Smokin' Hides in a Smoke House

Text provided by Mac Maness, Richard, Rod & Jane
(edited by Matt Richards)

Mac Maness’ describes his smoke box:

Ours is built of ½” plywood with 2×4 framing. It is 4″ square and 6″ high. The firebox is an old cast iron stove located about 10″ feet away and an 8″ pipe connecting it to the box. The box is raised allowing the pipe to go straight to the box and then elbowed up and enters the box in the bottom center. We had an in-line fan in the pipe but it died due to creosote buildup. Now we use a small fan mounted inside the box over the smoke inlet. The first fan was on a rheostat but the new one is wired straight to the power. Seems to work just as well. The fan is very important! It pulls smoke from the firebox and circulates it among the hides…ever so gently…not a tornadic blow. It aids in maintaining a draft for the firebox. Without the fan, the smoke settles on the hides at any folds and at the tops. The penetration is about 3x as fast.

The box has 10 lengths of ¼” threaded rod mounted on the top. The hides are hung by using open ‘hog rings’. The threaded rod provides a rough surface for the rings and the hides don’t slide to the center. We are going to add a few nuts spaced along the rods to stop any slide that may occur with handling the hides while smoking.

One down side is the time it takes to smoke (two days average) but the process is less time consuming than smoking one or two at a time, especially when you keep it going all the time and remove hides from it as they reach the desired color and replace them with fresh unsmoked ones. Another advantage is that you can smoke odd sizes and re-smoke previously made articles. Did I mention making jerky at the same time??!! 

The following photos of the interior of Mac’s smokebox, were shot one after another and show how the fan really helps move the smoke into and around the smoke box. 


Photo 1: The fan is located in the box at the bottom center of the smoker, right where the stove pipe enters. The hides are hung from hog rings on threaded rods, so the hides will stay spread open. The hide on the left has already been smoked quite a bit.


Photo 2:  The fan quickly forces the smoke up into the smoker.


Photo 3: The fan continues to move the smoke around the smokehouse, not allowing it to settle and cause uneven coloring.

Matt Richards’ question to Mac:
All the hides I’ve seen come out of smoke houses have been really lightly smoked and uneven. Is that how yours come out?

We get very evenly smoked hides. But the secret (now its out)…is a used $6 fan purchased from Northern Hydraulics (its mail order…available everywhere) to circulate the smoke. Adding that made a WORLD of difference! Because it keeps the air moving, the smoke doesn’t settle on the tops, folds etc. As far as deep browns, we get a nice golden (like you saw at the Rivercane Rendezvous) but we have been using oak sawdust/shavings. I think we will use green pine needles soon which give a nice dark color. It is risky using needles with a pit below the hides since they WILL flame up!

Mac Maness brain tans and teaches brain tanning for a living.
You can email him at:

Richard describes his smokehouse:

My smokehouse is made of four full sheets (4′ x 8′) 1/2-inch exterior grade plywood. A fifth sheet is cut in half (4′ x 4′) for the top. Two by fours frame and reinforce the plywood sheet. The 2x4s also provide a solid nailing surface. A 2′ x 2′ door is cut and hinged into the front sheet to provide access to hang the hides and tend the fire. My first smokehouse was joined at the corners with drop-pin hinges for easy breakdown and transport. This is probably over-kill for most folks. My current smokehouse is simply nailed together. 

Two by twos are nailed across the outside and serve as handles to move the smokehouse over the firepit. Nails are placed on the top inside 2x4s and strings are run from nail to nail to hang the hides on. Hog rings are used to hang the hides from the strings. The current set up can accommodate 10 hides per run. Occasionally some hides tend to slip toward the center. I plan to replace the strings with rods as Mac suggested (see previous page) prior to the next smoke. 

One important construction detail. Don’t make the smokehouse airtight. I leave several small gaps in the top to let the smoke circulate naturally. I have experienced no problems with streaking or uneven smoke. 

When I’m ready to smoke a run of hides, I build a fire in a pre-dug 12″ x 12″ hole. While the fire is burning down to coals, I crawl through the smokehouse door (not as easy as it used to be!) and hang the hides from the strings. When a good bed of coals has been established, I set the smokehouse, with assistance, directly over the firepit. Punk pine is placed on the coals and a 15 gal. trash-can lid is placed over the fire. The lid has 1/2″ holes to allow the smoke to escape into the smokehouse. The lid also effectively prevents flare-ups.

One final check and the door is closed and I’m off to tend to other chores. I keep an eye on the amount of smoke exiting through the small gaps in the top. I know it’s time to refuel when only a small amount of smoke is noted. The door is opened (my door is hinged on top and swings up) and the lid is lifted carefully. Lift too fast and ash goes everywhere and there’s a chance of flare-up with a sudden influx of oxygen. Be sure to use a glove or stick to lift the lid, it will be hot. Should a flare-up occur, I quickly replace the lid and stifle the flames. Three or four double handfuls of punk, the lid is replaced, the door is lowered, and it’s good for another 45 minutes.

I generally smoke my hides for 10-12 hours and end up with a medium to dark brown. The color is dependent on the particular punk and of course how much smoke escapes. Once the smokehouse is built, I find it more efficient than smoking hides individually. However – there is a trade off – you spend less time per hide attending to smoking, but the smoking takes longer. For me, the fact that all the hides come out a matching color more than makes up for the extra time. This really helps with mix and match. 

That’s a description of my set-up. It’s simple to build and operate. Try it, I think you’ll be pleased with the results. 


Rod describes his smokehouse:

I made mine out of an old swing set that has been sitting around here for ever and some 1/4″ plywood that someone gave me a long time ago. I used the plywood to block in the ends (punched holes with screwdriver and tied it to the swingset tubeing). Then I threw 2 10’X12′ plastic tarps over the whole thing and tied them down. I use an old electric smoker to make the smoke. 

My electric smoker is meant to barbeque food while giving it a smoke flavor. It has an electric coil in the bottom that glows red when it is plugged in and some stones to protect the steel bottom from the heat. As long as the whole thing is put together it makes plenty of smoke but if you just leave the top off a little you risk a fire and cooked skins. (Mac agreed that an electric smoker works really well)

Jane’s tips for the nomad:

Being rather nomadic, weight is a consideration. I built an oversized garment bag of canvas and pvc pipe (the small stuff), and hung it from a tripod of tipi poles, ran smoke to the bottom from a stove. It worked great. 

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