With some egg yolk and a smoky fire, you can tan your fur the old fashioned way
By Cody Assmann
The fur forecast for the winter of 2016 wasn’t looking good. Prior to the opening of the trapping season I browsed reports from multiple sources giving their best predictions on the upcoming market. Everything pointed in one direction: south. Last year had been sluggish at best, and 2016 surely looked like it would be another rough year. Luckily, I wasn’t really banking on a trapping check to pay the bills, just more or less to try and pay the trapping bills. That being said I find it a challenge to try and make my trapping efforts pay for themselves. Once again, I would be hard pressed to make that happen.
As the season opened up I waited to set my traps until animals started priming up. I don’t catch a lot of animals annually, so I try and catch them at their best. By the end of the year I’d managed to lay up a bit of fur, but not enough to brag about. I’d been keeping tabs on the market and everything played out as predicted. The fur buyer would be coming to town soon and I started debating whether or not to pay him a visit. I knew how our meeting would end; me with no fur left and not much check to show for it. I don’t hold it against the buyer, it is just business.
What I didn’t want to do was have my hard-won furs turn into only a few dollars. They were worth more than that to me. If I were to get any sort of payback from my winter’s trapline, I’d have to get creative and take a more non-traditional route. In the past I’ve done a small bit of tanning and had some good results. The previous summer I had made beaver fur mittens for the whole family with my trapped beaver, and they had turned out nicely. It looked like I would have to do something similar in 2016.
Tanning is a very interesting process and is what I would call a foundational skill, or a basic skill of mankind. At some point in ancient history, folks learned to turn animal skin into clothing. It is one of the most ancient skills in our collective history and was learned all around the world. I enjoy mastering primitive skills and try to keep my tanning primitive as well. Over the past few years I have tinkered with egg tanning my furs and deer hides. Egg tanning is the exact same process as brain tanning with the only change being the substitution of brains for eggs. It hasn’t worked out 100 percent of the time, but the learning curve is starting to mellow out and I’m beginning to get consistent results. Tanning your own hides is a great way to find value in your fur in a down market. If you’ve ever wanted to try tanning your own hides, a poor market is the best time to learn.
I’ll assume at this point if you’re interested in tanning your own hides you have a little background knowledge on skinning, fleshing and boarding. If not, these are a few areas you will want to research as you probably won’t have the time to tan your hides right away. I case skin and board all my animals. Case skinning isn’t necessary for the tanning procedure; it simply saves room in storage. I like to tan my fur in an open-skinned fashion, although there is a number of folks who have had good results tanning cased hides. My hides stay cased skinned until I’m ready to start working them, then I’ll make a simple cut up the belly to open the hide up. The steps in the tanning process will be the exact same whether you case skin or open skin an animal. I find several steps to be easier with an open-skinned animal rather than a case skinned one.
Once you’ve got a few slow days when you’ll be able to focus on hide tanning you’ll need to get your hides soaking and ready for use. This is nothing more than filling an old tote up with water and submerging your stiff hide. I also like to throw in a little Borax and dish soap. It helps to clean the hides and cut any grease the hide might have. You won’t want to let your furs sit too long in the water, as doing so might cause the hair to slip. Adding too much soap is also reputed to cause slippage. Once the skins are pliable it’s time to remove them from their soak. Typically they will become pliable in only a few hours. Once they are completely pliable, give your hides a good wringing out and remove as much of the moisture from the hide as you can. You want to get the hide damp but don’t want to dry the hide out completely. If you happen to allow it to completely dry you would simply need to soak it again.
Creating the Solution
Once your hide has been soaked and wrung out you’ll need to apply your tanning solution. As I mentioned I use eggs as a substitute for brains in the tanning process. I use eggs for several reasons. One, it saves time from having to extract the brains from the animals (a messy process I’ve done in the past). Two, my local grocery store doesn’t sell brains. If they did I would use those. Thirdly, eggs are cheap when you have your own backyard flock. Like I said, I’ve used eggs in the past and have good results with my first hides now several years old with no slippage.
To prepare your egg solution you’ll need to separate and keep only the egg yolks. I recently used six eggs to tan two raccoon hides with good results. Simply mix the egg yolks with around two cups of warm water and mix until it all blends together. You don’t want to get the solution too watered down as this will dilute the blend.
Apply the Solution
With your egg mixture it’s time to apply it to your hide. The hide should still be damp after the wringing and will have some stretch to it. Before applying your mixture give the hide a good stretch in all directions. Stretching pulls the fibers in the skin open to allow the tanning solution to penetrate. Once the hide has been stretched, get a handful of your warm egg solution and apply liberally to the flesh side of your hide. Try and keep your tanning solution from coming into too much contact with the fur. This can cause slippage and give it a rank smell.
As you apply the mixture work it into the hide vigorously. Make sure to hit all areas of the hide evenly. I typically work the solution into the skin by rubbing the hide intensively for about five minutes. Once done fold the hide in half, flesh side to flesh side, and allow to sit for a period of ten to twenty minutes.
Wring and Reapply
Once your hide has sat for the appropriate time you will now want to wring the hide out again. Try to get as much moisture out of the hide as you can. I like to drape it over a horizontal pole and twist it as tightly as I can. There is a danger of tearing the hide while it is wet though. This method drives out more moisture than any other method I’ve come across and is very simple. It is also wise to set a bucket beneath your hide to catch the liquid you will squeeze out. In this step you are trying to revert the hide to the damp state it was in before you applied your tanning agent.
When I first learned about tanning, this step it didn’t really make sense. I then came across an explanation that really sunk in. Think of your hide as a sponge. If you toss a dry sponge into a bucket of water it will soak up water fairly slowly. But, if you get the sponge wet, then wring it out till its damp, and then throw it in the bucket, it will soak up the water much faster. A hide seems to work essentially the same way. The first application, followed by the wringing, “primes” the skin to soak up more solution in the next step.
At this point you want to reapply the tanning solution to your hide. Work it the exact same way as you did the first time, making sure to hit all areas evenly. Once you’ve done that it is time to fold your hide in half again, flesh sides touching. I roll the hide up as well. If you’ve done it correctly you should be rolling with the fur side touching. Now you allow the hide to sit for a period of up to 24 hours. Don’t let your hide sit much longer than that, as the egg solution can become a breeding ground for bacteria that can cause your hair to slip.
If you can time it where you are starting this stage in the early morning it will help you in the long run. Your hide should have been sitting for around 24 hours, allowing the tanning solution time to penetrate. Now unroll the hide and wring as much moisture out of the skin as you can. This time you will really want to drive every last drop you can out of the hide. From here on out you will be working the hide as it dries, a labor-intensive process called breaking. Every drop of water you can remove during the third wringing will save your shoulders in the next step. Once you are satisfied that you’ve wrung your hide out, it is time to start breaking the hide.
As I mentioned, now is when you want your hide to begin drying out completely. As it dries though, you need to keep it as stretched as possible to obtain a soft product. I read a book by a fellow brain tanner who wrote something to the effect of: “I once thought the secret of tanning lay in the tanning solution. Then I realized the real secret lay in keeping the hide stretched as much as possible as it dried.”
Keeping the hide stretched is best achieved by running it back and forth over a breaking post as it dries. This post should come to a V at the top and not have any sharp edges. Sharp edges will catch your damp hide and tear a hole in it.
In the past I wore myself out breaking the hides. In fact, I worked almost to the point of injury. A little experience has shown me you don’t have to work the hide continuously, but periodically as it dries. There is no solid formula for knowing when and where to break. Drying time is impacted by air temperature, humidity, wind, and hides are of varying thickness. The best rule of thumb is to keep an eye on the hide and as an area is beginning to dry out, really focus your efforts on this portion. Run it over and over the breaking stake until it is completely dry. If done correctly it should dry nicely as well. The whole process simply takes practice and a few stiff hides.
The final step to any traditionally tanned hide is the smoking. Brain-tanned hides are not waterproofed after the tanning is complete. This means that when they get wet they will dry hard if not continually stretched again as they dry. In order to combat this effect, traditionally tanned hides are laid over a smoky fire to “set” the tan and keep them softer if they happen to get wet. Smoking also adds a nice buckskin color to the hides as well.
There are a number of ways to smoke a hide. Many people sew the hides together along the belly to create a case skin once again. Of course this step is where case skinning will save you some work. Once case skinned, the fur can be sewn to a denim skirt and a smoky fire built inside. Essentially what you are doing is creating a very low heat, no flame, smoky fire, and a chimney right up into the flesh side of the hide. It is a good way to smoke your fur. I have chosen to build a “fur smoker” out of old pants and welded wire. This allows me to do more hides at once and is just a good fit for my particular setup.
There are a few main rules to follow when smoking a hide. First, hardwood works the best. If you live in the prairie like I do hardwoods are nearly impossible to find so I use whatever I can get ahold of. Secondly, the wood should be rotten to the point you can break it apart with your hands. Thirdly, these are very low heat fires and should not have anything that resembles a flame. You will quickly learn that fire and hides do not mix if they come in too close of contact. Lastly, the time for smoking depends on your preference. I generally smoke my hides for the better part of a day. If you are simply looking for a decorative project you can smoke to the color of your choice. If you happen to be creating a garment to wear in all conditions you’ll need to make sure your hides get a good smoke.
Tanning hides in a primitive way is no easy task. It takes time, energy and a willingness to learn and fail. The silver lining to a poor fur market is gaining experience and knowledge and that outweighs the small amount of money you would get for your fur. In fact there is no better time to start learning then when the market is down. By learning to tan hides in a traditional way you’ll be reconnecting with knowledge of the past and getting the most out of your fur harvest.