Skinning and Fur Handling
Proper fur handling is very important. It can bring much personal satisfaction from doing a job well and it can also result in a better price from the fur buyer. Fur handling starts at the trap site.
If trapped in water, the furbearer should be rinsed clean of any mud or vegetation. Next, attempt to remove as much excess water as possible. Muskrat can be held by the head and shaken to remove much of the water. Furbearers can be stroked with your hand from the head to the tail to squeeze out water, or rolled in dry snow to clean and soak up excess water. In cold weather, do not lay a wet animal on ice or any metal surface because the guard hairs will freeze to the surface and the pelt may be damaged when the animal is picked up. If animals are carried in a vehicle, they can be placed on a newspaper. If the animal’s fur is still wet, it should be hung up by the head or forelegs in a cool place to finish drying. Be sure not to hang too long since the pelt may spoil in warm weather. All pelts must be dry before being placed on a drying frame.
If the furbearer is trapped on land, brush or comb it to remove any burrs or dirt before skinning. The trapper should be cautious of parasites such as fleas, ticks, and mites that may be on the animal’s fur (especially land furbearers). If fleas or ticks are a problem, the animals can be placed in a plastic garbage bag and dusted with flea powder when they are removed from the trap.
It is advisable for trappers to wear plastic gloves when skinning. Furbearers should be skinned as soon as possible after they are killed. The skin is easier to remove when the animal is fresh and damage to the pelt is less likely.
There are two recognized ways of skinning animals called “cased” and “open.” All furbearers except beaver and badger are prepared cased. Cased furs are removed from the animal by slitting the fur across from one hind foot pad to the other and pulling it down over the animal’s head they way we take off a pullover sweater. Open pelts are prepared by skinning down the belly and tacking the pelt out flat. Animals with furred tails have the tail split on the underside and left on the pelt. Hairless tails, like those of muskrat, beaver and opossum are removed at the hair line.
The muskrat is a good example to describe the procedures on skinning cased furs. The first step is to cut the pelt around the tail and all four feet at the fur line. Next, the pelt is cut from the heel of each hind foot to the anus. By pulling the pelt and cutting connective tissue where necessary, the pelt is peeled down from the hind legs and the tail. Aside from the initial cuts around the feet and tail and down the hind legs, the muskrat pelt can be removed from the body without using the knife. Cuts will be required to remove the pelt at the ears and eyes.
If desired the carcass can be hung by the hind legs, using a gambrel at a convenient height. The pelt is pulled down the carcass as far as it will go, exposing the base of the forelegs. Pass a finger between the foreleg and the pelt; then using a push and pull motion, strip the skin from each leg.
When both forelegs are free, pull the pelt down the carcass, past the neck to the base of the ears. The head of the carcass should be partially exposed. Locate the cartilage that attaches the ears to the skill and cut as close as possible to the skull. Pulling the pelt lower should reveal the connective tissue around the eyes. The tissue should cut close to the skull using a sharp knife. If done properly, no fur should be left on the carcass around the ears and eyes. The pelt is pulled down again, finally exposing the loose flesh around the lips. The pelt is freed from the carcass by cutting around the lips and through the nose cartilage. The pelt is ready to be fleshed, “stretched” and dried, or it can be frozen fur side out in a plastic bag. Do not roll up pelts before freezing. Heavy pelts are extremely good insulators and rolled pelts may begin to spoil and warm in the center before the cold can penetrate, particularly if several pelts are placed next to each other.
Another good example of skinning a cased fur is the raccoon. The first step in skinning a raccoon is to cut the pelt around the “ankles” and “wrists” where the long fur ends. Next, the pelt is cut from the heel of each hind foot to the anus and around the anus. Finally, a cut is made from the anus straight down the tail about 4 inches. Start peeling the pelt down the hind legs by pulling the pelt and by cutting connective tissue where necessary. After the pelt is removed from the hind legs, the carcass can be hung at a convenient height by it hind feet. Peel the pelt off the carcass around the anus. If the raccoon is a male, reproductive organs will be connected to the pelt. These are cut off as close to the pelt as possible. Now peel the pelt from around the base of the tail exposing a couple inches of the tailbone. Clamp a tail stripper around the tail bone with one hand and hold the base of the tail with your other hand and attempt to pull the tail bone out of the tail by pulling the tail stripper (see drawing). If the tailbone does not pull out, extend the cut several more inches toward the tip of the tail. Free more of the tail bone from the pelt by cutting the connective tissue and then try to pull the tailbone out as described before. Once the tailbone is pulled, extend the cut on the tail straight to the tip. A tail-slitting guide may be helpful, but is usually unnecessary if a sharp night is used.
The pelt should now be pulled down the carcass as far as it will go exposing the forelegs. Further expose the foreleg by cutting the connective tissue. Wrap fingers from both of your hands around the raccoon’s foreleg and support it while pushing the pelt down. Keep pushing until the raccoon’s forefoot passes through the pelt and the pelt is free. Repeat this process with the other foreleg.
As with the muskrat, the ears, eyes, nose and lips should be cut free without leaving any fur on the carcass. The pelt is now ready to be fleshed or placed fur side out in a plastic bag to be frozen.
Fleshing Cased Furs
Fleshing is the act of removing the fat and muscle from the skin. Before the pelt is ready to be fleshed its fur should be dry and free of any mud or burrs. Pelts with a lot of fat, such as raccoon, skunk or opossum pelts, should be allowed to hang fur side in and cool until the fat stiffens or hardens. If the pelt is frozen, it should be removed from the plastic bag and thawed completely but slowly (don’t leave it next to a stove or heater).
The fleshing job is made easier by using a fleshing beam or fleshing board (see diagram). The trapper should try to match the shape of the beam or board with the type of fleshing tool used. One-handed scrapers, hog scrapers and two-handed scrapers with a straight blade work well on the flatter beams and boards. A two-handed scraper with a curved blade works well on a rounder beam or board. Regardless of the equipment used, care should be taken not to apply too much pressure on the pelt. This could cut the hide or the roots of the fur and lower the value of the pelt.
To start fleshing, the pelt is slipped over the fleshing beam or board with the fur side in. If the animal has a tail that is left on the pelt, the tail is usually fleshed first. It is important that all the fat be cleaned from the tail because if any is left on it may spoil or get into the fur.
Many trappers like to flesh a narrow strip around the bottom of the pelt after fleshing the tail. Next, start at the head and flesh a strip down the length of the pelt. The pelt is turned or rotated on the beam or board so that the trapper can flesh another strip alongside the first strip. The pelt is turned until all of it has been fleshed. A sharp knife can be used to trim around the lips, eyes and ears. Forelegs should also be checked for fat and fleshed if necessary. A clean dry rag, feedbag or a paper towel can be used to soak up extra grease or loose fat. Some furbearers, especially red fox and weasel, will only have a small amount of flesh or fat on the pelt and it will only be necessary to scrape where the trapper sees flesh or fat.
Cased furs are always arranged on stretchers in such a way that the forelegs and belly will be centered on one side of the stretcher and the eyes, ears and back will be centered on the other side. Place the pelt fur side in on the stretcher, centered as described, and pull the pelt down the stretcher until snug. Wire stretchers usually have two or more arms that move up and down the stretcher. These arms are attached (pronged) into the edge of the hide in the center of the stretcher. Muskrat pelts are attached at the tail and belly portions of the pelt each on a separate arm. All other cased pelts have the tail portion of the pelt attached to one arm and the two hind legs attached to the other arm. The arms are pulled toward the bottom of the stretcher until snug. The pelt is then wiped clean and is ready to dry. The fur side of the pelt must be completely dry before it is placed on a wire stretcher, or the stretcher may rust and damage the pelt.
Place the pelt on the board fur side in and center as shown on page 48. The pelt should be placed smoothly and evenly on a board with the tail well cleaned and opened. Pull snug but do not overstretch, as this will cause the fur to look thin. It should be fastened to the board with a few tacks or pushpins around the skirt and a few along the edge of the tail. Cut off the lower lip or use one tack to hold it in place. Let the skin of the front legs stick out free from the pelt, but trim them so that they do not hang down against the pelt. Do not fold the front legs together nor turn them back inside the pelt as either way can cause rot and hair slip. The back legs of the pelt can be fastened with one or two tacks.
With the one piece drying board, a belly board is necessary. The belly board is 5/16” x 5/16” x 30” and sloped or tapered from one end to the other so it can be removed after the pelt is dry. Place the smallest end between the drying board and the pelt on the belly side and push it ahead until the belly board goes up to the head of the pelt. With an adjustable wooden drying board, no belly board is necessary. Again wipe clean. The pelt is now ready for drying.
After the pelt has been boarded, it should be hung to dry in a place away from the stove, sunlight or strong, hot winds. If it is dried too fast the leather will be ruined. A temperature of 55 to 60 degrees F. (13 to 15 degrees C.) is about right. Pelts of foxes, cats, fisher and coyote are only partially dried then turned fur side out, as described later, to finish drying.
The pelts will dry in 24 hours to one week, depending on the amount of air movement passing through the drying place. They should be wiped with a dry, clean rag occasionally to take of sweat and any fat that might work out of the leather. When the pelts have been on the drying board long enough to dry, they should be taken off and hung by the nose until the head and legs are full dry before selling. Cased pelts should not be folded, but should be packed flat, one on top of the other. Folding makes a crease and takes away some of the good appearance.
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Skinning and Fur Handling Quiz
1. Wild animals in Minnesota seldom carry diseases that affect humans.
2. Putting salt on furs is a good idea to prevent spoiling.
3. Fur animals “prime” because the weather gets colder.
4. Color of the fur has an effect on sale price.