Hand Made Lures
By Dick Dailey
I'd like to thank Dick Dailey
for permission to publish this important article. While it
doesn't deal with fly fishing per se, it is a fabulous overview of a lost
art. Simply put, many of us aren't exclusively fly fishers. I'm
happy to use whatever tackle is needed for the conditions at hand.
Like many of you, I have a full complement of spinning rods, casting rods,
fly rods, etc.
Here's a thought - in addition to making
plugs for your spinning or casting set-up, why not try making fly rod sized
balsa plugs, too? Certainly we all know that before spinning gear made
its way into our lives shortly after World War II that the fly rod plug was
a staple in the long rodder's arsenal!
─ Joe Cornwall
Creating and carving wooden lures can be very satisfying. Trying new lure
designs and actions is a large part of the fun. Trial and error may result
in a fish catching lure with a unique appearance or action that you never
intended. “Aquadynamics”, a word coined from the term aerodynamics, comes
into play when hand made, new lure designs are developed. The size and shape
of a top water lure and how and where it is weighted affect how it will
react in the water. Crank baits are similarly affected. Also, the angle,
shape, size and configuration of the crank bait’s diving lip are major
factors affecting action.
A brief discussion of wood suitable for the purpose is in order at the
outset. Softwoods such as basswood, balsa, cedar, redwood and pine are
preferred over harder wood as they are more buoyant and easier and quicker
to shape and finish. Depending on the lure, wood thickness can range from ¼”
to 1” or more.
The lure chosen is named the Rocker because of its’ curved belly (think of
how rocker affects a canoe’s performance). This configuration gives it an
easy walk the dog motion as long as it is properly weighted. Our lure will
be made from basswood. Its’ dimensions will be 5/8” X 2.5”.
galvanized 19 and 20 gauge wire
Super Glue and
30 minute waterproof epoxy
and wood sealer
(economical spray cans, water based acrylic paints, or airbrush and
waterproof clear top coat
50 grit to 400
wood in different thicknesses
Crank bait lip
material (aluminum, brass, circuit board, poly, fiberglass, or lexan
(bbl. sinkers, bass sinkers, etc.)
Making the Lure Blank
First, prepare a stiff paper template that outlines the shape of the lure.
This template should be kept for future use. Trace the outline onto a 5/8”
basswood sheet and saw out the lure blank.
Trace a pencil center line completely around the entire lure as shown on the
belly of the lure in Exhibit 1. Take care when you mark a balsa lure as the
wood is very soft. The center line is your reference point to drill holes
for hook hangers and the belly weight for the lure, as well as, a reference
point when you shape the lure. You can measure the center line with a rule.
A tip for more precise measurements is to use brass bar stock, or wood as a
straight edge sizing template in 1/16” or 1/8” increments up to ¾”, or 1”
for very large lures. Use the template that matches closest to the midpoint
of the lure thickness. If necessary flip the lure over and run a second
centerline as shown.
Making Hook Hangers and Line Ties
Cut a 6” or so length of 19 gauge steel wire. Stainless steel wire is best,
but galvanized is also very good. This wire is soft enough to be malleable
and strong enough to handle a musky; however, I use heavier 16 gauge or
cotter pins for musky lures. Refer to Exhibit 2 for a picture of the
finished hook hanger and the finished hangers and weight temporarily
An easy way to form the wire is to pound a nail into a 7” piece of 2x4 to
accommodate the round part of the hook hanger. Cut off the head of the nail.
Use Needle Nose Pliers to bend the upper round part of the wire around the
nail. The lower part of the wire is bent and squeezed against the shaft as
shown. This construction helps anchor the hook hanger when it is glued in
place. The lower part of the hook hanger should be about ½” to ¾” long below
the ring portion as shown in Exhibit 2. I typically use ¾” for bass lures
unless space is limited for thinner lures, or other reasons. Use ½” or so if
your drill would otherwise run into another part or all the way through the
Weighting the Lure
For this lure, a #5 split shot will be centered in the rear quarter section
of the belly as shown in Exhibit 2. Why number 5? Trial and error has shown
this weight to be “about right” for this lure. Each time you make any lure,
you should try it out on the water with the split shot snugged into place
but not glued in the hole. You may want to change the weight to achieve
proper action after you have retrieved it a few times on the water.
Occasionally, the lure may not perform well enough to finish. More will be
discussed about this later.
A KEY POINT to remember is to always mark the raw lure blank and drill all
holes while the lure is square BEFORE any shaping or sanding.
WARNING! Always wear adequate dust or paint masks when drilling wood or
lead, sanding or painting.
Mark the lure and punch with an awl where you want to place the 4 holes for
hook hangers, line tie and a #5 split shot weight. Drill three 3/32” hook
and line tie hanger holes about ½” to ¾” deep. You may need a shallower hole
and a shorter hook hanger in the middle of the lure. A 5/16” drill bit
should be the correct size for the weight. (TIP: If you don’t have a 5/16”
brad point drill bit, you may want to use several smaller sized bits before
drilling with the 5/16” bit. This will result in more precise centering of
the hole and avoids damaging the lure blank.) When the hangers are glued
into place, as described later, they will never fail.
Screw eyes can be used in place of hand made hook hangers, but they are not
as durable and they do not have the smooth, finished appearance that hook
hangers provide. Screw eyes are sometimes used temporarily prior to
installing hook hangers to try out a lure to see if it is going to perform
Remove the lead weight and the hardware to make the lures ready for shaping
Shaping and Sanding
The lure blank can be carved with a sharp knife, files, sandpaper or a
Begin shaping the lure at the tail section and round off any sharp edges.
Gradually narrow the tail section toward the hook hanger leaving about 1/32”
of material around the hole. The hook hanger holes and the center line marks
serve as a reference to uniformly round out the square edges of the lure. Be
careful that you do not remove too much material in these first stages of
shaping the lure as additional wood will be removed in later sanding steps.
Round off the head of the lure, the bottom and the sides. Once this rough
shaping is completed, continue to progressively shape and sand the lure.
Start with 100 to 180 grit sandpaper to smooth the surface and for further
shaping. Then, sand with 220, 320 and 400 grit sandpaper for a smooth
surface. Refer to Exhibit 3 to view the lure blank after shaping and
sanding. You will note that the lure blank is well rounded, but has somewhat
You are now ready to temporarily reinstall the belly weight and permanently
glue in the hook hangers and line tie. Insert the line tie and hook hangers.
Select and have ready 6 or 7 flat tooth picks. It is recommended that you
take a dry run by inserting the line tie and hook hangers with toothpicks in
each hole before gluing to be sure everything fits.
The following procedure is to be repeated separately for each hook hanger
because of the quick setting nature of super glue. Remove one hanger and
apply 5 to 7 drops of super glue in the hole. A bubble may prevent the drops
from entering the hole. If so, have a wire or toothpick available to stick
into the hole to clear the bubble and continue with gluing. Immediately
insert the hook hanger in the hole and wedge a toothpick on each side of the
hole to anchor and glue the hook hanger solidly in the hole. The first
toothpick should bottom out easily. The second toothpick may require a
little pressure with needle nose pliers to push it into the hole. All you
want is a tight fit, so if one toothpick does the job, OK. If your hole is a
little off center, insert the toothpick on one side or the other of the
hanger as necessary to help center it. Bend the toothpick sideways and break
it off next to the lure body.
(Note: Basswood used for this lure is fairly solid, however, when you work
with balsa, exercise more care with this soft wood.)
Temporarily install the belly weight by reinserting it without glue. If it
is a tight fit, the lure can be used to try it out on the water. If it is
loose enough to fall out, a light layer of plastic wood over the top of the
weight will hold it in place after it dries.
Final Preparations and Testing the Lure
Remove any toothpick edges that rise above the surface so that it is smooth
enough for final finishing. Fill any cavities around the hook hangers and
the line tie with Elmer’s wood filler and let it dry. Sand the wood filler
so it is smooth and even with the lure body. Sand the entire lure again.
Coat the lure with two coats of wood sealer. When the lure has dried, attach
two #6 treble hooks with a #2 or 3 split ring.
A preliminary test can be performed in water in a sink or a bucket. Simply
place the assembled lure in the water. It should float with the rear end
under water and the head above water. The linear axis from head to tail
should be in the range of a 30 to 45 degree angle. If it does, you are
almost home free.
When you try the lure on the water, you will note that “normally” the lure
with either a 30 degree angle up to about 45 degrees will readily walk the
dog and catch fish. Generally, the steeper the angle, the wider the lure
swings side to side on the retrieve. Either alternative may catch more fish
than the other on a given day! Too much weight and the lure tends to bog
down on the retrieve, whereas, a weight too light will not give enough
action to readily walk the dog.
If your trial run was successful, proceed to the next step. If not, try
different size weights. If all efforts fail, start over.
Use an awl or an ice pick to dig out the wood filler and the weight that was
temporarily installed. Reinsert the weight into the hole and super glue it
in place. Let the glue dry and fill the hole with wood filler so that it is
mounded slightly above the surface of the lure. After the wood filler dries,
sand the wood filler so that it is smooth and even with the body of the
Finishing the Lure
Sand all surfaces of the lure with 320 to 400 grit sandpaper and recoat the
lure again with wood sealer. When dry, sand the lure with 400 grit sandpaper
The first or base coat of paint normally, but not always, is white. I
frequently use Delta Ceramcoat Acrylic water based paints ($1 to $2 at
Walmart) with either a paint brush, or an air brush for the base coat and
final coats of paint. Krylon and cheaper 89 cent spray paint cans from Odd
Lots can also be used. Nail heads are used for spots and for eyes. Templates
can be cut out for irregular spots or a coach dog effect. I have also found
that a discarded felt highlighter or marker dipped in acrylic paints can
make very effective dots, splotches and other markings that attract a fish’s
attention to the lure. The point is that you don’t need a lot of equipment
to make a nice looking lure. A friend of mine who makes lures does a much
finer job of painting with cheaper spray can paints than I do with an air
brush, spray cans or a paint brush.
Discount stores have curtain material of various mesh sizes to paint a scale
effect on the lure. Snug the mesh onto the lure with simple clamping paper
clips and spray through the mesh.
Bait fish typically have a light colored belly and sides and a darker back.
There are times you may want a surface lure with a dark belly to give
contrast from below in the low light periods of day or night.
Incidentally, plastic doll eyes from Craft stores are very lifelike on
lures. I use them frequently, but the old standby is different size nail
heads dipped in paint and pressed onto the lure for the iris and the pupil.
The eyes and any other markings you want to add to the painted lure are the
last things to add before the final protective finish.
Final finish clear coats include automotive clear coat lacquer (harmful
without adequate ventilation and may bubble up on balsa baits), 2-part rod
winding epoxy, or plain old 30 minute 2-part epoxy gives a tough, clear
finish. Another smooth, long lasting finish carried by Walmart is
“Dupli-Color Truck, Van & SUV Clear Top Coat spray. Several coats of finish
are in order for good protection. The 30 minute epoxy may only require one
coat. After the final clear coat finish has been applied and dried, you are
now ready to go fishing.
A Lure to Try - The Buzz Tail
Here are examples of a lure blank and a finished lure which you can make
following the procedures above. The lure is 1” x 2 3/8” balsa wood. Be sure
that the balsa wood is dry and also seal it well. The wood is porous and
requires extra attention when initial and final sealing coats are applied.
Balsa makes excellent lures. A #2 Colorado blade colored lime, pearl and
pink is attached to a swivel to allow it to spin. The line tie and two hook
hangers should be positioned as shown in above. A #7 split shot is located
close to and behind the center hook hanger. The colors are … Base coat:
White Delta Ceramcoat, Belly: Pearl Satin Gold Createx, Sides: Felt tipped
highlighter dipped in Black Ceramcoat paint for the “squiggly” marks and the
Back: Liquitex Burnt Sienna. This is a fish catchin’ bait. It can be
retrieved with walk the dog, sharp jerks, or buzz bait actions.
17" Hocking River smallie caught on a Dailey
"Rocker" top water bait. This one is numbered No. 214. Photo courtesy of