A finished, tanned raccoon hide. Photo By Fala Burnette, Wolf Branch Homestead
For people who may not be familiar with tanning, the word itself may bring thoughts of the Native Americans with beautiful buckskin clothes, or old mountain trappers of days gone by. However, tanning is still alive today through the people who want to go back to the basics, and put raw hides to good use. We have been tanning hides for going on five years, and though I do not claim to be an expert by any means, I personally believe it is a valuable skill to pick up for anyone harvesting wild game or culling livestock. There are a multitude of beneficial reasons for tanning, but I have highlighted four that really stand out.
When an animal is harvested, for instance- a deer that has been taken to a processors, there is a lot of leftover waste once the animal has been cleaned for its meat. Included in this waste is usually the hide, considered a raw or "green" skin. Typically, individuals will bury the hides or leave with other remains for scavengers on their own land (or in another area with permission). While this may not seem like a waste, consider that a hide can be essentially given a new life for years to come by tanning it. Learning to tan could enable a hunter to gain experience, and one day display his or her own prized hide within the home. It also enables those who may cull groups of meat animals to re-purpose the bulk hides without putting them all to waste.
I am a firm believer in respecting a harvested animal by accepting responsibility afterwards to put every part of it to good use. This includes taking the time to clean and carefully tan hides, even for small animals like squirrels or rabbit. In doing so, I found that animals such as squirrel were great practice in moving up to larger hides. Learning to tan encourages you to be hands-on with your harvest, meaning you are even more involved with the processing of the animal after cleaning it for meat. Another aspect to this responsibility is to study the proper methods for handling the hides and tanning them, taking notes on what may have went wrong and how you can improve it. It may seem discouraging when first starting out, but it truly does take practice to get better at what you do.
An important thing to note when considering selling tanned hides is that you should always check your state's laws first. Especially with Chronic Wasting Disease being an issue among deer, caribou, and elk- regulations for the sale of their hides may be very strict where you live. It is also important to note that your state may require a trapping license in order to sell the hides of fur-bearing animals (raccoon, possum, nutria, beaver, muskrat, mink, bobcat, fox, and coyote among some of those animals considered to be fur-bearers). Once these things are considered and researched, you'll also need to factor in the initial investment for your supplies (tanning chemicals, skinning knives, fleshing knives, aprons/gloves included). For animals you may already be raising, like domestic rabbits or cattle, there are markets for these tanned hides too.
If you or someone close to you has a passion for arts and crafts, the possibilities for finished hides/furs are limitless. Suppose you've tried to sell part of your tanned collection, but have not had luck with it. There are still many ways to make things that may be more appealing for upcoming crafts shows.
• A skinned deer hide goes through the hair-removal process to become buckskin, and is later turned into a vest. If the hair is left on, you can display a prized deer hide as a rug or wall hanging.
• You've just processed a group of meat rabbits and tanned the furs, and sew them together to make a large blanket or throw.
• After culling a cow, the hair-removal leaves you with a large piece of leather that could be turned into wallets, belts, or bags.
• A small squirrel hide is trimmed and attached to become the soft, new handle for your walking stick.
• A nuisance raccoon that was trapped and dispatched can be skinned/tanned, then made into a hat.
If these points have gained your attention, and you are interested in getting started with tanning, there are many ways to begin learning. I've discussed different methods for taking on new skills such as this in a past article called Learning on the Homestead, including visiting books or videos for reference. Remember to use patience, and take notes as you go along, so that you can learn from any possible mistakes and grow in your tanning experience! Happy Tanning!
Fala Burnette is a homesteader with her husband at Wolf Branch Homestead in Alabama. They are currently building their own log cabin and milling their own lumber, along with raising heirloom crops in the Spring and tanning furs during the Winter. Read all of Fala's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.