Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Thoughts On Skinning and Tanning:

There are many different chemical agents which can be successfully used to tan a hide, including alcohol-turpentine, oak bark, vegetable tanning, brain tanning, chrome-salt tanning, plus numerous other commercial formulas.  All of the recipes for tanning claim to be the best, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that tanning is a very tolerant process, and just about any method will work just fine depending on your purposes.

Brain tanning is the method used by the Indians and I recommend it whenever possible.  Brain tanning produces nice cream colored leather, very fluffy and pliable, and every creature has sufficient brains to tan its own hide with the exception of the buffalo and perhaps a few humans that I’ve had pleasure to associate with.  Another advantage of brain tanning is that it is free if you salvage the brain from the carcass.  Prior to the concerns of mad cow disease, cow and pig brains could be obtained through your local meat market; however, brains are now treated by commercial meat packers as a biohazard.  You may still be able to obtain cow and pig brains from your local custom meat processor.  

For various reasons I do not always have enough brains to tan a hide (one road killed raccoon I picked up had its head squashed, when queried on how it tanned up, I had to admit “I didn’t have brains enough to tan it.”) so I generally keep some commercial hide tanning formula on hand.

So where can you obtain some raw (green) skins from.  You could apply for a license to trap fur-bearing animals, purchase a couple of legal traps, and spend a few weekends up in the mountains, but maybe you don’t want to be that committed to start with.  Road kill can be a good source of skins, even within large metro areas.  Raccoon, red fox, skunk (you might want to get a few pelts under your belt before you try skunk), and even coyote can commonly be obtained as road kill.  Check with your local Fish and Game department for applicable rules and regulations regarding salvage of road-killed wildlife for furs.

I travel with a plastic trash bag and latex gloves under the car seat to be prepared for any opportunities.  Winter road kill has the advantage of both prime winter fur, and the cooler/colder temperatures help preserve the carcass/skin until you pick it up.  Summer furs can also serve a purpose, so don’t eliminate these just because your interest developed during the off season.  After you make the decision to collect road-kill, you’ll want to inform your spouse of the fact.  The surprise discovery of a dead raccoon on the back porch or in the basement by your spouse can lead to an interesting and extended discussion, time that you would probably rather use skinning out the carcass.

As your interest develops, your friends may start keeping an eye out for road-kill as well.  You’ll be able to ascertain your very best friends, because they’ll be the ones that periodically call saying, “I picked up this dead (fill in the blank), its in my garage and in pretty good shape, when can you come over and get it?”

Be selective about your first road kill, you’ll want to make your first one as easy as possible.  A freshly killed animal is vastly preferable to one that has been laying alongside the road for a few days and has had time to ripen. Also, its obvious that an animal that has been thumped with no or few external signs of damage is more desirable than a piece of bloody hamburger with shreds of fur mixed in.

So you come across your first road kill, and you don’t have time to devote to this project like right now.  Don’t despair.  The skin can be temporarily stabilized until you are ready, however, the skin will have to be removed from the carcass.  It took me an hour to skin my first raccoon.  The skin over the skull is very tight and difficult to remove.  If this is your first effort, I’d recommend skinning to the head, and then cutting the skin off.  Pelts with the face on are very impressive, but you can avoid the added effort on your first try.

After removing the skin/fur wash it in warm soapy water (I use dish soap), rinse it and then spread it out on a sheet of plastic, flesh side up.  Spread about one-half inch of common salt (not iodized table salt) on the flesh side, being careful to cover every bit of exposed surface.  Store the skin in an area that is relatively cool, and out of the sun.  The skin will absorb salt, and will be stable for as many as several weeks.  

Although deterioration will be suspended, there will be some odors, so pick a location to store the skin where odors will not be a problem.  Depending on how tolerant your spouse is, you can also roll up the skin and place it in the freezer until you are ready (I haven’t even approached my wife about this one).  

Fleshing is the next step in the process.  Even if you are extremely careful in skinning the hide off of the carcass, there will still be fat and muscle attached in places to the skin as well as a thin membrane (connective tissue) whose purpose is to attach the skin to the body.  Fat, muscle and membrane all have to be removed in order to achieve a successful tan.  I stretch out the hide on a half-sheet of plywood using nails.  A green skin is like a rubber band, as its scraped there will be additional stretching, so adjust the location of existing nails and use additional nails to keep the hide tight.

After removal of the fat, flesh and membrane, the hide is ready to tan, or it can be dried.  If you are going to dry the hide, leave it stretched until it is thoroughly dried.  The hide can be re-hydrated when you are ready to work on it. The dried hide will be stable indefinitely, however, may be subject to attack by mice and other mammals including your golden retriever who thinks the dried skin is some new kind of chew toy.   Also, extremely oily skins such as raccoon are subject to "Grease Burn" when dried.  A skin that's grease burned will never properly re-hydrate and cannot be evenly tanned.  

Brain tanning requires removal of the brain from the skull.  I have not found an elegant way to do this.  I simply crack the skull with a hammer, and use a small spoon to remove the brain material.  After the brain tanning solution has been prepared, (see brain tanning for methods) it’ll look as though there isn’t nearly enough solution to tan the hide.  Just a small amount does work just fine.  Use a small brush to spread your brains around evenly on the green hide.  If the hide was dried, it must first be rehydrated.  Then work the brains into the skin with your fingers.  If you’re squeamish you might want to wear latex gloves.  

As the hide dries work it periodically over a stretching beam (Mine is a piece of 2”X 4” with one end rounded off).  Continue to stretch the hide periodically until it dries.  If you are unable to periodically stretch the hide, put it in a cool dark place and cover it with a sheet of plastic until you are able to continue.  If the tanned skin dries without sufficient stretching, it’ll be stiff.  No problem, just moisten the hide and continue stretching. Yes, it does take more time and effort to skin and tan your own furs than it does to plunk down some dollars and purchase a fur.  However, if your goal is to reenact as a Free Trapper, it will be infinitely more satisfying to have the skills, experience and knowledge to go with that fur, then to simply have the item.  You'll also develop a repertoire of "Road Kill" stories you'll be able to share around the campfire.

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