Purchasing, Cleaning, Restoring, and Care of Old Silk Fly Lines
By Reed F. Curry
Purchasing Old Silk Fly Lines
The usual hunting grounds for the elusive silk line are flea markets, antique shops, and the Internet. I have found restorable lines at all of these places... and I have found lines that fell apart on the stream after five casts.
When you find a used line you suspect is silk, look for the following:
1. White spots -- This indicates a fungal growth (read- "rot") and, while it means that the line is silk, it also means that it is too weak to suffer use.
2. A fine taper -- Most used lines will only have a good taper on one end. This is still acceptable, and a shortened taper is an indication of a silk line - nylon wouldn't require cutting back.
3. The ends - If you find a hardened knob at the end of the line, this is melted nylon, pass on it. If the dealer is a generous soul, he may permit you to hold a match to the end of the line. Nylon melts with a sweet odor, silk gives off the smell of burning hair and leaves only an ash.
4. Color - Darkened spots may only be dirt. Most silk lines made prior to 1950 seem to be either a dark mahogany, or a dark green; perhaps because the same line might be used for both wetfly and dryfly fishing, and angling writers advised their readers to use a dark colored line when fishing wets or streamers. Most old "silk" lines that are light colored are usually nylon, but I have been fortunate enough to get some lines still in the box from the sixties that were a light amber, so color is not a certain identifier.
5. Texture - Avoid extremely dry lines. Sticky lines are fine, they can be cleaned. Check for frayed areas and worn patches.
6. Finish - You want "oiled silk" or "vacuum dressed oiled silk" not the "enamelled" silk lines that were popular for a brief period. Enamelled silk cannot be readily stripped and refinished, is light in weight for its diameter, and wears quickly.
Pricing a line is easy. If it has passed all the aforementioned tests, and assuming an average amount of wear, I would price it according to the following:
Taper - If it is level an offer of five to ten dollars would be appropriate. A double taper would rate twenty dollars, and if new (never out of the ribbons), fifty to seventy dollars. A weight forward taper would be forty dollars, and if new, fifty to ninety dollars.
Need - If I have a rod crying out for just this line, all reason is cast aside.
Stripping the Varnish from a Sticky Silk Fly Line
Try the following simple method:
1. Prepare a bucket (1+gallon) of warm (not hot) water with 1/3 box of baking soda dissolved in it.
2. Put your line in loose loops in the bucket for 20 minutes.
3. Pull the line through a wet cloth held tightly and pass it into a bucket of cold clear water.
4. The dirt and varnish will peel right off the line.
5. Repeat if necessary.
Applying new Finish
This is the easy way. It works quite well, really.
1. Clean line thoroughly (as above) and allow to dry.
2. Get two paper grocery bags and place them open on the floor before you.
3. Place line, loose, in Bag A.
4. Sitting comfortably in a chair with the bags before you, draw the line from Bag A through a clean rag soaked in an oil/varnish mixture, letting it fall loosely into Bag B. For a few years I used Formsby's Tung Oil Finish, but recently I have found that it is too thick and contains too much varnish. I would suggest an oil/varnish mix such as: 1 part spar varnish, two parts turpentine, and four parts boiled (not raw) linseed oil. Recently a friend has treated some lines with just boiled linseed oil with excellent success. He reported that the build-up was fast, yet the finish was tough, flexible, and smooth. I would also recommend this method.
5. Wait 2 - 4 hours, or until oil is dry.
6. Rub line briskly through your hands (polishing it) as you draw it from Bag B back to Bag A.
7. Repeat steps 4 - 6 above until a glossy coat has formed on the line. Do not expect the line to be perfectly smooth, if the braid is the loose type it may not be possible to get a smooth finish.
8. You may wish to remove any rough spots in the finish. This can be done by pulling the line through some 0000 steel wool held with slight pressure in your left hand. A safer method is to use a leather pad and talcum powder. I usually just let the action of casting wear the line smooth of varnish bumps.
Caring for a Restored Silk Line
The resins and modern plastics that comprised the Oil/Varnish mix should ensure that the line will not become sticky in the future. However, certain conditions of care are still necessary for your silk line.
1. Dry the line well after every use. Use a line drier or spool the line loosely onto some newspapers, or the back seat of your car. A line drier is optimum: it is quick, takes up little space, holds at least two lines, and, most importantly doesn't put kinks in your line.
2. Don't leave the line in great heat for long periods; e.g., the dashboard of your car.
3. Clean the line once a year. Use a mild dishwashing detergent in a large bucket of warm, not hot, water. Run it through your hands as you pass it into a bucket of clean water. Allow it to dry thoroughly.
4. Grease the line properly before heading to the stream. Apply a thorough application of Mucilin, then remove any excess as you wind it back onto the reel. Too much Mucilin will gum up the guides, you only need a very thin film.
5. Never grease a wet line. This will trap water inside and invite mold.
6. Carry a 6"x6" square of chamois. If you think your WF line is starting to sink a little (after perhaps 6 hours of steady fishing) draw the line through the chamois, then drape it over a bush to dry, put your feet in the water, lean back on the grassy bank... and just relax. The fish will still be there in half an hour.
7. Put a large loop in your backing. Then, if your DT line starts to sink, you can swap it end-for-end by just dropping the reel through the backing loop. This loop also allows you to disconnect your reel from the line drier.
8. Store your lines for the winter in a large flat box. Sprinkle liberal amounts of unscented Talcum powder into the box, or coat each line with Albolene.
9. If you are on a fishing trip and run out of Mucilin, use the candle stub you carry in your vest for tightening ferrules. Pull the line through the wax. You will find the line floats fine, but is a bit stiff.
10. If you want the line to sink, don't dress it with Mucilin, it will be an excellent intermediate line.
11. Most of all, enjoy the experience of a silk line. The bits of care I have mentioned may seem tedious, but are no more than you would give any other element of your kit.