If you are processing more than 10-15 birds at any given time you really should invest in tub style chicken plucker. It takes the chicken plucking time from minutes down to seconds. In this post I will detail from start to finish how to build a chicken plucker from scratch for around $200-$400. Then we will take a look at how it runs on chicken processing day.
Before I buy or build anything I always research the heck out of a given subject. Usually you will find that you can build just about anything that you can buy. It is usually just a matter of the price and time investment difference between the purchased product and the built product.
In this case you can purchase a professional plucker from $1000-$2000. Pluckers like the Featherman PRO for full size chickens or the Featherman Gamebird for smaller birds would work just fine if you have $1200 or so to burn on processing chickens.
Eventually you will come across a home made version of these pluckers that pretty much all come from the Whizbang style plucker. These were originally designed by Herrick Kimball who seems to be a prolific writer and tinkerer! He is responsible for the original whizbang plucker plans which he detailed in his book “Anyone can build a tub-style mechanical chicken plucker”. While on this topic also take a look at the book “Anyone can build a whizbang chicken scalder”. In addition to the book with plans, Mr. Kimball also sells all of the more complicated parts to fabricate for your plucker, the rubber fingers, and heat shrink bags for processing day.
We ended up buying the heat shrink bags from him.
I am generally a book buying fool. I learn most things from books and magazines. But before parting with money on a book I like to be sure that the knowledge provided in that book can’t be found in a blog post or video online. For this project there are many fine examples of how to build a drum plucker. And in watching all of the videos on the topic I found many suggested enhancements on the original design. Be sure to search youtube for “whizbang chicken plucker” to see lots of great examples of what you are building.
Here are some of the videos I liked best
As you read and watch videos you will also eventually come across a “cheap plucker” concept that is best described as a bench mounted plucker. I will probably end up building one of these too for a 2nd round of QA plucking after the bulk plucking. If you are processing non-white birds (black broilers for example) the big plucker won’t get all the feathers. The black feathers really stand out against the pink skin. And if you miss any of these you will see the feather when the heat shrinked plastic presses against the bird. Not great for presentation!
Here are some helpful step by step plans on the build others have done:
- On backyardpoultrymag.com: http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com/3-3/affordable-homemade-poultry-plucker/
- Some great Q&A about the plucker: http://thedeliberateagrarian.blogspot.com/2007/08/frequently-asked-questions-about.html
Once I decided to build my plucker I itemized what I would need. And then figured out what I could scavenge off the farm, what would have to be created, and what could be bought. Here is the list of things that were needed and where they fell in the acquisition list.
- timber for the framing – I have a huge wood pile from things I take apart, craigslist finds, scraps. I don’t throw wood away. And I make sure to store it properly. If you need to purchase timber for this project you can find cheap rough framing timber at HomeDepot or Lowes. There is no need to get the prettier and slightly more expensive timber for this project. Don’t forget to use your veterans discount at HomeDepot or Lowes! 10% off.
- blue barrel for the tub – I had several of these I got on craigslist some while back for $15 each.
- The easy way to locate these sorts of great deals on craigslist is to use a handy tool called IF THIS THEN THAT. It can be found at http://www.ifttt.com. This tool allows you to define a rule and an action. For example (IF:) if you see a new craigslist post for the search on blue barrels in the austin area (THEN:) send me an email to let me know about this. I will post more about what can be done on ifttt later.
- motor to drive the plucker – I have a fairly new metal band saw I purchased from Northern Tool. The saw pretty much sucked. The motor however is in perfect condition.
- pex pipe – I used pex pipe for the shower head at the top of the barrel. I had some of this left over from a project that a buddy did at his house. He didn’t need it…I knew I would eventually!
- wheels, 1/2” threaded rod for axle, and lock nuts – I got these from TrueValue but you can get them from any hardware store
- water proof switch – TrueValue
- plucker fingers – I bought these on Amazon as that was the best price I could find at the time. Mine came from a seller “Ezplucker by CCOnly”. The product is still up located here.
- pex fittings – TrueValue. These were used to connect the ring of pex at the top of the barrel to a PVC pipe to a hose.
- pvc fittings – TrueValue
- pvc to hose fitting – TrueValue
- press fit bearings – TrueValue. I chose this sort of bearing that is simply pressed into a hole in the wood because they were cheap and readily available. A better option would be a “pillow block bearing” which can be found at Northern Tool. They do cost more though.
- plucker shaft – TrueValue. I bought a hardened steel 1/2 shaft. There is both hard and soft steel available. One is for shafts/axles (what you want), and the other is for general purpose welding projects. Ensure that your shaft fits in your bearing.
- shaft collar – TrueValue. These are small thick round pieces of steel that slide over your shaft and have a set screw to lock them into place. We use these to help us keep our axle in position by snubbing them tight on top of or below our bearings. I also use one of these to create the plate that connects our drive wheel and our plucker wheel to the axle. This way we can assemble and disassemble as we need too.
- vbelt – Auto Parts store. I picked up a truck belt. Make sure that you get a vbelt and not a flat grooved belt. You may have to go in the back (most places will let you do this if you tell them you are tinkering and not fixing a car) to find the right length belt.
- drive wheel – made from a piece of heavy duty plywood
- plucker wheel – made from a piece of heavy duty plywood and plastic trash can lid
- the frame – left over 2x4 and 2x6 timber
Once I had a plan for what I could buy, scavenge, or build, I got all of my pieces collected into the shop. There were a few sub parts that I would have to create from scratch prior to assembly though.
I used a bandsaw to create my wheels. If you don’t have a bandsaw you could also use a sabre saw or similar tool to cut a circle out. You might also be able to purchase a round piece of plywood from your local home store (not sure if will be the right size though).
Both the plucker wheel and the drive wheel have something in common. They are round and made out of thick heavy duty plywood. When I say thick I mean about 3/4” plywood. And by heavy duty I mean get something with as many layers in it as you can. With each layer the strands of the wood and turned perpendicular to the next. This lends strength to the finished product and will allow your wheels to last longer.
To make the wheel out of ply wood I created a simple jig. To do this get a piece of flat stock timber. I used a 3-4’ long 2x4” as it is pretty strong and won’t flex as I cut my wheel. A 1x4 would probably do the job too. I drilled a 1/2” hole in one end as that was the size of the axle I would be working with. I clamped the board to my band saw with the hole at exactly half the distance away from the blade as my wheel would be wide. If your wheel is 22” in diameter, then you would want the center of the hole 11” away from the saw blade. I also put a second board on the other side of the blade to help stabilize the wheel as I cut it.
In my case the plucker wheel needed to fit inside the bottom of a blue barrel (each barrel is different so measure the width of yours). I decided to make my wheel 2” smaller than the bottom diameter of the barrel. This will allow the water and feathers to fall below the plucker plate and out through the bottom…more on that later. My barrel is 24” wide. I am making a wheel that is 22” in diameter.
With the board clamped to the band saw, with the hole 11” away from the blade, insert the steel axle you bought (or some sort of dowel to act as an axle) into the hole.
Then you need to prep the piece of plywood you plan to use as the wheel by getting it into rough size and shape to be refined by the bandsaw. Cut the sheet of wood down to a square that is 2” wider than your final circle. Locate the center of this square by drawing a line from corner diagonally to the opposing corner. Drawn another line from the other corners. This should locate the center of your square. Drill a 1/2” hole where X marks the spot. Insert a dowel, pencil, pen, nail, etc. into the hole. Tie a string to the dowel in the center of your board. Then tie a string to an actual pen or pencil 12” from the center. Use the string to keep your distance by keeping the string tight. Draw a cirlce around the board. Then cut the triangle off the board so that you have a rough stop sign shape.
Now take the board that is to be your wheel over to your circle jig on the band saw. Set the wheel, hole first, onto the axle in your jig. You can now start to turn your wheel on the jig while the saw is running. You should find that this cuts a perfectly round wheel that won’t need much tuning later.
I used the plucker wheel finger plate to draw out my rough circle. What I described above is probably easier!
Plucker Wheel Finger Plate
The plucker fingers are made in such a way that they insert into a thin walled plucker and “snap” into place. As my plucker wheel was to be made out of 3/4” plywood I knew that the fingers wouldn’t do any sort of snapping into place. For that reason I had to create a secondary plate to hole my fingers up that would attach to the actual sturdy wheel. I looked around for something thin enough, semi water proof (as ply wood certainly isn’t), and about the right diameter.
A TRASH CAN LID!
I took a large Roughneck trash can lid and cut it to the right size and shape. Then I located the center of the lid. Drilled a 1/2” hole into it where my axle would go. Then threw it onto a similar jig as described above. And cut a better circle on the band saw.
I then did some rough positioning of the 3/4” holes where the plucker fingers would go. From the center I put a finger every 1.5” or so all the way out to the edge. Be careful not to position your finger holes so close together that they weaken their finger neighbors.
Here is a picture showing the 4 lines of holes that were originally drilled. These were evenly spaced except on the outer edge where I was concerned about weakening the edge of the lid.
I then filled in the open field areas with a few more holes.
Then came the inserting of the plucker fingers. Word to the wise – use gloves when doing this. By the time this project was done I had three mega blisters on my hands! Insert the small end into the lid. Then wiggle and pull them at the same time. Back and forth. Until they snap into place. If you don’t have much hand strenght a pair of vice grips or channel locks might be a good companion.
You will see on some pluckers that they keep two or three fingers pointing down. This is to toss out the feathers that might get trapped and build up under the plucker wheel. I didn’t do this due to my thick plucker board. But…I also found that this wasn’t required as we had no build up or feather blockage issues even after doing the 100 birds.
Now we can attach the plastic finger plate to the wooden plucker base. I did this by putting a 1/4” bolt through in between each outer finger. Put the finger plate and the wooden wheel together. Then run the axle through it to ensure that they stay in proper alignment. Then drill a 1/4” hole through the two plates. Remember this order, bolt, washer, plastic lid, spacer, wood, washer, nut. Run your 1/4” bolt through a washer. Then the hole. Insert a 1/4” plastic spacer between the plastic lid and the wood. Run the bolt through the spacer. Then into the wood. Add another washer. Then do a loose finger tightening of the nut on that bolt. Rinse and repeat. Drill another hole. Bolt it. Etc.
The drive wheel is largely identical to the creation of your plucker wheel. In this case, its size is directly dependent on the speed of your motor. Most motors that you will get will be in the range of 1700 RPMs…give or take. You will need to see what size drive pulley is connected to your motor. But you pretty much want to get a 10:1 reduction from the small pulley on the motor to the large drive wheel you are creating. In most cases a 16” wheel is what is needed to achieve this.
Keep in mind that if your plucker wheel is too slow it won’t do its job. If it is too fast…it will do its job to well and remove the skin of the bird. Shoot for 125RPM give or take.
Once you have a round 16” wheel with a 1/2” hole in the center we have to do something special to make it a pulley wheel. A V-Groove pulley is what is needed to work with standard belt drive systems. I have seen people get the groove cut in several different ways.
- Cut the groove on a table saw using a similar jig to the one we used to make round wheels
- Cut the groove on a lathe where the wheel is mounted to a home made bench lathe and cut with standard chisels
- Cut the groove on a router table
I ended up cutting my groove with router table. I used a channel cutting bit first to get the flat bottom part of the groove cut. This first cut goes down the center of the wheel. Then I moved a bit that cuts a 45 degree edge. I lined the wheel up to take the meat off of one size of the channel. Then flipped the wheel to angle down the other corner. This went way better than I thought it would. And it worked on the first pass! Make sure that your router table is positioned tightly so that nothing moves as you turn the wheel on the table.
Wheel Mounting Plates
I may scare some of you with this next step as it requires some metal work. I needed to create a plate that I could attach to my plucker and drive wheels that would then allow me to attach the wheels to the axle. To do this I took some 1” flat stock that was about 3/16” thick. I intended to cut them to about 8” in length. But don’t cut them until your drill the holes. The bigger the stock is the easier it is to work with. I located the center 1/2” hole that the axle would go through at 4” in. I then cut 4 1/4” holes an inch away from the center hole, and 3 inches away from the center hole. I did this on my drill press, but any drill with the stock clamped to something should work. Remember to lubricate your bit so that they don’t get worn down to quickly.
Then I cut the stock to length. And ground down the burs left behind from the drilling and cutting.
Next I took one of the steel collars and positioned it on the plate. I slide the plate onto the axle to ensure proper alignment between the collar and the plate. And then I placed some 90 degree magnets below the plate to get the plate aligned to the axle appropriately. This way when the plate spins it won’t wobble up and down.
Don’t pay attention to the grinding on the axle. This was spare stock I had so that I won’t potentially splatter the axle.
With everything properly positioned I tacked the collar in place. And then finished the weld all the way around the collar to the plate.
I made two of these. One for the plucker plate. And one for the drive plate.
I then inserted the axle into the wheel. Aligned the mounting plate on the axle and slid it up to the wheel. Marked the 4 1/4” holes into the wooden wheels. Make sure that the mounting plate goes perpendicular to the grain of the wood for strength. Then drill the holes. And finally pass some 1/4” bolts through the holes and board. Make sure to use washers on both sides. Then lock a nut down to attach the wheel to the plate. Then you can snugly tighten the set screw in the collar onto the axle.
With the wheel tightened onto the axle you can put a bearing on either end of your shaft and set the axle on a flat surface. The wheel can hang off of one edge. Give it a test spin to ensure that the wheel doesn’t wobble too much (doesn’t have to be totally perfect) and that your hole is fairly well centered so that the wheel doesn’t go up and down as it spins.
With our plucker plate, plucker wheel, and drive pulley fabricated we can turn to the general construction of the plucker.
The next step is to prep your barrel. I cut 1/3 of my barrel off. It was conveniently marked with some ribbing. This would give me the 4 space I needed at the bottom for feathers and water to espace and plenty of room at the top for tumbling birds. Also, a side benefit later realized, there is a great place inside that rib that my shower head would fit into perfectly. Start by drilling a 1/2” hole just above the ribbing (or a third of the way down the barrel) that you can get a sabre saw into (or a reciprocating saw into).
Then follow the line and cut all the way around the barrel. You may want to do a better job of cleaning out the inside of the barrel before cutting the hole.
Next, drill a 3/4” hole in the center of the bottom of the barrel. This is where your axle will pass through. The 3/4” will give you some wiggle room later.
Then cut a 3” by 8” square hole opposite the handle that is usually on the bottom of the barrel. I forgot to get a pic of this so having to jump ahead a bit to show you.
Then drill several 3/4” holes in the barrel for fingers. You can see the pattern best from the finished picture here. I marked 8 lines every 45 degrees. On those lines I drilled 5 holes equally spaced. The important part is where you start your holes. You want the plucker plate to be 4” up from the bottom. Then the plucker fingers are another 3.5-4” tall. So my first hole was drilled at about the 8” mark from the bottom. Then every 1.5” after that I drilled another hole for 5 holes. Then in between those spacings I modified the straight line pattern. I added two fingers at the 10” (ish) mark side by side. Then I added two more above them in a straight line. They are next to the original line of fingers at position 3 and 4.
Note: the very bottom line of fingers was added after we started processing as the birds were small and were falling between the plucker plate and the barrel. During the build I added 2 more fingers, the 2nd finger hole up (about 10” up). Then betwen those I added two more vertical holes. Those 4 were planned. The one below them wasn’t. I will now also add more around that bottom ring to keep the birds in. This is only needed for smaller birds…which isn’t usually the case.
Next I needed to build the frame. I was in a bit of a pinch for time at this point. So I didn’t take as many pictures as I would have liked…nor did I jot down the measurements. If you are interested I can go get them and add them back in here.
I will mention that the frame is taller than the barrel as the barrel sits in the frame on a shelf. I wanted to give myself plenty of room for the drive wheel adjustment. But I also wanted to be sure that the barrel sat high enough on the frame to be able to drain into a square bucket to catch the water and feathers. Notice in the image above that there is a great deal of space from the hole in the bottom of the barrel to the ground. At least as tall as a home depot bucket!
The primary square frame needs to sit snugly around the barrel. For that reason it is a 24”x24” square. The barrel has two 2x4” sitting under it to support the weight of the barrel and however many birds you choose to process at once. You can do 4-5 birds at a time I would imagine.
The only other measurement that is truly important is the distance from the center of your axle to the face that your motor rides on and the length of the vbelt you purchase. In order to not have to use a belt tensioner (something I don’t yet use), you need to make sure that your belt can get around your drive wheel and the wheel on the motor and be somewhat snug. You can shim this to some degree at the motor…but not too much!
Everything was glued and nailed. I would have preferred to glue and screw but time was not on my side.
Once the primary frame was together I needed to measure the bearing boards into place. There were three boards with bearings in them. The first one sat under the barrel with the bearing facing up (sitting just under the barrel). This bearing just sits in place and is press fit into the hole. To do this I drilled a 1-1/8” hole with a space bit just deep enough for the bearing to sit snugly in place. I finished the hole with a 3/4” spade bit. This gives the axle shaft plenty of room to not rub wood.
The next bearing board goes just under that one. This time with the bearing hole facing the ground. I used a collar attached to the axle shaft to keep the bearing in place for this one.
And the final bearing board goes at the bottom to help keep the pull on the axle from the drive pulley under control. You can see a collar just under the drive pulley attached to the bottom of the axle.
My motor came off of a metal band saw I had in the shop. But you can get them from harbor freight or northern tool for pretty cheap if you have to buy one. Each motor will be different. But get at least a 1/2 horse power motor or better. They are generally in the 1700 rpm range. My motor came with a small vbelt pulley attached to it. If yours doesn’t have a small pulley on it you will have to get that separately. Where ever you get the motor will have these pulleys available.
With the frame put together you will need to do a dry assembly on your axle with the drive pulley mounted. Then you can determine if your motor mount will attach to the front of the frame, or if it will need a bit of jiggering to get the belt pulled just right. Once you determine where to mount the board for the motor mount, you can drill holes in the board to fit your motor’s hole pattern. Glue and screw this board to the frame to make sure it can take the constant wobble from the motor.
Once it is dry you can mount the motor to the frame and do a dry fit for the belt.
Plucker Axle Assembly
With the motor roughed into place we can now focus on putting it all together. Put your barrel into the frame. Then put all the pieces you need in the right place. There is one bearing hole under the barrel. Put the bearing in place. Then there is another bearing in the next board. And a bearing in the bottom board. There is a collar located just under the second bearing to keep the axle from raising up. There is a collar just above the bottom bearing to keep the axle from dropping down. Between the two collars is where your drive pulley sits.
Don’t forget to put your drive pulley WITH THE BELT AROUND IT in place before inserting the axle. Yes…I assembled the whole thing for a dry fit…then took it apart because I forget about the belt.
Put your drive pulley in place. Put the belt around the drive pulley. Insert your axle through all the proper holes. Let me go draw up a graphic showing this real quick…
You should be able to achieve a dry run at this point! Plug your motor in and see how she goes. Hopefully there isn’t much wobble.
Mounting the wheels is pretty easy. Get two threaded rods that are longer than your plucker is wide. A 36” piece should do. Drill a hole at the bottom corners of your frame. Pass the threaded rod through the holes. Then put the following items on in this order: washer, 8” lawn mower wheel, washer, lock nut. Do this on each end of your threaded rod. Then cut the rod to length (as you will likely have some left overs).
This step is up to you. There are three ways to approach this step. 1) Don’t paint any of it 2) Paint it all as it sits currently 3) take it apart and then paint just the pieces that need paint.
While it took a lot longer, I opted for the take it apart and just paint what needs it. This is semi-tedious as you have put so much time into this so far. But it really gives you a better quality product!
Take it all apart! Remember what goes where.
Then prime it to keep from having to use too much paint. Non-primed wood soaks up your paint quite a bit. I went with red…because I love red! Let it dry according to the directions before putting it all back together.
Once it is dry you can reassemble the plucker.
This is another step that is entirely up to you. Technically the plucker works currently as is. Plug the motor in and go. I chose to take it a step further and add a conviniently located water proof switch. And after having used this device on processing day I am glad I had it there. I actually had a kid run this station. And pulling a plug in and out of a switch close to a wet station sounds like a bad idea to me!
To get started. locate where you would like to place the switch box and then mount it.
Then determine how you would like to route the power cable from the motor to the switch location. You want the power cord to get to the switch box and then have about 8” of play in it for final wire up. Use u-shaped nails or appropriate cable strapping to attach the wire to your frame. Then run another piece of wire (I used outdoor romex style cable) from the switch box back down and out the bottom of the plucker. Tack that cable along the inside of the frame, down to the ground, and out. Then you can wire up a switch.
With the switch wired in you can place the water proof switch plate on the box over the switch. And then reattach the plug end back on your cable. Plug it in, then switch it on, and verify that everything works as expected. You can see the final product here.
A shower head around the inside of the plucker is another nice to have. Most people just use a hose nozzle to take care of their spray down while the chickens are being plucked.
I chose to have the shower ring to be able to just turn the plucker on, and have it work without added steps.
To do this, I got some 3/4” pex which is a flexible plastic pipe, and bent it around the inside of the lip of the plucker barrel. I connected the two ends of the pipe together with a T connector. From the T I connected to a 90 degree elbow. From the elbow I connected to a 3/4” pex to 3/4” pvc connector. I then added a 3/4” ball valve so that I could turn the water entirely on or off…as well as control the flow of the water in the shower head. Then I connected a standard garden hose to 3/4” pvc connector so that I could hook the plucker up to any hose I had on hand.
With the shower head all plumbed up, gluing each of the PVC connectors appropriately, I then turned to drilling holes to let the water through. I drilled an 1/8” hole every two inches all the way around the shower hoop with the hole pointing down and towards the center of the barrel.
We connected a hose to the hoop and turned it on. It was awesome! It was a perfect continuous flow shower that would wash the birds and the barrel.
To mount this to the barrel I had to make a 1” x 1” notch in the top of the barrel in one of the corners. In the corner you will see that there is enough room for the plumbing to run. I then drilled 1/4” holes in the corners of the barrel (look at the pic below) and then zip tied the hoop to the barrel. I did 2 zip ties around the plumbing connection.
Thanks to the flexibility of the pex connectors the ball valve and hose connection are easy to work with as the pex connectors swivel even after connected!
Feather Catch Bucket
The final thing to build that helps with the plucking process is the feather and water catch bucket. Instead of letting the water and feathers go where ever, we chose to create a double bucket system. One big square tub that butts right up to the plucker to catch what ever comes out of the hole at the bottom of the barrel. And another smaller bucket inside of that that has hundreds (literally) of 1/16” holes in it to catch the feathers but let the water pass. And the big outer bucket was then plumbed into our outdoor kitchen to drain the water off.
The idea was sound.
However, I need to add a chute from the barrel hole to the bucket to insure that everything makes it to the bucket. You can see that some feathers are flung about at the top of this picture. Also, the water didn’t drain fast enough so the fairly weak sided blue bucket let the water out out over the top. And the inner bucket didn’t stay put…so the feather sort of went where ever – further clogging the drain. I will be refining how this works for our next processing day.
The Plucker in Action
The plucker was certainly one of the favorite features of the processing day. Everyone was in awe of the plucker plucking all the feathers off in 15-20 seconds. To get it running you turn the power on, then the water on. Let it get up to speed. Then dropped some freshly scalded birds in it. POOF…off come the feathers.
With a proper scald duration using the right temperature water the plucker can be a great tool for speeding up your processing. In our case we had some issue around the fact that our birds were very small…and black! Black birds need a perfect pluck…because you see every MISSED feather.
Caution: in addition to a quick scald, then a pluck, the camera wanders to other stations too…
What to do differently
- Chute at the bottom of the barrel to direct the flow and feathers
- More stable water bucket/feather bucket/better drain
- More fingers added to the bottom of the barrel for smaller bird processing