Steaming your materials
Steaming materials has a fantastic effect! Feathers, fur, hair. You will be amazed what a little vaporized water can do.
Following up on my article about washing materials, I'll cover another technique that can do wonders to your fly tying materials, and make certain tying techniques much easier.
Steam will in most cases bring almost any natural material back into its original shape, straighten or curve it, order individual barbs and hairs and make it swell and assume its volume.
The infamous GP crest
If you have ever tried to tie a classic salmon fly, you have most likely battled the bright yellow golden pheasant crests that are supposed to ride over the wings as toppings and straddle and cradle the materials in the wings in a beautiful and orderly manner.
But the crests seem to have a life of their own, and even the straightest and most perfectly curved crest tends to want to ride sideways, wants to bend or even change curvature when it's been mounted on the fly for a while.
All kinds of tricks are recommended: pliers, fingernails, wetting the crests and drying them into perfect shape over a bottle. I have even seen tyers using hair spray to tame the crests.
But the crest will find its natural shape over time, and if you have forced a curve or bend into the feather, which is much different from its natural curve, there's a good chance that it will slowly return to its original shape over time. Many classical salmon flies are tied for display, but if you fish the fly, the feathers will also most likely resume their original shape once they dry.
I have even seen tyers using hair spray to tame the crests.
Working with the natural shape
So the trick is to find the natural shape from the outset. In its natural shape the feather can stay the same shape for ages, and even after having been fished, the feather will return to the curve it had when the fly was tied.
Finding the natural shape can be done by steaming the feather. It can both reveal the straight and perfect feather as well as the inherently twisted or crooked ones, which you might want to avoid.
The easiest way of steaming is to use an old fashioned kettle. Modern electric kettles aren't really good because they turn off once the water boils. Many of them also have strange, space age shapes that might be nice to pour from, but won't give a narrow and concentrated ray of steam. You want a steady and preferably narrow ray of steam, which is exactly what a classic kettle on a stove can provide. If your kettle has a whistle, make sure it can be removed or permanently disengaged.
Put a bit of water in the bottom, bring it to a boil and turn down the heat until it boils and emits a constant, soft ray of steam. Make sure the kettle doesn't run dry underway.
You can use an open pot or a saucepan, but it isn't quite as efficient as the kettle and there's the disadvantage of risking scolding your fingers! You can of course use a large pair of tweezers or something else to hold the material, but a kettle is the best way to go.
Quickly in and out
The way to go is quickly and gently. You don't want the materials to soak or get wet, but just want the steam to touch them and work its magic.
I mostly use my fingers to hold it, and using the steam on skin patches with fur or feathers I simply wiggle and bend the furry or feathery side towards the steam for a few seconds at the time, and check the progress. You will often see the material change shape and when the straightening and uncurling stops, you are done. The material shouldn't be wet or even damp, but might need a few minutes to dry completely before you store it.
Smaller pieces or single feathers might call for a set of tweezers or pliers so that your fingers don't get in the steam.
Just before you tie
Storing is usually no issue for me, because most of my steaming takes place just minutes before I use the material, and in most cases I bring the newly steamed material directly to the tying table and use it. I like to freshen up feathers or fur that has been stored for a while, and may have become squashed or crinkled.
If you steam and store, you might want to use boxes or tubes rather than bags for the prepared materials. Bags will inevitably squash the newly refreshed material and soon return them to the same, mangled condition that you just got rid off through the steaming process.
The obvious material to treat with steam is hackle feathers. Hold the patch into the steam and witness the feathers change shape before your very eyes! Barbules will straighten and strut, stems will find their natural curve and the feathers will magically arrange themselves on the skin, making it easier to select the right feather and much easier to tie with it once it's plucked and on the fly.
I usually bend the skin a bit to open and spread the feathers and let the steam penetrate them from the tip, "against the grain" so to say.
Dry fly capes, rooster necks, soft chicken saddles. They will all benefit from a bit of steam.
Patches such as sofhackle need a bit of finesse and a very gentle treatment in the steam. As mentioned later some soft and fine materials don't benefit as much from steam as others.
The most wondrous transformation you can experience is the one that peacock herl undergoes. The herl may look straight and nice when you grab it out of the bag, but the steam will do magic, straightening the stem, give the herl its natural curvature and not least raise the small "scales" on the herl and make the shine and bristle.
No matter whether you are topping a saltwater fly or using the herl for a body, you will have a much easier time tying with the freshly steamed herl than with the one dug out of the stash.
If you like me like to tie old fashioned feather wings, steam is also your friend.
Mallard, wood duck, starling, swan, goose, turkey, pheasant tail or whatever you use will behave a lot better once it's been in the steam, and you might even find that a lot of the struggling can be avoided by using material that is straight, ordered and has its natural shape.
In the case of woodduck and mallard I bundle the feathers 8-10 at a time, remove the fluffy part at the base and hold them by the stem. Quickly shaking them back and forth in the steam will straighten them beautifully. Since I'm handling every single feather anyway, I take the opportunity to sort them according to size, shape and coloration, and I put identical feathers together in small bags or boxes, ready to tie with.
I tie a lot with deer hair and bucktail, and both these materials become much easier to handle after a bit of steam. I wash the bucktails, which essentially has the same effect as steaming (apart from also cleaning), but as soon as the materials have been stored for a while, it loses its shape, and a bit of steam can make that right again.
The method is the same as with hackles: bend the skin to open the material a bit and shake it in the ray of steam a few seconds.
Too frizzy, too fragile
You have to be careful with certain feathers like CDC, softhackle (Chickabou) and marabou and very fine hair like rabbit, Arctic fox, brown bear and wool. The new hen "spey" saddles are also pretty fragile, while real spey hackle from heron can be steamed with really good results.
The finest materials can be steamed, but the improvement isn't as obvious as with some materials, and the "danger" of simply getting wet and soggy materials is present. Unless you only barely touch the material with steam, you risk a lot of water condensating on the many thin hairs and barbs, and that just gives you wet material and not the dry and straight fibers. Of course the material will dry up again, but soaking the material isn't what you want.
Very fine and frizzy hair can also "felt" if handled roughly when wet, which you definitely don't want! Felting is an irreversible process where the hairs bond to form a mat, and can't be untangled again.
Some of these fragile materials materials I just "dip", meaning that I simply soak them in water and take them out and dry them.
This treatment is the wet version of steaming, and is very good for materials which has become curled or mangled, but don't stand up well to the steam (or a full washing process as mentioned in the washing article).
This is good for rabbit and fox, sheep, bear and other fine haired materials. The purpose is not to clean them, but to straighten hair and skin and in the case of feathers make the material assume its original shape.
Simply put the material in clean, hand warm water for a few seconds or a minute depending on its nature. Sweep it around a bit to get it to untangle, pull it up and let it dry. You can squeeze it gently in a towel or simply hang it if that's possible. I usually comb the hair through to get it ordered while it's wet.
Some materials can be dried with a blow dryer, which will make the fur fluffier. Other types can simply be dried and combed when dry to regain some volume.
Addendum: Steaming flies
You can also steam your flies with great results. A fly that has been fished and packed down will often be quite deform when you get it out again. If it's covered in slime (you might actually have caught a fish!) or has been in saltwater or dirty water, you can rinse it in fresh water and leave it to dry on a piece of cloth or paper, but flies that have been packed in bags or stored in flyboxes or bins in a shop for a long time can do with a bit of steam.
Once you have the kettle boiling, simply pick up the individual flies with a pair of tweezers or pliers and quickly wave it through the ray of stream. Try not to get the fly wet. A few seconds will do. The fly will visibly regain its original shape, wings will straighten and hackles will strut.