Steamed Feathers – Revisited

We all have some difficulty from time to time finding good quality hackles for streamers. And for the record, the feathers we use for featherwing streamers can be anything suitable. (The WordPress spell check says featherwing isn’t a word but I’m going with the manual over-ride, which is me. Hey people make up new words everyday, so I’m going with my artistic interpretation, unless the default dictionary just needs to add the word. Streamer feathers are not saddles exclusively, or neck hackles exclusively, just whatever is the right shape for the specific type of fly we are tying. When we do find a good package of say, strung saddle, which are normally the best feathers for featherwing streamers, there are often many “perfect” feathers that we deem unusable only because the stems are twisted, crooked, bent, and basically not what we desire for tying passable fishing flies that we would be proud to show off to our fishing buddies, much less presentation or collector’s specimens.

I wrote a topic a while back about steaming feathers, especially hackles for streamers – and I believe this is a technique so beneficial to our feather restoration efforts that more tiers should be informed of its benefits. Hence my followup post on the topic.

These three photos illustrate a feather that I “fixed” last week, taking a basically unusable saddle and transforming it into a prime example of what we want. This specimen was in worse need of “correction” than the other example I posted.

Saddle hackle - strung package stock; not only with an undesirable 45-degree bend, but the stem has an even worse near 180-degree twist in it. It needs help.

Same feather with some fluff removed to illustrate the twisted stem. Not to be confused with Twisted Sister.

The same saddle hackle feather, after steaming. Almost arrow-straight and ready to tie in. Nothin' like the application of a little moist heat to induce persuasive cooperation.

When steaming saddle hackle feathers it is imperative to avoid getting burned. Steam can scald in an instant. After stripping the fluff, I hold the butt end with my tweezers, and I grasp the tip end with my left hand. Three seconds under the steaming spout of a small teakettle opening while holding the feather stretched taut will yield straight stems.  Solves a lot of the tying difficulties we encounter trying to make maximum use of available feather resources. It does require some effort, but what in life that is worthwhile does not require at least some effort?

Hope this technique helps, streamer tiers.

25 comments on “Steamed Feathers – Revisited

  1. Kirk Dietrich says:

    Good tip! Steam is an amazing tool for treating flies and materials. My first experiences were fluffing up spun deer hair heads prior to trimming and livening up that old flattened chenille that used to get that way wound up on cards.
    I’ve never used it to straighten feather stems, I would have thought that feather stems would be too tough. Thanks for the tip, you just saved me a bunch of feathers and I don’t even tie featherwing streamers. I tie tails on poppers and saltwater streamers and use feathers for palmering and would still throw away ratty twisted feathers because they just aggravated me to fool with.
    Thanks again,

  2. Ralph says:

    Thanks!…you saved some feathers of mine from “Death Row”!

  3. Thanks Don – great stuff. I remember years ago A product called “Hackle Perk” that was a little desk top steamer designed to rejuvenate dry flies. It would be handy for feather fixin’! Alec

    • Hi Alec;
      Thanks for your comment! I remember that hackle perk, thought it a gimmick, so I never owned one. The steam is the thing…that little “perker” may be great for desk top work…I do know there is a difference in the results of really hot steam and the simmering kind. It’s gotta be hot!

  4. Bob Vincent says:

    Thanks Don,

    Great useful information, which you always seemto provide

  5. Don
    I read your first post on using steam and was intrigued as to how bad the feather would have to be before the technique wouldn’t work.

    Well, it looks like almost any feather is salvageable – time to dig through my waste bin!

    One question before I go and burn my fingers – does it work with marabou?


    • Hi Darrell:
      I have never tried it with marabou, but I’m imagining that unless matted, I would see no need to steam marabou…it would certainly be worth a try. Thank you for your comment! Watch your fingers! 😉

      • Don

        I have quite a few packets of Veniards Marabou and for what ever reason a lot of it is matted and twisted – so with nothing to lose i’ll put on some asbestos gloves and give it ago!
        I’ll let you know how it goes or how long I spend in the hospital burns unit!!! 😉

  6. Hey Darrell;
    If the feathers are matted, perhaps you should just wash the entire batch first…use of a mesh bag similar to the ones onions are sold in (at least here in the States), can be used with a hair-dryer or hung outdoors on the clothesline. And perhaps safer than steaming… 😉

    • Kirk Dietrich says:

      Don, I’ve recently began using a wire mesh sieve/strainer/colander placed over an appropriately sized bowl. After pressing out as much water as a towel will take, I put the feathers in a bowl or empty butter dish and hold the colander over the bowl and blow dry with hair dryer, the space in the bowl and the domed colander allows the feathers to blow around and fluff up nicely. At least that is how I dry duck flank and body feathers, haven’t had to wash/dry chicken yet. Just thought I’d toss that out there.

      • Kirk;
        That is also a good method, the need to aerate and ventilate is the priority…your method will work well for various types of feathers. Darrell; are you following this comment thread? 😉
        Thanks Kirk! Appreciate your participation in the discussion.

  7. Kelly L says:

    OH I Like that idea DON. I have some cruddy looking streamer feathers. I may just give that a try!
    Excellent info to have on hand Don. Thank you! I love the fly tying tips. This is a keeper!

  8. Kelly L says:

    No, thank you!! When you use tweezers to hold the stem under the steam, and you pull the feather straight and tight, you are using your fingers on that end of the feather? Yes, the steam can burn the fire out of you. (I know from personal experience) I usually stroke the feather out, and make it look good. It still is hot when you do that. But I have not used the method you mentioned YET. But, I plan to try it.

    • Hey Kelly;
      I hold the butt end of the stem with the tweezers and the tip with my fingers. The lower end of the stem is where the most steam is needed. And they are moist a bit, but they quickly dry. I have placed a small stack of steamed feathers on the stove top, nice and smooth, and then put a salt shaker or fork handle, or something on them to hold them flat for a couple minutes. And a little stroking too. Thanks!

  9. Kelly L says:

    Perfect, I understand exactly how to do it now, thank you!

  10. Marc Fauvet says:

    Lovely tip Don ! (again)
    I found a safer alternative for steaming is to simply place the feathers (yes several) on one of those mesh steel anti-splatter thingies one puts over a frying pan to prevent boiling fat from decorating the kitchen. Just move it around over the kettle spout and bingo. If you’re not doing more feathers, the lot can be left to dry as is.


    • Hi Marc;
      Thanks for your comment, and for liking this and some of my other posts. I appreciate it! This is also a good idea…I suppose you could use a large flat pan and and steam feathers en masse without having to move the splatter screen about a small opening. In fact last year at my brother’s, I steamed four pairs of quills at once over a small saucepan, though doing this I also discovered the potential hazard of steaming over a gas stove. Singed a few, I did. Thanks for your comments!

  11. Hey Marc;
    No worries…you described it perfectly…since I like to cook, I have one of those anti-splatter “thingeys” both here at home, and I bought one for our cabin. They work great! For cooking, and I may have to try it for feather steaming as well! Thank you!

  12. Armando says:

    very good explanation and teaching Don, thanks.

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