Preparing Materials & blending – by Mike Connor

So we have managed to collect vast amounts of various furs and feathers, either cheaply or for nothing, by the various means at our disposal, how do we sort it out, how do we prepare and use it? 

One of the best and simplest ways of improving some furs and feathers for use in fly dressing, including the purchased ones, is simply washing them in warm soapy water, rinsing well to remove all traces of soap and then blow drying with a hair drier, without letting the material get too warm. One may also let them dry naturally, but one must be careful to get them completely dry before storage.

Many cheap capes look very much better after this treatment, and certainly improve in value and use potential. Hair and fur also invariably benefits from this treatment. I like to wash nearly all my materials anyway, purely as a matter of hygiene. 

Some materials benefit considerably from a wash in hair conditioner, or fabric softener, this makes them more pliable usually, and easier to handle. You will have to experiment here with small amounts of material. This is still in the experimental stage for me, and I have only tried it a few times on certain materials. As yet I have not noticed any remarkable differences in most things, but on certain pelts there is a marked improvement in handling and flexibility. Especially if treated after dyeing.

High quality capes and other feathers from Hoffman (Whiting) and other firms, have already been treated to their maximum potential before sale, and should not be given any further home treatments, this is more likely to damage them than improve them. 

Fur to be used for dubbing should be washed on the skin, as described, and when it is completely dry, either stored complete, or removed in bulk using a beard trimmer or similar, and blended according to taste before use. 

There are various methods for doing this. For bulk removal, a shearer is the best tool. An electric beard trimmer will do at a pinch, and I carry one in the car for “mobile immediate removal” operations. It is of course quite useless to remove some hair. Deer hair for spinning etc, is only useful on the skin. Badger, wild pig, and quite a lot of other hair is also pretty useless when “loose”. We are mainly concerned with dubbing here, we will go into other hairs later.

For removing small amounts of fur from prepared skins, ceramic dubbing rakes will prove indispensable. They are not cheap, but worth the money. They require a little practice before you achieve optimal results.

You may also use scissors, and simply cut off the bits and pieces you need, but the trimmers are more accurate, and can be set to remove only guard hair, or a mix, etc. The rakes can be used on moleskins, hares ears, and some “smooth” furs very well, and may also be used for other things.

For dubbing fly bodies, materials such as Seal fur, Mohair etc. were and are used extensively, but practically any fur or hair can be used. For wet flies, ordinary wool is quite good too, although it lacks the translucence and “life” of some other natural furs. It is however easily obtainable in many colours, easy to work with, and it works. 

It is not so good for dry flies, as it soaks up water too easily, causing the flies to sink quickly. This is not such a problem with modern floatants, but it can be a nuisance. Mohair is much better, if you can get it. These things can also be blended in to soften other dubbings if required, or to change shades. I invariably use hare fur for this, as I have large quantities of it, and it is eminently suited to the purpose.

Some good selections of premixed dubbing are available at tackle shops etc. Squirrel fur mixed with Antron is good for instance. These come packed in special boxes of assorted colours, and are usually quite good value, as far as such things can be good value. Some shades will be useless of course, and most people end up filling the same three or four compartments over and over again, while most remain unused.

Most keen amateurs and many professional dressers prefer to mix their own dubbing, as effects and shades may be obtained to match the natural insects colouring more closely. Also one may vary textures to achieve various effects. One can not do this easily with “ready made” dubbing. Of course it is also a lot cheaper to produce your own, but it takes time and application as well.

Blender

Coffee grinders or “blenders” are often used for blending dubbing, and work very well. Simply add pinches of the fur or other material you wish to blend, and give short bursts of the machine until it is blended. I will give some blending recipes later. Remember that this is a dry blending method, and if you are looking for special effects, then you may need to wet a piece of the result to check it. Dubbing always looks darker when wet, and some other effects may also surprise you.

Putting the fur through a blender makes it slightly easier to handle, and gives it a much nicer appearance. A coffee blender of the type shown here is excellent for this purpose. This has a double edged rotating blade, like two miniature scythes, which rotate at high speed. When new, these blades are very sharp, and it is better to dull them down a little before use. (If you buy a new one). You can do this by putting some coarse sand in the grinder, and giving it a number of bursts. Only operate the machine in short bursts, and check regularly, especially if trying to blend or add synthetics. Some of these will otherwise melt, and ruin the dubbing, and the machine. Only add large pinches to the machine, don’t try to stuff half a pound of hair in it, it won’t work.

Hopefully it is unnecessary to tell you that you should keep your fingers out of the machine? Blood just ruins the dubbing.

The “anti-static-wipes” now sold for use in tumble dryers and the like, are excellent for wiping out the machine occasionally. This will help prevent the hair and fur from flying all over the place, or sticking to the plastic hood of the machine.

Hare Fur Shrimp

The hare blend in the photo is made up almost exclusively of body guard hair. At first glance this also appears to be the typical “sandy” colour which is usually offered in shops as “Hares ear dubbing”. The close up photo of a fly tied with it below shows however, that it indeed contains a great many colours and shades. I like darker shades for some flies, and lighter shades for others, and I select the fur accordingly. I don’t bugger about much with ears though! 🙂

I use the mask, and a lot of body fur for various things. Getting the very dark fur off the ears is a mess on, but indeed worth it for some flies. The ceramic rake is the best tool here. You will go nuts trying to remove it with scissors or a trimmer. I had some success years ago using a “safety razor”, and shaving the ears “as normal” with soap etc. This is a bit of a mess about of course.

The best way to store fur or hair is most definitely on the skin. For larger quantities of loose fur, use zip-lock bags of the appropriate size. Label the bags with a permanent marker as to type, colour, etc before storing. For operational quantities on the tying bench, I like to use the small airtight plastic film containers. Most photographic shops will quite happily give these away if asked. 

Some boxes I use for holding blending fur etc, are also shown below. Because I ALWAYS! use blends, I don’t need much stuff in all the various colours. Usually a pinch or two added to the main blend is enough to make fairly major changes. Be careful when adding some colours. This is much like mixing paint, but sometimes gives surprising results. Only add small pinches of “modifier” colours, and blend well before continuing.

When I say I ALWAYS! use blends, I mean exactly that, even for “single” colours. How so? You ask. Well it’s really quite simple, supposing a “Mallard and Claret” calls for “Dark claret” dubbing. I will blend at least three shades of claret, and possibly one or two other colours until I am satisfied with the final result. The same goes for “dark olive”, or many other colours. I almost never use a single colour, and I usually endeavour to use furs (most especially hare) with broken colours to start with. (I do the same for hackles as well, as far as this is possible, but that will be another article).


Another excellent method of blending, is to put the fur you wish to blend in a screw top jar, half fill the jar with water or until the fur is well covered, and shake the jar vigorously for a while. Pour the result through a piece of ladies stocking (remove the lady first!), or other fine mesh net, and put the resulting heap of fur on a sheet of white paper on top of some clean newspaper to dry, (If placed directly on the newspaper, ink may bleed, or paper stick. This method has the advantage that you are able to see the colour you get when the dubbing is wet! When the lump is completely dry, you may store it, and simply pull off amounts of the perfectly blended fur as required. 

Do not be tempted to assist the drying of such blended dubbing with a hair dryer, you will merely create a “hair storm”, this is like a “sand storm”, but much hairier, and sticks to everything. Tastes awful as well, but is relatively harmless as long as you washed it beforehand.

The resulting mess, even from a comparatively small quantity of such dubbing, is quite indescribable, alone the abominable stink which ensues, as the loose hair is sucked into the back of the dryer, also requires somebody of far greater erudition and eloquence than myself to describe, and the distributed hair is well beyond the capabilities of most vacuum cleaners to remove it, before your spouse/lady wishes to visit the bathroom. This is especially debilitating if she has her silk knickers drying over the bath. You would not believe how such dubbing sticks to silk knickers! I have it on good authority that hair shirts are merely a mild joke in comparison.

This may well jeopardise your future supply of ladies stockings, quite apart from considerably reducing your opportunities of removing the lady from them, or vice versa, in the near future. Old socks are not as useful, (and removing them is also not exactly a joy). The silk knickers are in any case useless, at least for filtering dubbing.

In the absence of a lady, I suppose you could try underpants, I have heard that people even make coffee using them. And why not? However, I would suggest you at least make the coffee first. Much the same applies to the blender, if you use it to grind coffee, then don’t use it for mixing dubbing. Hairy coffee is absolutely disgusting, perhaps not quite as bad as hairy silk knickers, but almost certainly on a par with “Iron Blue”, “Medium Olive”, or “Dark Claret” chips, if you forget to clean the chip pan after a dyeing session. Quite apart from any hospital bills which might accrue as a result.

Dubbing is an ancient art, and there are many “secret” recipes. Mostly I try to achieve blends of colours by adding at least three colours, (or “shades”, much natural fur has no single colour as such), and sometimes more. There are very few insects of only a single colour, and even fewer with bodies of bright blue or red or green. Although there are some. Even these are rarely a single shade. 

This blending technique, along with others, is quite ancient, and still very popular for Irish flies, and some North Country flies, although it is not much talked about nowadays. Quite recently, a lot has been made of “New” “spectrumised” dubbing. Apart from sounding like a load of codswallop to me, “Blended” would seem more than adequate for describing the result of the process, it is not new at all, but probably one of the oldest techniques in existence. Many now ignore it, mainly for convenience´ sake, but they lose a lot as a result.

As a rule, subdued blended colours are much more successful than bright flashy ones. The most effective flies are usually those which are tied very sparsely indeed, and where the dubbing is so sparse that the silk or other underbody shines through underneath the dubbing. The silk, or the underbody, must of course be of the right colour to achieve these effects. (This does not apply to knickers, at least not in connection with dubbing).

Mole fur dubbed on yellow silk was a favourite of some old English wet fly experts. The “dubbing bag” of a good dresser at the turn of the last century in England would have contained moleskin, mouse skins of various types, rat, water vole, hedgehog, fox, squirrel, and hare obtained at different seasons of the year when their coats were of the required colour. Some of these are of course now unobtainable. Some dressers would have quite outlandish dubbing collections, even going so far as to drag aborted calves and the like out of lime pits. I fear I draw the line at such, and I don’t know of any lime pits in any case! 🙂 Nearly as much trouble as elephants, or poisonous cormorants, as far as I am concerned.

I do have a couple of “secret” dubbing mixes, some of which I was given a long time ago in Yorkshire, and a couple of “modern” ones, which actually work very well, and I will list a couple later on.

You will often hear people saying or writing that it does not make a lot of difference, and that the “approximate” colour suffices, even in a single colour. I can assure you that this is most decidedly not the case. The correct mixture may often be essential to success under particular conditions. A fly which is “near enough” may well catch a few fish, but a fly which is “exactly right” will do much better.

Although it is often stated that the old time dressers used mainly natural colours, actually quite a few dyed colours were used. For salmon and other fancy flies of course, but also for trout flies, many of which were not at all “gaudy”. 

One popular method for certain feathers and furs being the use of picric acid to obtain shades of olive which are not obtainable naturally. Some of the dubbing mixes were passed down from generation to generation and kept as family secrets. They were considered essential to success. As many of these experts were subsistence fishers, it is understandable that they did not publicise their successful methods and flies. Most books and articles on these matters were written by well to do anglers, and seldom by the people who invented and used them. Picric acid by the way is highly unstable, tending to explode without warning, and is also extremely poisonous. Treat materials stained with it with great caution. It is also a powerful contact poison. If you get yellow stains on your fingers from it, then visit the doctor immediately! We wish to advance our knowledge of dyeing techniques here, not dying techniques!


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