Dyeing Fly Tying Materials – Getting Started (Part 1)

blog hendron dyes syn copyGuest Blogger: Eunan Hendron, Classic Fly Tyer

I got into the dyeing game out of necessity rather than an overwhelming desire and, to be honest, I think it enhances the experience of crafting a fly. My primary reason was the impossibility of finding purple duck quills to tie Bergman’s Jennie Lind wet fly. I searched the internet, high and low, but to no avail. Finally I buckled and bought some white quills, some lilac dye and did my own dye job.

Below you will see some images of materials I’ve dyed, and not always over a white base, a brief description of how I go about it, along with a couple of provisos lest you incur the wrath of the lady of your household.

Dyeing materials, like anything, requires an initial outlay before you see returns. Generally the 0.3 – 1 oz. packets or jars of dye will be sufficient to dye a lot of feathers and materials. I’ve purchased around 20 different dye jars/packets for various projects and have yet to replace a single one. However, if you intend on dyeing large quantities of material over a short period of time, purchasing larger quantities of dye is probably the way to go. This post will cover the dyeing requirements of the average, non commerical tyer who wants to experiment with different colors or shades of colors of materials that are not generally available commercially.

blog hendron crest to red1. The Dyes
I use acid dyes from three main manufacturers: Jacquard, Cushings and ProChemical (ProChem), with the range of colors available increasing from manufacturer as listed. Many manufacturers list a color with a specific number, for example Shamrock 735 (Prochem). This will designate a color shade (green in this instance) among the many different dye shades commercially available. For me this is the closest green dye I’ve used to replicate what is commonly referred to as Highlander Green. It’s not too bright and not too dull, but this is purely like how I like my Green Highlanders to look. Thus, the brand of dye you use will generally depend on who manufactures the color you wish to use. I’ve had excellent dyeing results using these three brands and recommend them strongly.

blog hendron cream to blue2. The utensils
I think it’s safe to say you don’t want to be using the pots and pans you prepare food in to be used to mix chemicals. So, a trip to the dollar store to buy a dye pot and some stirring & lifting utensils is an absolute requirement. Get a pot big enough to hold the materials you wish to dye. I use a 5 gallon stainless steel pot, a wooden spoon for stirring and some kitchen tongs for lifting and rotating materials while in the bath.

3. Additional reagents
In order to fix the dye, you’re going to need some kind of acid for the process. I use regular white vinegar, bought by the gallon. Depending on the volume of the dye bath you’re going to use anywhere from a few to 30 or 40 ml to fix the dyes in the materials when they are the color you want them to be. You can also use citric acid powder, which has the added advantage of not producing a strong odor.

At this point I should mention the safety issue with acids. While all acids should be handled with care, there is little risk of harm from the two acids I’ve mentioned above when used in a responsible manner, given both can be ingested safely. However, bear in mind, large quantities of any acid or alkali post a certain amount of risk, and thus, care should be taken to reduce that risk wherever possible. Always pay attention to warnings or usage instructions on any material you use, including dyes, detergents and acids.

A wetting agent can also be used to help with the dye absorption into the material. Wetting agents are typically mild detergents which help remove grease or fats which can be inherent in many natural fibers you may wish to dye. A simple drop of the wetting agent (I use Synthrapol) into the dye bath will help in cleansing the materials and aid with dye absorption. Of course you should properly prep your materials before hand.

blog hendron sunburst pink4. Materials
You can pretty much dye any natural fiber material (i.e. feathers, fur, etc) with acid dyes. If you have non-natural fiber (synthetic dubbing etc), you might want to look at another dye type, a topic I know little about. However, acid dyes are especially good at dyeing natural fibers like wool, hair, bucktail, feathers, though the time taken for each material to retain enough dye will vary according to a number of conditions, including the concentration of dye in the dye bath, the amount of material you wish to dye in said bath, the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the material as well as the temperature of the bath. Many folks with more knowledge than me swear by specific temperatures for specific materials or dyes, but as you will see later, I’m somewhat of a ‘bucket chemist’ and don’t adhere to much in the way of hard and fast measurements – a drop of this, a half spoon-ish of that, a splash of vinegar….it can be complicated or easy, I chose to make it easy.

As indicated above, sufficiently clean and well soaked materials will greatly enhance the results of any dye project. Think of the times when you take a bunch of strung feathers and find white roots – this is because the feathers were dry, despite being submerged in water for an extended period of time. Now you know why you never see a frozen duck in the winter…

Look for part 2 in the coming days where I’ll outline the procedure I use for dyeing fly tying materials

NOTE FROM J. STOCKARD: Eunan blogs @ Addicted to Vise.

5 thoughts on “Dyeing Fly Tying Materials – Getting Started (Part 1)

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Nice article Eunan; I have never once, up to this minute, felt any interest in dying my materials, but after reading your article I can suddenly imagine trying it for certain things–among them deer hair and feathers for certain things. In my case I’d do it on a very small scale I think, but still it would be interesting to try.

    Three questions for you (and pardon me if I’m jumping the gun on material covered in your 2nd installment):

    1. Do you dye CDC feathers? If so, do your wetting agents remove oils from them to the point that their properties on the water change?

    2. Do you also have the ability to lighten–i.e., bleach–natural fibers, without damaging them?

    3. Ever dyed or lightened peacock herl? Is it possible?

    Again, if your 2nd part addresses these questions then I’m happy to wait.

    – Mike

    1. Eunan

      Mike, I’ll give you the short answers:

      1. No. I’ve never dyed CDC, though I would hazard a guess that the wetting agent (basically a mild detergent) will not do anything significant to the feathers if you were to try to dye CDC. The wetting agent is optional, you can omit it if you’re worried about losing the natural floating properties of CDC

      2. Some feathers you can lighten with bleach, but for dyeing, its better to start with naturally lighter feathers, as the results are infinitely better. I’ve not tried to, but have seen turkey quills lightened in bands to mimic florican bustard.

      3. I’ve stripped peacock quills of the fibers, then dyed them (yellow and magenta). But not specifically ‘lightened’ then dyed them in a state where the fibers remain attached to the quills. It can be done, various light colors of peacock eyes are available commercially.

  2. Steve B.

    Perfect timing! Your post showed up in my Inbox the day after I started some internet research on this very subject. I need some burnt orange hen hackles and couldn’t find that color in any of the usual suppliers. Now my question is, where do I get the dyes?


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