Where to get them cheap or free
There are lots of free and cheap hides available every hunting season and frequently in-between. With a little effort you should be able to find all that you could ever want. However it is a bit trickier finding hides that haven’t been knifed up in the skinning. Tanning hides that have been skinned well is a joy. Tanning knifed up skins takes longer in nearly every stage, and the finished product is not nearly as good. Go to extra lengths to get good skins. If you are buying deerskins, it is always worth a few extra bucks for really good ones.
While this chapter is geared particularly toward the obtaining of deer hides, you can also find elk, antelope, moose, goat, and buffalo. Deer are by far the most common, and most commonly wasted hides in North America. They are also a good one to start your tanning adventures with. Elk are much more work to tan and because of their fiber structure, they are weaker and wear out faster than deer. This is just a relative comparison. Elk leather is beautiful, large, thick and perfectly fine for many applications. Moose on the other hand has the fiber quality of deer but the thickness of moose. They are particularly great for moccasins. Antelope and big-horn sheep are renowned for being uniformly thin. They will make light-weight, comfortable dresses and summer clothing.
Deer you hunt yourself. What could be more satisfying than pulling on a deerskin jacket from deer that fed you and your family? Obviously do not hunt deer just to get more skins. There are a zillion out there going to waste.
Friends who hunt. If you know lots of folks who hunt, just tell them you want the skin, and most would love to give it to you. Have a handout to give them on good skinning techniques or offer to skin for them. (feel free to print out the pages on skinning).
Roadkills. More than 300,000 deer are hit annually in the United States. You can get lots of free, perfectly skinned hides, with no bullet holes. It may be illegal in your area, so check it out. Skin the deer, remove any meat you will use, and return the carcass to somewhere that the critters can get to it safely, away from the road.
Skinning stations. Set up a free skinning station along a road that many hunters will use. This is especially effective during peak hunting weekends, and in regions where a large number of tags have been issued for an area with only a few main access roads. You can also offer to do it at your home, and advertise.
Roadside barrels. My friend Jim Riggs puts out two or three barrels every year with a sign that reads “hides and heads”. Luckily most people interpret this to mean deer and elk. He gets all of the free hides and brains that he can use. If you try this be prepared to deal with some gross hides, yellow jackets and trash. You will also get alot of real crappy hides, but you will find some gems. Jim always wishes that the good skinners would autograph their hides so that he could meet them.
|Rotting, smelly hides can give you an infection or blood poisoning real fast. If you handle any questionable hides, wash up really well afterwards with disinfectant soap and keep an eye on any cuts or sores. If you notice an unusual amount of swelling, or red streaks going from your cuts toward the chest, see a physician immediately.|
Local butchers who do game processing. Look in the yellow pages under meat. There you will find a list of all local butchers who do game processing. Call them and ask them how much they charge, how many skins they get a season, etc.
They will all tell you that they do a really great skinning job. Most of them don’t. It’s really hard to see knife marks in frozen or wet salted hides, so check out a sample of their work before you make any big purchases. Either buy one frozen or salted hide or check out a freshly skinned hide if that is possible. Rinse the salt out of the salted hide. On the flesh side look for knife marks. These will appear as cuts in the skin or the meat. It is preferable to have none, but this is sadly rare.
As long as only one person is doing the skinning, the quality or lack of, will be consistent. If there are only a few knife marks on the edges and none in the middle, this is good. If their are knife marks in the middle of the hide, this is the sign of a hide slasher. Avoid these. I shop around for the best skinners, and make a deal to get everything they skin that deer season. Tell them that you only want their hides, and not ones that hunters bring in.
Sometimes you can get a butcher to change his skinning practices so that he pulls the skin off (see skinning). This is rare, but worth the effort and paying a little more for it. A typical price for a deerskin from the butchers in 1997, is from four to eight dollars. Even better is to get a job skinning for a butcher during the opening week end of deer season, and get the hides for free.
Hide dealers and tanneries. Most big towns have someone who buys hides from hunters. If yours does, ask that person to put aside the very best. Offer to pay a dollar or two more than they are currently getting, for their best ones. Ask them to put aside twice as many as you actually want. Then go through the pile and pick out the best. This is a bit of a russian roulette since it is hard to see knife marks through the salt. If you explain to the dealer that you want the hides with the least knife marks, and then you go through them yourself, you will mostly get good ones.
Become a deer hide buyer and dealer. If your area doesn’t have a hide buyer, you could become that person. Find out where the closest tannery is, and how much they will pay you per hide. Then buy hides at prices that will make it worth your while. A common deal is to offer free leather gloves in exchange for hides. These gloves are available wholesale for two to three bucks from Sullivan’s Gloves, 1315 S.E. Armour Rd, Bend Oregon 97702. (541) 382-3092. You need to order 60 to get the wholesale price. Hunters like this. Advertise at hunting shops, etc.
You will be surprised how many you get, especially if you do it year after year. Most hunters would like to see their hides get used, just out of ethics. This way you can pick out the very best hides when they are fresh, plus make money reselling the others to the tannery. Have a flier to give hunters that illustrates proper skinning techniques. Offer more mula for peeled hides.
By buying hides directly from hunters, you will not be encouraging folks to go out and kill deer to sell you the skin. The going rate for deerskins is so low it would never be worth it. Rather, you are just giving them a little incentive to get their skin to someone who will use it, instead of leaving it in the woods or the trash.