Published Mar 2. 2014 - 9 years ago
Updated or edited Dec 3. 2015

Preserving Feathers

A simple method of preserving bird skins from birds like ducks. If you hunt or know hunters, there's a rich supply of materials, almost for free

Shoulder feathers - Great for soft hackles and dry fly wings on caddis flies
Mallard feathers - A large supply of feathers, perfect for winging and hackling
A wide selection - Having the whole skin means getting a very wide selection of feather types
A rich source for feathers
Richard Katzman

This article will teach you how to preserve and get feathers from duck skins, which are often thrown away and therefore often available for free. The feathers make great fly tying materials.


Skinning the ducks: this procedure is very time consuming. Carefully separate the skin of the ducks from the body using a very sharp knife. Some ducks have a very thick layer of greasy fat under the skin layer.
This fat MUST be scraped off. You will need to scrape and cut this as much as you can in order to get down to the skin layer. The more fat you leave on, the more smell the skin will emit.
Once you have gotten the fat layer off as much as you can, slice the remaining fat with the knife in close cross cuts.


You will need to purchase boric acid (AKA hydrogen borate, boracic acid and usually sold as a powder, which is what you want), baking soda, white vinegar, kitty litter and plastic Tupperware containers and covers large enough for the skins to lay flat.

Pour boric acid and baking soda over the remaining fat and into the slices. Let this stand for a couple of weeks. Remove the Boric acid and Baking Soda and bath the skin in Dawn dish soap and white vinegar, repeat the process 4 times.
Place feathers in a large paper envelope or paper bag, and sprinkle enough Boric Acid inside the envelope or bag to surround all the feathers when laid flat.
Hold the envelope or bag and shake for 30 seconds. Lay envelope or bag horizontally on a shelf for three days.
Remove feathers from the envelope or bag and gently shake feathers to remove Boric Acid. Handle each feather and remove Boric Acid with your fingers or a soft paint brush.
Preen the feathers with your fingers by grasping the base of the feathers with your left hand and rubbing the feathers with your right thumb and index fingers. Once the Boric Acid has been removed, stroke the feathers between you thumb and index fingers to gently get the fibers to rejoin the feathers.

Summer duck -
Large Mallard -
Small mallard -
Clean skin side - It\'s important to remove all fat and meat from the skin side for a better preservation
Skins underway
Richard Katzman
Preservation factory - Stacks of plastic boxes with skins during the preservation process
Watching skins dry
Richard Katzman


Wash the feathers with Dawn dish soap, white vinegar and warm water. Soaking the feathers for 30 minutes in the dawn dish soap, white vinegar and warm water will help to remove the oil from the feathers. This will be the first bath. You will repeat this bath a few more times allowing the feathers to dry in between the baths.


Once the baths have been completed, you will need to pour a layer of Boris Acid, Baking Soda and kitty litter on the bottom of the plastic container. Now lay the feather skin on top of the mixture. Apply the same mixture on top of the feathers and cover fully. Attach the plastic cover and allow everything to sit on a shelf for two weeks.
After two weeks repeat the baths and the drying routine. Store in Tupperware with lid

Acquiring feathers

Where do you get the feathers? I contacted the Duck Hunter's Association in my state. I was fortunate that one of the Association officers lived about 30 miles away, so it was easy to go and pick up the carcasses. The hunter was happy to see the feathers being used for a good purpose. It's a win-win situation. The feathers would have just been discarded in the trash. It helped the hunter to get rid of the carcasses and it gave me a tremendous amount of beautiful feathers that I will get a lot of flies out of for years to come. In fact I gave one skin to my grandson, who I taught how to tie flies. He now has enough feathers to last him many years. The expense of buying these feathers is very high these days and you never get really good feathers. Plus you never get the whole skin. You only get a small cape.

Duck tail covert feathers - Not called for in many patterns, but good feather for experimenting
Wing - A wing, preserved and ready to store. Great materials for all kinds of wet fly wings
Blue flank - Often called for in wet and salmon flies
Side and flank - Feathers that are useful for many puroposes
Individual feathers - In great condition, ready to be tied with
Ready to use
Richard Katzman


Richard and Martin, ...

Richard and Martin,

Thank you very much for answering my question. I have been tying for a while now, but I mostly fish salt water for striped bass around Massachusetts in the States, so my use of feathers tends to be a little less delicate. I trout fish when the opportunity presents itself, but there's far more salt water around me than there is fresh. I have been tying small dry flies and streamers for a couple of years and outside of hackle, haven't used many skins. I'm constantly fascinated, and somewhat overwhelmed by how much deeper into the weeds you can get with this hobby (obsession?), and I really appreciate the help. Thanks for the article and all the great work you guys do.


If anyone is interes...

If anyone is interested in seeing how these feathers are used on flies, search "You Tube" for: Richard Katzman, Catskill Tube Flies and Catskill Hook Flies. I use a lot of these feathers for my flies. With 8 skins I have an enormous amount of feathers to chose from. These feathers will supply me with many years of fly tying material and an enormous amount of tube and hook flies. The cost of preserving the skins and the time involved is a small investment for the amount of material you get.

Best regards,

Phil, thank you for ...

Phil, thank you for asking that question. The easiest way to answer your question is, very liberally. You need to cover the skins totally in various stages of preservation. As far as the baths are concerned, I bathed them in a utility sink with enough water, soap and white vinegar to get a very soapy solution to cover the 8 skins.

The full amounts of items that I bought are:
Kitty Litter; 20 lbs largest box
White Vinegar: half gallon
Dawn Soap: 9 Oz
Boric Acid: 20 lbs
Baking Soda: 5 lbs

Too much of the above is not too much. The more you use the better the skins will do. Remember these skins are oily and some are fatty. I don't know how many skins you will be preserving which will dictate how much material you will need to use. The rule if thumb I used was, if the skins smelled, I repeated the procedure. The White Vinegar does a great job mixed with the other items. Good luck with preserving your feathers. If you need any other advice, you can email me.

You neglected to say...

You neglected to say what the proportions of soap, vinegar, borax and baking soda were. Phil

Martin Joergensen's picture

Pit, There's......


There's a whole article on handling chickens and preserving their skins here. Once you have the skin, you can use Richard's method as described here or the one I describe using salt and pinning the skin to a board.


thanks a lot for thi...

thanks a lot for this article. I am just going to keep chickens in my garden to have eggs, meat and feathers. is it the same way with chickens and other poultry? like pheasant, black bird, magpie or partridge.

Andrew, in addition ...

Andrew, in addition to Martin's response, I would also like to add a comment on why it's better to leave the feathers on the skin. Often in tying a fly, you are required to use a left feather and a right feather for tying wings. It is almost impossible to do that with all the feathers detached from the skin and stored in a bag. It would drive a tier insane and take up so much time trying to match them correctly. When I first started tying flies, I did what most tiers do, I bought feathers from a supplier that were randomly thrown into a bag. Not knowing what I know now, I thought that was okay. Then I started to build winged flies and quickly realized how much time I was wasting just trying to match feathers. That's why when you buy capes they are still on the skin. I look at it this way, time and quality are relative. If you tie your own flies, you do it because you get pleasure from building your own flies to use instead of going to the store and buy what they have to offer. If you put the time in, it will be worth it. Thank you for reading my article.

Martin Joergensen's picture

Andrew, Yes you c...


Yes you can, but the feathers are much easier to handle when they are on the skin. If you only need specific feathers - flank, CDC or wing feathers, you can pluck what you need and they will often be fine enough to be used as is. But a whole skin hold so many useful feathers, which can be nice to have.

Personally I find it worth the work to have the feathers "well organized" on the skin rather than stuffed into a bag.



Can you just pluck t...

Can you just pluck the feathers from the skin, and wash the feathers?

Great article on pre...

Great article on preserving. Looking forward to your next article.

Preserving bird hides for feathers...

This is exactly the information I sought.

Preserving with feathers still on?...

I would like to preserve as a whole with feathers attached to pelt, what method would you suggest

Martin Joergensen's picture

Full skins...


The article on Raising chickens also talks about preserving full skins, necks and saddles. I have used the simple method described, and have skins that are more than 15 years old, prepared with this method and still good looking.



Log in or register to pre-fill name on comments, add videos, user pictures and more.
Read more about why you should register.

Since you got this far …

The GFF money box

… I have a small favor to ask.

Long story short

Support the Global FlyFisher through several different channels, including PayPal.

Long story longer

The Global FlyFisher has been online since the mid-90's and has been free to access for everybody since day one – and will stay free for as long as I run it.
But that doesn't mean that it's free to run.
It costs money to drive a large site like this.

See more details about what you can do to help in this blog post.