Turning the body is half the fun.
When I picked up Silvio Calabi’s book Antique Fishing Tackle, my interests in fishing, antiques, and wood turning met head on: Now I’m hooked on making wooden fishing lures. I know this passion is somewhat irrational, because plastic lures are abundant and economical—and they catch fish. I make my own wooden lures because it’s fun. I love recreating old patterns as much as I love to explore my own theories on catching fish. I enjoy testing unusual shapes and unique finishes. And I can report first-hand that catching a fish with a lure I’ve made myself is a sheer delight. You should try it yourself.
I like to fish for bass, musky and pike, which are all known to feed at the surface, so most of the lures I that make are designed to skip across the water’s surface. These “top water” lures can be made from almost any wood that holds screws well. (There’s nothing worse that having a trophy fish escape because it was able to rip out the screw that anchored the hook to the lure!) I usually work with poplar and start with 1-1/2″ to 1-3/4″ square blocks. My bass lures range from 2″ to 5″ in length, while my musky and pike lures tend to be 5″ to 11″ long.
Use your imagination
Usually, turning a wooden lure is basic spindle work, but the shapes you can experiment with are almost endless. Mimic a minnow or a small fish, a crawfish, a frog, a mouse, a bug, a bird, an eel, a worm or a snake. Sometimes the turning doesn’t resemble anything specific from nature.
Most lure shapes are turned between centers with basic tools (Photos 1 and 2). If you’re adept with a skew chisel, you can complete most of the work with it alone.
Use the skew or a 1/2″ round nose scraper for hollowing, a detail that gives the lure more “action” (Photo 3).
Use a 3/8″ detail/spindle gouge and turn from two different centers to create a lure with an unusual face (Photo 4).
Refer to old lure shapes you find appealing, or use your imagination to dream up your own shapes (Photo 5).
Whatever the shape, chances are you’ll be done turning it before you know it, so you might as well turn another one (Photo 6).
To eliminate any chance of a fish ripping out the hook, attach the hook to a wire that runs all the way through the lure (Photo 7). Drill a 1/8″ hole through the lure from end to end. Glue in 1/8” aluminum tubing to house the wire. Then insert the wire and create loops at both ends for tying on the lure and for mounting the hook. This through wire also creates a nice foundation for adding propellers, beads and other details.
What fish want
As far as I can tell, fish don’t appreciate wood turning, as such. To attract fish, wooden lures are usually painted, and they almost always have eyes.
Historically, lures were brush-painted, dipped, marbled or sprayed. Red was often used as the primary color or for details, in the belief that predator fish would view it as blood, a sign of injury. Examples decorated with real frog skin have also been documented. All of these options are open to the contemporary lure maker (except, perhaps, the frog skin option). I usually use a variation of the brush-painting method to apply paint while the lure is still on the lathe (Photos 8 and 9). Epoxy paints are the most durable, but they take a long time to dry. That makes applying multiple colors a lengthy process, so I often use acrylic paints for the color coats, followed by a coat of clear epoxy paint for durability.
Another option is to carve or sand the turned body, before or after painting, to make the lure attract more piscean attention it moves across the surface of the water. Carving the head end of a lure will make it wobble or dive, much like hollowing on the lathe. A bit of sanding can dramatically change a turned lure’s appearance (Photo 10). Viewing historical examples is a great way to get ideas for additional shaping (see Sources).
Eyes really do make a difference—just ask anyone who casts a lure. Eyes can be painted on or dotted, or they can be small tacks or nails that are driven in and then painted. You can also buy eyes—made of glass or plastic, adhesive backed or with stems to glue into a hole, or even “doll eyes” with loose pupils for that “come hither” look. Whatever your choice, adding eyes gives expression to your lure and may help in hooking the big one.
Please the consumer
An almost endless array of options exists for mounting hooks and adding the final touches that make a piece of wood irresistible to fish (Photo 11). You can buy hardware online, strip it from an old lure, or make it yourself from metal or plastic. You can keep it simple or go for broke, by installing hooks wrapped with fur or feathers, eyelets, diving lips, spinners, propellers, fins, collars, glass and metal beads, wire, spacers, cup washers, weights, and split rings. The bottom line during the entire lure-making process is to think like a hungry fish, because ultimately, hungry fish will be your greatest critics.
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