Brain Tanning Furs

By George Michaud

Editors Note: This article is adapted for the web from an article George originally wrote for Fur-Fish-Game Magazine. There is an assumption that the reader already has a basic knowledge of certain steps of fur-handling. I recommend using this article in conjunction with Jim Miller’s article Tan Your Pelts With Nature’s Tools, as a source of more information and alternative ways of doing things.

Over the last several years I have been brain tanning many of my furs. This is the way the Indians did it. It is a safe, easy and inexpensive way to tan your furs. The skins that you do this way are even edible.

The furs that I have tanned with varying degrees of success are marten, muskrat, fox, coon, bobcat, coyote, and beaver. Beaver and muskrat are the two hardest that I have tried. When tanning coyote and coon you must thin the skin on the shoulders to get the softest tanning job. To thin the fur I place the dried skin on a fleshing beam and using a sharp large knife I scrape the skin. I hold the knife at a 90 degree angle to the skin and I scrape it very carefully.


Getting Started

I will describe how to tan a fox. Most any fur will work the same way. The process begins as soon as we get the animal, the less knife cuts you make in the hide when skinning the easier it will be to tan and the nicer it will come out. (If you are worried about fleas you can place the dead fox in a trash bag and spray it full of Raid or some other flea killer).



After skinning the fox you want to scrape it thoroughly making sure to get rid of all the fat and any membrane. Be very careful that you don’t damage the hide. If you do put a hole in it, sew it up, and take extra care when you begin to soften the skin in this area.

I use two different types of fleshing beams. One is a 5 foot maple beam that has a rounded and tapered point that is mounted to a 2X6 base board and it has a supporting leg. It is set at an angle that hits me just above my belt. In this way I can place the fur on the beam and hold it in place by pressing my body against the beam. I use this method for deer. beaver, coyote, and coon. I use a two handled fleshing knife that I bought through a trapping supply catalog. I also have a small beam that I can mount on a bench and use a hose scraper for muskrat, mink, and pine marten.


Washing Your Fur

Now that the skin is scraped you want to wash it. I use Suave shampoo for this and the bath tub when my wife isn’t looking. Next I borrow her hair dryer to blow dry the fur. This is usually best done when she isn’t home. The next step is to turn the fur in and dry the skin a stretched out like you would if you were taking it to the buyer.



For tanning you will need one brain, a blender, a microwave, a bath towel (not one of the good ones) and some punky wood, here in the Rockies I use aspen. For the brain I go to the local market and get either a pig brain or a beef brain. It really doesn’t matter which one as either one will work. At times I have been forced to buy a whole case of brains as it is a special order but they are not very expensive, and they will last in the freezer forever.

Remove the skin from the stretcher when it is completely dry and you are ready to begin. It is best to start this project in the morning as it will take a few hours to finish. Get all of the above mentioned items together and now the real fun begins.

First thaw the brain in the micro wave. They come in a nice little container that is real handy. After the brain is thawed (about 1 minute 30 seconds on high) you drop it in the blender with a 1/2 container of hot water (out of the tap is fine). Hit liquefy until it looks like a strawberry shake. Next pour the contents of the blender into a plastic bowl and put it back in the micro wave for another 3 minutes. Just to heat it but not cook it.


Place the fox skin on a table and pour some of the brain on the skin and start to work it in with your hands. Continue doing this until you have covered the entire skin. The skin should be already starting to soften up some. Now take the towel and soak it in hot water then wring most of the water out, all you want is a hot moist towel.


Place the fox skin on the towel and pour more of the brain mix onto the skin. You want to have the skin covered with it. Turn the skin over and do the same on the other side. Next roll the skin up in the towel and let it set for a couple of hours. Remember to put the bowl with the brain in it in the refrigerator until you need it again.

Unroll the towel and check the skin to see if it is thoroughly soaked and pliable. If not, work some more brain into it and roll it back up in the towel for another hour or two. The more of the brain that gets worked into the skin the softer and easier it will tan.



After the skin has been treated I wipe as much of the brain solution off as I can with the towel, and just hang the skin up to dry on the clothes line (don’t stretch it). Just as it starts to feel dry in some places I begin to work the skin. You don’t want to wait til the skin is completely dry as this makes softening it harder or impossible.


To soften the skin I use a new beaver snare, or you can use a piece of steel cable (available at hardware stores or through the Store). I attach one end of the snare to a door knob and the other end to a solid object. This way I can increase or decrease the tension on the cable by leaning on the door. I begin pulling the skin back and forth across the cable (fur side in). This action causes friction which causes heat and helps dry the skin. I pull the skin different directions to work the fibers, I also stretch it with my hands.


It is easier to split the skin down the belly to work it, but it makes it a lot harder to smoke it (You smoke the skin to water proof it). If you do split the skin you will have to sew it back together to smoke it. Be careful not to over work the skin to where the fur starts to come through the inner side of the skin.



After the skin is softened you will want to smoke it. The smoking doesn’t make the fur water proof, what it does do is make it so that if it gets wet all you have to do is rub it between your hands when it is dry and it will be as soft as the day you tanned it. It also prevents decay and bugs from devouring it.

The easiest way to smoke the skin is to turn it fur side out and sew an 18 to 24 inch canvas skirt on it. This is sewed to the bottom of the skin so that it is slightly funnel shaped sloping up to the skin. One other thing: sew the leg holes closed as the smoke will discolor the fur anywhere it escapes.
Next dig a hole about 12 inches in diameter and 18 inches deep (a post hole digger works great for this). Build a fire in the hole and let it burn down to coals, now put the punky wood on the coals and have some water handy to put out any flames that break out. All you want is smoke and not heat because high heat will damage the fur. 

Build a simple tri-pod over the hole to hang the skin from by a cord through the nose. Spread the skirt that you sewed on the skin over the hole and place rocks on it to hold it down. Stay right with the skin checking frequently to make sure the wood doesn’t catch fire. I smoke my furs for about 30 minutes.

Parting Thoughts

With this method you can tan several skins with one brain and for under two bucks. This is a safe way to tan furs around children and pets. The tanned furs will be as soft as the finest fur dress if you put a little work into them. If the wife catches you using the kitchen appliances just tell her that you were doing it for her new fur coat.

George Michaud traps, runs his own dog sleds, and teaches trapping and the brain tanning of furs. He guides trips through the Tetons on his dog sleds. To learn more his dog-sled tours, check out his website at