How to brain tan a squirrel 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. One 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!
How to Brain Tan a Squirrel
This request comes from one of our students who is interested in brain tanning a squirrel hide.
Chad 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." ~Chad
Road kill handling tips
First, three 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 animals can carry all kinds of nasty critters like ticks and fleas, which may stay in the fur of the animal for a 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.
3. Wear disposable gloves through the tanning process! If you have cuts or scratches on your hands, they can become infected without proper precaution.
Squirrels are small animals and are a great first tanning project.
What is tanning?
What is Tanning? Briefly, tanning is the process that takes a raw animal hide or skin and turns it into leather. Deer hides produce a choice Buckskin basically using this same process.
How to remove the squirrel hide from the carcass
You 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.
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 tail.
Remove the pelt from the legs
Next, looking at the belly side, cut, 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 forefingers 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!
NOTE: 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 has the brains that we need to tan the hide. Put the skull in a paper sack in the fridge for later.
Fleshing the hide
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 is the fur side of the animal.
When working with a small animal like a squirrel you can stretch and tack the hide on a board or piece of plywood. Any very flat surface will do. This helps you in the fleshing process. Any dings or gouges in the wood or table you're using to flesh on can rip the hide.
You can also hold the hide down with one hand on your leg while scraping the flesh from the hide with your other hand. It is a little tricky, but this whole process takes lots of patience. However, it is worth it.
Flesh scraping tool
The tool we will be using for scraping off the flesh and membranes from the hide will be a butter knife. One that has very small serrated edges works good. The small serrations catch the fat and membrane.
Using the butter knife gently scrape the fat from the hide. You can use a pocket knife, but you have to be careful that you do not cut the hide with the knife edge. The little cuts and slices from a knife will ruin the hide and you will punch through the hided during staking.
Using the fleshing tool
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 down 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.
Removing the brains from the skull
Remove the brains from the skull of the squirrel. Put the brains in a plastic container with a tight lid and into the fridge. 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.
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. (Boiling is a safety issue.)
Note: remember you are putting brains on the flesh side only. It will not hurt anything if you get brains on the hair side. But we want to work the cooked brains into the flesh side of the hide well.
How to Brain Tan a Squirrel. The Process
Once the brain 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 also soak a thin cotton cloth in the remaining brain mixture and lay it on the flesh side of the hide.
Then roll up the hide with the cloth and let it sit overnight in a cool dark safe place. Where the dogs, mice, and rats can't get to it. 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, not hot, place to stretch the hide, and begin Staking the hide.
Staking the Hide
In essence, this means stretching the hide. Pull the hide with your hands, from all corners. Then stretch it over the arm or top of a chair. You can drive a wood stake 1-2 inches diameter into the ground to about waist height.
Use a wood file to round off the point so its smooth like a broom handle. Use the rounded end to stake your hide. Be gentle with the staking you do not want to punch a hole in the hide by using to much down pressure.
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 smooth small river stone to burnish (polish) the hide. You can always re-brain and stake the hide if needed.
Smoking the squirrel hide
I know you are asking, "what in the heck does this mean?” The cold smoking of the hide sets the brains and helps to make the squirrel hide resistance to water. (Not waterproof.)
Two things leather does not do well with; water and heat. Smoking the hide helps preserve the tanned hide.
Too much of both will ruin your hide. Think drying leather boots near a fire. If they get to hot the leather shrinks and can crack. If your hide gets wet after smoking, you can always dry it by staking the hide to its original shape in a warm area. So be careful with heat and fire around your hide.
How to smoke a squirrel hide
Build a tripod out of wood poles. 1 " in diameter. The apex of the tripod is 3 feet high. Then make a small fire pit beneath it.
Bring the edges of the pelt together forming a rough tube like circle. The brain tanned side is the inside. You can use clothespins, paper clips, to hold the pelt into shape, or you can sew the edges together temporarily with a few stitches of thread.
Tie the tanned 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 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.
NOTE: make sue you do the hide smoking outside not in the house or garage. If it's breezy cover the outside of the tripod where the wind is coming from. Use a folded tarp or dampened bed sheet High enough so it won't catch fire. And block the wind keeping the cold smoke on target.
“The scrotum of a buck, tanned with the hair on, makes a good tobacco-pouch.”
That's all there is to it. Leave me your questions in the comment section below. If you have tips to add about your hide tanning project we would enjoy hearing from you.