Tanning Rattlesnake Skin

two_rattlesnakes

About a month ago, Nick harvested a couple of rattlesnakes with his bow. When we kill an animal, it is very important to us to use as much of that animal as possible. For our snakes that meant eating the meat and preserving the skin. I promised to write a follow up post detailing my attempt to tan the rattlesnake hide and I am here now to deliver on that promise.


The Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus helleri) that we got were very dark in color with a gorgeous diamond pattern. I was admiring their hides as I was field dressing them shortly after the kill. I knew then that I wanted to save and preserve the skin, so I was sure to be gentle with it. I also chose not to make any unnecessary cuts — my approach is to preserve the original structure of the animal as much as possible until I know what I want to do with the hide. Aside from the pieces that had been pierced an arrow, I took the skin off the rattlesnake in a way that maintained its tubular shape (like a sock). I placed the skin sections in a separate ziplock bag and tossed them in the cooler.

I knew that I wasn’t ready to tan the rattlesnake skin right away, so as soon as I got home I took the ziplock containing the skins and rattles and placed them in the deep freezer.  I left them there for nearly three weeks. To defrost, I placed the ziplock bag (closed tightly) in a pot of cool water and placed the pot in the fridge. I am pleased to report that the skins did not appear degraded from the freezing in the slightest.

There are a number of methods for tanning rattlesnake skin. After some research, I chose to follow a method from The Tannery, Inc. I appreciated the simplicity in this technique. First, the ingredients were easy to find, nontoxic, and rather inexpensive — all you need is alcohol (isopropyl or denatured)1 and pure vegetable glycerin (both available from Amazon.com) and a sealable jar. Second, the labor required was on the lower end — no “breaking” necessary to achieve a soft, pliable hide.

All the tools and ingredients needed for tanning snake skin

All the tools and ingredients needed for tanning snake skin

The first step in the tanning process is fleshing. When you separate an animal’s skin from its meat, there will be some flesh still adhered to the underside of the skin. This flesh needs to be scraped away and discarded. For this I found it was easiest to use a thin, smooth, somewhat dull blade. I wouldn’t recommend going as dull as a butter knife, but a razor sharp implement won’t do either. I ended up used a small knife from my kitchen that has seen sharper days.

Starting to flesh the larger of my two rattlesnakes

Starting to flesh a large section of rattlesnake hide

Hold the blade at a 90 degree angle to the skin and push to scrape in short, quick strokes. I found that it does require a bit of downward force to really get a clean scrape, so don’t be scared to increase the pressure a bit if needed. Be thorough! Stretch the snake out with your other hand to make sure to get in all of the creases and clean neatly around the edges. To flesh the hides of two snakes took me almost two hours. If I were to do it again I imagine I could get it all done in an hour to an hour and a half. There is a little bit of a learning curve.

I found this line of flesh in the middle to be particularly resistant to scraping. It may work better to carefully get your knife underneath it and peel it away.

I found this line of flesh in the middle to be particularly resistant to scraping. It may work better to carefully get your knife underneath it and peel it away.

 

Be thorough when fleshing the snake -- don't forget the edges!

Be thorough when fleshing the snake — don’t forget the edges!

After fleshing, I rinsed the skin off, patted dry, and placed the pieces in a jar full of equal parts alcohol and glycerin. It looked a bit like I had made pickled snake. Mmm tasty. Be sure that all of the skin is submerged and the skin is free of air bubbles that would prevent contact between the skin and the tanning solution. I kept the jar in the closet (away from light and curious cats) for 2 1/2 days, stirring the contents once or twice a day.

Rattlesnake skin just placed in tanning solution

Rattlesnake skin just placed in tanning solution

Rattlesnake skin after 2 1/2 days in the tanning solution

Rattlesnake skin after 2 1/2 days in the tanning solution

The final steps involve removing the snake from the solution and rinsing it again with water, removing any additional membrane that you couldn’t get in the first round of fleshing, and rubbing the flesh side with a little more glycerin. This part took me only about 20 minutes.

Tanned snake skin hanging to dry

Just a normal bathroom decoration… don’t mind that.

Last, I hung the snake skins over a wide plastic coat hanger to dry over my bathtub while I went out for a weekend hunt. When I returned home they were dry and quite supple. I turned them inside out so that the scales were facing outward (I completed the entire tanning process with flesh side out) and found that they look just as beautiful as they did when I first saw them. I was happy to discover that they don’t smell, either. I have read that it’s normal to have shedding of the scales (which I already experience when I handle the hide), so I’ll need to report back on how this plays out over time.

The finished product

The finished product

Even the underside, which receives considerably less attention, is very pretty!

Even the underside, which receives considerably less attention, is very pretty!

Overall, I am extremely pleased with my new tanned rattlesnake skin. The method I used was relatively inexpensive to undertake, was very easy for a novice tanner, and seems to produce great results. Now I just have to decide what to make with the hide! Wallets are a neat option, but we both already have wallets that we really like. We were thinking of using the larger snake to cover a wooden picture frame and the smaller snake to make a couple of snake skin bracelets.

Do you guys have any other crafty ideas? What would you do with a rattlesnake skin?


  1. While I used isopropyl alcohol, I have since read that denatured alcohol is actually the superior choice. 

24 Comments

  1. I an going to try this. How long did you leave the rattlesnake in the refrigerator to thaw?

    • Hey Rhonda,
      I kept the snake skin in 2 sealed ziplock bags. To thaw, I placed the bag in a bowl of water and placed that bowl in the fridge. I found that water surrounding the skin helped to thaw it very evenly (I actually use this same technique when thawing vacuum-sealed frozen game meat). My snake skin was done after 12 hours for sure, but may have actually been totally thawed even more quickly — I wasn’t checking it the entire time. Hope that helps! Keep us updated on how the process goes!

  2. another method that I found works even better. is after flashing the hide wash it ( I use a plastic coffee can .to do this step in ) in woolite. heavy on the woolite a full measuring cap to the approx. 2.5 quarts of warm water . I let it soak for about a half an hour.then agitate it several times sliding it between my fingers from head to tail kind of squeegee effect. then I soak it again for another half an hour and squeegee it between my fingers again . I put a lid on the coffee can to use the used woolte in the wash or to use it on the next skin if I don’t use up the woolite water mix by the time I catch another. at this point I wash the skin in fresh cold water agitating it by hand often . for at least 5 minutes . at least 6 times . refreshing the water every time. I squeeze the water out the best I can and pat the hide dry this next step is not required at all but have heard of some that use it . a bath in denatured alcohol will remove the excess water for the most part and a quick pat dry makes the final process of a 24 hour at minimum soak in glycerin then rinse and stretch and tack out on a suitable board or a piece of card board scale side to the board. for drying till ready to use. I let em set at least 24 hours before removing for storage or use. with this method the scales seem to stay intact for a very long time. one of the tricks to keep the scales from slipping is to flesh and tan as soon as possible. just another method that is in common practice.

    • I neglected to mention . the glycerin is not straight glycerin. it is a solution glycerin and denatured alcohol. .also neglected to mention that during the glycerin solution process when soaking the hide for 24 hours it is not to be left in direct sunlight . a cool shady spot works best . and during the rinse process . I rinse and repeat until I no longer get soap bubbles in the rinse water when I wring the skin . the woolite wash is the actual tanning process that kills the bacteria and micro organisms. tannng the hide. it can be dried at this point and oil rubbed with neatsfoot oil or any other natural oil. including believe it or not original WD 40 . the fragrance of the WD40 goes away after a short time. leaving the oiled skin odor free. since WD40 is mainly natural fish oil it will not darken or stain the cured hide. a more traditional oil method.where natural oils are used instead of glycerin. as the final step before stretching and drying, hope I caused no confusion and if I did I hope I just clarified enough to remove the confusion.

  3. Back in February I saw a small copperhead get run over by a car .
    I skinned him while he was still warm.
    I just put the skin in the solution and will give it a couple days and try the WD40 finish
    Cheers
    Johno

  4. You could make a hat band for your cowboy hat… if you have one. This is what my brother did in his teenage years. It was gorgeous.

  5. While I was living in Malawi a neighbor brought me a whole monitor lizard to show me. It was the “baby crocodile” he had been complaining about that was eating his chickens. Asked him if I could keep it as I was curious about how it would taste. Skinned it and ate it (it was pretty damn good). After lunch I went over to another buddies house who I had seen tanning various hides. Asked him what to do with the skin. He fleshed it and just pinned it out in the sun. After about 4 hours the thing was fully tanned. Mind you this was hot season in one of the hottest places on the African continent, so I don’t imagine this would work everywhere, but 5 years later I still have the bracelet I made from it and the scales are all still on good and tight.

  6. Stasia Schwartz

    March 29, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    Do you add the removed rattlers in the tanning solution?

  7. I found this article very helpful, thank you! I have always had pet snakes and several are entering the last stages of their lives (18+ years). I have one that I particularly love the colors and pattern and when she passes I will be using the tanned hide to make a hat band.

  8. Anyone know how to revive the color on a previously tanned rattlesnake skin?

  9. Taressa Reeves

    July 28, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    How long can I keep the skin in ice box before I start tanning

  10. I skinned my first snake yesterday. I found the fine fleshing to be tedious, but I think scraping belly to belly was more effective than trying to scrape head to tail. I’ll follow these steps to tan the skin as soon as I find glycerin. I guess I can get it from Amazon if I can’t find it locally. Thank you for posting this article. I hope to have a nice new belt soon.

  11. I have been given a easier way to do rattlesnake skins. 1) I cut the skin from the anus to the neck, then split down to the top of rattles, then peal the skin off gently, keeping rattles attacked to skin.
    2) I wash the skin with cold water to remove all blood & fat deposits, if any are left after skinning.
    3) I then tack skin to a pine board with rattles at the top of board & flesh side facing outward, stretching skin slightly to keep skin taunt.
    4) I then apply glycerine to the skin & let dry, repeat this process 5-7 time, depending on size of snake. Larger snakes take more tanning.
    Once this process is done, let skin dry for a day. Remove tacks & then roll skin up from rattle end first. Then you can place in small Baggie to protect the skin. I place finished skins in refrigerator for keeping

  12. Did you condition/seal the scale side with anything? I am trying to make a wallet, I followed very similar instructions. I am at the scaling stage… I feel like I need to protect it with something. Any help is great! thanks!!

  13. I want to know about the scales, Do I remove them? The hide has been tanned, it is soft. I am ready to make a hat band. A few of the scale have come off. PLEASE let me know. thank you
    ron

    • If you’re referring to the scales that kinda look like shed material and fall off easily, I always remove them. It’s very tedious work though… Still looking for an easy way to do it though…

  14. thank you, the scales are not like when the snake sheds it’s skin. I want to know if I should remove it’s reg. scales while making hat bands or just leave them be. Will it change the beauty of the skin as they come off, or break off while working with the hide in making hat bands. any info will help
    thanks
    Ron

    • I have “tanned” around twenty snake skins. I like using the alcohol, denatured or other, and glycerine. I have even used antifreeze which is alcohol and glycerine, but it will change the color of the skin. I have made bracelets, hatbands, wallets, and belts. Almost all these had another leather, cloth, or felt base to which I glued and sewed the snake skin. I leave the scales on. They will eventually fall off, sometimes retaining the scales for several years depending on the wear in the articles usage. I will actually try to gently brush the scales off after a while with a soft makeup or tooth brush. The scales will dull before falling off, does not effect skin color. I clean the skin/article, when needed, by rubbing with a soft cloth and saddle soap or woolite. An occasional wipe with a slightly oiled cloth, WD40 or Neet’s foot oil, will retain the skins lustre.

  15. I used this method with a small (only about 8 inches long) Copperhead skin, and it came out great! When I did the same process with a larger skin, a 3 foot Cottonmouth, even after the final rinse and glycerin application the skin stank something awful, and it still does to this day, three years after the fact. I had removed all the flesh and made sure it was all clean before submerging it.
    A friend thought that it was because I didn’t change out the glycerin and alcohol each day, or at least after the second day. I’ve got a two foot Banded Water Snake (killed by my dog, I leave the harmless ones be.) that just went into the solution about twelve hours ago. Will changing out the solution cause any harm? I don’t want that stink again and on such a beautifully patterned skin.

  16. Marianne Cozort

    April 9, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    I’ve tanned 5-6 western diamond backs, used same glycerine and alcohol mixture and never had a smell. It does turn a weird shade of green though. Mine always turn out great. Perfectly supple and very easy to work with. Do you make sure and shake the mixture every day? Do you keep it out of direct sunlight in a cool dry place? What % alcohol?

    • Thanks for the reply! I believe I used 70% alcohol and I shook the solution and skin up when I woke up and when I went to bed. Looking back on it, the container may have been a mite small for the skin but I don’t see how that could effect it since the solution covered it.
      I have had to keep the skin in a bag not only because of the smell (which started directly after the solution dried off the skin) but also because the scales keep flaking off.
      I’m guessing I may have had the wrong ratio of glycerin-alcohol. Thank you for your help!

  17. I bought a very large African snake skin tanned, that was brought in the U.S in the 60’s, and is disintegrating. does anybody know how to preserve it?

  18. Erin Laughlin

    July 12, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    About 20 years ago I lived in Montana and we got several large rattle snakes. I would tack the skin to a board and then do the fleshing process. Then I sprinkled Borax liberally over the whole hide and placed in a cool dry place. After several days I brushed the Borax off and removed the staples with a knife point and then trimmed the edges off. This made for a very clean dry hide, but as years have gone by, now the skins are very very dry. Do you have any suggestions as to what I could to to make the skins a little more pliable? Thank you, Erin L. Laughlin

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