More Than One Way to Skin a Critter
(Part I)

by Bill Scherer



Ok, I admit it. I have read Jean Auels "cave opera" series and enjoyed them. The leather and furs mentioned in her books are of particular interest to me. One fur is Aylas' otter skin medicine bag. It is described as only cut at the throat, cured with the fur on, the head tail and feet are intact and a red-dyed cord of sinew is threaded through holes in the neck opening. The medicine bag is worn by tying a cord to the waist.


Two days ago when I chanced upon a road kill mink, it gave me the opportunity to see if I could do the same kind of skinning on a smaller scale. The fur at this time of the year (mid-March) is a bit past prime, but the mink was in OK shape. It had a crushed abdomen and a slightly beat-up tail and face. 

Here is a tanned fox pelt using the typical cased skinning method. The front feet are left off by cutting around the ankles. The rear feet are also cut around the ankles. Then a cut is made up the rear leg and across to the other ankle. The pelt is peeled from the carcass like a pullover sweater. 

A variation of case skinning is to leave the claws on. It's a lot more finicky work, but this type of skinning is popular among the Mountain Man crowd. Here is a raccoon pelt that has been case skinned with the feet left on. The claws are on the fur side so you can't see them until the pelt is turned outside out. Another one of my Spring projects is to brain tan this critter.

For the road kill mink, I made the cut in the throat, and then loosened up the skin from the meat all the way around the neck.  

Next was to cut off the head, and pull it out of the pelt. The face is always the hardest part of any fur.  

Next is the upper torso and front legs. I used diagonal cutter pliers to cut off the feet before the end of the toes. This leaves the claws on the pelt. The rest of the pelt comes off pretty easily until the rear legs. Cut off the rear toes just like the front. 

Now to skin out the tail. The bone can be removed from off the tail, leaving the rest of the tail intact. The boneless tail is then a cone with a lot of hair on the outside. So much hair that it cannot be turned inside out without splitting the tail This is one part of Jean's story I couldn't figure out. In all fairness, Jean describes the medicine bag as cured and not brain tanned. To cure a pelt, a taxidermist would pour some preservative chemicals, such as salt and borax, down the tail and leave it intact. However the result is a very stiff tail. A stiff tail is fine for a taxidermy mount, but not so fine for a bag.

Tanned otter pelt next to dried inside-out mink pelt.

Since this pelt is going to be brain tanned, the flesh side is turned inside out. A brain tanner has to work right on the flesh side of the skin, to scrape, brain, soften and smoke it. So, this is where I departed from the throat cut only theory and split the tail open. If the contents of the bag were to get into the tail, it would be difficult to get them out. I will sew the tail cone shut near the base, and leave the remainder of the tail split open. The fleshing phase was just slightly different than a case skinned pelt. As I pushed the fleshing bar from abdomen toward the tail, the lower part of the pelt would slightly inflate with air. All mustelids have some smell, although the mink smell was relatively mild. 

Finally, there is this part of the story about Ayalas' clan medicine bag that I wondered about. The medicine bag was tied to her waist. I have a beautiful American river otter fur that I brain tanned a few years ago. One of my trapper brothers swapped me the raw fur for some Canadian Crown Royal. It measures 55 inches long from the nose to the tip of the tail. With the head folded over and the otter pelt tied to my waist, about 10 inches of tail drags on the floor. In the book, the Clan women were quite short, so the length problem would be even more pronounced. Maybe the bag was tied horizontally like a belt, although that would place the bag opening on the side, inviting spillage. Perhaps they had a smaller species of otter, or a juvenile.

I will brain tan the mink pelt later this Spring. I can see it will be a little more trouble to smoke this one than the usual case skinned pelt. It will be an interesting project. I may even use it as a first-aid kit bag. I have a very active nine-year-old child who goes through a fair amount of band-aids and disinfectant.  

Auel, Jean M  
The Clan of the Cave Bear, p 11-12 & 233

Scherer, K.C.
Personal Communication, March 2005



E-mail your comments to "Bill Scherer" at
Bill Scherer resides in Minnesota.

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