from a whole new world of patterns and fantastic fly tiers that I started to experiment with the tubes. One thing I discovered quickly was how very flexible the material is and it’s just really the imagination that sets the boundaries for what you want to use it for. There are a few things that I discovered immediately:

  • The shrinkage is normally 50 %.
  • A warm tube is very bendable and also stretchable.
  • All tubing I’ve tested shrinks by the heat from a normal lighter.
  • The inner diameter shrinks more than the outer diameter, leaving the “wall” of the tube thicker after shrinking than before.
  • If you heat very small areas of the tube you can get really cool effects!

I could write a very long article on all the uses I have found for this material and probably still wouldn’t be close to all things that you could do with it. So, this article is only regarding the creation of legs for the larger flies (i.e., Stoneflies and Dragonflies). If used correctly heat shrink tubing is a perfect material for creating individually segmented abdomens, but Im saving that for another article!

The legs on this fly is made from heat shrink tube with “Japanese nymph legs” as the “feet” of the fly. There are two ways you can combine these two materials. Either you stick the JNL into the tube from the beginning, which will give a more durable leg for fishing but will reduce the shrinking of the tube and make it harder to shape. The other way is to insert the JNL afterwards and secure it with thread or superglue. In this example I have chosen to do this.

Alright, let’s go!

As you can see on the photo the fly is almost done, apart from the legs. The tube I’m using is one that, when shrunken, is just a bit too thick than what looks good. So when it’s still hot, I stretch the tube as much as possible to make it the right thickness. So why not use the correct size from the beginning? Well, you will see later why I do it like this! When the tube has hardened it’s tied in on the underside of the hook. As you can see I have already done the basic bending on one of the legs.

Here you see the three different levels of thickness on the tube; unshrunken, shrunken, and shrunken and stretched

Step 1

Since I have already created one leg that I am pleased with I can use that as a bit of a template on where to bend the next one. A good thing can be to mark the legs with a marker where you want the bend to be. Heat your tweezers over a flame for 2-3 seconds an then bend the leg where you want the joint of the legs to be and squeeze down hard.

Let go of the tweezers after a few seconds and you should have a first bend looking something like this:

Step 2

Do the exact same thing on the next joint. Heat your tweezers, bend the leg and squeeze down hard with your tweezers.

Now the leg has got it’s first basic bends and joints, and should look something like this:

Step 3

To create the tapering of the two sections you again heat your tweezers but this time for a few seconds longer, about 6-7 seconds. Press the tube together with the heated tweezers where you want the thickest part of the section to be. Now you will see why I use a stretched tube. If your tweezers is warm enough the tube will now expand to the normal thickness of the tube to create a nice tapering! This will take some training to get the hang of; the trick is to find the right heat in your tweezers. Keep pressing to make it flat, and also apply lighter pressure up the section towards the next joint to further enhance the tapering.

Step 4

Repeat the same thing with the next section of the leg, here you can see how the tapering we did in the previous step looks.

Now the leg looks something like this:

Step 5

Now it’s time to enhance the joints! For this I use a thick sewing thread.

Take a long piece of the thread and tie a loose overhand knot and slip it over the leg and place it in the inner “slot” that were created by the tweezers in step one.

Pull hard and evenly in both ends of the thread to tighten the knot, slowly increase the pressure until the thread breaks! The main reason I use a thread that eventually breaks is that it doesn’t cut through the tube and also the problem with removing the knot doesn’t exist.

Now you have done the first enhancing of the joint

Step 6

Now do the exact same thing but on the outer “slot” of the joint: tie an overhand knot, slip the thread over the leg into the slot created by the tweezer, slowly pull at the knot and increase pressure until the thread breaks.

Now the joint should look something like this:

So will not the joints eventually go back to how it looked because we don’t use heat to do this enhancing? So far I have not seen anything that points to that. I think that as long as you apply varnish to the leg they will stay like this.

Step 7

Repeat the same procedures for the upper joint

Inner slot:

Outer slot:

So now it’s starting to look good!

Step 8

To create the “feet” of the insect I use either the yellow “Japanese nymf legs” or a thicker bristle from a furniture brush. It has to be a bit thick so that you can flatten it out properly.

I cut of about an inch of the leg and flatten half of it.

Then I simply cut the flatten part in two

Step 9

Now simply insert it into to leg and either tie it in by tying a few laps with a really thin tying thread on the tube or just secure it with a drop of superglue or similar.

Step 10

Varnish the leg to create a good surface for your colouring. The markers won’t stick very well to the tube itself so with a layer of varnish you will do a much better job. This is a general tip for colouring. Always try to use as white materials and apply varnish before colouring, since different materials will hold the markers differently you could otherwise end up with colour from the same marker pen looking differently on different parts of the fly.

Step 11 and onwards

Well, now it’s all about repeating all of the steps above to do the other legs. On the photo below I have done the shaping on all the legs and added the “feet” on the two back legs.

Last step

Well, when all six legs are ready and the varnish has dried on it all there is left to do is to add colour to them.

The very last step!

Finally place the fly in a nice environment and open a cold one and admire your work for a while!

So why don’t you go to your local hardware store and ask for some heat shrink tube? I think that you will be surprised to see what a good fly tying material it turns out to be!

Finally here is another example of the legs, here it’s on a dragonfly nymph with ostrich herl tied in to create the hairy look of the insect.

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Realistic Legs with Heat Shrink Tube by Ulf Hagström, 9.3 out of 10 based on 3 ratings


  1. Bob Davis says:

    Every time I open one of these pages I am blown away by the creativity of each of these masters. I also have more ideas to try later down the road when I am into my tying time of year. Thanks so much for these kinds of articles. I found dark gray shrink tubing a out local hardware store but as of yet, have not been able to find white. I know it’s got to be around somewhere and will keep looking. Sincerely, Bob

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  2. alfonso says:

    donde yo vengo no hay este tipo de moscas no lo construyen nunca. los maestros son muy abiles para crear esas marabillas de moscas felicitandoles por su gran creatividad

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  3. larrypauley says:

    neet way to make legs

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  4. jed-c says:

    absolutly mind blowing!
    what a fly and what a fly tyer!unbelievably realistic.

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  5. Schalk says:

    Excellent photos – have been using your technique with great effect – thanks – got a whole new hobby and is hooked making these “Art Flies”. They make good displays.

    Found heat tubing at following online store in different colours and sizes.

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