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