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Stripping Peacock Quills

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Stripped peacock quills make for beautiful looking flies mainly because of their natural coloration which enhances the look of segmentation. Stripping them in preparation for tying can be accomplished in a number of ways. You can use your fingernails to strip the barbules one quill or barb at a time. Using an eraser is another technique preferred by many but, to strip a large number of quills at one time, you really need to turn to chemistry and the following method, while not foolproof, generally works quite well.

All that’s required is a few readily available materials and a kitchen sink. Bleach provides the muscle that’ll dissolve and strip the barbules from the individual quills. For a container, I’d highly recommend a 32 ounce Nalgene bottle. They’re see-through with easy-to-read volume markers and they have wide mouths with extremely reliable screw-on lids. Baking soda, which is sodium bicarbonate, is used to neutralize the bleach and stop the stripping process, approximately 2 tablespoons is required. Latex rubber gloves are also a really good idea to protect your hands from the bleach. And, of course, you’re going to need some peacock and a sharp pair of scissors for cutting out the appropriate section of the feather.

As far as the peacock goes, strung peacock herl simply will not produce desirable stripped quills, nor will peacock swords. Only natural peacock eyes will produce quills of the proper size and coloration. On eye feathers, just the colored eye portion is the only part of the feather that needs to be stripped. You’ll notice the front or anterior side of the feather is very colorful. This is because much of what you’re seeing are the barbules. While the back or posterior side looks dull because you’re mostly seeing the slender barbs or quills. In this close-up shot, you can see the barbules are attached along the anterior edge of the barb while the posterior edge is barbule-free. In cross-section, the barb is egg-shaped and it’s anterior edge with the barbules is thinner than the posterior edge. Stripping the barbules from the anterior edge leaves a stripped barb with the coloration you’re looking for, a dark edge with a dark to light color gradient. You should also know that while standard fly shop issue eyes will work just fine, larger premium eyes generally produce longer, wider, more richly colored stripped quills. Typically bigger is better. But let’s go here with a few smaller, more readily available eyes.

Start by snipping out just the colored eye portion but save the rest of the feather as they’re still loaded with prime herls for collars and bodies. I’ve snipped a half dozen of the small eyes but I’m also going to throw in one of the big boys for good measure. It’s important to have all your materials laid out in close proximity to a clean kitchen sink as certain steps in the stripping process need to happen really quickly. Once again, it’s a good idea to strap on the latex before you begin.

Straight bleach is way too strong and will ruin feathers almost instantly so we’re going to pour only 8 ounces into the Nalgene bottle. Then run your tap to get the water nice and hot. Fill the Nalgene bottle up to the 32 ounce mark with hot water to make a solution that’s one part bleach to three parts water. Set it in the bottom of your sink. Stuff in the peacock eyes, making sure all the barbs are below the rim of the bottle. Then cap it and screw the lid down nice and tight. Immediately begin shaking the bottle. Agitation is the key here, it helps the bleach to penetrate the barbules and knock them free from the barbs. I’ve sped things up here, but what you want to do is shake for a while and then stop to look at the eyes to see how many barbules have been stripped off. Shake some more and check again. You’ll notice the water begin to darken into a rich tea of barbules and bleach. Right when you see that nearly all the barbules have been stripped from the quills, empty the liquid from the bottle but leave the quills behind. As quickly as you can, fill the bottle with cold water and then dump in the 2 tablespoons of baking soda and add more cold water to fill the bottle. Give the contents a real good shake to neutralize the bleach and stop the stripping process. With this done, once again, pour off the liquid and retain the quills in the bottle. Give it another fill and shake with cold water to thoroughly clean the quills of both the bleach and the baking soda. Remove the quills from the bottle and give them one final rinse under cold tap water. Then place them on a paper towel to dry. You can blot them with another paper towel to speed the process.

Once the eyes have dried, check them closely. The feather on the left has been over bleached and is basically unusable while the feather on the right was not bleached or stripped enough and will require additional stripping. What you really want is something that looks like the eye in the middle, still dark and with a minimal amount of barbules. This is why it’s so critical to check regularly during the agitation process. You need to know exactly when to stop.

If your quills look like they’ve got split ends, you’ve most likely over-bleached. Fraying, lower on the quills, is another indicator of over-bleaching and will result in quills that are extremely brittle and prone to breaking and splitting. On over-bleached quills, you’ll also notice the beautiful coloration that you’re looking for is almost nonexistent. Over-bleached eyes should be discarded as they have very little use.

Eyes that still have a few barbules are very usable. You can usually strip off and throw away any quills that weren’t thoroughly stripped and use the rest. Plunger-style easy hackle pliers make getting hold of and keeping track of individual quills a breeze. Just strip them from the stem and set them aside so they won’t get lost on your tying bench.

A single peacock eye will generate dozens of good-sized stripped quills. Again, the larger the eye, the larger the quill. Once you have a bunch of quills, you can snip off the brittle tips as they have a tendency to get in the way.

And this is what the end product should look like. Although dyes can be used to color quills, I’ve found Sharpie markers to be a much better alternative for relatively small quantities. You just need to do some tests if you’re going to use a topcoat of head cement, nail polish or epoxy over top of the quill to ensure the marker doesn’t run. As you can see in this extreme close-up, the quill is colored without taking away from the natural dark to light color gradient. In fairly short order, you can produce really nice quality quills in a range of colors. If everything has been done correctly, the finished quills shouldn’t break or split when wrapped. Happy stripping!