An Affordable Homemade Poultry Plucker
This article was published in the June/July 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine. It was added to the site January 29, 2009.
The more birds the backyard “flockster” slaughters in a year, the more likely he is to crave some mechanical assistance taking the raiment off the birds being processed, since hand plucking is probably the biggest “drag” on his time at the worktable. When he starts checking prices for purchased pluckers, however, he quickly finds himself with the familiar dilemmas: price versus convenience versus performance. Even a simple home model like the “Hom-Pik-Jr” I use (not a more automated tub type plucker) is quite expensive purchased new—about $765. The cost of a good tub plucker will approach $2000.
A widely used design
If our flockster is “handy,” therefore, he might wonder whether he can gain greater ease in processing and still beat the high cost of a mechanical plucker—by building his own. There are many plans for homemade pluckers available, especially in this age of the Net—some as simple as an attachment to an electric shop drill to which are affixed the rubber “fingers” used in almost any plucker design to “slap” the feathers off the scalded bird. But for years, one of the most widely used designs has been the Whizbang plucker, designed by Herrick Kimball of Moravia, New York. Plans and extensive instruction and advice are available in Herrick’s book, Anyone Can Build a Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker ($15), either via Herrick’s website—or Amazon, Acres USA, Stromberg Hatchery, Murray McMurray Hatchery, and many other sources. Herrick’s site itself has a wealth of information on planning, building, and using his Whizbang plucker, including a helpful Frequently Asked Questions page.
Herrick’s design has become something of a gold standard for homemade backyard pluckers. His book has sold 5000 copies to date, and working models of the Whizbang are in use in Australia, South America, England, Scotland, Israel, and elsewhere. There is a Yahoo Group (whizbangchickenpluckers), presently more than 1800 strong, that serves as the online community of Whizbang users. You could find a lot of support for a Whizbang project by joining.
My friend Michael Rininger (Marshall, Virginia) recently built a Whizbang, and kindly agreed to document the project with pictures and notes. [See “Building the Whizbang Plucker”.] He and everyone I talked with made the same point: The Whizbang is a lot cheaper alternative to any tub-type mechanical plucker on the market. But they also emphasized that a Whizbang project is “scavenger friendly”: There are many opportunities to save lots more money by utilizing parts and materials you may be able to scrounge rather than buy. Of course, a few parts are not easy to find or make—examples are the featherplate (the rotating plate in the bottom of the tub), the steel shaft (which has to be precisely engineered), and the large driven pulley (which can be hard to find). Unless you are especially skilled at precision crafting such items, these parts as well can be purchased from Herrick Kimball’s website.
The featherplate is a good example of a part about which you’ll have to decide whether you have the equipment and skill to engineer it yourself, or spend the extra bucks to buy one ready-made. Mike started out attempting to make his from ¾-inch plywood (which would later have been clad with metal). But when someone offered him a piece of 1/8-inch sheet steel, he abandoned the plywood in favor of an option he believed would be sturdier and more precise. Such precision, however, would not be available to every garage tinkerer. Mike’s perfectly round steel featherplate would not have been possible without the assistance of our mutual friend, local sculptor John McCarty, who had both the requisite skills and access to a plasma arc. Once John had shaped the disk, Mike drilled the ¾-inch holes for the plucker fingers, using a drill press.
A trial run
This article cannot give a step-by-step of the construction project—it is too big, and there are too many alternative strategies and materials choices. It just presents the highlights of one person’s approach to the project [see “Building the Whizbang Plucker”]; and the assessment of two seasoned old chicken-pickers of its performance.
A couple of weeks ago, Mike brought over his Whizbang for a trial run. I found that the Whizbang lived up to its name: It took the feathers off in a whiz, but banged the birds pretty roughly inside the tub. Indeed, it broke a couple of legs of the smaller hens I was slaughtering (old Silver Spangled Hamburgs). In Herrick Kimball’s FAQ, he suggests that one is likely to have less damage if one puts more birds into the plucker—at least two, even three or more. Since I was instructing a student in butchering the day of the trial run, I was running only one bird or at most two at a time. Herrick also emphasizes an ever-critical point: The key to a good pluck is a good scald. Getting the perfect scald is especially important with the Whizbang—the better the scald, the less time spinning in the tub (15 seconds, at most 20), and the less chance of damage to the skin or carcass.
I talked with Herrick recently, and he said that—if he were to build his Whizbang again from the beginning—he would choose to slow down the rate of rotation of the featherplate a bit, for a somewhat gentler pluck. Someone building a Whizbang could achieve this effect in his own project by changing the size of one or both pulleys—by making the drive pulley slightly smaller, or the driven pulley slightly larger.
Herrick, by the way, is still using his original production model, built in 1999. He likes to loan it out as frequently as possible, in order to “put it through its paces” and test its limits. He says that the only important maintenance is routine greasing of the bearings, since they are exposed to so much water on every run.
Ready for prime time
The Whizbang is a major contender as the best design for a plucker that is both affordable and capable of serious production work. Certainly it is more than adequate for home production: If the whole family shares the processing chores, at three or four birds per spin, output for the day could fill the freezer.
However, I hear from several members of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association that they have been using home-built Whizbangs to pluck hundreds of birds per year, to serve small local markets. (See “Stepping Up to Production for a Small Broiler Market”.) Of course, those producers might well prefer a commercial model such as that used by Matt and Ruth Szechenyi, pictured in “Serving a Small Broiler Market”. That unit is a 35-inch Poultryman LLC, designed and sold by Eli Reiff of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania. It will pluck 10-12 broilers at a time, very clean. However, it retails for $2995 (awfully close to three grand). A 27-inch model sells for $1895. [Addendum January 2009: See David Schafer's Featherman for a less expensive but well-made assembled plucker.]
But many smaller producers cannot justify that kind of expense for the limited scale of their operations, and have turned instead to the Whizbang. Some were almost passionate about the utility of their pluckers, and their contribution to the success of their broiler operations. Tricia Park of Tully, New York, supplies her customers with 500 Cornish Cross and 40 turkeys per year, using the Whizbang her husdand Matt built four or five years ago for $600 (which included cost of four parts ordered from Herrick Kimball to save time on the project). She says emphatically that their Whizbang was the critical difference in keeping their broiler/turkey operation going: “We could not have stepped up to that level of production without mechanizing plucking, but could not have afforded a commercial model, which would have required a whole year’s profit to pay off.”
Tony Barber of Peru, New York, emphasized that Herrick’s manual contains everything you need to know to make a Whizbang construction project a success. He built his plucker four or five years ago, keeping costs low by using locally acquired parts only, some of which he bartered for, and recycling an electric motor already on hand. He and his wife Beth Spaugh use it to pluck 600 Cornish Cross broilers per year—as well as some ducks and turkeys—for their customers.
Tony, Beth, Tricia, and Matt agreed on a few points about using the Whizbang. It plucks turkeys fine (even turkeys up to 25 or 30 pounds), but they all cut the legs off turkeys before spinning, to keep the feet from entangling. The plucker is a bit rougher in its spin than a commercial model, but—since finding the precise operating temperature and time for scalding—they have had no damage to the skin.
Mike and I had some residual feathers on the old hens and mature cocks we were running in his Whizbang—we weren’t processing any Cornish Cross. The APPPA folks I interviewed assured me that Cornish Cross come out of the Whizbang very clean—at least one indisputable virtue of “the bird everybody loves to hate.”