This article is about Brain Tanning a squirrel the old way that you just scraped off the pavement, or harvested during squirrel hunting season. Our goal here is to turn the hide into a soft and beautiful pelt that will not only honor the animal, but will bring you enjoyment for years to come. As the name implies, we will be using the squirrel’s brains to tan its own hide. So save those brains!
This request comes from one of my recent students regarding tanning a squirrel hide. He stated, “I wanted to share and get some tips (although by the time you reply I will have already started to get my hands dirty I’m sure) on skinning a squirrel. I picked a nice road kill up today. It was getting late and I did not want to work outside so I submerged him in a bucket of cold water. It is tomorrow’s project.”
First two things you want to be aware of when harvesting any road kill.
1. Check your local fish & game laws about removing dead animals from the highways for personal use; in many states, it is illegal. (Check with them for a permit, it should be free.)
2. Wild animal can carry all kinds of nasty critters like ticks and fleas, which may stay in the fur of the animal for quite a long time after the host animal has expired.
So always, carry sturdy plastic bags in your rig along with disposable gloves for handling any road kill you may come upon.
Squirrels are small animals and are a great first tanning project.
What is Tanning? Briefly, Tanning is the process that takes a raw animal hide or skin and turns it into leather.
Wear disposable gloves through the whole tanning process! If you have cuts or scratches on your hands, they can become infected without proper precaution.
You begin to remove the hide from the carcass of an animal by carefully slicing the animal from the chin, along the belly, to almost anal end. Cut around male anatomy and the anal area, being careful not to cut into internal organs and such. Continue cutting along the center of the squirrel’s tail to the end. This gets tricky here cutting the tail. You have to go very slow if you want to save the whole tail. Next from the belly cut, slice along the underneath side of the forearms and legs of the squirrel. Now you are ready to separate as much fat and tissue as possible from the hide by using your thumbs and fore fingers of both hands to peel the hide from the carcass. If you use a knife to do this, be careful that you do not cut into the hide!
- · A note here; if you plan on keeping the face and head area intact on the hide, then, like the tail, it is a delicate technique to carefully cut and peel without ripping the hide.
Okay, you have removed the hide from the carcass, well done! Save the skull for it contains the brains that we need to tan the hide. Put the skull in a paper sack in the fridge for later. Dispose of the carcass accordingly.
Now you get to begin the process we call Fleshing. This means removing the fat and tissue from the “flesh side” of the hide, compared to the other side of the hide, which has the nice soft fur of the animal. When working with a small animal like a squirrel you can stretch and tack the hide on a piece of plywood, side of a barn, or other very flat surface to help you in the fleshing process. You can also hold the hide down with one hand on your leg while scrapping the flesh from the hide with your other hand. It is somewhat tricky, but this whole process takes lots of patience. However, it is worth it.
The tool we will be using for scraping off the flesh from the hide will be a dull butter knife that has very small-serrated edges gently scraping the fat from the hide. You can use a knife, but you have to be very careful that you do not cut the hide with the edge of your knife, which ruins the hide. To scrape with a knife, begin by coming into the hide at a 90′ degree angle. Do not angle your blade as if carving this will slice the hide. Bring you knife in at a 90 degree angle and taking short downward strokes to remove the flesh and tissue. As the hide dries some, it may be a little easier in the removal process. Keep at it until you remove all the fat, tissue, and flesh. Once you have done this, the hide is now “rawhide” and can be rolled up and put in a paper sack, in the frig if you want, keeping it safe from dogs who love to chew on hides.
Remove the brains from the skull of the squirrel; put the brains in a plastic container with a tight lid and into the fridge as well. You may want to leave a description of the contents for the unwary if you have a communal fridge. If you are careful in removing the brains, you can keep the skull well intact as the beginning of a skull collection.
How to Brain Tan the Hide
Squirrels do not have very much brain tissue. So what I do to stretch the brains, is add a good 1/2 cup of fresh water, rain water if you have any, and bring the brains with the water to a light boil, turn off the heat, set aside, and let the brains cool.
- · Note: remember you are putting brains on the flesh side only.
Once the liquid has cooled, rub the mixture into the flesh side of the hide. Do this until the flesh side of the hide is well soaked with the brain mixture. You can if you wish to insure a good braining, is to soak a light small cloth in the remaining brain mixture and lay it onto the flesh side of the hide. Roll up the hide with the cloth and let it sit overnight in a cool dark safe place. In the morning roll out the hide remove the cloth, wring as much water and moisture as you can from the hide.
Find a nice warm place to stretch the hide, and begin staking the hide.
Staking the Hide
In essence, this means stretching the hide.
You pull the hide with your hands, from all manner of directions. You can stretch it over the arms or top of a chair.
You can drive a nice stake about 2 inches diameter into the ground about waist height, round off the point so its smooth like a broom handle and use the rounded end to stake your hide. Be gentle with the staking you do not want to Punch a hole in the hide.
Stake and stretch your hide until it is completely dry! Completely dry, this cannot be stressed enough!
Your hide should be wonderfully soft now. Run your hands over the hide if you feel rough spots you can soften these by using light grit sandpaper, or a very smooth small river stone to burnish the hide. You can always re-brain and stake the hide whenever you want to soften the hide.
Smoking the Hide
I know you are asking, “what in the heck does this mean?” The smoking of the hide sets the brains, helps to make the hide resistance to water, (Not water proof.) and also helps to preserve the pelt and is our last step. Two things leather does not do well with; water and heat. Too much of both of these will ruin your hide. With your hide getting wet, you can always dry it by stretching the hide to its original shape in a warm area, but too much heat will just ruin the hide. So be careful with heat and fire around your hide.
To smoke the hides build a tripod; for a squirrel, about 3 feet high and make a small fire pit beneath it. Form your pelt into a circle with the tanned side on the inside. You can use clothespins, paper clips, to hold the pelt into shape, or you can sew it temporarily with thread. Tie the pelt to a cord and hang it from the tripod directly over your fire pit. You will want to use punky rotten non-resinous wood to create lots of smoke, not heat, or flame, but lots of smoke! The smoke will draft up and smoke the whole pelt. With lots of smoke, your hide should be smoked in about 40 to 60 minutes. Watch the fire for flare-ups, and keep a good steady stream of smoke on the hide.
That is all there is to it. Leave me your questions in the comment section below. Does anyone have tips to add about tanning? We would enjoy hearing from you.