Published Aug 12. 2012 - 11 years ago
Updated or edited Nov 21. 2015

Washing your materials

If you never tried washing a newly bought saddle, neck or bucktail, it's about time you try! Proper treatment can transform the useless to useful and the mediocre to sublime.

In the garden - I used to have chickens in the garden, and when I prepared the skins and feathers from them, I really needed to wash the feathers before I could use them for fly tying.
Raw fly tying material
Martin Joergensen

My own venture into washing new materials started back when I had chickens. I would take the dried patches of skin - saddles, necks, pieces of body skin - and free them from their drying board and it was obvious that they were in need of some serious cleaning! Dust, salt, fat, even blood would be on the skin and sometimes in the feathers, and a thorough cleaning was simply necessary before the feathers would be any good for tying at all.
As it was with all my chicken-to-feathers experiences, I played it by ear and I said like any good mother: water and soap has never hurt anybody!

In the washer

So I simply soaked the feathers still on the skin in a basin of lukewarm water and let them sit there for 5-10 minutes until I could feel the feathers softening and see the dirt loosening. A gentle massage released a lot of the dirt, but when I added some ordinary hair shampoo and washed it into the feathers, things really started to happen!

Not only did large amounts of visible dirt come out into the water, but I could clearly feel the greasy residues disappear. Rinsing out the soap was easy. Running the water into the basin and simply rubbing the feathers in the water removed the last bit of soap and dirt.
I laid the newly washed patches on an old towel, folded it over and pressed out as much water as I could before laying the pieces on newspaper, feathers up, to let them dry.

After a few days they were ready to use for tying and dry enough to store, and the results were really good. Even though it's been many years since I butchered my last chicken (we live in a flat now...), the materials that I harvested and prepared back then are still in prime condition, and a pleasure to tie with, now many years later.

My single best improvement was to use hair conditioner

Household items - Normal shampoo and conditioner (balsam) will do fine, but you may want to use something without perfume. Ordinary fluid hand soap can also do in a pinch.
Household items
Martin Joergensen

Refining the process

Since I had chickens for many years I managed to refine the process.
I started drying the feathers with a blow dryer after pressing out the worst water and before letting the skin dry. This opened up the feathers and straightened them to their natural shape, and made them much easier to select and tie with after the patch was completely dry.

But my single best improvement was to use hair conditioner (AKA hair balsam).
After rinsing out the shampoo, I simply took my wife's ordinary hair conditioner, rubbed a suitable amount into the feathers, distributing it over the whole surface as well as into the depths and on the stems and left it there for a couple of minutes. After this, another rinse, and then on to the drying process. This made the feathers extremely soft and pliable, but a the same time strong and less prone to break.

No perfume

I used a non-perfumed shampoo. No rose scent or artificial apple odor in my fly tying, please!
The balsam went the same way, and in stead of using up the family supply, I had my own non-perfumed shampoo and balsam, bought in an ordinary supermarket, but just the kind meant for small children or people with allergies - or those of us who don't want to smell like a cheap hair salon!
I know that a lot of books and articles recommend special mild detergents and I often hear that substances made for wool is the best. Well, honestly... if you can put things in your hair and on your skin, it should be OK for fly tying materials too! So I see no reason to buy anything but commonly available products. I have used my perfume free stock as well as dish washing soap, ordinary hair shampoo and even fluid hand soap in a pinch, and all has worked like a charm.

Necks - Natural as well as dyed necks - especially the cheap ones from China and India - enter a whole other league when they are washed and treated with conditioner
Ready for a dive - Fill the sink with lukewarm water and simply soak the necks and saddles for about 5-10 minutes. Then wash, rinse, treat with conditioner, rinse again and dry.
Martin Joergensen

The Chinese neck adventure

At one point I bought 10 cheap Chinese necks in a local shop. Dyed in all kinds of fancy colors they were a great supplement to my collection of mostly natural colors. I hand picked the best out of a large bin in the shop, but even though I got above average quality (for that bin!), they were still smelly, dirty, squashed and far from perfect.
So, I took them through my process, and lo and behold! Out came surplus dye, dirt, dust and things the nature of which I didn't want to speculate further about, and the result was the most fantastic necks, easily comparable with the best and most expensive on the market.
Of course it didn't magically change the quality of the feathers themselves from cheap Chinese to genetic, but it improved orders of a magnitude on what I had picked up in the store.
Try it the next time you go through a bargain bin. Go for colors, size and textures that you like, and wash the material from bargain to first class. Much material will not need the thorough washing. Many brands are very nice right out of the bag, but the cheap stuff from India and China and "home made" materials such as the neighbor's chickens or skin from hunted or roadkilled animals deserve to be washed.

Store bought - Many store bought materials, like these Whiting feathers, have been washed and usually come out of the bag in a very nice condition.
Store bought
Martin Joergensen
Golden pheasant - For some reason GP (golden pheasant) is often very dirty and very smelly - and has paper thin skin
Golden Pheasant
Martin Joergensen

Golden pheasant (GP)

For some reason most of the GP skins I have bought have been extremely smelly with a very chemical stench. In spite of this they haven't seemed to have been treated in any particular way, but have mostly been greasy, dusty and pretty messed up. I have bought some skins called "farmed" skins, which were much better. This has also been the case with other pheasant skins like Amherst or ringneck pheasants, but the average pheasant skin is in a measly condition out of the bag.
Washing the dirty ones has not only removed the stench, but also improved the tying quality of the feathers significantly.

The skin is often very thin on golden peasant. I don't know why, but that seems consistently to be the case. That means that you have to be careful not to soak the skin too long, because it becomes very soft and then tears easily.
Leave the whole skin in lukewarm water for a couple of minutes and then start the washing process, making sure that the skin itself does not soften too much and that your rubbing isn't too violent. Leave it on a towel or some paper to dry thoroughly before handling it.

Bucktails - Bucktails really benefit from a thorough wash
Martin Joergensen

Next step: bucktail

When you consider the placement of the bucktail, it shouldn't come as a surprise that they can be very dirty. They are often full of *beep*... literally!
It might not seem so when you look at it, but once you start it through the process described above, you'll be surprised to see how much dirt can come out of a bucktail that seemed nice and clean out of the bag.
The process does the same to the hair as it does to the feathers: make them straight and soft and really easy to handle. The balsam is again a key ingredient, and will make the bucktail surprisingly soft and easy to handle.
I have bought a few bucktails online, and while most are nice and well prepared, a couple have been very curled and hard to cut hair from. The key to getting them nice is to soak the skin for a very long time - overnight or even longer - until it softens and can be flattened. Once soaked and soft you can wash the hair and skin as described and then lay the skin flat on a newspaper and spread out the hiars nicely. Add a second paper and something to press the whole thing down and let dry for some days. Once the skin is dry, you have a nice flat bucktail, much easier to handle at the tying table. It the hairs are squashed from the process, simply steam them back into shape.

Many other types of hair on the skin can be washed with great success. I have done so with deer, boar, badger, goat, polar bear and other types with coarse, straight hair.
Renown tyer and instructor Wayne Luallen recommends making sure that all hair, which is to be stacked, is sufficiently clean. It really makes the handling much easier - both stacking and tying.

Single feathers

Larger and stiffer feathers such as tail feathers, tail coverts, wing feathers and the like are also served well by a wash and a balsam treat. Many of them are dry and dusty and have been squashed in bags, and feathers from many ground living birds such as pheasants and turkeys can be washed with no risk of harming them. They are robust and stiff, and can take a lot of work without being damaged.
Other more fluffy feathers like marabou, ostrich and other soft and delicate materials can be washed, but that will require some finesse. Since these materials are rarely very dirty, I usually don't do anything to them.

What I don't wash

There are also certain types of fur, which I don't wash.
The finer hair like rabbit, mink, fox and squirrel is usually very clean when you buy it. It's used for clothing, and seems to be processed for this purpose. I could imagine that a tailor or a clothing factory is a place where dirt and dust is definitely not welcome.

More frizzy hair like arctic fox, finn racoon, certain kinds of bear not to mention sheep tends to become even frizzier and mangled when they become wet and dry up. The underwool can sometimes even form a felt-like mat, which isn't very helpful. Even though I have had patches of bear hair that were full of dust, I haven't had good experiences washing the thinnest a curliest hair.
If the hair is coarse, straight and shiny it usually works, but fine, crinkly, wooly and curly hair doesn't seem to become better by washing it. A soak in water with no soap and no agitation can remove some dust, but be careful not to rub the hair too much. For the wooly hair you can consider combing or brushing it as an alternative, which will bring out some of the dirt and dust, and also help get the curliness under control.

I also often leave deer hair as it is. Most of my deer hide pieces have been nice and clean as they have come, both the store bought ones and the ones I have been given by hunting friends.
For deer hair and many other types of materials, including loose feathers and herl, I recommend steaming. This article on cleaning will be followed by a whole article on the merits of steam.

Clean up your act

As I said: if you haven't tried the washing and cleaning process on any of you material, consider doing so.
If you are uncertain, simply start with something cheap. I will bet you that the result will surprise you, and you will start looking at the squashed, smelly and dirty offers in the bargain bins with different eyes.

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Martin Joergensen's picture

Roger, You can sa...


You can safely wash off any powder on skins you buy. It's either borax, salt or some preservation substance. If you keep the skins dry and have them stored in Ziploc bags, you're fairly sure that no bugs will find their way to them.

Take care when rinsing the starling skins. They can be rather thin and will become fragile when soaked. Simply rinse them shortly and maybe add a bit of soap and rinse again if they are very dirty.


What about bird skin...

What about bird skins like starling that sometimes might come with white powder on them (borax or drying agent for killing bugs?) I was told that sometimes the skins carry larvae and the powder is meant to kill them just in case. Is it ok to wash them and wash off that white powder?

Martin, right on as ...

Martin, right on as usual. I bought some buck tail recently, one natural and the others were died. They came in thick zipper locked plastic bags. It had not occurred to me that these would need to be cleaned until I started to smell some nasty oders. When I opened the bags to use the material, I got a nasty surprise. I didn't think about cleaning these. I even sprayed them with Fabrese to kill the smell. It worked for awhile but then came back. I just read your article on cleaning the buck tail. So I gave it try. My wife thought I had finally lost me mind watching me bath the buck tail in my utility sink. Then she really thought I had gone gone nuts when I dried them with a hair drier. I noticed that the died buck tail shed some die. Good thing I washed them in the utility sink. I would recommend that your readers use disposable gloves when they clean tying materials. The heat from the drier brought out more smells so I hung them up to dry for the remainder of the drying process. I also,sprayed the buck tail with some antibacterial spray for a little extra measure of protection. Thanks for the tip.

Thanks for a great a...

Thanks for a great article on washing you feathers and such , i have noticed the oily smell from one of my saddle caps that i have purchased so i will give it a try and wash it up.
Now as for me a lot of fly tying is all new for me i try and get a lot of information on everything . Now i have only been fly fishing for a year now and fly tying for about ten months i have greatly improved on my tying this article will help greatly.
Thanks Joseph Russell


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