Tanning a Red Squirrel Hide Using a Dry Method

I haven’t experimented with hide tanning for years. Back then, I used a hide scraper to remove membranes, fat and meat from a wet hide.

I had no idea it was even possible to scrape a dry hide clean. The red squirrel that found my trap provided an unexpected opportunity. I started with basic instructions provided by Barry Keegan. I skinned the hide while at Hawk Circle, but with all we had to do, I didn’t get to the tanning until I got back home.

Instructions:

  1. Skin the animal and tack or staple the hide to a flat board.
  2. Holding a spoon at a 90-degree angle, scrape the fat and meat.
  3. Put a thin layer (3-4 pinches) of powdered unscented clay to help grip membrane for easier removal. (Cat litter will work.)
  4. Put a thicker layer of powdered clay on hide overnight to help it dry faster.
  5. The next day, scrape off the clay. Use sandpaper (120) to buff hide, working from tail toward head.
  6. Work gently if the skin is delicate, or you run the risk of scraping too much. Avoid scraping through to the hair follicles.
  7. Mix equal parts brain and water. in a plastic bag or glass jar. You can substitute egg yolk for brains. The hide will feel soft and slippery.
  8. Press this mixture into the flesh side of the hide; keep mixture from getting into fur.
  9. Work the flesh side of the hide over a rounded stick (I used a broom handle), pulling gently until the hide feels dry when touched to your cheek.
  10. To smoke the hide, make a fire using punky wood. When the flames die down, put the hide on a forked stick and hold the flesh side of the hide over the smoke until the hide turns yellowish.

Here are the photos I took along the way:

The squirrel after being removed from the trap:

Squirrel on slab

The hide has been removed, without sacrificing the head, ears and eye holes, thanks to one of my classmates.

Hide removed

The hide is then tacked to a flat board:

Tacked pelt

The hide is covered with clay after initial scraping:

Scraping

Here’s where I begin to fly solo. I got home and dutifully followed the written directions. I scraped and sanded gently, but I may have scraped a bit too far. My hide went from feeling like cardboard to parchment. It never actually had a soft feel.

Scraped and sanded

I went off to build a fire. I had no trouble finding punky wood, but I wish I had thought of a way to channel the smoke instead of trying to chase the breeze.

I did manage to get it to turn a yellowish color and sent my results to Barry.

Flesh side

Fur side

Barry’s critique was that I had possibly scraped too much, exposing the hair follicles. If I were working on a hide that had been scraped on both sides, I could back light the hide to ensure I didn’t scrape too much. With the hair on, it’s a matter of experience.

But, Barry suggested I tan the hide again. I didn’t know that was possible, either. But I did, leaving the egg mixture to soak into the hide for about six hours. I worked the hide over the rounded stick again until it was soft.

The next day I noticed that the flesh side felt more like suede and less like parchment. The fur side was sticky from the mud, smoke residue and handling, so I took a risk.

I rubbed a microscopic amount of my No-Poo (no detergent) shampoo on my fingertips and massaged the fur. I then took a worn out soft toothbrush and brushed the fur in the wrong direction until the brush and my fingertips were clean. When the fur dried, it was soft. With all the cleaning, no fur came off on the brush or my fingers.

I sent these results to Barry:

Flesh latest

Fur groomed

Barry said the hide looks great. I may not have done as much damage to the hide as we originally thought. I now understand that using the clay means I don’t have to scrape as much. Rabbits, squirrels and young animals tend to have more delicate hides (Duh) and would need less vigorous scraping than hides of mature animals.

This red squirrel has taught me a great deal.

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    50 Comments

    1. joseph nickols November 6, 2008 at 2:08 PM #

      Hi Im Joseph Nickols and when I tan hides I dont use the regular solution
      I use Borax ,because it takes a month to tan not a year and it doesnt stink
      like road kill .My Grandpa was the one who told me about it if you would like
      more email me at missinickols@yahoo.com.I have lots more imformation
      of how to use it.Ihope to here from you soon

    2. jj_murphy November 6, 2008 at 5:45 PM #

      Joseph, thanks so much for sharing this information. I’m especially impressed that it’s knowledge handed down from your grandfather.

      Preserving tried and true methods is much better than “reinventing the wheel.”

    3. joseph nickols November 7, 2008 at 8:38 AM #

      Hi when I scrape a hide I use a spoon so it dosent hurt the hides. Im not sure Ive heard of smoking the hide, Im just learning so if you could share your
      ideas that would be great. When I stretch a hide I use a board and some
      thumbtacks or a steal stretcher I mostly use a board and thumbtacks.
      Thanks joseph

    4. Aryn December 14, 2008 at 5:11 AM #

      I found this very helpful. I have a goat skin that I’ve been working on. I first salted it and worked on getting the muscle/fat off (it was my first time skinning an animal). It’s dried out now, and is ready for the tanning process. I think I’ll run what you did past my folks and see what they think. I’m hesitant to use some of the home formulas for tannning since most involve chemicals.

      I have chickens and plenty of eggs, so using the yolk won’t be an issue. If I get the go ahead sign, what I’ll probably do is rinse the skin in water like some of the other methods suggest (since mine is super dry) to both get the salt off and to make it easier to work, then I’ll try your egg method. Followed by the smoking.

      If I end up doing this, I’d be more than happy to post the results for you to see.

    5. jj_murphy December 14, 2008 at 8:00 AM #

      Thanks for your feedback Aryn. I hope you get in touch again and let me know how your goat hide turned out.

      Barry Keegan has shared that cleaning the muscle and fat off a hide can be done by the dry method (using the clay) or the wet method (using a hide scraper). While the dry method involves less work, getting a feel for scraping the hide is a good learning tool.

      I’m not sure what’s in Borax, but I will give that method a try, since I have to hike out away from where I currently live to build a fire.

      By all means, let me know what happens with your goat hide.

    6. tina January 4, 2009 at 12:37 AM #

      can you tell me – does the smoke DO anything for the tanning process? or just color?

    7. jj_murphy January 4, 2009 at 6:36 PM #

      Tina, this is an excellent question.

      Smoking a hide keeps it soft and pliable after tanning, even when the hide gets wet. If you just rub the brains or eggs into the hide and stretch it, you will have a soft hide, but if you got that hide wet, it will get stiff when it dries. Smoking keeps that from happening.

      Some people believe that a smoked hide also keeps it from getting insect infested. I don’t have enough direct research to say if that is true.

      I can say from experience that when I did not thoroughly smoke a hide I tanned, it got stiff and I had to smoke it again.

      The color and the pleasant smoke aroma are just added bonuses.

    8. Nick January 23, 2009 at 9:56 PM #

      Great tutorial. I just have a couple questions.

      Do you leave the hide tacked down when you rub it with the brain/egg solution?

      How long should you leave the solution on the flesh side of the hide?

      Do you just cut the bone in the tail or do you get that bone all the way out of the tail?

      This seems like the best method I have found for tanning squirrel skins that have been going to waste. Thanks!

    9. jj_murphy January 24, 2009 at 7:39 AM #

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks very much for your feedback.

      I was able to pull the tail bone out and keep the tail fur intact. I did chop off the feet, though.

      Once I was done scraping and removing the flesh and membrane from the hide, I removed the tacks.

      I massaged the egg mixture into the hide and left it on for about six hours.

      After that, I worked the hide over the rounded stick until it was soft.

      Now that I have a bit of experience, I will be careful not to get the egg mixture on the fur side. If you can massage the egg mixture into the skin side and let it soak in, you don’t have to clean sticky egg residue off the fur.

      I hope this answers your questions.

    10. Allan Strader April 2, 2009 at 12:32 PM #

      can this type of tanning be done on any hide including deer bear and moose?

      and the egg thing do you have to use just the yellow of the egg or the whole thing?

      and do you just smoke it until it turns golden

      do you have to cover it in clay for it dry or can you use salt or just let it dry on its own

    11. Allan Strader April 2, 2009 at 12:34 PM #

      do you know how to tan with borax?

    12. JJ Murphy
      JJ Murphy April 2, 2009 at 8:43 PM #

      Hi Allan,

      These are excellent questions.

      I haven’t yet experimented with the borax as a method for hide tanning. My hides are in the freezer until I get a free moment.

      When it comes to tanning hides, building a fire and directing the smoke so it penetrates the hide is a lot of work. Borax sounds like an easier and more user-friendly way to tan hides.

      My instructor, Barry Keegan, taught me to use egg yolk when brains are not available. I imagine that the concentrated protein of the yolk is what makes it work. I’d save the egg whites for an omelet or meringue.

      It’s not how long you leave the egg on, it’s a matter of massaging the egg into the hide and stretching it until it is soft and pliable. Tanning by smoke or borax keeps the hide from getting stiff when it gets wet.

      I haven’t tried to tan a large hide using this method. I imagine it would work. I’d try to get the brains of the large animal if I had access to a deer, bear or moose. If you cannot get brains, then the egg yolks should work just fine.

      If the hide is not completely tanned, then I stick it in the freezer until I’m ready to work on it. The clay was a way to dry out the hide which makes scraping easier. I’ve never used salt, so I have no idea what it would do to the hide.

    13. D Froude May 7, 2009 at 7:09 PM #

      I have a beautiful pair of very expensive handcrafted moccasins with that lovely smoked smell that everyone seems to love. The problem is…. the smell makes me sick and I can’t wear them. Is there any way to get the smoked smell out of them without ruining them?

    14. JJ Murphy
      JJ Murphy May 7, 2009 at 9:39 PM #

      I’ve never had anyone ask that question before. Have you tried hanging them on a clothesline outdoors for a few days?

      If fresh air does not reduce or eliminate the odor, you could try to contact someone who specializes in cleaning furs and leather.

      If you do succeed, please contact me and let me know what you did.

      Good luck

    15. Albert A Rasch December 14, 2010 at 7:35 PM #

      Howdy folks,

      Remember, every animal has just enough brains to brain tan its own hide!

      Borax is good for small pelts, basicly soak in a solution of one ounce of borax to a gallon of water.

      Best Regards,
      Albert A Rasch™
      The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles: Avoid Gettin’ Snake Bit! But if you do…

    16. JJ Murphy December 14, 2010 at 9:40 PM #

      Albert, thanks for visiting my site and for your excellent tips. I’m going to give the borax a try. I have done some brain tanning. When I have an intact skull for study, I haven’t figured out how to get the brains out without smashing the skull.

      I visited your site and really enjoyed reading your posts. The snake photos are amazing.

      Happy Trails.

    17. James December 25, 2010 at 8:44 AM #

      I was wondering now that the skin is on the 2 year mark, how is it holding up? When I was a LOT younger we used to stretch our hides but never went past stretching and salting.

    18. JJ Murphy December 25, 2010 at 8:47 AM #

      James, I checked this and several other hides I have worked on are remarkably pliable. Mind you, none of them have been exposed to moisture or outdoor air.

      Tanning using the egg yolk, when you don’t have brains, makes stretching easier.

      One of these days, I’ll build a fire and try to smoke these hides, so they remain soft and can then be used outdoors.

    19. Byron January 30, 2011 at 7:46 PM #

      Nice but i have some questions too
      (a) Can you just Salt then put denatured alchol then rub the egg mixture
      (b) How long does a hide have to sit in the Borax

    20. JJ Murphy January 30, 2011 at 9:01 PM #

      Hi Byron,

      Thanks for visiting my site.

      I have not tried salt and denatured alcohol. If you do give this a try, please let me know how it works out.

      As for the Borax, I have sent out an email to the folks who have tried this. Once I know, I’ll post the info to this comment.

    21. JJ Murphy January 31, 2011 at 12:35 PM #

      Byron,

      The answer to the Borax question is:

      Borax acts as a preservative, basically stopping any deterioration via bacteria or bugs. The solution can be anywhere between 1 oz to 4 ozs of borax per gallon. I would lean towards the heavier solution. Soak over night. let dry. But take notes! If the first soaking doesn’t set the hide and keep the hair from slipping, either up the concentration, or extend the soak time.

      I hope this helps.

      JJ

    22. Chase June 14, 2011 at 3:56 PM #

      So does this method of tanning work as good as any of the other methods?

    23. Chase June 14, 2011 at 4:17 PM #

      Also when you use salt, does it matter if it is iodized or non-iodized??

    24. JJ Murphy June 14, 2011 at 11:23 PM #

      Chase, I think it’s a matter of how much effort you want to invest and what skills you are most interested in developing. I know that the dry method is a lot less work, but the wet method provides an opportunity to learn how to scrape a hide.

      If you specialized in museum replication, as my friend and mentor Barry Keegan does, then how you scrape a hide might matter a great deal,if it’s a matter of creating authenticity.

      As for the salt, iodized salt is table salt. I have no idea if the additives have any impact on the process or if the size of the salt crystal matters.

      One of my readers had sent in a comment about salt and hide tanning. You may want to check out the Rasch Outdoor Chronicles. That’s the source of my information on salt.

      Good luck in your hide tanning endeavors.

    25. Allan August 12, 2011 at 3:50 PM #

      What does one do with a tanned red squirrel hide?

    26. JJ Murphy August 15, 2011 at 11:00 PM #

      Allan, assuming I trapped a number of red squirrels, I might have enough for a pair of mittens.

    27. Steve September 3, 2011 at 5:01 AM #

      Thank you so much for this! Ive been doing a ton of research and I think you tied all of my loose knowledge up and I am ready. Im saving your site on my favorites and Ill let you know how my first product turns out. Thanks again for taking the time to do this.

    28. Ben October 14, 2011 at 10:49 PM #

      This is an awesome article and I plan on tanning the next squirrel I get. Thanks alot

    29. Chris Randolph October 23, 2011 at 9:00 PM #

      I found your article very informational and helpful. I did have a few questions. Does this method require any soaking at all in salt solution, or any other, and when using the egg or brain mixture how long should it be left on the hide before removing it. If you could respond to this mail directly that would be great my email address is crazychris1871@yahoo.com. thanks a ton.
      Chris.

    30. JJ Murphy October 29, 2011 at 2:01 PM #

      Chris, my mentor Barry Keegan, usually teaches the most effective and efficient way to do something. He’s the bushcraft answer to “work smarter, not harder.”

      I think the idea of working with clay, rather than salt, is to draw the moisture out of the hide so it takes less work to scrape the hide. You may want to check out Rausch Outdoor Chronicles.com. That’s the source of my information on salt.

      As for how long to leave the hide in the egg/water mixture. I think that depends on the size and thickness of the hide. If I recall correctly, I left this red squirrel hide overnight.

    31. riley November 5, 2011 at 8:31 PM #

      Hey, my name is Riley, and I was wondering when you were smoking the squirrel did you tie it to the forked stick and how tight do you need to tie it?

    32. riley November 5, 2011 at 8:33 PM #

      and do you have any photos of the squirrel when you were smoking it, I love hunting and would like to use the animal for more than just the meat.

    33. JJ Murphy November 5, 2011 at 10:42 PM #

      Thanks for visiting my site, Riley.

      I used artificial sinew to tie the squirrel to a green stick. I made a slit in the ends of the stick and slipped the sinew into the slit. I’ve since discovered ways to work smarter, not harder.

      I made an open fire and on that day the wind kept shifting, so I had to keep moving the hide. It is really important that you don’t let the flame near the hide – you want to burn really punky (decomposed) wood , (green – not dead) leafy branches or wet wood to get a smoky fire. You don’t want flames or heat, you want lots of smoke.

      I looked through my photo archives and did not find any photos taken while I was smoking the hide, probably because I was so busy with the fire and moving the hide.

      A more efficient way of hide tanning would be to have some way of keeping the smoke concentrated. One way to do this is to create a sunken fire pit (some people cover the fire with leafy branches to create abundant smoke) and wrap the hide into a tube so that the smoke is channeled up through the hide.

      You need to make sure the hide is very thoroughly smoked so that it stays soft and pliable even if it gets wet.

    34. Julie November 24, 2011 at 9:06 PM #

      Thanks for keeping this post going! Lots of good info here. I just finished ‘tanning’ two road kill squirrels using the egg method and then smoking them. My hides were a mix of soft and supple areas, with areas that refused to soften. These areas might have had membrane left on them…so I was wondering how I could improve my fleshing. Do I understand correctly that putting clay on the flesh side of the hide and sanding it off after it dries is an alternative method of getting off that tough membrane? Also any hints on how to tell if you’ve done a good job fleshing BEFORE you start to tan? I found it hard to tell if I was pulling on membrane, or actually tugging on the ‘leather’ itself.

    35. Julie November 24, 2011 at 9:09 PM #

      Also, after your second egging (on the red squirrel) did you smoke it again?

    36. JJ Murphy November 25, 2011 at 10:27 AM #

      Hi Julie,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on my site. A lot depends on whether you have a young squirrel or a more mature squirrel. Younger animals have more tender hides and if you scrape too much, you run the risk of scraping through the membrane into the hair follicle and weakening the hide (the fur may fall out).

      Better to be a little more gentle with the hide. First try soaking in the egg mixture and then pull the hide over a rounded stick (like a wooden or plastic broom handle) to stretch the hide.

      Try smoking the hide again – make sure the hide is thoroughly smoked. I’d make a cone to channel the smoke to go where you want it to go – otherwise the smoke just dissipates in the air, especially if there is a breeze.

      If the hide is supple, then you have succeeded. If there is a stiff area, try working it with your fingers – don’t scrape unless it is very obvious that you have membrane tissue attached – membrane will usually look like it’s peeling.

      Thanks again for your feedback. Please let me know what you learn from your tanning efforts.

      Happy Trails,

    37. Julie November 27, 2011 at 4:01 PM #

      Thanks so much for your response JJ! I will probably try to re-egg my hides in the near future. There is a noticeable difference in how they turned out. The one I salted for a few days is much less supple than the one I egged while still fresh. I did find the fleshing easier on the salted hide, but I must not of rehydrated it adequately before the egging…I was nervous about soaking it in water for too long because of the potential of slipping the fur. So I am excited to give your dry fleshing method a try. Maybe it will make the fleshing easier without the drawback of salting.

      Anyway, as I often remind myself, “to do it, you have to go through it”. I feel like I’ve learned so much just by trying. Thanks for sharing your experiences! I am looking forward to finding my next unfortunate casualty of the road (Poor little buggers!)

    38. JJ Murphy November 28, 2011 at 1:29 AM #

      Julie, thanks for the update.

      I’m beginning to think that salt may work better in a warm, humid climate, where drying is more of a challenge. Perhaps the salt dried the hide too quickly.

      I have a shampoo without sodium lauryl sulfate called “No-Poo.” I used it to remove egg residue from the fur on my squirrel hides. I cannot figure out how to soak the hide and keep the fur dry. Gentle shampoo seems to work to gently and effectively clean.

      When I was taking bushcraft classes, hands-on time was called “dirt time.” Staring at moss looking for a vole track – there’s no way to fast track that. But why would I want to? Part of the fun is the process.

      In my experience, it’s the same with hide-tanning and every other skill.

      My Dad always told me that if every rodent and rabbit ever born lived, they’d eat all the vegetables and grains. So I learned not to feel sorry for them. One benefit to winter road kill is that if it’s bitter cold out you can enjoy the meat as well as the hide.

      Happy Trails.

    39. Dylan January 14, 2012 at 1:39 AM #

      This is great info im gunna try it on a gray squrriel and best way to get brains out without brakin the skull is to get a metal clothes hanger untwist it and stick it up where the spine would be and start stirring it up is wat we do

    40. JJ Murphy January 14, 2012 at 8:45 AM #

      Dylan, that’s brilliant. Always better to work smarter, not harder. Thanks for sharing this tip.

    41. Dylan January 14, 2012 at 12:32 PM #

      Welcome on more question is it okay to use wet paper to smoke or we leaves or u think its better to use wood

    42. JJ Murphy January 15, 2012 at 12:58 PM #

      Dylan, remember that the aroma of what you burn is infused (really blended in) with the smoke. I’d stick to a slow-burning wood that smells good to you, especially if you are planning to use it as something to wear. I’d love to see a photo of what you finally end up with.

    43. Dylan January 15, 2012 at 5:54 PM #

      Alright i might use some pine i love that smell im probaly goin out fox hunting tonight so im gunna see what i can get

    44. lily ratatosk January 21, 2012 at 3:22 PM #

      jj,
      hello! i have finally found myself in a position to tan my own hide! fortune, i have 2 hides and one belonged to a goat.
      anyhow…
      sadly, i don”t live in a place where i feel comfortable building a smokey fire. i will if i have to! but while reading your site i encountered the idea of BORAX!
      i don”t want to tan the hide entirely with borax, more work or no! i want most of all to do it with eggs and fire. but…
      so i was wondering if it was feasible to do the first part of the process in the “standard” fashion, and then finish with borax? soak it or rub it in? i don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to try borax yet or not.
      thank you for all of the time you”ve taken answering all of these posts throughly with care.
      lily

    45. JJ Murphy January 23, 2012 at 1:59 PM #

      Hi Lily,

      First, congratulations on having hides to tan. The borax or clay process is used for removing any meat, fat and membrane from the hide. Stretching makes the hide soft. Then you soak the hide in brains if you have them, egg yolk if you do not.

      The point of smoking the hide over the fire is to keep it soft even if it gets wet. If you do not smoke the hide, it will become stiff again if it gets wet.

      I know that there are devices called “smokers” that people smoke meat in when making jerky. I have no idea if this would work for the hide, but it may be worth investigating.

      The only other option would be for you to find a place where making a fire is not an issue with neighbors, perhaps a campground with cabins. I don’t know where you live, but you may also want to see if there is a Meet-Up group in your area where people practice primitive tech skills.

      Let me know how your tanned hides turn out.

    46. Julie Anglehart March 17, 2012 at 7:55 PM #

      Hi! this sight is wonderful, I have a ermine skin, that I intend to turn into a pouch, I have packed it with salt (48 hrs) and plan on using the borax method, I will smoke it since it seems be the best way to keep it supple, thanks for all the info and am looking forward to an ermin skin pouch.

    47. JJ Murphy March 18, 2012 at 8:08 AM #

      Julie, thank you very much for taking the time to visit my site and comment. I hope you have been taking photos. I look forward to hearing about and hopefully seeing the results of your work.

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