View Full Version : Tanning rabbit pelts for mittens
I'm in the process of preserving about 8 rabbit pelts to make a pair of nice warm mittens for the winter. This is my first time, so I've read up a tonne of stuff, and much of it seemed to contradict other stuff, so I'm trying to find what works for me, then stick with it!
I tanned them in strong tea for three days, then thoroughly washed them in fresh water and soaked them in salt water overnight. Then I squeezed them out and generously salted them for a day (and overnight), before scraping off most of the salt, washing them in fresh water two more times, then hanging them out to dry.
I've noticed that they still smell like a wet dog... Am I doing anything wrong, or is that what my new attire will always be like? Must admit, I had hoped they would smell more like a nice new suite with fur on, but being a first-timer, I guess that would have been a bit hopeful.
Any wisdom and advice?
Have not done any thing like this for years !! We used to too stretch them on a board and use salt peter to dry the skins out , Scraping them daily of any fatty deposits and re salting to draw out all the moisture -after they are dry as card board we used glyserine ? sp to re hydrate the skin back to soft !!
might be a bit tricky getting them ingredients from the local chemist these days thou !!!! :rolleyes:
Petre (Potassium nitrate) can easily be bought as fertiliser for planted fishtanks. Sources include the 'Bay and places like Charterhouse Aquatics or AquaEssentials.
That's a lot of soaking! Is the fur still hanging on or has it started to slip (pull away from the skin)? I've found if you over wet the pelts during the tanning process the epidermis can enter the early stages of decomposition and the fur might start falling out. If it's still holding firm you might want to try the following...
Assuming you've carefully scraped any flesh and membrane from the flesh side of the pelt, lay it fur side down and rub in a softening agent. I always use an egg whisked up in a small amount of warm water or pure soap flakes mixed with olive oil rubbed into the skin side to help soften the fibres. The pelt is kept on a cool place over night to absorb the liquid (it's important not to over wet the pelt at this stage - the fur should still be dry at this point). Next I pat the skin side dry with an old tea towel and pull, poke, prod and stretch it in your hands until the skin side has dried completely. it should change from a dull greyish colour to a bright white shade as the fibres dry and if all those fibres have been worked constantly, they should dry soft and flexible rather than cardboard like. Set aside an hour in a warm environment for this and don't go too crazy as rabbit pelts are pretty thin and easily torn. If you try to 'force dry' it by sitting right near the fire or out in the sun, the pelt will dry too quick and you won't be able to work fast enough to produce a soft, flexible pelt.
Once you're sure the pelt is completely dry you should smoke it. Wood smoke is an excellent preservative, completely free and will preserve your pelt nicely. The longer you smoke it, the more protected it will be from future soakings (a well smoked pelt will stay soft if it gets damp then dries out again but a non smoked pelt will dry stiff unless it's worked soft everytime it gets wet). No wet dog smell either, just lovely wood smoke! Use hard wood chippings over hot coals to engulf any pelts you have in plumes of thick, formaldehyde rich smoke for around an hour minimum or hang your pelts up, spread eagled on a line in the eaves of a group shelter to absorb all the campfire smoke that passes through. Just try not to breathe the stuff in too much.
Not sure if your pelts are intended to become mittens on their own but if I were you, I would use them to make inners only and get hold of a deer hide from any stalker or game dealer to make the tougher outers. Deer hide will go through exactly the same tanning process but on a larger scale, requiring more elbow grease (smaller hides such as muntjac can be hand stretched exactly the same as the rabbit pelts) and more eggs (around 12 for a large fallow so adjust for small roe or muntjac). If hand stretching you'll probably want to remove the hair and make buckskin. Deer hair is pretty good at breaking and falling out all over the place anyway, especially on heavy use garments such as mittens. Also, buckskin will dry a lot quicker than 'hair on' hide. Perfect for mitten outers. If that's the case then right after scraping the flesh off the hide, soak the whole thing in a thick, gloopy solution of hard wood ash and water for a minimum of three days to force the epidermis to slip and you should be able to scrape away hair and epidermis, or 'grain' (top layer of skin, with a grainy pattern like our own skin or the pattern found on shiny leather outer surface) using a blunt draw knife. Incidentally, do all your scraping by draping the hide/pelt over a smooth round log and keeping it taut throughout to avoid puckering which can lead to small nicks and tears. These will only enlarge as you hand stretch the hide later). Once the hair and grain have been scraped off, leave the hide to soak in a running water source overnight (the larger and faster flowing the better to avoid dirtying it and potentially affecting wild life, also well away and down stream from your drinking water collection point). Give what was the flesh side another scrape to remove any last bits of membrane and expel some of the water content to leave it only damp to the touch. Now you should be ready to rub in the softening agent as already mentioned, only difference when making buckskin is that you can soak the whole hide in the mixture to absorb it better. Patting it dry with a tea towel won't really work with larger hides so you'll need to wrap it loosley round a smooth wooden pole and use another stout pole to twist the pelt up tightly and squeeze as much of the mixture out as possible (this also helps squeeze the solution through the fibres a bit more). Keep re-arranging the hide and re-twisting to get it as much of the moisture out as you can. This will make hand stretching much easier and potentially more successful. As already mentioned, hand stretching, softening and smoking are all the same as the above rabbit pelt process from this point and by the end of it you should have something that resembles very soft, smoky suede.
So, got a bit carried away there with a pocket guide to tanning. Hope the information is helpful - let me know how you get on.
Wow, thanks for the excellent response there Joe - superb explanation of the process, thank you!
I built a make-shift smoking frame in the garden this morning and smoked them all day over a mixture of woods, including eucalyptus which was gorgeous!! There seemed to be a bit of spirally wind blowing at times though, so I'm not entirely sure how effective it was, but still they seem to be very smoky now and no more wet dog, which is really nice! So now I was planning on working some Vaseline into the non-fur side to bring back the suppleness (they're quite stiff now).
Sound like a plan?
Thanks for the great advice Joe.
The last rabbit fur I tanned slipped as I left the fur side in the egg mixture too long, but I carried on and made a smoked skin in the end. Still enjoyed the process though and got a nice little pouch out of it for flint and steel.
No worries at all, glad to see people getting stuck into making their own gear.
Vaseline might be ok but neats foot oil from a shop that supplies horse bits and bobs (Scats?) is what I use to re-hydrate a pelt and add a bit of flexibility. Rub the skin side with a pumice stone or medium - fine sand paper wrapped around a foam pad first then rub the neats foot oil in. It'll be a bit slimy for a while but re-smoke it after and that should even things out.
I use quite a few home made buckskin and fur on items almost daily (knife sheath, saw pouch, man purse...) and hang them in the smoke from the fire whenever I can to increase durability. They're tough as anything you'll buy and best of all, it's a good way of ensuring you'll always have a little smoky piece of the woods in your pocket. Nothing like sniffing your buckskin equipment to whisk you away, back to the comfort of the crackling campfire.
Hey just a quick question - what actually IS that lovely "leather" smell??