This step-by-step tutorial uses photography and text by Ryan Houston. The article has been edited by Robert Verkerk for clarity, and approved by the author for it’s content and correctness and is used here with permission.
Unlike most others, my dying process starts with a black feather for the base. First, bleach out the colour, so you end up with a natural looking base to the feather. I recommend starting with a just few feathers at a time, because at first, you will ruin lots of feathers. Once you are familiar with the process, try a multitude of feathers at the same time.
The tool I am using is a simple homemade aluminum-clamping device, which applies pressure to six layers of silicone pads. The feathers are held in place in between the pads. This allows you to protect the area inside the pads, in which you do not want any bleaching or dying of the material.
To die many feathers at the same time, a proper clamp is essential. I used an plate and M6 bolts with wing-nuts for the one that I used here. The pads that hold the feathers, are made of high temperature silicone. You can get sheets of this material on Ebay. You can even get it in circles if you want but then you would need to adjust the aluminum clamp because the pressure would cause the edges to flare and let the bleach or dye bleed in too far.
Silicone is a better material than foam, because it is washable and reusable, while foam will store dye inside its cell structure that will release and contaminate other dye baths. Due to this, you can use foam only once.
The Actual Process, Step by Step
Clamping and aligning the feathers. I do not wash the feathers at any time before or during the process.
The bleaching process
Coating the tips in hair bleach.
In the next photograph you can see the tips protruding. I am moving the bleach around a bit, after it has already been on the feathers for a while. Note, the material and bleach are now ginger in colour. It starts off as a lilac colour but as bleach strips the natural black colour out of the feathers it turns to this ginger colour.
When the bleaching process is finished, the feather tips should look somewhat like this. Rinse the bleach off with luke warm water, and check if the tips have at least a similar light ginger colour as the ones in the next photograph.
Dying the feathers (first colour) and “Setting the Dye”
I use acid vinegars in Veniard dye, and also Jacquaard. The latter type works really fast. The temperature is just below boiling point, but I do not use a thermometer.
The timing is a feel thing for me. I take the clamp out, rinse it and have a look. If i do not think its dark enough, it goes back into the dye bath.
Dying the Tips Red / Re-aligning the feathers
You don’t have to let the feathers dry after rinsing. Open the clamps and realign the feathers so that only the very tips of the feathers protrude. On real Indian Crow, the red tips are quite short, often not more than a milimeter or two.
Once all the feathers are re-aligned, re-clamp them and they are ready for the last dye bath, the red dye bath.
The temperature is again just below boiling point and the timing is again a feel thing.
Again, I open the clamp to see the results. If I am not satisfied, they go back into the dye bath.
When complete, I just wash the feathers off the silicone pads, since they are already wet, and awkward to pull off. There is always a certain amount of dye that remains on the feathers and on the pads. If you don’t wash them they would leave lines you do not want.
In the next photo, you see how the residual dye on the feathers has coloured the rinsing water red.
Last, I place a double sheet of kitchen paper in a strainer. I then pour the washed feather lot into it with water and all. This allows the feathers to float freely and resume a natural shape. As you raise the strainer out of the water the water runs out and leaves the feathers lying flat on the kitchen roll. I then let the feathers dry on the paper, so that they come out with a natural shape.
Ryan made a new batch of Indian Crow substitutes, using blotting paper in the clamp, between the silicon pads. The blotting paper softened the lines between the dyes and gave a pretty good result.
Some Closing Thoughts
You should have some experience with preparing feathers for dying, mixing colours and dye stocks before you attempt this advanced process. To achieve the desired colors for dying natural materials you will need to make a series of tests. Since the process described here requires bleaching and then dying you will have to consider that your colours will be affected by the fact the bleached feather is not pure white in color. This method of clamping feathers and multi-step dying can be used with the white feather of the Ringneck Pheasant for making substitute feathers.
This example is for a realistic Pyroderus Scutatus Scutatus substitute. The red tipped feathers from this subspecies have more natural black coloration than the Masoni, more brownish, and the Granadensis is redder. Both Masoni and Granadensis have black bases of about only half the feather. You can move the feathers forward into the silicone pad, so that more gets bleached and dyed. Adjust to your liking.
The bleaching process has the additional advantage that it burns the web, making the tips of the feathers much more similar in structure to real Pyroderus Scutatus.
The 4 boxes in the last photo are the result of four different try-outs. Some feathers were dyed over the whole feather, while others weren’t. The variety of finishes in the photo with the 15 feathers give a broad idea of the possibilities of this method.
Thunder & Lightning, using the Indian Crow substitute as per this tutorial…
About the author
Ryan Houston is a Veterinary surgeon, working in Co. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. In 2006 he started dabbling with classic fly ting. Ryan won several competitions in 2009 and 2010, and passionately runs a successful “tie on demand” fly tying business, where flies are guaranteed to be tied with a pedigree behind them that simply isn’t available commercially.
Ryan offers to take a pattern and interpret it in whatever way the client wants. This input is not available in commercial enterprises in general and makes Ryan’s service unique.
For more information:http://www.ryansflies.co.uk