DUN Feature - Feature articles in both print and digital editions of DUN

Why would you ever want to take the time to clean your fly tying materials?

detrimental insects
improved materials handling
material preservation

Several methods are available to protect your beautiful naturals. Let me share some tips from Wayne Luallen, fly tier and Fly Fisher International 1991 Buszek Memorial Fly Tying Award recipient.

Benefits gained by cleaning feathers and furs include removing dirt, oils and fats, detrimental insects and pesticides.

photo courtesy of - Donna Luallen

he left skin has been cleaned and dried and is ready for storage and use. The right skin still needs to be processed.

Have you watched a fly tier nosh on a cookie after handling a chicken neck? Have you ever considered what might be on/in your materials?

Feathers, skins and fur hides with excess grease can eventually rot.

You might even see green haze inside the plastic bag of capes and saddles on the store display rack. This haze is likely mildew.

A quick look at the feather or fur side of that lovely animal skin may reveal grains of borax worked down into the base of the feathers or fur. This may have been added to protect from insects and/or to dry the skin. The residue is not a welcome addition in the material when it is being applied to the fly.

photo courtesy of - Dun Magazine

Editor's Note: While laying out this article, we pulled a random saddle from our fly tying wall and were shocked at what we found. Time to get to cleaning!

Do you ever dye your materials for that perfect damselfly blue? Oils on the fur or feathers will keep dye from penetrating evenly. Are you tying dry flies? “Natural oils” do not help float the fly, but in fact attract dirt that will diminish the buoyancy of your fly. Most importantly, it’s easier to tie with clean materials. Dubbing will not clump when blending and feathers still attached to a skin are easier to select and easier to wrap.

When you take home a new material for your supplies, always assume that harmful insects, no matter the source, could be present. This is a habit that will serve you well, just as it does with washing the vegetables you use for a salad. High quality necks are already washed, but if you look at the display card the neck is attached to, you’ll often see an oily deposit. Scrape off the fat with a teaspoon, followed by a little soap, a thorough rinse and dry, and you’ll find you can eliminate excess grease and store your feathers on a more flexible cape. It’ll be easier to select feathers and those #16’s that frequently broke about 1/3 up the stem won’t break any longer as they are plucked from the cape. The feathers in general are easier to select and remove.

photo courtesy of - Donna Luallen
photo courtesy of - Donna Luallen

Save yourself some time by high-grading your treasures before processing; don’t waste time cleaning materials you will never use.

Inspect for varied carpet beetles, (Anthrenus verbasci) and other dermestid beetles.  It’s not the adults that ruin natural materials but the larvae.

Clothes moths and webbing clothes moths can be in any home, as can silverfish and ants. Silverfish tend to seek out silk. Ants will devour the skin of capes. (Forget microwaving for insects; they don’t contain enough moisture to be affected by the microwaves. More importantly, animal skins can be cooked and shrunken. Don’t do it!) There is a theory that insects will not eat into a plastic bag. Perhaps not all, but I know ants will eat into zip-type plastic bags and it is said that dermestid beetles will eat their way out.

photo courtesy of - Donna Luallen

Have you watched a fly tier nosh on a cookie after handling a chicken neck? Have you ever considered what might be on/in your materials?

Freeze cycling may kill adult insects but eggs are often able to withstand temperatures far lower than 32 degrees. Though washing is a superior approach to removing adults, larvae and eggs, if you choose to try this approach, freeze for 3-10 days; bring the materials to room temperature for 10 days to allow any eggs to hatch; freeze again.  Repeat the process at least 3 or 4 times.

There are two types of moth crystals: Paradichlorobenzene and naphthalene.

Paradichlorobenzene vapor kills insects. Always follow label instructions for your own protection. This chemical is a known carcinogen. Naphthalene is a deterrent rather than a killer. Tossing a few crystals of Paradichlorobenzene into a sealing, polypropylene storage container along with your materials will fumigate and kill insects. (The crystals will melt through styrene storage boxes.)

No Pest Strips, (Dichlorvos-impregnated strips – DDVP) are highly effective insecticides, but also volatile. A strip can repel insects for 4 months in a space as large as 1200 sq ft. Handle with eye protection and most definitely use gloves.

DDVP attacks nerves in insects, but also in humans in whom it can cause tremors, paralysis and even death.

DDVP is not new. It has been used effectively in museums for years. Careful handling and appropriate application can make it reasonably safe to use.  Again, follow packaging instructions strictly.

Commercial pesticide sprayed onto a rag and placed with materials is effective, but it can leave dangerous chemicals behind that will then require thorough washing of the materials. After treatment and washing, store in new zip-type or polypropylene storage containers. Do not re-use the old, possibly contaminated storage bag.

Boric acid and borax kills insects and can stop the growth of fungi such as mold. Borax is a desiccant. Sprinkle a generous amount into the bottom of a sealing polypropylene container or directly onto the materials, but plan to wash the borax out before use.

So let’s get down to cleaning your feathers.

Good preparation of a feather cape (or neck) begins with carefully scraping the skin side with a dull-edged spoon, (a teaspoon works well). Work in the direction of the largest feathers toward the smallest so you are scraping with the direction the quills enter the skin. Avoid scraping the wrong direction, into the base of the quills, which will result in tears of the skin as well as pulling feathers out.  If the skin is exceptionally greasy, this may remove as much as several tablespoons of skin and fat.

Prepare a warm to hot water bath, (not over 140 degrees) with a dishwashing liquid like Dawn. Work some of the soap into the scraped side of the skin. Submerge the cape and periodically agitate it gently and completely.

After 5-10 minutes, rinse it thoroughly in fresh warm water, squeezing out the residual firmly with your hand.

Then lay the skin neatly on a terry towel folded into thick layers. Fold the towel over the skin and walk on the towel to really blot the feathers.

You’re now ready to pick up a blow dryer and start fluffing. Blow down into the base of the feathers, folding the skin over the back of your hand to open up the feathers. This should take about 5 minutes. Be careful to avoid such hot air that it burns the feathers.

Leave the cleaned materials on a drying rack for a day or two to be sure the moisture is evaporated before sealing in plastic bags and boxes. Often the material will curl into its skin during the first 2-3 hours. Tacking the material to cardboard or periodically stretching the skin back into shape can reduce this. Once again, don’t re-use the original dirty, possibly contaminated bags the materials came in.

Once clean and dry, how do you store materials to keep them clean and free of bad critters?

Before storing be absolutely certain your materials are completely dry to avoid mildew.

Store in sealing, hard-side, preferably clear containers that are labeled.

Storing materials in zip-type bags within hard-side containers adds an extra measure of security.

Other appropriate containers would include glass or plastic jars and lids, such as are used in the food industry.

Consider storing with desiccants (ex: borax, silica gel) to remove any residual moisture. Salt, though it can be used as a desiccant, can cause excessive drying of the skin. Borax also deters dermestids.

After time in storage, materials may become matted. Steaming over a teakettle or clothes steamer can refresh most feathers or furs. Be careful not to get them too close to the heat – it’s the steam that provides the desired results. You don’t want to scorch your materials.

Skeptics may bypass these tips, but time and again our students have come back after going through their stock and applying our lessons and have found more satisfaction in their fly tying results.

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