By Lynora Stallsmith

It was a Thursday much like any other Thursday at the communal boatbuilding apprenticeship  where I am studying in Maine. Dan, another apprentice, was on kitchen duty. Before breakfast is served we always have a “grace” of some nature–it takes different forms with different apprentices. Dan’s graces are often natural wonders. So it came to be that prior to breakfast that morning Dan pulled a dead mink out of a cardboard box and taught us some facts about mustalids. The mink had been harvested a few seasons back and frozen with the intention to tan later. Life got in the way. It hadn’t happened.

The other apprentices knew that I’d grown up hunting and trapping, and several were very interested to see the skinning process, so I agreed to do a teach and talk after lunch. Not having a gambrel (the device used to hang an animal by its hind legs when case skinning) with me, I set to work rigging one up after breakfast. A cedar scrap, a bit of rope, an eye hook, and two regular hooks later, everything was set. I hung my makeshift apparatus from the clothesline post and set off to chapel, which is a weekly occurrence every Thursday. This particular week we learned to play the most basic form of Kung Fu. After chapel housecleaning was next, and then a smorgasbord lunch, another Thursday tradition.

Now it was time. It should be noted that while I grew up harvesting and skinning animals, I hadn’t skinned anything in over a year, and not a large quantity of things in quite some time, so I was a bit nervous, hoping I’d remember it all. Turns out skinning is muscle memory–just like riding a bike. To start you dis attach the skin around both of the rear paws and make a V shaped cut from each paw to the crotch area. This is a particularly tricky operation on a mink because they have glands, much like a skunk, in that area, and if you cut one open you’ll smell like mink all week. I managed not to hit the glands, although I still smelled minky all day, and made the small incision just past the base of the tail that turns the V shaped cut into a stubby Y.

The goal of skinning, as my Dad taught it to me, and as I taught my attentive peers, is to use your knife as little as possible. So, after using my knife a bit to get it started, I pulled the skin back from the legs. Now, I was ready to use my jimmy rigged gambrel. By feel, I located the tendon on each hind leg and pierced the hook between the tendon and the leg bone. Next, I urged everyone to lean in for a whiff. In peeling back the skin the musk making glands, while not cut, had become exposed. Personally, I like the smell. Muskrat and mink glands are used in lures, and thus this smell was the backdrop of my childhood, whether making sets with my dad, skinning, or attending a trapping convention with the family.

Now came a tricky part in the skinning process–stripping the tail. I didn’t have a tool to do this with me, so I took two sticks, placed one on either side of the tail bone and pulled. Using this method, I got the tail mostly extricated, but it was very dry from having been thawed and refrozen several times, so in the end I nipped a bit of the bone and left it in the pelt rather than accidentally rip this piece of skin from the rest. The tail wasn’t crucial to my intended use for the skin, this was only a demonstration, and time was limited.

Pulling the torso portion is fairly straightforward. You just grasp the bits of skin that are already free and pull. But, it turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. This is the step where the pelt and the carcass really begin to look like separate entities. The front legs emerged, and I pulled out each one to the point where it came to meet the front paw. At this point, I made a cut around each leg, explaining that with this cut I faced the blade down,  because I was intending to cut the skin, but with separating cuts that just remove skin from carcass, the blade is angled up so as to cut the interfering meat and fat but not to score or cut a hole in the skin. Even I was impressed at how it was all coming back to me. Although I shouldn’t have been–I had had the best of teachers.

Next came skinning out the head. Peeling and pulling I arrived at the ears, each separated from the skull with one upward slice. The bit between the ears and eyes took tough pulling and upward knife strokes. At some point the innards spilled out some, which was not a great surprise as at some point the mink had been mishandled and a bit of the rib cage was already protruding the meat from the start, but again, this was an occurrence of much fascination to this crowd who hadn’t grown up doing do it yourself dissections or watching cats tear into muskrat carcasses as I had. The eyes came out cleanly, which I was quite proud of. That’s something a fur buyer looks at to judge quality , and I’d lost dollars as a kid due to sloppily cut eyes and ears.

Finally, I came to the jaw, and with a final cut the nose was free. As I turned the pelt hair side out I noticed that the hair was slipping, as is typical of both “green” fur (animals harvested before their prime winter coats grow in) and, as in this case, fur that has been stored unprocessed overlong. All were appreciative of the demonstration and helped to clean up before we headed off to build boats for the afternoon. Some had attempted skinning before without any old timer’s know how instruction, and expressed how much simpler this case skinning method seemed to be.

Since coming  here I’ve realized on several occasions how fortunate I am to have had parents who taught me these and other skills such as weaving, tree tapping, and tanning. As many in the world are beginning to realize the value of living simply and close to the land, I’m so grateful for my parents who espoused those values before they became trendy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got lots to learn and improve on, but unlike so many others, I know my kinfolk wholeheartedly support me each step of the way. So, as Mother’s and Father’s day are coming up, I’d like to thank my parents. All the things you taught me that made me a weird teenager are making me an interesting adult.


We are proud to announce that our daughter is now hand crafting and selling both Turkish drop spindles and wooden spoons. I have personally spent some time spinning on one of her drop spindles. It is a joy to spin on.

The first hide tanning I ever did were squirrels that I shot when I was a teenager. Every fall, I would order some trapping supplies, and there was a tanning product they sold that was supposed to preserve furs. I would simply scrape off any excess fat or meat, (the squirrels generally didn’t have much fat to begin with) and tack the hide out flat. The tanning powder was added to water to form a paste and spread on the leather, then later scraped off and I think the hide was supposed to be worked a bit, but I was just wanting to keep my ‘trophy’, and didn’t care much if they were soft or stiff. The biggest hide I remember doing this way was  a  red fox, and it lasted for several years, but not surprisingly, they would sort of dry rot eventually, not really being tanned all the way through.

I started trapping at about 8 years old and I’ve never missed a year since, even in times of dismal fur prices, which is pretty much where things are right now, except for a few select type of furs. I sold raccoons as a teen for up to $40 or $50, and those same skins now are worth maybe $8, with the smaller sizes having no value. I’ve sold muskrats for .90 cents and I’ve sold them for up to $18. This year, I decided that if I wasn’t going to make any money on trapping anyway, I might as well take a trapping trip upstate and try to catch a bobcat. They are trophy animals here in PA, and you have to buy a special tag to take one. The season is not open in my home area. I took two of the kids along and we had a good trip, in spite of some really cold weather. The borrowed cabin where we stayed had no insulation and was never really warm unless we huddled close to the wood stove, which had one too many bends in the pipe and smoked badly whenever you opened the door.  For you northerners, 0 degrees is nothing, but for us, it’s cold. Anyway, I don’t think it got much above 10 degrees the whole time, which was fine with me, as traps are easier to keep working when the snow isn’t melting and not a lot of snow was falling, so the traps wouldn’t get buried, either. The good news is, I caught a big bobcat the day after we got the line out. But the kids didn’t catch anything. Maybe next time. The first time trapping a new area or new animal is always a learning experience, no matter what you think you know.

Now I’m at that time of year where I have a mess of fur in the shed and I’m wondering what to do with it. There’s over 100 muskrats that I could sell to the fur buyer, about 25 coon and some mink and fox and I’m still trapping beaver now and then.  I’ve done a fair amount of fur tanning, and what I’ve found is that, for the home tanner, at least this one, fox and mink are the easiest, coon aren’t too bad, but tend to come out a little less soft, and beaver are really tough. The natives called beaver “little buffalo” for a good reason, they require quite a lot of thinning and finesse. And the average eastern coyote is about as much work to soften as a average deer hide, but most people aren’t going to pay $170 for the finished skin. Some furs are going to the tannery and some will be home tanned and the end result-hopefully a fur blanket and some garments- will be a new learning process. We have done a couple fur hats and a fox vest. In the future, perhaps some simple fur garments will be added to our list of homemade items for sale. Like leather, fur is seen as fashionable in certain circles, but it can also be practical.  

Tannins are all over the place. They are in the trees, in the roots and most plants. They are in the tea you drink and the leaves and weeds you walk on. Bark tanning is a bit of a mis nomer, although not as much as the term Braintan is, because you don’t need bark to tan your hide, what you need are tannic acids. They can come from bark, or other sources. Sumac leaves (not the poison kind) are an excellent source of tannin, for example. Hardwoods such as Oak are one of the better sources for bark high in tannins, although softer woods can work.

Barktanning is not complicated, but like brain tanning, don’t assume that simple means easy. Most barktan operations include liming or lying the hide, then rinsing, to better receive the tannins. The bark is chopped up as fine as possible and boiled to extract the tannins. The basic goal is to soak the hide in the tanning solution long enough, or with enough agitation, that the tannins penetrate entirely though the fibers of the hide, to the center, then to apply oils and work the hide, to make the leather flexible and somewhat water resistant.

Bark tanning was once a huge industry in the eastern United States. Chrome tan has almost taken over the leather industry and very little true barktan is produced in the country anymore. Some of us would like to change that to some degree and allow people to see the benefits and beauty of all natural barktan again.

There are really only two components needed to braintan a scraped hide. One is brain oils (or similar oils from another source) and the other is wood smoke. Of course, in reality there is a third element-a whole lot of elbow grease. Although it is certainly possible to kill a deer, scrape its hide the same day, apply brain oils multiple times and soften and smoke it, all in a 24 hour period, it is not the most practical way to work. You may have seen pictures of Indian villages with dried hides hanging around or in frames. This suggests that they did not immediately process their hides as they harvested them, either. A hide that is stored for several months, sitting around camp and absorbing some smoke, is sure to soften easier than a fresh hide. Hides are mostly composed of a bunch of woven fibers bound together by a glue like substance. That is a very elementary explanation of hide chemistry, but it’s perhaps the main thing you need to know in order to become a good tanner. Most variations in brain tanning methods involve different ways to either: dissolve much of the glue in the hide, or to keep the hide fibers open so that softening becomes easier. The main ways to get rid of the glues are, bucking, (that is, soaking the hide in a weak lye solution), then rinsing the lye back out, and/or aging (letting a dried hide sit around for a few months before finishing it.) The other common method, pre-smoking, is really a way of keeping a stretched, somewhat open fibered hide in an open state by adding smoke before the final softening. It would take a book to explain all the variations of brain tanning methods out there and such books have been written, but the goal, always, is to open the fibers and keep them open by smoking the hide. Brains do not tan a hide, in spite of the name. Smoke does.