Survival Skills: Winter Pelt Tanning

The thick winter coats of furbearers are the best pelts of the year. Hopefully, your trap line and predator hunting forays will bring you many of these beautiful skins. A happy problem arises when it comes time to tan them all.

There are specialized tools, chemicals, and materials that make the life of a modern tanner relatively easy, but you can still do a respectable job of tanning pelts with common tools and materials that you probably already have.

The biggest hurdle in tanning is removing the fat from the pelt. Chubby animals from late fall and early winter are the greasiest of the year. Commercial degreasers do a great job, but before the invention of these strong solvents, a little hard work was the best trick in the book. To get most of the fat off a pelt, I lay the fresh pelt over a smooth log or fence post, as the log's rounded shape aids the scraping process. With the flesh side up, I use a dull knife to scrape off as much fat as I can, being sure to scrape from tail to head to keep the hair shafts laying properly. I then wipe a little soapy water on the flesh side of the hide and continue scraping. The hide should become whiter in color as the grease and fat are scraped away, and it should also seem thirstier. Wipe on plain water, and scrape it out of the skin again. If you can help it, never wet the hair side at any time during the tanning process. Now dry the pelt for a day or two, flesh side up. Avoid sunlight, as this will melt remaining fats in the skin. Sand the flesh side of the dried pelt with 150-grit sandpaper or a comparable rough stone. This breaks up the membrane and readies the pelt for the tanning solution.

Before the invention of chemicals to tan pelts, animal skins were subjected to all kinds of strange concoctions to degrease and soften them. Urine, wood ashes, acid extracted from tree bark, and even toxic substances like mercury have been employed over the centuries to tan skins into useful furs and leather. Alum is a common tanning agent today, but I prefer the more natural approach of brain-tanning the pelts. An old adage tells us that every critter has enough brains to tan his own hide (implying that brain size and skin size correlate well). While this is usually close enough to the truth, I still like to add other ingredients to my tanning broth. Egg yolks (no whites), a spoonful of bear fat or olive oil, and water that has had crushed acorns boiled in it.

The boiled acorn water serves as the base liquid for your tanning solution. The brain tissue and egg yolks are full of very fine oils that condition and soften the animal skin, and the bear fat and olive oil are penetrating oils.

When you are ready to tan the pelt, lay it out with the hair side down. Mix up a watery paste of brains, yolks, acorn water, and fat, and smear it on the flesh side. Lay a damp towel over the pelt to keep it moist. Allow the dry hide to soak up the solution.

After the pelt has sat for a few hours, stretch it in different directions until it is completely dry--this helps soften the skin. But be careful not to pull the fur out of the hide! For your softened pelt to remain soft, place it in a cold smoke box for a few hours. You don't want heat, just the smoke. Smoking the hide coats the hide fibers with "tar" to keep the brain oils on these fibers. This keeps the hide soft after drying--even if it gets wet--without having to stretch it again.

The end result is the highly coveted brain-tanned pelt. Let us know if you've tried this method, or have any questions about it. Good luck tanning!