What the Flesh?
Tanning an animal hide is a process that is very unfamiliar with most people, especially those who don't know taxidermy. Being in business for over 20 years, there is one question we get asked all the time, "How do you get your capes so thin?" It's no secret in the taxidermy business that shaving, or fleshing is the key step in hide tanning. In order to do this almost every tannery uses fleshing machines. These are finely crafted small machines that use a belt-driven motor to rotate a razor-sharp blade. Mostly mounted on a stand or table, these machines make it much easier for tanneries to flesh multiple hides an hour, rather than using a fleshing knife which is very time consuming. So, if you're interested in trying this yourself, here are a few things to consider.
It Takes Time
I remember when I first stepped in front of the shaving machine, I was immediately intimidated. First off, I had almost no experience working with small machines or any tools at all for that matter. Also, I had almost no knowledge of the tannery business so I didn't know what was expected of me. After 3 months or so I remember finally being able to pick up speed. I remember learning how to detail the faces and small areas of a hide. In about a year I was on my own. But, it didn't stop there. Every year I learn something new, a new trick, or a new species we've never done before. I've been shaving almost everyday for 14 years and despite shaving over 30,000 hides there is always knowledge to be gained.
Beginning is always the hardest part because you want to learn quickly but you also don't want to make more work for yourself by cutting holes. Just take it slow. First watch someone who is experienced so you can see how the process works. The most important thing is to be patient but push yourself at the same time. Set goals and reach for them but also pay attention to your quality of work. Don't expect to be mastering the machine in a month or two. It's not realistic because this is a very specific skill to learn. Keep a positive attitude and know that you will struggle in various areas (time, quality, blade sharpening,etc.).
Know Your Machine and Blade
You are the one doing the work but that machine is your tool and needs to become part of you when you shave. If you're just starting out there are few great options to choose from online. We use Eager Beaver machines from Stuart Manufacturing in California. They are ultra durable and have an enclosed belt system. They have lots of adjustments for your guards, and they are a lot less bulky than other models. Another good choice is the S&S Pro-Model by True-Cut Inc. It also runs on a belt driven system (not enclosed) and the whole hub easily peels back for maintenance or to change your blade. Its orange color also stands out if you care about that kind of aspect. One last option is the Dakota Pro Flesher by McKenzie. It is a popular model and has a self contained belt system. However, it is slightly more bulkier than the other two models but costs about $150 less than the other two models. All are around $1500 brand new so, yes, it's an investment BUT beware of used or refurbished machines as they could have a multitude of problems and that's not something you want to deal with while trying to learn a new skill. Just do your homework.
(Eager beaver model)
All of these models are table models, so you can just cut a gap in your fleshing or turning table to fit the machine. Trust me, after years of standing on my feet for hours on end, it's important to have them on a table and to be comfortable with your working space.
Your guards are your life savers. Every machine comes with specified guards to help prevent serious injury and ruining your hide. It's important to adjust your guards to what works right for you. Play with it and remember that no two people will do it the same. Just get comfortable with the motion of fleshing then adjust your guards accordingly.
It takes awhile to get comfortable with your blade. Having a sharp blade is a must with fleshing. You can stand there all day and wear yourself out trying to cut with a dull blade. Typically, you can sharpen the blade edge with tungsten sharpening rods, bringing it back to a sharp point, but eventually you will have to either use a new blade or send yours off to be reground.
Every Animal is Different
Tanneries often deal with handfuls of different species and you might too. For example, we do a majority of white tail deer, but we also do mule deer which tend to have slightly more dense skin. There are also does and fawns which are extremely thin skinned and much easier to cut holes in. The bigger animals such as elk, buffalo, and moose leave more room for error because of the thickness of their skin. Sometimes they are so thick that it takes more than one pass of the blade to get down to the right thinness. Then there are the critter type of species like bobcats, coyotes, fox, lynx, etc. These can be challenging because of the makeup of the skin and how they are skinned off of the caracas. If they are tubed they can be slightly more difficult to lay flat as your blade passes over it, so be careful. The main thing here is experience with each species, and knowing what you're shaving before you start.
Hands On is the Only Way
I'm sure if you go online to certain sites you can find videos of experienced shavers showing you all sorts of basics. There are even tanneries or taxidermies that have video tutorials for sale that you can purchase. Although these may be helpful to you if you're just learning, let me put this in all caps, THERE IS NO BETTER WAY TO LEARN THAN HANDS ON. This trade is all about feel and comfort. You will never learn this trade by simply watching someone else do it. You need to feel how much pressure to put on when you make a pass. You need to know which parts of the hide are thin and which parts could be problem areas. You need to know the machine and the blade, like where to have your guards set (if your using them) and how sharp your blade is. You need to shave hides, period. If your just learning, start on something that you'll do a lot of. If you mount or process mainly white tail, then grab a few extra hides that you can afford to practice on and go to town.
Sometimes when I'm shaving I think about the natives and how they used to brain tan. I marvel at how they learned and practiced these skills and I appreciate that I get to do the same just with a modern twist. Taxidermists have come a long way from using hand-held knives for fleshing and the industry is chugging right along. Fleshing is an amazing skill and with technology advancing the way it is, it will only continue to become easier to learn. It has always been a key to the process.
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