Getting Started on Preserving Skins

Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

Over the years I have made friends with numerous people who hunt birds, small game, and large game. Many of them have invited me to join them. In every instance I have said no emphatically. Most look at me and say, “Why?” My answer is always the same, “I don’t need another expensive, time intensive hobby!” Inevitably this leads to a weird smile followed by an “Oh.”

It’s not that I don’t like the idea of hunting. Rather, I know I will like it. If I start, it will be the first step off the proverbial cliff leading to new equipment, learning how to use it, and trying to figure out the best places to use it well. I don’t have the time, and don’t have enough money to spend on new hobbies as my other time-intensive, expensive hobbies, fishing and woodworking, do an excellent job of depleting my hobby spending account.

Fortunately, my hunting friends have not disowned me and we have retained good relationships over the years. This can provide a productive source of feathers and fur. One day I was talking to my new neighbor asking about his hobbies. His favorite hobby was pheasant hunting. Off he went on a long description of his latest exploits. I had never seen anyone field dress a pheasant so I asked how he did it. To my horror I found out that he pulled out the breast meat and disposed of everything else in the garbage. I could hardly contain myself thinking of how many flies I could tie with just a couple of those skins.

I kept my cool and casually asked when he planned his next pheasant hunting excursion. As fortune would have it, he was going the next month. As nonchalantly as I could, I inquired if he could save a few skins for me.

To my great delight he quickly retorted, “How many do you want?”

To which I replied, “Well, how many will you have?”

He was going with a group of guys so he thought it could easily be as many as 20-30 birds.

So, I said, “Five or six would be fine.”

He knew I trout fished and finished with, “For a couple of trout dinners, I can get you double that.”

I quickly responded, “Done!

A few weeks later a huge garbage bag of pheasant skins showed up next to my garage door overnight. I have to warn you, it can be pretty ugly when you open bags like this. He had taken no precautions and just kept tossing the skins into the bag until he could just barely carry it. It was fall so it was cool enough that the smell was not completely repulsive when I first opened the bag. After sorting through the bag, I kept 4-5 skins and all the tail feathers that were usable.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert. Others may have better ways to do this. I did a little searching on the internet to get going and went with the easiest thing I could find. In the end, this will provide preserved skins for small animals and birds that will last indefinitely if they are kept dry after the process is completed.

The process I describe below can be used to preserve any small game pelt or bird skin. Their skins are much thinner and easily dried. Larger animals have thicker skins and require a different process to properly preserve the skin and fur. I have done part of a deer skin once. It takes 3-4 weeks to go through the process. I am glad I did it, but will probably not try to do it again until I deplete my stock.

First, I will give the general steps. Afterwards I will provide some details for each step.

  1. Start quickly: Begin the process as soon as you can. Hours are better than days.
  2. Clean it first: Use soap and water to wash all of the blood, dirt, etc. off
  3. Rinse thoroughly: Thoroughly rinse with warm water (mostly so your hands don’t get cold)
  4. Partially dry: Let it dry until the skin is still moist and pliable
  5. Stretch and pin: Stretch and pin the skin with the fur/feathers on the down side
  6. Remove any tissue or fat: Scrape off any remaining flesh or fat
  7. Apply the drying agent: Liberally cover the flesh side of the skin with borax
  8. Wait: Wait until the skin is hard
  9. Remove the drying agent and pins: Carefully remove the borax and the pins.
  10. Start tying: The skin is ready to store or use!

COMMENTS ON EACH STEP

  1. Start quickly: The longer you wait, the more likely the skin or pelt is to shed the fur or feathers; this is referred to as casting. A good friend of mine had a squirrel problem at his house and saved several squirrel tails for me over the summer. When I grabbed the first tail and pulled it out, all I got was a naked tail. All the hair fell off. Not one tail was usable.
  2. Clean it first: Nothing fancy here. Simply wash in warm water to remove blood, dirt, etc. You may need to use a little dish washing detergent to get everything off.
  3. Rinse thoroughly: if you use any soap, make sure to rinse thoroughly with warm water.
  4. Partially dry: Allow the piece to air dry until it is moist and still pliable. If you let it dry too long it usually curls and becomes brittle. You can soak it in water and let it partially dry without ruining the skin (unless you wait too long, in which case the fur/feathers may start falling off).
  5. Stretch and pin: If the skin is pliable it is time to stretch and pin the skin. I use the foam boards you use for presentations to stretch out the skin or hide using sewing pins or push pins. Put the feather or fur side down and the muscle side up.  I prefer sewing pins as they make smaller holes and lead to less tearing. If you use sewing pins, I like to grip the pin in a needle nose plier when I push the pin through the skin into the foam board. You don’t have to use the pliers, but if you are doing more than 20 pins, I find my hand gets pretty sore. I place the pins 2-3 inches apart and try to get the skin taught but not too tight. The skin will shrink as it dries. If you get it too taught when you are pinning it down, the skin may tear as it dries. Try to place the pins within ¼” or less of the edge. This helps to prevent the skin from rolling up as it dries.
  6. Remove any tissue or fat: Using a putty knife, scrape off any remaining muscle tissue or fat. Usually you will find a membrane between the muscle or fat and the skin. Try to get all of it off. Start scraping gently and increase pressure until you start removing muscle, fat, or the membrane. You can scrape firmly, but be careful not to scrape too hard or you will tear the skin. It’s not the end of the earth if you do, but it makes applying and removing the drying agent easier and less messy if you don’t tear the skin.
  7. Apply the drying agent: Coat the muscle side of the skin with 1/16” to 1/8” thick layer of Borax (you can buy still buy Borax 20 mule team – I googled it and it looks like Target has it. One box lasts a long time – I am still on my first box.). Borax is a boric acid salt, it serves as a dehydrating agent (it removes all moisture from the skin). You can use table salt too. However, you want to use non-iodized salt. I prefer borax as it is a finer powder which covers more evenly. It is also less corrosive than salt. I recommend using disposable gloves to apply the borax/salt. This prevents drying out your hands. If you don’t use gloves, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with water after you are done.
  8. Wait: This is the easiest step but the hardest to do. I always want to see the finished product so waiting is painful. It can go as quickly as a few hours if the skin is thin or up to 1-3 days for thicker skins. You can tell when the skin is dry as it gets very stiff . Make sure there are no moist spots left.
  9. Remove the drying agent and pins: This is straight forward. Take the pinned board to a waste basket or garbage can and tip the board until all the salt comes off. You may need to lightly brush the skin with an old paint brush to dislodge any salt that sticks to the skin. Remove the pins.
  10. Start tying: The skin is good to go you can start tying. As long as the skin remains dry, you should not have any problems with bugs, mold, etc. Some of the pieces in the pictures of my stash below have been stored for over 10 years without any loss in quality!

I find doing this fun. It also saves some money so you can buy other things at J. Stockard for your fly-tying or fly-fishing arsenal. There is another big benefit. As you examine the pelts and skins you are likely to find some unusual feathers that can lead to some productive flies. One example of this is the fine marabou feathers found at the base of many of the turkey feathers on the skin. I decided to use these to palmer the body of a bead head nymph. It looks great in the water, and better yet, it catches fish.

So, give it a try. For an hour or two of work you can get a lifetime supply of some pretty amazing tying supplies. In addition, now you have a reason to make friends with people who hunt.

WARNING: There are certain feathers and furs that are illegal to have in your possession unless you are a registered dealer (Eagle feathers most notably). Be sure to check your state DNR regulations for possession of whatever you intend to dry. Also, selling certain furs and feathers can be illegal. Be sure to ensure whatever you intend to sell is permissible. State DNR penalties can be quite stiff for violations in either of these instances.

18 thoughts on “Getting Started on Preserving Skins

  1. Freddy Block

    Great article and thanks! I have used salt in the past but will use Borax after my next squirrel harvest. Question: I received a couple of deer tails that are funcky smelling (received them that way) and wonder if I can get that smell out by wetting them and they re-drying with Borax. Your thoughts?

    Thanks and all the best – Freddy

    Reply
    1. Mary S. Kuss

      Congrats to Joe on a great post. This is definitely a subject which adventurous, resourceful tyers should have an understanding of.

      There are numerous ways to handle fly tying materials “in the raw.” I used to do a lot of this but haven’t done for years. I used to hunt, and always felt an ethical obligation to try to make as much use as possible of the game I harvested, including the feathers, hair and fur. When I’d built up such a supply of the commonly available stuff that it was pointless to accumulate more, I started giving my processed items to friends or donating them to local TU chapters and other clubs.

      I also used to do a fair amount of dying of materials, but as the years passed the quality and selection available commercially became so fantastic that there was little motivation to continue these activities. Although they remain an interesting and rewarding pastime for those inclined to pursue them.

      If you’re going to dabble in processing your own, above all start with strictly fresh material. For the amount of time and effort you will expend to process the items it’s absolutely not worth taking a chance on “over the hill” stuff.

      Borax is far superior to salt for preserving any kind of pelt to be used for fly tying. Salt draws moisture from the air as well as from the skin, so materials treated with it often never dry completely. It’s also attractive to rodents. Borax is an excellent drying agent, toxic if ingested (so keep treated materials out of the reach of pets), and has deodorizing properties as well. Just make sure you get the right product: 20 Mule Team Borax. Don’t use Boraxo laundry detergent, bleach, hand cleaner, or any other similar product. It’s not the same and will not work well.

      Some small birds and animals with thin, non-fatty skin (such as quail, woodcock, rabbit) do not even require treatment with borax. All you need to do is gently press the pelt skin side down on a thick pad of newspaper and lay out in a cool, dry location. The newspaper will draw moisture from the skin; you’ll feel the dampness in the paper. Don’t disturb the paper layer next to the skin, but change the rest of the paper daily until the skin is mostly dry then leave it on the paper until completely dried then store in a zipper bag with some Moth Nuggets or cedar chips. The topmost newspaper layer will likely remain fused to the skin, but that matters little IMHO.

      I prefer to dry materials first then wash them if necessary. As I said, there are many paths to the same good result, but this was my method. Also, it worked much better with a large item like a deer hide. A soaking wet deer hide with hair is incredibly heavy and difficult to work with. I only had to try this once. The process I ultimately arrived at for a deer hide was this: First, scrape the skin clean of fat and meat residue then apply a generous quantity of borax, lay out skin-side-up and let dry well, and shake/brush off excess borzx. Next use a straight-edge and pencil to lay out a grid of 3 to 4″ squares on the dried skin and cut with a linoleum knife or box cutter, trying not to cut too deep down into the hair. It’s then very easy to wash the pieces, gently squeeze and shake out excess water, and lay them out on newspaper to dry a second time. Shake the pieces daily as they dry to fluff the hair, turning them alternately skin side up and skin side down. No more borax is needed, the first treatment is sufficient to cure the hide.

      Do make very, very sure that any material you are going to store in a closed container is thoroughly dry. If not, you are in for an unpleasant surprise when you open it again.

      Reply
      1. JOE DELLARIA

        Hi Mary,
        Sounds like you should have written the blog. Wow! Thanks for your helpful tips and details.
        Can I send my stuff to you? Just kidding of course.
        All the best, Joe

        Reply
        1. Mary S. Kuss

          I apologize for going on and on in my comment. I only hoped to add a slightly different perspective. If you get the desired result, it’s all good. As for sending your stuff to me, although this was in jest, please don’t. I’m retired now, both from my job and from processing fly tying materials. Actually, I ought to send you some of my stuff–except I wouldn’t want it back! At age 68 I have far more materials than I can ever use in the remainder of my natural life.

          Reply
          1. JOE DELLARIA

            Hi Mary,
            Your comments and insights were great and added significantly – thanks for taking the time to help others do this better.
            I am not far behind you with regards to retiring and suffer from the same problem of having more than enough. Offering to send you my stuff was in jest and I hope you took it that way.
            All the best, Joe

    2. JOE DELLARIA

      Hi Freddy, Sorry for the delay. I was out on my last fishing trip this week.
      I am not sure this will work, but it worth a try. Try soaking the tails in a solution of brine for 2-3 weeks – that should kill the mold. Deer skin is much thicker and will take at least that long to completely penetrate the entire skin. You can check after 2 weeks by cutting an edge of the skin with a utility knife. If the skin is not completely saturated the center of the skin will be a lighter gray than the saturated skin. Continue soaking until the color of the skin is the same all the way through. Make sure to use a plastic container – metal is corroded by brine. I usually use an appropriate size plastic bin you can buy at a store. You can prepare the brine solution by adding non-iodized salt in portion to the desired amount of hot tap water in your container. Keep adding salt in portions until all of it won’t dissolve. It would be best to pour off the the solution to remove the undissolved salt. You may need to put a brick on each tail to keep it submerged. Every few days, take the bricks off and stir the solution (wearing gloves are a good idea, if you don’t make sure to wash your hands thoroughly), put the bricks back on and let it sit. When the skin is done, wash it thoroughly with warm water to remove the salt (using gloves again). Then stretch the tails on a board. In this case I use a heavy duty staple gun. Let the tails dry out of the sun. It usually takes 4-7 days. Finally, when it is dry, sand the skin with 120 grit sand paper. This softens the skin. You are ready to go.

      Reply
    3. JOE DELLARIA

      Hi Freddy,
      I have tried to reply to this three times. For some reason it has not posted.
      I would recommend soaking the tails in a brine solution until the skin of the tails is completely saturated by the brine solution. This usually takes between 1-3 weeks. You can follow the progress by snipping a 1/2-1″ cut into the tail skin. It will saturate from the outside towards the center of the skin. The saturated part will appear darker. If you see any lighter portion in the center when you snip the tail, keep soaking.
      A brine solution is simply a saturated solution of salt in water. To prepare this, determine how much water will completely cover the tails. Then add non-iodized salt in cup portions to warm water and stir until all the salt dissolves. Keep adding salt in portions until the salt no longer dissolves. Pour the resulting solution into a plastic bucket or bin (metal will corrode) with your tails. You will need to put a brick or rock on the tails to keep them submerged. Every 2-3 days, remove the rock and stir the solution, and put the rocks back on the tails. Repeat this until the tails are saturated.
      When it is fully saturated, rinse thoroughly with warm water twice (you don’t want any residual salt). Then stretch the tails and staple (I use heavy duty staples the skin is thick and tough) the tails to a board (I usually use 3/4″ Plywood) with the skin side up following the procedure described in the article. Place the board in a dry, cool place, that is out of the sun. It usually takes 3-5 days to dry. You can speed this up by using a jig saw to cut out the shape of the tail so air can circulate on both sides. The cut out should be at least 1/2″ smaller than the tail so you can stretch the hide and staple.
      If you see any flesh on the skins of either tail scrape that off before stapling.
      Hope this process works for you.

      Reply
      1. Freddy Block

        THANKS SOOOOO MUCH! (I see two replies!) After my upcoming trip it’s game on, and into the brine with thos stinky tails! I appreciate all the time and detail you shared! Greatly appreciated!

        All the best – Freddy

        Reply
  2. C. Howie Grunts

    one better, I have a good hunting buddy who’s a licensed taxidermist. All the trimmings I want and they are professionally tanned. Whitetail, mule deer, antelope, black bear, bighorn sheep, cougar, and wolf by the box full.

    Reply
  3. Gary Lynn Moss

    Great article. I have hunting friends who have saved feathers for me in the past, so I have saved turkey and pheasant tailfeathers, but never saw how to preserve full skins. I have used borax or salt to kill mites and other pests on the feather side of the skin that might otherwise chew up the feathers.
    The commercial deer and elk hides are tanned so that the skin will be smooth and pliable. Not too difficult for small patches, but takes a lot of time and special space for full hides.

    Reply
  4. Michael Vorhis

    Terrific article Joe. I had imagined everything from “just lay it upside down n the sun and any meat sticking to the skin will dry up” to “get a Ph.D. in chrome tanning and tannic acid chemistry, and build a lab full of vats and infrared lamps.” It’s good to know that a little timely and controlled cleaning and drying is all a fly-tier really needs. (I guess I should have known though, since that old “Tie me kangaroo down” song had a stanza that began with “Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred,” and it laid out all the relatively simple steps.)

    The only experience I have in skin preserving is watching my father pour salt down into the vacated bone cavity of a single squirrel tail. It worked and that tail still holds fur to this day, but I always thought that was a fluke.

    Sad to hear that “hours are better than days” though, as a great many road kills could otherwise be put to good use.

    Thanks Joe, great photos and a great article.

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. JOE DELLARIA

      Hi Mike,
      Glad you enjoyed the post. It is fun, satisfying, and expands your tying repertoire as you will find some unusual stuff.
      All the best, Joe

      Reply
  5. Michael Vorhis

    Joe, one detail caught my eye: The warning against using iodized salt. Can you explain why that needs to be avoided? I’d have thought that salt kills microbes whether it’s iodized or not, and dries the skin just as well either way too. Very curious…thanks.

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. JOE DELLARIA

      Hi Mike, I read that is some of my research but I do not know the reason for sure. However, as a chemist I have an educated guess (that and $1.25 will not get you a medium coffee at Caribou). Iodine is an oxidant (it likes to take on electrons and take diatomic iodine to two iodide ions) that could wreak havoc on the skin or feathers and deteriorate the quality.
      I have never tried iodized salt so I can’t confirm that for sure. This is my best educated guess.
      All the best, Joe

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        Thanks; I knew your chemistry expertise would have a good theory. (And here I was guessing it might have something to do with discoloring feathers or fur…the only hunch I could come up with.)

        A wide web search I made turned up many amateur taxidermists all forbidding the use of iodized salt without knowing why. Some few folks ask the question and I’ve seen everything from “no real reason, you won’t notice the difference because there’s so little iodine in salt anyway” to “shouldn’t waste iodized salt because it’s for human consumption” to “iodized salt is more expensive” (which would only matter if you were tanning a hundred hides a year I think). And a few others add other lore that is clearly incorrect.

        The best reason I’ve found online is that “non-iodized salt has been recommended for taxidermy for years, and the reason is that iodized salt has other additives in it to keep it from clumping, and you don’t want those chemicals on your hides–chemicals that sometimes mess with acidity and can turn fur white.” It’s the only other answer that sounded plausible that I came across, and I suspect that if true it’s closely related to your answer (and amazingly to my original guess too!).

        Okay, beating a dead horse hide here…thanks Joe, good topic.

        – Mike

        Reply

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