HOW TO DYE FLY TYING MATERIAL
Dyeing your own feathers and fur is often the only way that you have to get the exact colour that you want for that special pattern or even that old traditional that you want to tie. If you use a well proven dye like Veniards fly tiers dye it is not difficult or messy and can develop into an interesting pass time for when you are not sat at the fly tiers bench.
The old traditional methods while effective were very complicated. If you have an interest in trying the old methods then can I suggest that as a starter you get hold of a copy of Irish Trout and Salmon flies by E J Malone which has just been republished in paperback. Not only does the book contain a fabulous array of traditional fly patterns but has a good chapter on dyeing by the old methods. Using modern dyes like Veniards you will find the process simple and economical.
Veniards Dyes are widely available around the world from the wide range of fly shops that sell veniards fly tying products. There is a full range of colours, around forty, which have been designed to meet the needs of both traditional and innovative fly tiers. The dyes are very strong so are very economical to use. Veniards sell them in 15 gm tubes and a tube will last the average tier years.
The equipment you will need is very simple and can be “stolen” from the kitchen. Veniards recommend that two aluminum saucepans are used a small one which can fit inside one slightly larger. The smaller one is perforated on the bottom and sides so that it becomes like a colander an alternative is a cooks wire mesh sieve or a wire mesh potato chip (french fry) basket. The colander holds the material to be dyed and stands inside the larger saucepan of dye holding the material. It will hold a good amount of small feathers or larger feathers cut in pieces. The idea in using the colander or perforated saucepan is that it allows easy inspection of material which can be lifted out of the bath inspected and then resubmerged. It also helps keep you clean as contact with the dye bath is kept to a minimum but you should wear rubber kitchen gloves anyway. Veniards recommended colander method is probably best if you are new to dyeing.
Most of my dyeing is of loose fur and I use a different method. I have a shallow aluminum pan ( its actually part of an old egg poacher!) which holds the dye and I put the material loose in the pan and to separate material from the dye bath when its dyed pour the dye and loose fur through a fine mesh cooks sieve. Alternatively you can put material like loose fur in a length of nylon stocking tied up at each end. The dye easily works through the stocking. I find the large shallow pan easier to dye capes (necks) and saddles and get a nice even dyeing of loose furs like seal. It is more difficult to add extra dye if the strength is wrong though.
There is no doubt in my mind that the key to successful results is the proper treatment of the material before dyeing. This simply means ensuring that the material is clean and free of grease. Veniards recommend using a solution of soap powder or any good detergent to soak the material for a few minutes which should then be rinsed well. Waterfowl feathers will need a longer soaking to help remove the natural grease that they are gifted with. The usual process is quite simple. Using the larger saucepan, prepare a solution of soap powder or any good detergent. Place the feathers to be dyed in the smaller perforated saucepan (colander) and soak for a few minutes. (Waterfowl feathers must be soaked considerably longer to allow penetration of the natural oil coating). My preferred way of preparing loose seal fur dubbing, capes and saddles is to use cheap supermarket own brand shampoo with a conditioner in it and work it well into the material. Yes the conditioner does make a difference!
Once the feathers or fur have been washed in your choice of soap, detergent or shampoo a thorough rinsing needs to take place. I do this by placing the material in the wire sieve or colander and rinsing thoroughly under the tap.
Veniards also market a special super strength detergent called venpol for extra dirty or greasy materials. I normally do not need to use Venpol. But if you are dyeing extra dirty greasy materials like Buck tails you will find it useful. It is very concentrated so the amount you need to use is quite small. Veniards recommend 1 part in 160. Half a fluid once of venpol is enough for 4 pints of water. Hackles only require a soaking of a few minutes but buck tails may benefit from a few hours or an overnight soak.
Once you have prepared your material you can move on to the dyeing process which is very very easy. Put water in your pan to a little above the half full mark and gently heat on the stove . Add dye to the water which should be usually at the rate of a quarter of a teaspoon of dye to 2 pints of water for ordinary feathers and furs and double the amount of dye for waterfowl feathers. Allow the dye solution to come to the boil stirring the mixture so that all the dye is dissolved. To fix the colour you must add vinegar one tablespoon full per quarter teaspoon of dye to the solution. If you are dyeing dark colours you will find you need a stronger solution of dye and pro rata more vinegar. Black is a very difficult colour I use a teaspoon of dye per 2 pints of water.
Put your feathers in the dye bath and bring the solution back to the boil. Simmer the materials gently keeping the material moving all the time. You must allow time for the colour to develop. The dyes are all a mixture of three colours which do not fix and penetrate at the same rate time so if you remove the material too early you will not get the shade you want. Feathers when they are wet look darker than they are so bear that in mind when examining them. Most shades develop in 3 or 4 minutes.
If you are using a “colander” then inspection is made simple. You lift out the colander the dye runs through the holes back into the pan leaving the material for inspection in the bottom. Remember when you are looking at your material that it will dry to a lighter shade. If you are not achieving the correct shade then it is a simple matter to add more dye and vinegar to the dye bath if you are using a colander. Try holding a feather up to the light to get a better idea of its shade.
You will find that bright shades like red yellow and green highlander are achieved very easily. The more subtle colours can be spoiled by using too much dye so for delicate olives and shades of dun start with a little dye and add more if needed. You will quickly learn, believe me nothing about dyeing with Veniards dye is difficult
As mentioned above black needs special attention. I use nearly a full teaspoon of dye and leave the dye bath cooking for as long as possible at the simmer. Once I have given the material a good simmering I do not remove the material from the bath but leave it overnight to go cold before straining the dye off in the morning. This usually results in a nice rich glossy black
When you have reached the shade you want remove the colander from the dye bath and put under the cold tap to rinse. Keep rinsing until the water has run clear. Blot the material to remove surplus moisture. I then place on paper till air dried.
One trick advocated by Veniards is to put partially dried hackles in a cardboard lid which is then held over a gas ring and shaken gently until dry. A fierce heat can be used if the material is kept on the move. I like to use my wife’s hairdryer!
You will find that there is an infinite range of shades available to you by varying the strength of dyes and by experimenting with mixing dyes. Remember that you cannot dye something lighter you can only dye things darker. So a Red hackle from say a rhode Island red chicken will dye Black Claret and Purple but for the shades of dun and olive you need a white hackle.
Key points to remember
1. Always remove all traces of detergent from material by rinsing thoroughly
2. Keep feathers on the move when the dye bath is at boiling point or just under
3. Do not add more dye to a bath when there is material in it. Use the colander to lift the material out first.
4. Its better to start with a weaker dye bath and add dye to it if needed
5. Make sure that material is rinsed properly after it is dyed.
6. Do not dry with fierce heat as it will “kill” the material
7. You cannot dye a dark material light. Start with white material for subtle and bright colours