Get Into Turning Plugs

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I don’t ice-fish. Once all the gear is put away and the boat is fast asleep, the days get longer and I spend more time indoors to avoid the cold. Because I don’t like to spend my evenings in front of a television, I keep myself busy with projects for a couple of hours each night. Fishing can be an expensive hobby, and being a frugal Yankee, I try to reduce my hobby costs as much as possible. This is why, after losing many lures worth many dollars, I decided to try to turn some on my own.

A pencil popper comes to life as its shape is created on the lathe.
A pencil popper comes to life as its shape is created on the lathe.

I do have some experience operating a metal lathe, but had never tried to turn wood. Again, I am frugal, so a $400 Jet Mini lathe was not where I wanted to start my adventure. Instead I went online to Craigslist and picked up a used Sears wood lathe and a set of cutting tools for $50. One of the great things about Craigslist is if I ever get sick of turning lures, back on Craigslist the lathe goes for $50, no harm done.

Click here to read about Gary Soldati’s Custom Wooden Pike’s or Watch the episode of OTW’s Angling Adventures with Gary to learn more about the process of wooden plug building. 

Want to Turn Plugs?

Here is a basic equipment list to get you started:

  • Lathe (does not need to have a long bed—you won’t be turning a 24-inch lure)
  • Cutting tools (a couple of gouges and chisels from ½- to 1-inch wide)
  • Forstner bit (I use 3/8-inch eyes for 90% of my lures)
  • Drill set (for through-drilling the body, I stop at a ¼-inch hole)
  • Drill
  • Epoxy and mixing supplies (raid the recycling bin for cups and use PVC gloves)
  • Through-wire (I also hang my lures on wire while painting)
  • Metal lips
  • Methanol or similar solvent (for paint and urethane prep)
  • Paint (Krylon works well enough)
  • Polyurethane (clear gloss)
  • Hooks and split rings

The Form

To turn the basic plug form, I suggest starting with a piece of 2×2 between 8 and 12 inches long. This stock can be scrap you have around the shop, or a 2×4 ripped lengthwise. More than likely, any 2×4 will be white pine—not an ideal material as a lure body, but a good place to get started. Maple, oak and basswood (linden tree) are some of the more common lure materials, but it’s better to get used to the turning operation with cheap, soft wood. Try to stay away from pieces with large knots. Knots tend to be much harder than core wood and the dramatic change in grain direction can quickly dull a tool or destroy your form if you are not prepared to cut it.

I have found that for my cutting tools, the highest speed setting on my lathe produces the best shavings and a better rough cut. One thing about turning wood is the shavings will get everywhere. Wear safety goggles and be prepared to find wood shavings everywhere from your ears to the inside of your socks.

I never quite know what lure I am turning when I begin. I like to draw lines on the end of the wood from corner to corner to give me a better center to mount the piece of wood to the lathe. As I round the piece, I am bound to dig a little deeper in one place and have some transition to a higher area just an inch away. Suddenly, I’ll see how a piece can become a Polaris-style popper. Rather than get into the specifics of turning different styles of lures, I’ll just suggest that you start by experimenting and see what kind of rough form you can turn.

When you think the rough form is how you want it, it’s time to break out the sandpaper. Remember, you will not change the form much by sanding, but you will smooth it out. I use strips about an inch wide and 6 inches long, holding the ends and lightly applying the middle area to the wood as it turns on the lathe. The sawdust from this process is very fine and ideal as filler for epoxy, so if you can save any of this sawdust (wood flour), it will be useful.

Pencil marks drawn while the plug is on the lathe will help with eye placement.
Pencil marks drawn while the plug is on the lathe will help with eye placement.

While the lure is still on the lathe, mark it where the eyes will go. With the lure turning, lightly hold a pencil tip to the point on the lure where you may want to place the eyes. This will make a consistent line around the diameter of the lure that will function as a mark to drill the eye sockets. I typically draw a few sets of lines, which gives me more than one option when I drill the eyes. Don’t worry about any small chips in the wood that might occur from turning or drilling, as these can be filled later.

Anatomy of A Through-Wired Wooden Plug

cross section of a wooden plug

  • 1. 1/4 inch hole drilled through center of plug
  • 2. Nose grommet
  • 3. Swivel
  • 4. Belly grommet
  • 5. Belly weights
  • 6. Through-wire: Malin stainless steel wire – minimum .035 diameter
  • 7. Tail grommet

Through-Wire

Once the sanded form is to your liking, it is time to remove it from the lathe and drill it through. I through-wire all of my lures. It is easy to do, and since I am spending the time to make a lure, I don’t want to take a shortcut that could cost me a 50-pound striper. Malin (the same company that makes wire leader material) sells 1-pound spools of stainless steel wire as safety wire for aircraft fasteners. They are easy to find and come in a range of diameters. I recommend .035 diameter wire at a minimum—it has a tensile strength of about 70 pounds, is easy to bend, and won’t break the bank. A 1-pound spool should make about a thousand lures.

A variety of different plugs can be made using the same through-wire design.
A variety of different plugs can be made using the same through-wire design.

Making the hole for this wire gets easier with practice. When I remove a lure from the lathe, it has a hole on the center of each end from the pin that held the lure on the lathe. Holding the lure in my hand, I carefully drill a small pilot hole in one end. I try to hold it as true to the centerline as I can with one hand while holding the drill in the other. Once the drill has established a decent hole, I lighten my hold on the lure so it can spin on the drill in my hand. This is how I determine what direction the drill is drifting. If there is significant wobble in the opposite end of the plug body, I adjust the drill to minimize wobble. Again, this takes some practice. Once I have a pilot hole in one end, I drill the other the same way. I step up the drill diameter three times trying to adjust drill drift with each increase in depth and diameter. Once I have switched to a ¼-inch bit, the hole meets in the middle of the lure. If you come through the side of the lure with the drill, don’t scrap the lure—you can fill the hole later.

A Forstner drill bit creates a perfect surface to attach a stick-on eye.
A Forstner drill bit creates a perfect surface to attach a stick-on eye.

Eye sockets can be drilled as well. You can skip this step and paint eyes on if you have a steady hand or some skill as a painter (of which I have neither). Remember the radial line you drew on the lure while it was on the lathe? Now you need to find where the left and right sides of the lure will be. Draw a line longitudinally, intersecting this radial line on each side and you have a crosshair for the tip of your Forstner bit. Not being a woodworker, this was the one tool I had to purchase, but it cleans up the eye socket so well that it was well worth the money. Drilling just below the lure surface with the Forstner bit makes for a perfect surface to attach a stick-on eye.

The eye of the plug is bent around a large nail or peg.
The eye of the plug is bent around a large nail or peg.
The tail end of the through-wire is bent into shape with needlenose pliers.
The tail end of the through-wire is bent into shape with needlenose pliers.
The through-wire is threaded through a swivel that will hold the belly hook.
The through-wire is threaded through a swivel that will hold the belly hook.
The nose grommet is inserted before the through-wire goes in.
The nose grommet is inserted before the through-wire goes in.

Bending loops in the through-wire is easily accomplished using a nail as a form for the loop. Decide the length of the wire necessary from loop end to end. Cut the length of the lure plus some excess off your spool, make one eye loop, twist the end around the wire shank to lock it off and insert it into the lure. Mark the wire with a permanent marker where you want the end of the second loop to be and pull excess wire out of the lure body (pulling the first loop inside the body). Make your second loop on the mark, trim the excess wire and push it back into the lure.

If there is going to be a center hook on your lure, you must drill a hole in the body to accommodate this. The hole must be drilled and a short loop of wire inserted into the lure before the through-wire is inserted. One end of this hook-hanger will be potted in epoxy, leaving a loop exposed for the hook. Inside the plug, the other end of the hook hanger will have the through-wire running through it so it cannot pull out without totally destroying the lure. Once the hole through the body of the lure is drilled, it is easy to pass the center wire through the loop by looking into the through-hole as the wire is inserted. If there is going to be a center hook on your lure, you must drill a hole in the body to accommodate this. You can use a barrel swivel and a grommet to hang the belly hook or use a short loop of wire. (If you use a loop of wire, it must be potted in epoxy, leaving a loop exposed for the hook.) Inside the plug, the other end of the hook hanger will have the through-wire running through it so it cannot pull out without totally destroying the lure. Once the hole through the body of the lure is drilled, it is easy to pass the center wire through the loop by looking into the through-hole as the wire is inserted.

For lures that will need a metal lip for swimming action, it is good to cut the slot in the face to hold the lip before you insert the wire. This will change the position of the wire a bit, but it will also lock the lip in place so it can be bonded. Most of the wooden lures I see have metal lips that are screwed on, I find this unnecessary when I bond the lip into the plug with epoxy.

Most custom-made lures have pre-bent stainless wire used as the through-wire. Because no two lures I make are the same, the system I use offers more flexibility in the through-wire. I also loop the tail end of the wire four or five times around itself so the free end cannot pull out of the lure.

Sealing, Fixing and Filling

For my lures, the second most common ingredient is epoxy resin. I use epoxy because it is an excellent adhesive with good toughness and I can mix it in small batches—enough for a lure or two. It is also easy to work with and produces consistent results. Wear gloves when using epoxy, but if you do get epoxy resin on your skin, wipe it off with vinegar, not solvents. Solvents dissolve the resin and the solvent can be absorbed through your skin while the acidity in the vinegar breaks down uncured epoxy and your body will not absorb it.

Once the lure is turned, sanded and through-wired, I epoxy it, everywhere. I rub epoxy on all of the outside surfaces and then drip some into the through-hole. Once it cures, it should hold the through-wire in place lengthwise. When the first coat of epoxy cures, I sand every surface with 100 to 120 grit sandpaper. I then apply a second coat to the outside. Mix epoxy with wood flour recovered from the lathe sanding until it will not run, then fill the through-hole at the ends. You can fill any chips, cracks or mistakes with the wood flour/epoxy mix. Don’t worry about having clumps of the filled epoxy taller than the lure body; when cured, this resin is easily sanded down.

added weight to plug corrects the action
Most plugs need additional weight to sit correctly in the water. Bellyweights (left) will keep the plug from rolling, and tail weights (right) will increase its castability.

If I am going to weight my lure, this is when I drill the holes in the body. For poppers, I want the head to be above water and the tail to sink below the surface of the water. I drill a hole in the back half of the lure to fill with weight. Remember that the weight will act as a keel, giving the lure an up-and-down orientation when floating in the water, so drill your weight holes on the underside of the lure. Lead disks can be inserted into these holes, or low-melting-temperature metals can be heated and poured into the hole. I use a bismuth alloy that melts at about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This type of material can be ordered from a few suppliers online, but it can be expensive. Melting lead is also an option, but make sure to take the proper safety precautions when handling, melting and casting toxic molten metal. When pouring metal into a lure body, remember that the metal will flow into whatever void it can find. If the through-hole is not completely filled with something, the metal will fill it, leaving a heavy lure with a slug of metal straight down the middle. Once the metal is in there, it can be extremely hard to get out.

Now that the lure is weighted, it is time to epoxy it for the last time. If there is a dent from the weight hole, wood-flour and epoxy will clean it up nicely.
Epoxy cures better with heat, but the viscosity also drops when it is heated, so it can run excessively. If your epoxy doesn’t quite seem cured, it probably isn’t. Heat the plug up (120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit should be fine) and give it a few hours at that temperature.

Epoxy will degrade with exposure to UV light. This means that your lures should be painted or covered in some UV-blocking material (polyurethane is decent) before they sit in the sun. Use an epoxy hardener that will give you the longest pot life. When covering wood with epoxy, a long pot life at a low viscosity will allow the wood more time to absorb the resin deep within the cellular structure of the wood, basically making a plastic lure. I have read that epoxy can penetrate .02 inches into wood!

Finishing And Painting

An airbrush is ideal for painting plugs
An airbrush is ideal for painting the plugs, but cans of spraypaint will also get the job done.

Painting lures is something I have mixed emotions about. Sometimes when I turn a lure and inspiration hits, I am excited, but other times I am reluctant to begin. I use Krylon rattle cans and have had mixed results. From what I have read and seen, a better approach is to use an airbrush, but with my kids in bed above me at night when I am finishing lures, running a compressor is not an option. I like to use gloss paint because all the lures at the store seem to have a high-gloss finish. For the final coat of paint, I like to apply heat (about 140 degrees for 30 minutes) to the lure while the paint is wet. This seems to give me a nice, even finish that is tougher and glossier.

Experiment when painting your lures. I was surprised by some of the color combinations that seemed wrong but, when finished, looked great together. There are also many tricks to create patterns on your lures. For example, an onion bag can be stretched over the lure and then sprayed as a mask to create the illusion of scales on a lure. (Make sure to read, understand and apply all of the safety recommendations from the supplier of the paint you use.)

Painting through an onion bag will create the illusion of scales.
Painting through an onion bag will create the illusion of scales.

I have heard and read many times that when sanding prior to painting, you should start with coarse grit and move your way up to fine. I am sure that is a great practice, but I just sand everything with 120 grit until it is a smooth, even surface. I spend more time sanding than any other step—it is relaxing to me and allows me to admire and critique each feature of the lure. When the lure is completely sanded, I put on the gloves (literally). I am a true believer in a clean, oil-free surface for maximum paint adhesion; even the little bit of oil from your hands can make a difference. I wipe all of my lures in solvent and allow them to dry. Once dry, I begin painting and never touch a lure with my bare hands until I am done. If you don’t like the resulting paint scheme, just sand it off and try again. I have lures that have been painted two or three times in completely different colors.

Final Sealing

So you think you are done? Well, you can be, but after fishing a lure for a season with just paint on it, you will have the pleasure of sanding and repainting it again in the winter. A nice top coat of polyurethane will provide a more durable finish that will not degrade in the UV light the sun blasts us with every day. A light coat can be applied with a rag or brush directly on the paint. For second and third coats, the surfaces should be lightly sanded with 220 grit sandpaper to allow the urethane to properly bond to the previous layer.

I also have been exploring tying my own bucktail hooks. It is a good way to fill time while I am waiting for paint to dry or resin to set. Tying my own allows me to match the tail color and size to the lure I have finished. Many local tackle shops have a decent selection of these pre-tied, and even if they do not have the color or hook size you need, ask if they can have it made.

Plug building can be time consuming. There are many steps a plug goes through from start to finish.
Plug building can be time consuming. There are many steps a plug goes through from start to finish.

I have really enjoyed making lures. Despite the complexity of the process, most of the time I take to make a lure is spent sanding. The fun part of making lures is experimenting. You might make three nearly identical lures, but with different weights or hook combinations they will have different swimming actions. I generally have four lures in different steps of the process going on at a single time. Because turning is the loudest step, I turn three or so each weekend and then finish them during the weeknights.

Now that I have started making my own lures, I spend more time eyeing the shelves in tackle shops and wandering through sportsmen’s shows, appreciating the time spent and skill of custom lure makers. I now buy more custom lures than mass-produced ones—so much for saving money by turning my own!

This article was originally published by Onthewater.com. Read the original article here.

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