I got started tanning fur purely by accident. My longtime friend and hunting partner, Robert, started a taxidermy business and decided to offer his customers in-house tanning. I happened to be in his shop one day as he was combing out some wolf pelts he had just finished tanning. I was amazed at how soft and supple they had turned out.
Doing a little bit of research goes a long way
Although I had never done any tanning of my own, I envisioned a long labor-intensive procedure that involved hours of scraping and breaking the hides by hand. The procedure Robert explained sounded much easier.
I decided to do some research on the different chemicals that are available to home tanners. I was surprised to learn that in addition to the submersible tans like the one Robert was using, there are also paint on tans. The paint on tans appealed to me because they did not require a water bath to do the actual tanning.
Everything I read, and everyone I talked to, advised me to stay away from alum-based tans, and those containing harsh chemicals.
I eventually decided on Trubond 1000B. Trubond is a relatively new paint-on tan that is getting rave reviews by everyone who tries it. This is a true synthetic tan that is very easy to use and is even washable. I really liked the soft white leather this tan produced with very little breaking.
There are five steps involved when tanning with Trubond: rehydrating the hide, pickling it, de-greasing, neutralizing, and applying the tanning oil. I quickly learned that if I followed these five steps, soft, supple furs could be produced every time.
Tanning step by step
The re-hydrating process is simply re-wetting air or salt-dried skins. The goal is to bring them back to an as-skinned state. While some tanners add salt to their re-hydration bath, I prefer to use just plain water.
Most salt-dried skins will re-hydrate in 6 to 8-hours, but air-dried hides can take up to 12-hours to fully re-hydrate. It is very important to understand that bacteria can grow in the re-hydration bath.
This bacterium can cause hair slippage. You want to leave the skins in the rehydration bath until they are completely re-hydrated, but no longer.
Once your skins are completely re-hydrated, they should go into the pickle bath immediately. The pickle solution is an acidic bath that breaks down and dissolves the non-structural proteins of a hide. This enables the tanning agent to fully penetrate and bond to the skin much more successfully.
While there are a lot of pickling acids available, I prefer citric acid. This is a very safe acid to use and has a natural de-greasing effect that is helpful on greasy skins like beaver and otter. Don’t crowd the skins too much in the pickle solution, you want to keep them submerged, and they should be agitated once or twice each day. A five-gallon pickle bath is enough to do several mink-size skins.
The recipe I use, calls for five pounds of salt, and one pound of citric acid crystals for every five gallons of water. Use hot tap water to ensure the acid and salt dissolve properly, then let it cool to room temperature before adding skins.
Using PH strips, you should check the PH of the pickle solution before adding skins. A PH of 1.5 to 2 is ideal. The recipe above should give you a PH of no more than 2, if you get a higher reading, add more acid to bring it down.
The skins should remain in the pickle bath for at least three days. It is a good idea to agitate them briefly each day and check the PH level. The skins are safe as long as the PH stays below 2.5, and I have found longer pickling times beneficial for dense skins like beavers.
Once the skins have been in the pickle for a day or so, I take them out and remove the thin membrane and any flesh or fat that is still on the hide.
A scraper is sufficient for most thin-skinned animals, but a wire wheel on a drill can also be used on any stubborn areas. The tanning agent won’t penetrate this thin membrane, so it is important to remove it all.
Once the skins have been thoroughly scraped, they should be degreased with a mild solution of Dawn dish soap or one of the degreasing solvents made for tanneries. I use a product called “Super Solve.” A few ounces of this stuff in a five-gallon pail of water will leave even the greasiest skins squeaky clean.
I let my hides soak in this solution for 30-minutes, then rinse and put them back in the pickle solution overnight. I have found de-greasing to be one of the most important steps in the tanning process. Skins that haven’t been de-greased properly will stiffen up once they dry.
Neutralizing is a simple but important step in the tanning process. The pickle bath is very acidic, with a PH of between 1 and 2.5. The ideal PH for a hide to tan well is between 4, and 7. Neutralizing brings the PH of the skins up into this range.
To accomplish this, simply add one tablespoon of baking soda to every gallon of water it takes to cover the skin. Allow the skins to soak for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the skins have been neutralized, give them a quick rinse in clean water and hang them up to drain for an hour or so. Once the skins are well-drained but not dry, they are ready to be tanned.
Since Trubond is a paint-on tan, the application is really simple. I like to lay the skin out on a flat surface and apply the tanning oil with a paintbrush. Starting at the head I work my way down to the tail. Once the entire skin has been covered, I go back and re-oil the thick area around the head and neck.
Leave the skin laying flat for a couple of hours and then hang to dry. I usually let my skins hang overnight, and the next morning I pull and stretch them by hand in all directions.
The hide will turn white as it is stretched if it doesn’t let it dry longer. Thin-skinned animals will completely dry in just a few hours. Once the hide is dry, it will be as soft and supple as anything you get from a tannery.
Although it will take a few days to completely tan your skins at home, there really isn’t much labor involved. Most of my furs are tanned in a large Rubbermaid tub, and in just a few days, I can easily tan several large wolf pelts.
Selling the furs
It’s a good idea to do some research before you start tanning a bunch of fur to sell. For me, this is a never-ending job. I decided early on not to limit myself to the local market. My reasoning was, and still is, that shipping is cheap.
Although it took a few years, I have slowly built up a contact base right across North America. The Internet really helped, as did the contacts I make through my guiding business.
Having said that, I have also learned not to waste my time tanning fur that won’t sell. That’s where an understanding of the market will really pay off. While some of my fur does go to taxidermists and tourist shops, my preference is to sell directly to the end-user. I have found that I can get better prices by eliminating the middleman.
Most of the fur I tan ends up as wall hangers or sold to the craft market. In some parts of the country, moccasins, mitts, fur hats, and other items that use fur are big business. The people that make this stuff are the perfect market for a trapper who tans his own fur. Once you have developed a good working relationship, a single shop in the right location can take all the fur one trapper can produce, and then some.
Another market that I think would be worth exploring are the mountain man and black powder rendezvous communities. A quick Internet search shows these events are being held all over the country, and there is always a lot of fur showing at these events.
The best advice I can give anyone interested in learning to tan their own fur is to do a little research on the procedures and products available; then order a lot more than you think you will need because once word gets out that you can tan fur, every trapper in the area will be knocking on your door. Two years after I tanned my first pelt, I was tanning more fur for other trappers than I was for myself.
The synthetic tans available today have made it quite easy to produce high-quality furs that will last a lifetime; they have also opened the door to trappers who are looking for new ways to market their fur.
Article submitted by Trent Embry.
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