Was finishing a fly last night and thought I would take some pictures as I went through the process of putting on a topping. I have seen a lot of posts over the years about how to get that cascade effect of the topping fibres that looks so good. I have tried pretty much everything and for a long time was very unsatisfied with the results. I am pretty happy now with the method I have worked out, and it really is a lot simpler and easier than you may think. The bottom line - I let the wing do the work.
Remember, this is NOT the "right" way. This is a way that works for me. Use or discard any or all points as you find them useful.
First, there is no soaking and drying and picking out of fibres going on. Just not worth it, and IMO, ultimately the topping looks a little forced if you go through all that.
Second, the only firm rule of thumb is that the rachis of the topping must be as close to absolutely straight (laterally) as you can find. Curve is ok, but not left-to-right curve or twist. The top of your wing is a straight line (viewed from the front) and the topping follows that and must be straight as well. Soaking and drying curved toppings *can* straighten out the rachis sometimes, but if you do that to try and salvage wonky toppings, don't mess with the fibres. Soak the and lay them flat and hope for the best.
On a typical good quality GP head there are usually only 10 - 20 suitable feathers for toppings, long and short. When I buy crests, all I look for is straight, root to tip. Color, curve, red tips, etc. are all secondary bonuses.
On to the tutorial (numbers correspond to the pictures in order)
1. Measure your fly. The arc of the wing is longer than the shank, but this will get you in the ballpark. You will need to add .5 - 1cm or so from straight line distance to compensate. In this case, fly is about 6cm long, so I know I will need a 6 - 7cm topping. NOTE - I always trim my wing butts and do a preliminary finish on the head before topping and horns. The wing butts will interfere with the stem of the topping and make everything more difficult. Best to get them out of the way and have a clean area to work in.
ruler.JPG 26.22K 1006 downloads
2 - 3. Get your toppings out. I know many sort by head or color. I can't be bothered and find the color differences between topping and tail either negligible or so great you can tell easily, so move on to another feather. I pluck all my heads, sort out the straight feathers, measure, and put them in a box corresponding to the general length. GET A LOT OF HEADS - more choice is better than a few choices. For me this makes finding the right topping much faster. (and yes - the box is mislabled, it should say 6-7 CM, not mm)
*IF AT ALL POSSIBLE, I want to tie the topping in by the very root of the feather, for a few of reasons. One, you will probably have to add some curve to the first third of the topping (unless you are tying a mixed-wing fly or put very little curve in your wings). That part of the stem shapes easily and does not create "topping horns" with the short fibres. If you try to curve the back 2/3 of a topping with the long fibres, you will get those for sure and then you are throwing spit everywhere to slick them down (I have been there!) and it effects the look. The idea is to manipulate the feather as little as possible. Two, I want to strip as few fibres as possible and use the whole feather as it is. Three, the root of the feather flattens easily and is much easier to tie in.
4 - 5. grab topping by the root, catch the end on the wing tip, and lower it over the fly. You can quickly tell if it is too long or too short, and get an idea of what it will look like on the fly. I like keeping the topping as close to the wing as I can, but that is me. I have shown this with a more curved topping that would sit higher off the wing as well.
6. Here are a few that are the right length and I know any of them will work. Note none of them look very impressive. That is ok. They have everything they need to look great on the fly.
topp6.JPG 78.84K 1293 downloads
7. Flatten the stem with some pliers at the tie-in point. I will also put in a 90 degree-ish bend in the stem at my tie-in point. Note - I have not stripped anything off this feather.
topp7.JPG 43.79K 1312 downloads
8. Add some curve (if necessary) to the rachis. This will be a trial and error process until you get that first bit of the stem the same shape as the curve of the wing. I prefer toppings with a lot of curve near the root so I will have very little work to do here. I grab the root in my right thumb and forefinger, catch the topping between my left thumb and forefinger (top side up from the thumb) and pull the part of the stem I want to add curve to down over my left thumbnail. If you want to take curve out, turn the feather over (which is how I get my tails to spread a little)
topp8.JPG 21.88K 1366 downloads
9. Tie the topping on - 1 or two wraps. If you look closely you can see the tiny bit of stem at the front - this is not cut. I use the whole feather. you can see that this is not a very inspiringly "cascaded" feather right now. For the first wrap I have the feather stem tip in my right hand and make the wrap with my left. Then I use my bodkin to nudge the stem into the center if it is off a little.
topp9.JPG 31.09K 1410 downloads
10. Lift up the feather and put it on top of the wing - starting to look pretty good! The wing takes some curve out of the feather, and as you take curve OUT of a topping, the fibres separate and create a cascade.
topp10.JPG 31.38K 1405 downloads
11. Use your bodkin or a needle to pick the fibres onto the correct side of the wing. Toppings, like all feathers, have a left and right side. The fibres should go on the left and right sides of the wing, with the rachis following the ridge of the wing down the middle. This also makes the fly much less fussy - the topping now hugs the wing on each side. It does not want to go anywhere.
topp11.JPG 30.65K 1332 downloads
12 - 14. The topping complete - left, front, and right sides. At this point I will throw on another wrap, add my horns (use the wraps for your horns to further secure the topping) and either trim the stem or cover the rest with thread. No spit, no soaking, just a straight feather and a wing. With the pictures, this whole process took me about 20 minutes (it helps to have the toppings sorted by size ahead of time)
And that is it. In this case, I just wrapped forward on the head until the stem was gone, no trimming. Because it was the root and flattened, it was soft and just tied in over the head. Will show the completed fly in another post when the varnish is dry.
Hope this is useful to someone. Note, if you do not want the topping so close to the wing, it is the same process. Put a little less curve into the rachis at the "hump" of the wing, or get a topping with more curve in the last 1/3 of the feather, or both. Everything else still applies.