Time to have your hide tanned?
Tucked away southeast of Kokomo, on the Howard Tipton County line, is a thriving business that grows larger with each passing year. But don’t look for flashing lights, you won’t see any. You won’t find any type of sign either, because there is none. But the many customers who use the business know exactly where it is.
It was roughly 10 years ago when Larry Smith decided to open Twin Ponds Tannery. It was fueled by his love of hunting, trapping and unfortunately, a health ailment.
Since childhood Smith has always enjoyed hunting raccoons, deer and trapping furbearing animals. Most hunters eat the meat of the animals they harvest but everything else normally gets discarded. Some however have the hides tanned, turning them into clothing, gun cases or decorative items.
The connection to a hide runs deeper than any article of clothing or equipment bought at a big box store. Most likely it could be from an animal you harvested, bearing sentimental value. A hide that is properly tanned transforms a biodegradable material to something that can last 100 years.
Smith looks like what you would expect from someone owning this type of business. A mop of gray hair hangs out from under his camouflage hat and his long white beard is reminiscent of a mountain man of the land. Dressed in an old sweatshirt, he strides past barrels of water and chemicals he uses to process many types of hides that hang in his shop.
Smith removes the cover off a container and drapes a coyote fur over a large, slanted wooden pole. He swings one leg over the fleshing beam to brace himself then begins drawing downward on the hide with a scraping tool, removing the last bits of flesh. “This is the perfect time to do this,” Smith said with a laugh. “It can get pretty ripe in the summer.”
Tanning animal hides is a process used to make leather and there are several methods. Some old formulas used smoke or tree bark while others use the actual brains of an animal mixed with urine. Smith prefers an alum based solution. “I stay away from the urine,” he quickly noted.
The entire process can take up to several weeks. It begins with the hide of an animal which is first skinned and most of the remaining flesh removed. From there it goes into an acid based pickling solution for 72 hours. Once it is removed it is fleshed again to remove the tiny pieces of tissue that remain. It then goes back into the pickling solution for another 24 hours. Then it is drained, dried and degreased. Smith then places the hide into a homemade pressure vessel with Alum, salt and water for another 24 hours. Once removed, the tanning solution is neutralized with baking soda and water. The hide is then washed and natural oil is added back, before hanging for three more days to dry naturally without external heat. “This lets the oil soak through,” Smith explained. Hides at this point are then tumbled in a big, motorized barrel containing wood chips. “This brings back the softness,” he added.
Twin Ponds Tannery can preserve hides with the fur left on or removed giving the look of raw leather. Smith has tanned the hides of many types of wildlife and domesticated animals. Although the bulk of his business centers on coyotes, deer, raccoons and beaver, he has also preserved the coats of cows, horses, buffalo and even a potbellied pig, which he says he will never do again. “Pigs have a very thick hide and bony shield which makes them hard to skin,” he noted. Some customers bring hides already removed from the animal although it is not necessary. “Anyone can bring us the whole animal and we will take it from there,” said Smith.
Smith also keeps the bones and teeth from the animals he receives. “There are many people who use them as decoration, jewelry and accessories for clothing, like buttons,” he said.
Smith first started preserving animal hides as a hobby. Then in 2006 he learned he developed problems with his spine. “The doctor said I would be paralyzed within 10 years so I wanted something I could do in a wheelchair,” he explained. “That’s why if you notice all the tables in my shop are lower than standard tables.” For the time being Smith can still walk upright, albeit a little slower than most.
In the beginning he believed most of his work would come from area taxidermists. “But in reality I get very little from them,” he said. His primary customers are hunters, trappers, hobbyists and those who take part in rendezvous and historical reenactments. His business has grown to the point where he could no longer keep up. He hired his friend Paul Myer as a full time employee.
In the near future he hopes to have an actual storefront where he will sell natural types of jewelry made from animal bones and teeth along with many types of fur and leather goods like hats, gloves, coats and other types of clothing. His goods sell for a low of $35 for a tanned raccoon hide to a high of $1,000 which he charged for a full length buffalo coat.
Any true hunter, trapper or other outdoor oriented person strives to use as much of an animal as possible. It is respect for the animal and respect for yourself. And thanks to people like Larry Smith and Twin Ponds Tannery, he makes it easy to accomplish. If it’s time to have your hide tanned, Smith can be contacted at (765)437-6318.