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 $2,000.
A Widely Used Design
If our flockster is handy, 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), via Herrick’s website (http://www.whizbangbooks.com/) or Amazon.com, Acres USA, Stromberg Hatchery, Murray McMurray Hatchery, and many other sources. Herrick’s site 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 5,000 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 1,800 strong, that serves as the online community of Whizbang users. You could find a good deal 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. 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 of such items, these parts as well can be purchased from Herrick Kimball’s website (http://whizbangbooks.blogspot.com/2007/12/whizbang-6.html).
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 3/4-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 3/4-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 sidebar), and the assessment of two seasoned 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, or even three. 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.)
Not a Gimmick
The Whizbang is a major contender as the best design for a plucker. It 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 my article “Stepping Up to Production for a Small Broiler Market” in the Feb/Mar 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry.) 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” (also in the Feb/Mar 2008 issue). 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 $2,995. A 27-inch model sells for $1,895.
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.”
| The material of choice to make the tub cylinder—at least for scroungers—is almost always an HDPE (high density, food grade) plastic drum. This one started life conveying 55 gallons of pear juice concentrate to a local winery, then served several functions at Harvey’s place. He contributed it to Mike’s plucker project. Here we see first the top (left), then the bottom (right), cut away, leaving an open cylinder for the side wall of the tub plucker. (Another option for the side of the tub is a sheet of HDPE plastic, 1/8″ thick, available from Herrick Kimball’s website. Bolt the ends of the rectangular sheet together to make a cylinder.)|
| Most of us with ordinary skills would find the assembly of a sturdy frame, from construction grade lumber and heavy bolts, the easy part of the project.|
| The alignment of the “pillow block bearings” must be precise, to allow for a wobble-free vertical spin of the drive shaft.|
| The shaft itself is one of those critical components that must be engineered with precision—it must be welded absolutely perpendicular to the mounting plate. The builder lacking the skills or equipment for such work will either have to find a local welder to do the job for bucks or beer, or purchase this completed item from Herrick Kimball. Mike was fortunate that our mutual friend John McCarty—a local sculptor with the requisite skills, equipment, and generosity—agreed to do this critical welding task.|
| Here Mike has done a dry run to check the critical alignment of the shaft and the struts to which the pillow block bearings are attached, but working temporarily from the bottom of the frame (where there is better access). Once he had proper alignment and screw holes drilled, he locked in the struts inside the frame with the correct orientation of shaft and struts.|
| One option for the rotating “featherplate” at the bottom of the tub is to make it from plywood. Mike started out with this option, intending to clad the disk later with sheet metal. (When Harvey talked with Herrick Kimball, he confirmed that some plucker makers do use plywood for this component. If well sealed, a plywood featherplate might last a few seasons. It is not durable for the long run, however, and he doesn’t recommend it. Herrick supplies an excellent HDPE featherplate, already attached to the shaft and mounting plate.)|
| Fate intervened with the offer of a piece of scrap 1/8 inch sheet steel. Again, our friend John McCarty came through on a challenging task— shaping the metal disk to a perfect round. Mike then laid out and drilled the holes for the plucker fingers, using a drill press.|
| The 3/4 HP motor has been mounted and wired to the weather-tight switch, necessary to guard against electrical hazard from splashing water. (Mike plans to install a plastic shield over the motor itself to protect from splashing.)|
| After drilling 3/4-inch holes in the drum sides, Mike inserts the tapered rubber fingers from the outside, and pulls them until their grooved bases interlock with the plastic edges of the holes.|
| The steel bottom plate (‘featherplate’) has also been inset with the plucker fingers, and the shaft set in place. (Note the small gap between the steel disk and the bottom edge of the plastic drum. Kimball stresses in his book how critical the size of this gap is, and that it must not be made too wide.) Gravity and centrifugal force will propel the flying feathers down and out through that gap.|
| View from the bottom showing the large driven pulley which turns the drive shaft. (Note that it is the shaft and the attached featherplate only that rotate—the sides of the tub remain stationary.) A pulley this large can be difficult to find, but is available from Herrick Kimball. Mike found one at a local electric motor supply.|
| Ready for action! Mike brought his new Whizbang plucker over to Harvey’s place for a trial run. (Two 10-inch wheels installed on an axle on the far bottom of the frame made moving the unit easy.) (Photo by Harvey Ussery)|
| After taking care to get the perfect scald, Mike is ready for the moment of truth. (Photo by Harvey Ussery)|
| The bird banged around pretty briskly as the featherplate whirled, but the feathers came off in the predicted 15 or 20 seconds. Herrick Kimball advises that it is actually better to run more birds per spin to reduce the chance of damage to the carcass. Some Whizbang users rig up an automatic spray system over their pluckers to flush away the feathers as they’re “slapped” off by the plucker fingers. (Photo by Harvey Ussery)|
| Success! We found that we had a few more residual feathers to clean up than is typical for a commercial plucker, but the carcass was ready for the worktable. (Photo by Harvey Ussery)|
Materials List & Hints for Building a Plucker From Scratch
I came to this project knowing that I had a number of birds to process in the near future and that I didn’t want to hand-pluck them. In the past I have butchered birds at Boxwood with Harvey Ussery, using his equipment, but thought it would be a good idea to have a plucker of my own so that I’d be free to process birds as the need arose. My research began with mechanical pluckers both used and new. I immediately found that new mechanical pluckers were well out of my price range. They work very well but I was unable to justify the cost based on the small number of birds that I process every year. I was unable to locate a used unit for sale in my area.
Considering myself pretty handy I began to investigate building a plucker from scratch. The plans I encountered on the Internet ran the gamut from little more than an electric hand drill with plucker fingers attached, to massive units that looked unmovable. I came upon the Whizbang model through a Google search and ordered the plan book from Amazon.com. The unit looked interesting and fun to build but I was a little concerned about the metal fabrication and welding skills involved. I was also concerned about being able to locate some of the components, particularly HDPE cutting board material for the feather plate and the very large pulley at the bottom of the unit. The plans suggest a method for making a laminated feather plate (the piece that actually spins around at the bottom of the tub) out of aluminum and plywood. I bought plywood for this purpose and cut it to size but abandoned this route when a friend located a sheet of steel plate that I thought would be more suitable. Luckily, a local friend with an extensive metal shop, sculptor John McCarty, volunteered to cut out the steel circle and do the required welding for me.
Assembly of the components was pretty straightforward. The wooden frame is rough construction that shouldn’t prove a challenge to those with even the most rudimentary carpentry skills. Pulling the rubber plucker fingers into the barrel and featherplate was hard work but probably could be done by anyone with a pair of pliers and a lot of patience.
The plucker performed pretty well in its maiden voyage. We ran 17 birds through it (nine mature cocks, six small hens, and two mature male guineas) and it did a very satisfactory job of plucking them. We did encounter some broken legs on birds that became trapped between the wall of the tub and the feather plate but that only happened once or twice. Overall I’m pleased with how the unit performs.
My recommendation to someone else considering building a Whizbang plucker would be to carefully investigate your options for getting the required welding done and to scope out cost-effective suppliers of the plucker components. Having to pay a professional machine shop to do your welding/metal fabrication or having heavy parts shipped to your door will quickly drive up cost. If this project is something you think you might enjoy then by all means order the plans. If you decide to build from them you’ll find things explained very well with copious suggestions by the author for making things easier or alternate ways of doing the same thing.
List of purchased materials, including my source and price:
- Plan book: Anyone Can Build a Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker, by Herrick Kimball, Whizbang Books (Amazon.com—$14)
- Electric Motor 3/4 HP Capacitor-start (Harbor Freight Tools—$75 + shipping & handling $10)
- Main Driven Pulley 15.25″ with 1″ bore (Part #MA153, Mid-State Electric Motors, Washington, VA—$68.45)
- 2.5″ Outside Diameter x 5/8″ bore Drive Pulley (Tractor Supply Company—$7.50)
- 150 Rubber Plucker Fingers (Item #C-25, Kent Company, Miami, Florida: 62¢ each x 150 + shipping & handling = $105.00)
- Misc. Hardware, Lag/Carriage Bolts (Home Depot—approx. $22)
- Lumber: 2x4s, 2x6s (Home Depot—approx. $15)
- Drive Belt, 63″ 4L 1/2″ (Tractor Supply Co.—$12)
- Electrical Materials including Switch, Weathertite box, Romex cable (Home Depot—approx. $20)
- Two 1″ Bore Pillow Block Bearings (Northern Tool Co.—$16)
Total out-of-pocket costs: Approx. $365
The following items were salvaged locally or found at home:
- 1/8″ thickness sheet steel for feather plate
- 1″ round stock pipe for shaft
- Misc. scrap 2x4s and 2x6s
- Misc. electrical wire, wire nuts, staples
- Plastic juice barrel for plucker tub (Supplied by Harvey Ussery)
- Stain (for wood frame)
- Misc. Screws/Hardware/Washers
- Two 10″ diameter wheels
Steel cutting and welding services were generously donated by local metal sculptor John McCarty.