FAQ - Processing Fly Tying Materials at Home

The following FAQ is the result of a bit of searching through the FF@ Archives one cold winter morning. Enjoy.

Bob Petti
January, 1998

Contents and quick links...

Health Hazards

Health hazards aren not something to take lightly. Even if the risk of transmission is low, it is worth the extra effort to take the necessary precautions, as the consequences of not doing so are dire.

In a post by Craig Pence, we learn:

Dick Talleur's "Modern Flytying Materials" (1995, Lyons & Burford), a very pretty book, well laid out and illustrated, comments as follows regarding roadkill (p. 88):

"In the Northeast, rabies is presently at epidemic levels...Some animals are far more susceptible than others. Raccoons head the list, followed by foxes, skunks, and an occasional woodchuck. Actually, any animal can contract rabies, but exept for those mentioned, they rarely do so...The rabies virus lives in saliva and in nerve or brain tissue. Almost invariably it is transmitted by biting. When the host dies, the virus lives for a while, depending on the temperature. In warm weather, it will die within a few hours. In winter, it may live for several days. When frozen it can survive for up to a couple of weeks, and can again become active when the carcass is thawed...The following cautionary measures are recommended: first, before handling any animal, make sure it's dead. Use rubber gloves when handling a corpse. Clorox will kill the virus on contact...If you decide to keep it in the freezer for a while before skinning, leave it there for at least a month...Once rabies starts, it's not curable."

Allan Fish tells us:

Always were rubber gloves when skinning. A lot of roadkill rabbits have tularemia, which can be transmitted during the skinning operation.

Not to be overlooked is the danger from inhaling the vapors emitted from what are commonly referred to as "mothballs". Henk Verhaar gives us a little more detail on the subject:

1,4-dichlorobenzene and naphthalene are both what you'd call 'fairly toxic'. Their acute aquatic toxicity (or 4 day fish LC50) is generally similar. Their chronic effects differ. 1,4-dichlorobenzene is indeed a suspected carcinogen (for whatever that label is worth, I'll not go into detail here !). It has been said by some that while 1,4-dichlorobenzene is a moth killer, naphthalene is a moth deterrent (and thus not effective once you already have the critters in your skins). I can't vouch for this as being correct facts; I DO know that most entomological collections use naphthalene to keep the museum bugs out of their collection drawers.

My basic rundown for personal use is: use naphthalene. As long as you only smell it when you actually open your box or drawer, there's no problem; if on the other hand your whole tying room constantly smells of the stuff, you might be in some long-term problems.

A not-so-toxic herbal remedy is given below.

It is important that you wash your hands after you handle any unprocessed fly tying material even if you wear rubber gloves. Assume that everything is contaminated and act accordingly.

Legal Hazards

You would think that if you stumbled across a dead animal or bird in the wild or alongside the road you would not be subject to any sort of penalty for keeping the materials, especially if you were not the cause of death. This is not always the case.

Preston Larimer posted the following:

In order to pick up a road kill you would need a salvage permit from your state, and if it is a migratory bird, you would need another from the US fish & Wildlife Service. Most likely, a warden won't bother you for a couple feathers (particularly if it is a game bird), but legally they could.

He follows that up with another posting:

You just can't go picking anything up off the road. A game animal collected out of season, without a permit is technically illegal to possess. The warden in your area may not care, especially if it is for tying and for your own use, but you might check. Fines can be rather painful. Sometimes it is easier to mailorder for the $3.50 or so that squirrels cost per skin.

People with outdoor cats will usually get the leftovers from their pet's hunting missions. If Morris drops a Bluejay, Cardinal, Robin, or some other pretty songbird on your doorstep, leave it alone (or dispose of it according to law). Keeping the feathers could get you into some real hot water. Again, Preston Larimer tells us:

Your cats can keep killing birds with no threat of legal reprisal. I don't think that you can be held responsible, unless you have the feathers in possession. A few feathers in your backyard probably won't get you into trouble. You, however, can't leagally even pick up a feather that incidentally falls off of a protected songbird. If it isn't a game species, you probably can't legally keep it. This is what we have to do. First, we need a federal "special purpose salvage" permit from US Fish and Wildlife. This give us the right to pick up dead migratory birds, as the feds have juristiction over migratory birds. Second, we need a state salvage permit as all songbirds are protected. In addition, I must keep detailed records as to what is done with every bird that comes into my possesion. That is, is it turned into a study skin, disposed of or released. Finally I have to have a federal permit for any federally listed threatened species and another permit for any bald eagles. That means a separate permit for each specimen. Then there is a state permit for all state listed threatened species. What does this mean if you come into possesion of contraband material without the above permits? Basically that you should leave it there, or dispose of it.

I believe that I'm correct in saying that you can't even have gamebirds in your possession, unless you are the one who legally harvested them. When Cabella's or someone sells a mount, I believe that they have to be domestically raised birds. One exception to this, interestingly, are materials to be used for flytying. Another would be furs sold through licensed brokers.

Now, this seems a bit extreme for a couple of blue jay feathers, but that is the way that the law reads. You can easily see the purpose behind it, and I'm sure that you wouldn't have trouble from an agent for a couple of feathers that you found in the garden and stuck in your cap. but I would be careful about much more. The feds and the state guys are serious about this stuff. They will show up periodically here and check our records, as well as the freezer, unannounced.

As Preston mentioned above, songbirds are not the only birds that are protected. Migratory birds are also subject to federal (international?) regulations and should be handled only if you know for absolute sure that you are not violating laws.

Bryant Freeman adds a Canadian perspective with:

Dont drive by those squirrels or animals again, but make sure the F&W laws allow this procedure. Also birds of prey are not allowed to be kept in any form. Ducks you should have the Federal permit in Canada if you retain the feathers. Any bird you pick up on the road that is under federal jurisdiction, you should have a license if you have it in possession, and keep abreast of your CITES Act on the WWW.

When in doubt, leave it alone. A handful of fly tying materials are not worth putting your future at risk. These laws are not taken lightly. Violators face face stiff penalties and possible jail time.

To get more information, check out
US Fish and Wildlife Service for information on the US federal regulations, as well as CITES for a more international position on endangered species.

Killing Bugs Prior to Storage

This is another place to err on the side of caution. It's a good practice to assume that any "raw" material you receive is infected with bugs. I guess the only time you should assume you are safe is materials that are tanned (the tanning process will kill bugs), materials that are dyed (again, most chemicals involved in the dyeing process will rid the material of bugs), and materials sold through reputable suppliers. Anything you pick up on the road, in the woods, or are given from farmers or hunters should be assumed to be infested.

The two main "de-infestation" methods use either a freezer or your microwave oven to kill both the adult bugs and the eggs.

Freezer first. Ian Martin tells us:

The stuff most at risk is feathers on the skin, ie capes, wings, and tails. I cycle this stuff through my deepfreeze, always in zip locks, in a 2-stage process. When you aquire it, put it in the deepfreeze for about a week. This kills most active insect stages. Bring it out for about 48h. If resistant stages are present, usually they will become active in response to the return to normal temperatures. Then, whammo! Hit 'em again with another week in the deepfreeze.

Steve Heuser adds:

The first thing I do with any hide or skin is freeze it for 2 months! This will kill all the bugs in the hair/feathers of the hide. You don't want to keep any thing that you get from the woods or roadside with any thing you buy! You don't want bugs in a $40 neck! Just keep them separate. You can freeze just the hide/skin after you have skinned it out.

For those that don't want to wait for the freezer to do it's job, Steve Heuser tells us:

Other method to kill bugs is using the Microwave. The trick is to microwave it long enuff to kill any bugs, without over heating the hide/skin.

and Blake Werner adds:

_30 or so seconds in the microwave per skin will destroy any living cells, including eggs. The freezer will do a good job on most but I consider a nuke esential for proper storage preping. This should be done after you defat with the muleteam.

Drying, Curing, and Tanning

This is a topic where people get pretty creative, mostly based on their own personal experiences. You can tell who does this stuff for a living and those who just keep a skin or two for their own needs.

Bryant Freeman is a master with all sorts of materials, and one would not go wrong taking his advice. First, he discusses how to treat deer hides for long term storage. These create "hard" hides, not the soft tanned hides you sometimes see in flyshops.

Got some deer hair you want to preserve. Wash the hair completely with soap and warm water, this removes the oils, then rinse the soap out of the hair. Get some water boiling and put hair in the boiling water till it shrinks to 1/2 its oringinial size, add a bit of cider vinegar, and the dye you want to use, keep temp just below boiling, and when you think the hair is dark enough take it out and add more dye, insert in the dye again and bring to 155 degrees. Take out of pot after 5 minutes, drop into cold water to give it a quick set, then wash out in luke warm soapy water, usually dishsoap or the wifes laundry detergent is fine. Then rinse in cool water and hang on stretch board. Four nails on a 6 X 6 piece is enough, careful not to pull the nails through the raw hide, and make sure nails are long enough that you can move hair about 2 inches from stretch board. Let dry in a warm place for three weeks, and when it is dry enough you will be able to hit the hide and it will break like glass, if it doesnt break it is not dry enough, there is still some moisture trapped in the base of the hair.

For other critters, Bryant recommends:

The first thing that you should do when you get it home is to skin the animal from the carcass and stretch it on a board, the best thing is to just take the Prime piece of hair and stretch it, things like legs and eyeballs, noses and arse parts are if little value and they leave a place for vermin to gather. Tails should be skinned out from tip to tip and opened and defleshed and remove any fat. If you are a wood worker or have access to fine sawdust this is an excellent product for removing excess fat and oil as well as flesh that is left on the hide, use this in conjunction with Newspaper which is an excellent product for wiping excess fat and oil off the hide. Stretch the patch with nails approx 1 inch apart and pulling tight as you can without pulling thru the hide. after stretched use a dull round knife and scrape again as thorough as you can and wipe off with more newspaper. Leave the hide to dry for about five days, do not put near heat, let cure in a dool dry place normally 55 to 65 degrees. Every day or so when walking by the patch give it a scrape with your knife and a wipe with your newspaper. Some skins take less time to cure than others, like mink is very thin and only takes about three days if stretched tight enough.

Leave the salt away from the hide completely, as it draws moisture and if not scraped completely off, on some of those humid days in the summer your skin will turn wet.

When taking off the stretch board, you should cut around the edges leaving the unstretched parts on the board and discarding. Take the prime hair and put it in a box or bag it and use mothballs to keep the vermin out of it.

Got deer hides, mink, muskrat, bear, moose, beaver, done here that way and been doing it for 40 years, over the years this hair mellows and you get some nice shades.

If you really want to try soft-tanning a hide, here is a lengthy post on the subject by the Col. Ben Benoit:

We have had wonderful success with a professional tanning formula we are now stocking for our customers. Prior to application of most tanning formulas and solutions however, the following guidelines should be considered when preparing skins and furs for your fly tying bench.

For best results start with fresh green skins, carefully scrape or cut off all the meat and fat until the skin is very clean. If the skin has started to dry then soak it first in cold water, but only long enough for it to become soft.

For preserving the skin (deer for example) for fly tying hair you should next salt the flesh well with non-iodized table salt, working plenty of the salt into the entire hide to include the ears, paws, and split tail.

Next soak the skin in a solution of 1 pound of salt per gallon of water until very flexible. Remove the skin and drain, but do not twist.

Now using a sharp knife, thin the skin as much as possible, removing any remaining membrane. I use a wire wheel attached to the power drill for this step when the skin has started to dry.

After the skin is thinned, wash it again in warm water with dishwashing detergent to remove the salt and grease. I like Simple Green which can be found in most hardware stores, Sam's Discount Store's, etc. It is also great for washing feathers when you need to clean them of blood. If you are working with raccoon, beaver, or bear (haven't done one of 'em yet) which are very greasy, the hide should be washed twice to remove as much of the grease as possible. Now hang the skin to dry keeping it away from the dog and other neighborhood critters and varmints!

When the skin is semi-dry, but still moist and flexible, shake the Tanning Formula well and at room temperature apply an even layer to the flesh side. Apply it with a paint brush or wipe it on wearing a pair of latex gloves. Continue to massage the Formula in to all areas of the skin.

Next lay the skin flesh side up to dry on cardboard or plywood. As it dries you need to periodically pull and stretch the skin until it is completely dry and soft. If the skin is stiff in a few spots, dampen these areas with warm water, reapply warmed Formula and repeat. I have nuked the formula on low to get it warm. BTW, I don't like to nail the skin as many tanner's might suggest. Large spring clamps found at the hardware store work fine for holding down the edges of the hide after it is stretched each time as required.

If you still want the skin softer you can then continue thrashing it with the wire wheel or you can use coarse sandpaper on it as well until you find the degree of subtleness you desire.

BTW, this formula works great on fowl and domestic birds that happen to find their way to the back door compliments of the neighbor's tabby. Make sure however that all flesh and membrane are scraped clean before applying the Formula. You can then pluck the feathers as required, and/or clip the wings and elasticize together for matched quills, and/or soak them in Simple Green and lukewarm water, rinse with warm water, pre-shape again and allow them to dry overnight on paper towels.

Our clients are very satisfied with this tanning formula for tanning and preserving skins their skins. If interested in pricing and availability please e-mail for details.

Leslie Benscoter tells us of a product sold by National Feathercraft that will "tan" a hide or cure a bird skin:

Some one had asked in an earlier post?? -- I checked with Feathercraft 800.659.1707 and they still carry the tanning compound. Tanning compound #S93 is $6.95 for 2 Lb. To completely tan a Mule Deer hide will take from 5-6 Lb.

This information was given to me by an employee at the Feathercraft store. The 2 lb. package would allow one to pick the section of deer/elk hide they wish to tan and proceed as follows:

  1. Tack the hide out (stretch as tight as possible) on a flat surface. (Plywood).
  2. Pull off all fat and flesh. He suggested a pliers? The hide must be CLEAN.
  3. Use a dull knife to scrape the hide.
  4. Apply compound it is white and the next day or so will turn yellow (removal of fats?).
  5. Scrape the yellow mixture off and reapply the white tanning compound.
  6. You repeat this process untill the white tanning compound remains white + it doesn't turn yellow.
  7. At this point the hide is "tanned" and will have the texture of dried, bleached cardboard.

I was told that complete instructions are included with the *stuff*.

However, Leslie does admit that to get a soft tanned hide, he prefers to send it to a professional:

I prefer sending the whole hide in to the tanner. The cost is more. There may be some difference in the hair after the commercial process vs. the home cure? However, I am not sure of that. I do know for that the hair is much cleaner and the hide is soft and supple. It is a more pleasant piece of hide to work with (If that counts).

If all you are interested in is preserving the material so that it does not rot as you store it, or you are working primarily on bird skins, the tried and true method is to clean the skin (animal pelt or bird cape) of all fats as much as possible and then sprinkle a general portion of borax over the skin, checking and changing periodically until dried. Steve Heuser explains:

Then take the hide/skin and cut off all the fat and meat!!! You must get 95-100% of it off. You can leave the thin layers of skin they will dry. Then take the hide and tack or nail it to a peace of plywood or cardboard. Then cover the hide with Borax, cover it so there is 1/8 to 1/4 inch of borax covering the hide. The take and place a fan so it is blowing on the borax. I use a window fan set on low, you just need to keep the air moving over the Borax. Wait 24 hour and take Borax and put in different container. Take the hide and brush off any Borax that is sticking to the hide. Then cut off any fat or meet that looks like its not going to dry. You'll know after doing a few. Then take a put the Borax that you already used back on the hide, some times I'll take out any lumps. The put the fan back on it for 24 hours. After that you can take off the Borax and your hide will be done!

The window fan seem to speed up the process by a few days. I also turn up the dehumidifier to help dry out the air. Yes I do this in my basement, my wife is very tolerant of all my stuff.

Borax work great on ducks. I've done about 6 ducks this fall. Most ducks don't have a lot of fat so the curing is real quick. The hard part is skinning the duck. Duck, grouse and pheasant skin is very thin compared to deer or elk hide, so you must take your time skinning it. Make sure that you get the meat out of the wing, if you plan on keeping that part. Make a cut on the inside of the wing and fold back the skin and cut out the meat and use Borax.

Lance Taylor tells us how he washes and dries his bird skins before the typical borax treatment:

When preserving my fresh killed bird skins (Duck & Grouse) this year I firslty skinned the birds (scraping as much fat as possible), then washed in anti-bacterial dish detergent soap and then blow-dried the feathers with a hair dryer.

Then 6 weeks with a BORAX and SALT Mixture pinned to a piece of cardboard in a drying box (Tacking down the skin is very important to prevent shrinkage.) After 6 weeks scrape the borax and salt mixture off the skin and then store in a zip lock bag with SILCA crystals to dry further.

Check your public library under Home Taxidermy... you'll be amazed at what you find! ;^)

Skip James tells us how he processes duck skins:

The best instructions I ever saw are in Eric Leiser's book, Flytying Materials, Their Procurement and Use. After scraping the skin to remove as much fat as possible, wash thoroughtly with detergent and water. Pat dry, and apply Borax. After a couple of days, you will find the skins cured, and stiff. To store, make sure the cured skins are in an airtight container (I use old gallon mayonnaise jars from my local bar) with a few mothballs. The wings can be kept separately, or the flight feathers paired, as well as the secondaries.

Thomas Gilg gives us yet another slight variation.

I just processed my first ever skins this past month - and with input from others do the following:

  1. Fat Removal - put a thick layer of borax on a wettened skin (non feather side) and let it dry for a day or so. The borax will soak a lot of fat out. For some ducks, I'm tempted to repeat the process.
  2. Bug treatment - soak the entire skin in a warm borax bath for a day. After a long soak, rinse the skin in *cold* water to remove the borax. Then squeegee most of the water out using your hand, and then use a blow dryer to re-fluff the feathers, blasting most of the air from the tail to the head of the skin to lift and separate the feathers. I was told the borax will be present in the feathers forever, and basically kill any critter that takes a bite.

Doing #1 is easy, but according to someone who processes large numbers of skins, there are usually pesky feather-eating insects in all skins. After letting my first 3 skins sit, I saw these critters crawl around. If any of these critters get into your feather collection, they can ruin all you own. I was given an example where someone *had* lost much of their collection after having these critters introduced. This is the reason I'm trying #2, but I do find it to be a pain.

Here's another possibility for deer hides from Kerry Kimmins:

I had two hides given to me about 4 years ago. I streached them out on a piece of plywood outside for 2-3 weeks I live in Canada were we get cold snaps which will take us down to -20 for a few weeks and then it warms up to -5 for a couple of weeks. I brought the hides in the house washed them in our laundry tub with 3/4 water to 1 litre of bleach and combed out all 10,000 ticks. Cut the hides into 6" squares and put in sealable bags with rock salt rubbed into the hide. Never had a critter, never microwaved. Been using them ever since and have kept a close eye on them. If you can't leave the hide outside for a minimum of 2 weeks you are going to have to nuke it or keep it in your freezer for that long.

Here's a good tip from Bob Brenson about skinning out skunks (a wonderful source of fur):

BTW, I DO know that the trappers will skin a skunk while holding it under water. Good idea, I think. Never skinned a skunk yet. Some day though... They sure are pretty, and I imagine the hair would be highly useful for different applications.

Allan Fish tells us how he processes squirrel tails

  1. Chop off at base of tail.
  2. Pour a tablespoon or so of salt into palm of left hand.
  3. Grasping tail in right hand, rub the bloody stump in the mound of salt in the palm of the left hand until no more is absorbed.
  4. Let dry for a week or so.
  5. Package in plastic bag. (I add a mothball to the bag)

Finally, a word from Bob Skehan tells us a different technique for tanning deer hides:

After researching the same subject through coworkers, I have decided to use an Oxcylic Acid and Salt solution to tan my hide for this year. Oxcylic Acid can be obtained in almost any hardware store sold as "wood bleach". I saw some hide done with this solution, and it came out perfectly for fly tying, as the hair remained supple, with very little slippage.

Recipe is: 2 oz. Oxcylic Acid, 2 cups salt ,1 gallon of water... per pound of hide.

Preventing Bug Infestations

Ok, so you got your materials all processed and are ready to put them into storage. You'll benefit from having some sort of bug repellent agent in the same container as your materials. The most common would be mothballs, but how many people know there are two varieties of mothballs, and which kind does the better job of protecting your materials?

Henk Verhaar helps clear up some of the confusion with his post:

As far as my info goes, NO. Mothballs (p-dichlorobenzene) will kill them, but it smells. Spraying with a oraganopshosphorus fly killer spray will also kill them in an emergency (heavily infested materials -- DON'T ASK...) but is not a good preventive measure. Moth paper (lindane paper) will also kill them (preferably the adult before they can lay their eggs). Naphthalene will actively repel them. Naphthalene crystals is the preferred repellant of natural history museums and amateur entomologists (which is why I had a supply...); it does semll, but I find it is an aqcuired taste ;-) It is a lot less disagreeable than p-dichlorobenzene.

As an alternative to mothballs which, besides being a health hazard, might be offensive to family members, Jock Conyngham told of an herbal prevention he read about in a magazine:

As my politically correct deed for the decade, and by popular request (two of them), I'll post that herbal bugproofing mix. I found it in the "Tying Tips" section of the Sept/Oct 1993 _American Angler_.
1/2 cup pennyroyal
1/2 cup tansy
2 cups dried yarrow leaves
4 cups dried mint
2 cups dried wormwood
1 cup dried rosemary
1/2 cup ground cloves
1/8 cup orris root.

I found this stuff in a natural/health food store in a tiny town in eastern Washington, so these are not rare and unusual substances. You wind up with quite a pile of this stuff. I bagged up little packs in cheesecloth, but I'll use nylon stocking material if I do it again.

So far this has been successful in preventing damage to tying materials, flies, and wool cloths.

Aaron Hirschhorn shares with us a method for keeping hackle bug free that he learned from Mr. Hackle himself, Bucky Metz:

I have a letter (now 10 years old) from Bucky Metz about storing necks. He said to leave them in the original bag, punch small holes (like with a dubbing needle) around the bag and put them in a drawer with a 35mm can of moth balls (no jokes guys about having to go out and shoot a lot of moths to collect the balls). Another suggestion that was made to me several years ago was to periodically put my necks in the microwave for 20 seconds on low (20 on mine).

Killing Bugs in Stored Materials

One day you open your box of materials only to find an odd assortment of bugs and critters crawling around. What do you do??

Here's some advice from Larry Medina:


Remove materials from the bags/containers they're in first. If bags, throw them away!! If containers wash them with hot water and soap/cleanser

Place materials in a pillowcase or some other such item. Into the microwave...2-3 minutes on high, twice

Remove materials from "sack" to a large piece of white/light colored paper. Sift through them, make sure there are no egg sacs or "crawlies" Re-microwave, if necessary.

Re-bag or "containerize" your materials- seperate furs from feathers. Use Ziploc or Sealing Bags of some sort Isolate any "infected" materials from those that remained unaffected Label and date the re-bagged materials


Check your materials regularly for any signs of insects- IMMEDIATELY act upon any signs of infestation by isolating those materials from all others.

Any NEW materials purchased or obtained via swaps, etc. should be bagged, dated and labeled as to their source AS SOON AS THEY COME HOME and without a doubt BEFORE THEY COME NEAR ANY OF YOUR EXISTING MATERIALS!!!! This is a cardinal rule in ensuring your materials remain insect-free and useable for years to come.

He sounds pretty serious, eh? No doubt he talks from experience.

Earl Ruppel supports Larry's "nuke 'em" position, and add to it:

Nuking will kill the critters, but they can return. I have used crystals and cakes of paradichlorobenzene for years...smells like mothballs but will kill Dermestid beetle larvae that love to demolish fur and feathers (they seem to prefer the most expensive capes in one's collection). I buy the circular, individually wrapped cakes (about 6 or 8 in a package). I do not unwrap the cakes, merely puncture a small hole in the center of the wrapper and then place the cake in the drawer with capes or fur, etc.

Some have criticized using any kind of moth crystals because of a feared repellent effect on fish from flies tied with materials protected in this manner. I have never noticed any problem on the stream or lake. BTW, I also place a cake of the stuff in a small case where I keep all my fly boxes. There is no noticeable odor to the flies or the fly boxes.

Ian Martin, does the freeze, thaw, freeze routine, and tells us a bit about the critters themselves:

At the first sign of pests, usually museum beetles (Family Dermestidae, as I recall), do ALL materials as above, or knuckle under to chemical warfare. Museum beetle larvae are small, about 1/8" long, usually a brownish gray and are upholstered in short hairs. My mum called 'em "wooly bears", which is an apt description. The adults look like fairly conventional beetles and are about the same size as the larvae. They are not shiny-backed and are usually a gray, brown, or mottled combination of these two colours.

Once you store

Dealing With Plucked Feathers

Another hunter friend you know hands you a ziploc bag full of flank feathers he plucked from his latest kill. Unfortunately, they are pretty matted and dirty, and some even have spots of blood stains. Better take care of that. Here's a couple hints.

Henry Kanemoto shares a few tips on handling loose flank feathers:

Wash the feathers in a mild soap solution and rinse well. Then pat them with a paper or cloth towel. Put the feathers in a regular large paper grocery bag. Get a hair dryer and rap the bag opening around the barrel of the hair dryer, turn it on and shake the bad to suspend the feathers. They come out looking like new.

I use this method to clean regular wood duck feathers that my friends give me.

John Shewey once wrote to me in a private email to do the following with woodduck flank feathers I was given from a duck hunter (added without his permission, but I don't think he'd mind):

Mix up a warm sink-full of very sudsy dishwater using Dawn dish detergent or similar along with one cup of ammonia. Add feathers and stir them into the water. allow them to soak for a full hour or so, stirring and agitating the whole mix about every 10 minutes. Strain out all the feathers, then rinse two or three times to remove all soap and dirt. Now place them in a linen pillow case and hold the opening of the case tightly around the nozzle of a hair dryer. Turn on the dryer and dry the feathers, but keep a carefull eye so you don't burn them (you don't want the tips to start curling). Set the feathers out in a box or paper bag until they are thoroughly dry, then groom and steam any of the big feathers that are still not shaped properly. Same procedure works for any waterfowl feather.

Les Booth offers a similar yet slightly different technique for cleaning duck feathers:

As for washing them... use Woolite, a pair of Queen size nylons ( or waderlines; your call), a five gallon bucket w/ lid or not less than 1 gal. container (depending on how many feathers you're working with). In the 5 gal bucket put in 1.5 gal of "Woolited water" that is lukewarm, dump in the feathers in the pantyhose w/top tied. Now, put on the lid and do the Martini shuffle for about 1 minute. Remove lid, pantyhose, dump the water down drain and go rinse the feathers...still in the pantyhose under ... Lukewarm water , then under cold water.

Take the feathers in the pantyhose outside and shake off X-cess water ***DO NOT WRING OUT WATER!!*** , this will destroy the feathers and quills at this point. Now, lay out a large towel, place pantyhose w/ feathers in center, pick-up towel by each corner, bringing them all to the center, now twirl the whole bundle around your head -- OK, now you look like a complete fool as you do this, but you're on your way to the best feathers in the world -- for about 2 minutes.

Dump the feathers OUT OF the panty hose, into the pillow case ... uh, make sure this isn't one of your families good ones... cause you're better half may just decide to "de-feather you" if you don't !! Tie the end of the pillow case and throw the whole group into the drier, put on Perm-Press ( as stated above) and let 'er rip! OH... BTW, put in a DOWNY FABRIC SOFTENER... it really assists in the fluffing of the feathers. So far I haven't noticed any damage to them from it either; for one it's on the outside of the pillow case.

Dyeing and Bleaching

Col. Ben Benoit takes us a long way toward understanding some of the perils of dyeing materials and what needs to be done to properly prepare materials.

My continued attempts to "slay this beast" have drawn the following conclusions and are offered for your collective consideration.

  1. If you alter any conditions in the dyeing process such as temperature, proportions of chemicals and additives, humidity, shelf life, timing, formulas, adding or mixing different "swatches" of fur and feathers to your bath, you WILL achieve differing results. Often these results are not the color tones or shades you seek inspite of reading all the directions and following the same exactly as instructed. My suggestion is to keep meticulous notes on what works and what doesn't. Unfortunately this process comes with time and expense of materials. For the apprentice dyer (and I may always be one), the search for the right conditions and materials is very frustrating, but can be achieved with practice, a properly prepared hide or skin, and the correct dyes and chemicals.
  2. Animal hides, ie. rabbit, deer, moose, muskrat, etc. if not prime can be unpredictable as to your results. An unprime hide is usually a spring, summer, or early fall kill. A bluish to dark-blue color is apparent in the hide. Much like the ham sandwich you leave in the rear pouch of your fishing vest for a couple of weeks! My observations also conclude that if there is a foul odor, and you will know what is foul, discard the pelt or hide and start over again. Such is the case too often with perceived "road kill" finds, not withstanding diseases that roadkill carry that cannot be disinfected, if at all, easily.
  3. As a general rule when static tanning, ie. not tumbling furs and feathers, use only enough water to submerge the hide or hackles. If tumbling, the amount of water is a function of the weight of the materials to be dyed and should be at least 2-3 times the weight of the hide or pelt. Remember from your early schooling that water still weighs 8.5 pounds a gallon!
  4. Proper tanning is the foundation from which proper dyeing can be successfully achieved. If you are skinning your own pelts, hides, necks, and capes, these materials must be tanned properly and this process requires multiple steps to include a thorough degreasing and cleaning of the pelt or neck, hide, etc. to remove blood, fat, and excess flesh. You must next apply your tanning agent which will preserve the skin and keep it subtle for future use (rabbit strips for zonkers, muskrat/beaver/oppossum for dubbing,etc.). Tanning chemicals and preservatives can be found in most taxidermy catalogues. These references which will recommend the best chemicals and procedures for the type of tan (alum,pickle,vegetable,chrome,synthetic,mineral, preservative) you are using. You see therefore, that it is not a simple process to have your skins in proper condition for achieving desired dyeing and bleaching results. Each method of tanning has drawbacks and certain characteristics that will affect the outcome of the pelt's or fur's subtleness, hair density, shrinkage, brightness of colors after dyeing, etc.

The good news is, it can be done. Once you have mastered and achieved the desired tones and shades for materials you most frequently use, then your purchasing expenses come down over the long run. No longer do you need to acquire colored deer hairs or hackles. A grizzly and a cream or white cape and saddle should suffice for most hackling needs. Light deer hair can be procured through your normal sources, but is a better deal when you get it from a hunting friend or taxidermist's scraps. I find that materials swaps over the Internet have brought me some fine materials in exchange for excess materials I have collected over the years.

After reading the above three references, try some of the taxidermy and leather handcraft books and magazines available at most larger libraries. A stop at an annual hunting or taxidermy show even if you are not a hunter, will find you amongst a ton of knowledgeable types on dyeing and preserving that are more than willing to share their year's of exerience and knowledge. And by all means, take in the county and state fairs. I did last night and replenished my peacock, emu, mallard, and guinea hen supplies at no cost in addition to identifying a new source for retired hens and roosters!

Try these numbers and addresses for additional sources and information:

Furs (scraps) and lots of different types: World Traders, Inc. Brewer,ME. 1-800-603-0003. They will send you for about $10 including postage, a 14"X14" zip lock bag stuffed with properly tanned fur scraps. My last package had muskrat, mink, oppossum, raccoon, sable, beaver, skunk, red fox and silver fox! Definetly a deal folks.

For tanning and preservative information and their catalogue write or call Van Dyke's, 4th Ave.& 6th St., P.O. Box 278, Woonsocket,SD 57385. Tel # (605) 796-4425, Fax (605) 796-4085. They have an ordering number which might get through for information at 1-800-843-3320.

And last but not least, for the real purist and elitist fly tier and angler, dyeing can be done the old fashioned way. From our forefathers (and foremothers) who dyed skeins of hand spun wool and flax, garden grown and wild roots, herbs, and berries will provide the natural tones found on the nymph and larvae of streamside aquatic insects. This is a complete study and process in itself (and one that intrigues me!). This type of dyeing requires a mordant for the dyes and materials to set in, and for those interested in this process I suggest a review of "Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing" by Rita Adrosko,ISBN: 0-4-86-22688-3.

Phil Plumbo offers this nugget he gleaned from Chris Helms about preparing deer hair in anticipation of dyeing it:

I spent a day with Chris Helms recently who processes lots of deer hides, and he mentioned that it is essential to remove all the natural oils from the hair before dyeing. This is especially true for rump and tail sections.

His method is to soak the hides overnight in a strong dawn dish detergent & ammonia solution, 1 cup of each to 10 gallons of hot water. For some particularly oily pelts this may require 3 or 4 treatments.

L. C. Clower shares with us a bit of his experience using RIT dyes, a common dye found in many grocery stores mainly aimed at people wanting to dye clothing:

I've tinkered with Rit (liquid) for rabbit fur recycled from a garage sale coat, with deer hair on rawhide, rabbit & squirrel hides, one bucktail (dried) Think Rit is OK with some limitations...

Mixing shades is easy enough if you have the time to dye test patches. Given the volume of liquid you can get pretty close to the color you want adding an eye dropper ata time. Time seems to be the key element here. Mixed dye appears to last a long time sealed in glass containers without contact with metal (as in caps). Where the instructions say to boil, I don't get it that hot nad let it sit a little longer instead.

Oily hair, bucktail or untanned skins, needs to be washed first...Tried cheap shampoo, dish soap...the main problem is getting the rawhide too wet and having individual hairs to deal with...think the term is "slip" .

Bleach from the beauty supply stores will do the job just fine...its action is adjustable as the mixes come in different strengths. Used the strong mix on deer hair and got the bleached color I wanted first time around. Rinsing under running water resulted in massive hair slip. Use a pan of water instead of the tap.

I've had no hair slip problems with tanned hides.

Other Sources of Information

Here are a few sources of additional information on processing fly tying materials.

Dyeing and Bleaching Natural Fly-Tying Materials, A. K. Best
The Lyons Press, April 1, 1993
ISBN: 1558212140

Flytying : Tools and Materials, Jacqueline Wakeford
The Lyons Press, August 1, 1992
ISBN: 1558211837

Fly-Tying Materials : Their Procurement, Use, and Protection, Eric Leiser
Crown Pub: February 1973
ISBN: 0517503506

Tying the Classic Salmon Fly : A Modern Approach to Traditional Techniques Michael D. Radencich (Editor)
Stackpole Books: August 1, 1997
ISBN: 0811703312

Last Updated: January, 1998