Beaver has excellent quality fur, and when properly tanned, it is one of the most durable furs out of fur-bearing animals.
Tanning permanently changes the protein structure of the skin, preventing decomposition and ultimately making the hide more durable.
The steps to tan a beaver hide:
The tanning process initially involved acidic chemical compounds, called tannins, derived from the bark of specific trees. Nowadays, there are alternative solutions, like chromium salts.
The whole process can take up a few days between skinning, fleshing, soaking, and tanning.
When you get your beaver, the first thing is to get the pelt of as soon as possible to prevent natural fats from going rancid and burning the hide. This also cools down the meat and leaves the beaver ready for butchering
There are a few ways of skinning the beaver, depending on your intentions for the pelt.
If you are not planning on mounting the animal, the skinning is a little bit less technical. Make sure you have a good knife for skinning, I recommend the Buck 192.
- Cut off the feet.
- Cut the skin around the tail base and turn the beaver on its back.
- Make a cut in the middle of the skin, from the base of the tail around the anus and to the chin.
- Remember to be careful about the castor glands.
- Pull the skin tight with one hand and work the knife between the skin and the flesh, trying to leave as much fat and flesh on the animal’s body.
- Flip the beaver on its belly and work the skin of the back, cutting through the ear cartilage and around the eyes and nose.
Fleshing is an essential part of preparing the beaver hide. It is also the most time-consuming one.
There is a lot of methods of fleshing the beaver skin. Using a fleshing knife and board is probably the most popular one. Other methods may include a pressure washer or sharp knife.
If you are using a fleshing knife, the best is to start from the tip of the pelt at the ears, work through the middle of the pelt and then continue to the sides. The movements can’t be too long, or the skin will fold and cause the hide to break under the knife.
Continue to the sides, and when the beaver skin is fleshed up to the front legs, pull it up and do the next part, and so on until the hide is fully fleshed.
Don’t worry about any stringy leftovers. You will remove them in the following steps.
Freeze scraping is another method commonly used to flesh the beaver hide. The fat freezes over, making it easier to flesh the hide.
There are mixed opinions about how to store the skins in the freezer, but overall, none of them are incorrect. It’s a personal preference.
Some people fold the hide in half, flesh to flesh, some people roll it fur out, and others freeze it flat. Make sure you don’t squee the hide, allowing it to expand and freeze completely.
To flesh hide from frozen, you have to let the skin taw a little. The fat comes off easier when it’s really cold.
The dry scraping method is a rather time-consuming process, and it is not generally recommended for beginners because it’s difficult to gauge how thin the leather is getting.
The beaver hide needs to be stretched on the wooden frame. The stretch has to be tight enough that the hide is not folding in on itself but not too tight that the string will tear the edges of the leather under pressure.
After the beaver hide is mounted to the wooden frame, it needs to dry. The drying process will take between 1 – 3 days, and shrink the beaver hide a little and stretch it a bit more on the frame.
The tool you want to use is a special dry scraper. It’s rather sharp, and you have to be careful not to damage the hide by accident by putting too much pressure during scraping.
Some people believe that pickling is unnecessary, but professional tanneries often use it in the tanning process.
The pickling draws the moisture out of the hide and helps to chemically break down the non-structural proteins (like fat tissue) of the hide and allow the tanning agents to work into the hide’s fibers.
Because of the amount of fat on the beaver, the flesh side of the pelt needs to be degreased well before pickling. A thorough wash in any dish soap would do the trick.
It’s good to pickle a thick beaver hide for a few days. During that time, take out the hide of the solution after the first 24h to thin it down and return it to the pickling solution for few more days.
The pickling process turns all the missed layers yellow making it easier to spot them.
The perfect pickling solution would be a salt-acid bath with 2pH. There are many recipes for pickling solutions, and they work great as long as the pH is very acidic.
Some of the ingredients one use are distilled white vinegar, citric acid powder, and non-iodized salt mixed with water.
It’s good to salt the flesh side of hair on skins for 24 to 48 hours before pickling. Salting removes skin moisture and sets the hair. Rinse the salt before putting the hide in a pickling solution.
Make sure to stir the hide and check the pH a couple of times a day. There is a simple test to know if the hide is pickled properly.
Squeeze the skin in few places between your thumbnail and forefinger to make little dents. If they don’t disappear, the hide is ready for the next step.
Following the pickling process, you have to neutralize the hide to prevent any hair loss.
The best way to do it is with fresh water and baking soda (1 oz per gallon of water). The neutralizing process should not take more than 15-20 minutes because the skin can get tough.
After the pelt is well neutralized, it’s time to wash the hide with cold, clean water and then towel dry.
Beaver pelt is known to be more difficult to tan or oil because of dense fibers. It’s not impossible. It just takes more time.
If you are a beginner, and you happen to have summer or late winter pelt, it is easier to start with that rather than a thick winter skin.
Most times, you can thin the hide down during fleshing with a very good fleshing knife, during the pickling stage, or during the dry scraping. You have to be careful not to work the skin too thin.
There is plenty of ways to tan the beaver hide. Some people use natural agents, like bark, the brain of the animal, and lard and flour.
Others prefer tanning with ready-made agents, like Neatsfoot oil, aluminum-based powders, or ready-mixed liquid agents. The main idea behind tanning is to make beaver hide more flexible and less susceptible to water and bacteria.
Before you can apply any of the tanning solutions, the beaver hide needs to be moist. The tanning agents won’t soak in the dry leather. Some agents, like soak tans, require more time to work than others (brush on tans). After application, make sure to dry the beaver hide properly.
Brain tanning is one of the oldest techniques of tanning animal hides.
To tan beaver hide with the brain, you can use the animal’s own brain or purchase pig or cow brain from the store. For one beaver hide, you will need about a half-pound of the brain.
Start by making sure there are no bone shards because they can cut holes in the hide.
The recipe is simple and requires you to mush the cooked brains in the water. Ensure the water is warm before using but not boiling because it can cause blistering on the hide, and it’s also not comfortable for your hands.
There are three ways of brain tanning. The first one is to prepare a mix with paste consistency, spread it on the flesh side of the beaver hide, and roll it up and store it overnight.
The next day you have to scrape the old paste and reapply the new layer. Repeat the process until the beaver hide is ready. This method is not recommended for beginners because it requires experience to know when the hide is prepared correctly.
The second way is to make the mix with a slurpee consistency using a blender. In this method, you need to work the solution into the hide, making sure it covers every inch of the flesh side. When the first layer is nearly dry, apply the second layer when the first one is almost dry.
The third method is to make a brain soup also using a blender. Then the brain soup is warm, dip the beaver hide in it. Some people would leave the bever hide overnight and then dry it, and others would soak it thoroughly, take it out to wring it and then repeat the process 5-6 times.
Very similar to the last braining method is one using neatsfoot oil. To the water-oil solution, add soap used for prewashing. Making sure the solution is warm before using proceed like with the brain soup method.
Ready-made tanning solutions
Most of the premade tanning solutions are easy to apply. They are similar to the first brain tanning method but without scraping.
You need to heat them a little bit and then rub them in the moist flesh side of the beaver hide with a paintbrush, wearing protective gloves. Make sure it’s covering every inch of the beaver hide.
After applying the solution, fold the hide flesh side in, and let it rest overnight. After that, open the tanned side to the air and let it dry for few days, stretching it from time to time with your hands.
Bark tanning, also called veg tanning, is the oldest method of tanning leather. If done properly, it takes 20 – 30 months, so it’s not the most popular method for DIY.
To bark tan your beaver hide, you need to boil bark from different trees. The best is to use fresh bark from trees like oak, chestnut, willow, spruce, or birch. Each offers a different tannin concentration, and some, like chestnut, would change the color of your hide as well.
Also, it involves dipping the whole hide in the solution, so this method is not ideal if you want to keep the fur on your beaver hide.
The method requires you to dip the beaver hide in multiple solutions with different concentrations of tannin.
If you want to use the beaver hide for clothing or throw, the beaver hide needs to be softened. The most common method is pulling and stretching the hide with your hands in different directions for few days. You can also work the hide on the edge of the table or 2×4 in a see-saw motion.
Make sure you work all the surfaces of the beaver hide, paying more attention to thicker parts, like the face and back.
To speed up the process, you can use the tumble dryer, if available. This breaking method works with very little pulling by hand in between cycles. You will need to put a few baseball balls or equally heavy round objects with the pelt to help “beat” it down while turning in the machine.
Another option is to use softening oils when the pelt is nearly dry. You will still need to work the beaver hide in your hands, stretching it every way. Apply the oil three times, every time after the previous layer is nearly dry. Work the hide in between applications until soft and pliable.
If you ever experienced your leather garments getting stiff after being wet and dry again, you would want to smoke your hide before using, although this step is optional. The resins from the smoke coating the beaver hide will make it waterproof.
Try to avoid smoking with evergreen trees, like pine or spruce. They will cover your hide with tar and destroy it. You also want a lot of smoke but little heat.
To prevent the hair from damage during this stage, roll the hide in a tube. You can make a skirt/funnel from canvas and insert it on the bottom of the beaver hide to channel the smoke through the hide.