Fur harvesting used to be common. Most farm kids ran traps before school, and old-timers ran dogs and trapped for a livelihood. Fur was worth pursuing and, at times, was quite valuable. There used to be a fur buyer in every little rural town; even Sears, Roebuck & Company bought fur. During the Great Depression, some furbearers like skunk, raccoon and mink were quite valuable and could fetch as much as a week’s wages. Most folks’ only method of keeping fur was to put it up—stretch and dry it.
Now, in the 21st century, fur buyers are hard to come by, and those who are around are more interested in put-up or finished (fleshed, stretched and dried) fur. Other options are shipping your fur direct or buying from fur companies such as North American Fur Auctions (NAFA). To ship fur, it must be finished to ensure there is no decay or hair slippage. Fur that is put up correctly and well finished will last a long time and result in top quality fur garments.
Step 1: Skinning
It all starts the moment you harvest a furbearer. No matter if it was trapped or shot, you need to make sure to keep the fur as free of blood, mud and burs as you can. Skinning that critter as quickly as possible also yields the best fur. When fur is left on the animal for extended periods of time, rigor mortis begins to set in. The animal starts to decay. The belly will start to taint quite quickly. This creates a greenish-blue tint to the belly area. This in turn promotes slippage and a damaged hide. An animal is easier to skin when warm. Therefore, this results in less stress to the hide as you peel it off. Once skinned and cooled down, you can then start the finishing process or freeze the fur to process later.
Know the Differences
Different species are handled differently. Canines and felines are finished fur-side out. This requires a little more work. Water animals and raccoons are finished flesh-side out. All furbearers are case skinned except for beaver and badger, which are split down the belly. Most furbearers get their front feet cut off before skinning. Canines get their front legs cut off at the elbow. The back feet are left on for the time being, mostly for hanging. Cut the skin only around the back legs. Carefully remove the hide down around the anus and genitals, and very carefully remove the tailbone from the tail. A tail stripper or plyers can help here. Work the skin down to the front legs and remove them from the hide.
Skin on down to the neck and head area. The neck is typically a tight, hard area, so be very careful. This area can easily be cut. Pull as much as you can, only using your knife when needed. The head is tricky, but once you get the hang of it, the process goes smoothly. Continue down until you feel the ears, and cut the cartilage from the back of the ears forward down to the eyes. Cut the back of the eyes as you go, and remove the hide from the head and down to the lips. The lower lip can be left on the carcass. Skin down to the nose and cut it off from the back of the tip, keeping the nose on the hide. This sounds difficult, but it becomes second nature with practice.
Step 2: Rinsing
Coyotes are the most difficult furbearers to finish fur-side out. Most coyotes are filthy and somewhat bloody, so I like to wash my coyote skins before continuing the process. I simply fill a 5-gallon bucket with water, then soak and wash the skins until the water clears up. Then I use a cheap dishwashing detergent and wash them well in soapy water before rinsing them in clean, clear water. After emptying the bucket, I refill it and rinse the skins one last time with a little fabric softener.
To wring them out as best I can, I hold the nose and pop them as you would a wet towel. This not only rids the hides of extra water, but the fabric softener also helps to loosen up those cockleburs so they come flying out. Lastly, I use a fur comb to get out any clumps of dried mud, blood or cocklebur that would result in a hole in the hide if hit with the fleshing knife. Once washed and combed out, it’s time to turn them flesh-side out.
Step 3: Fleshing
For this step, you’ll need a fleshing beam and fleshing knife, both of which can be made or bought. Once the fur is pulled down on the beam, the real work begins. Start around the ears and work your way down to the front legs; this area is one of the thinnest parts of the hide, so be careful. Slowly begin to push any fat and flesh from the hide down towards the tail, rotating the hide on the beam as you go. Your fleshing knife is usually dull on one side for pushing and sharper on the other for cutting stubborn areas.
Once you work down around the front legs, you will encounter a flesh saddle that will require a little more pressure. It is sort of an intuitive feeling, so just apply as much pressure as needed to remove the saddle and any fat encountered. The back of most furbearers is the thickest part of the hide and will require more pressure to remove the excess fat and tissue.
When you’re down to the belly, you’ll start to encounter that thinner hide and a little more fat, so ease up here and only apply as much pressure as absolutely necessary. Continue down, still rotating the hide to thoroughly remove as much fat and flesh as possible, all the way to the tail. This area usually doesn’t require as much pressure, so be careful not to cut it off. The hind legs are the last parts that need attention, with usually just a few tendons to remove.
Step 4: Stretching
Once all the fleshing is done, I like to wipe the hide off with newspaper to remove any excess grease squeezed out of the hide. Stretchers can be made of either wire or wood; I prefer wire for coyotes and furbearers stretched fur-side out, and wood for critters stretched flesh-side out.
Insert the stretcher into the hide from the tail end and tap the fur down by softly striking the stretcher on the floor. Straighten the fur out as best you can by centering the eye holes, ears and front feet on the stretcher. The wire stretcher has metal hooks that poke through the hide and hold it down in place. I fasten the tail first using the center hook about halfway down the tail. Snug the hide by gently pulling the hook downward until tight. Flip the hide over, and using the other hook, attach it to the skin of both back legs. Try to center the legs as best as you can for a uniform-looking hide. Pull this hook down until tight, and check and adjust the tail hook if needed, making sure both hooks are taut.
This is a trial-and-error type of undertaking Depending on the climate in your area, the hide needs to dry flesh-side out. If dried too much, it will be difficult or downright impossible to turn without damaging your skin. And if it’s turned while still damp, it could ruin your hide. It needs to dry just enough that it is not tacky and won’t stick to itself. Some folks rub the hide with Borax at this point, and it does help; I especially like to apply Borax liberally to the ears, as they are the last parts to dry.
Step 5: Turning
Once the hide is dry enough that it can still be turned, remove it from the stretcher and turn it right side out. When the fur is out, you again insert the stretcher and repeat the process of centering the eyes, ears and front leg holes. Reattach the metal hooks in the same holes as before and adjust the skin so it’s nicely centered, then I like to back-comb the hair so it stands up. The hair is usually still damp, and this process helps the hair dry quicker. Once this is done, check and make sure the metal hooks are taut. Lastly, I insert a slat or yardstick up the center of the hide and turn it sideways. This allows air to circulate inside and out and keeps the hide from sticking to itself, which would cause it to taint.
If the weather permits, I like to lean the stretcher up against the fence and let the sun and wind dry the hide out. Be sure not to leave it out overnight, as the cool, damp air will just prolong the process and, in some cases, have a reverse effect. I also hang my hides nose-up on hooks in my fur shed. I usually leave a fan going on low, so air is constantly circulating. Some hides might take a while to fully dry; I usually leave a coyote on a stretcher for at least a week until good and set up—don’t rush them. Once dry, I again back-comb the fur and then remove the stretcher. Holding the hide by the nose in one hand and the tail in the other, give it a pop or two and the fur will really fluff up and look great.
Putting Up Fur: Some Exceptions
Raccoons and water animals get the same treatment: Make sure they are free of all dirt, blood, burs and flesh. These furbearers are quite a bit greasier, hence they are stretched flesh-side out. The greasier furbearers flesh somewhat easier, too, and they get left on the stretcher flesh-side out; do not turn them. Wood boards are my preference for these, as the wood seems to absorb the excess water in the fur. And because they’re greasier, they require more maintenance; wipe them down with newspaper more often, because as they dry, they continue to secrete grease.
Aluminum pushpins can be used to secure these hides, or you can use a staple gun. Once on the board or wire stretcher, an inspection window is required so the fur grader can see the fur inside. Usually, this is just the loose skin in the groin area on the belly side. You should talk to an experienced fur handler for such info, as it is another trial-and-error experience until you get the hang of it.
Beaver and badger are fleshed as any other furbearer, but because they are split down the belly, they are a little harder to keep on the beam. These furbearers are tacked out flat on a piece of plywood in an oval shape. Stencils are available for beaver to guide you to get the proper stretch for all sizes.
So, in the future, instead of tossing that coyote, bobcat or raccoon skin, try your hand at putting it up. It is quite gratifying and might put a little cash in your pocket. Otherwise, you can store it until you decide if you want it tanned or sold. Finishing fur is a dying art, but it is the best avenue to sell fur nowadays.
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