Dozens Attend Animal Skin Tanning Weekend in Cornish

  • Jon Turner of Middletown Springs, Vt., abrades a hide with a pumice stone as Josh Worthington, one of the workshop's instructors, works with another participant.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jon Turner of Middletown Springs, Vt., abrades a hide with a pumice stone as Josh Worthington, one of the workshop's instructors, works with another participant.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Scraping knives used for removing fur, flesh and fat from animal skins hang on Mark Humpal's workshop wall.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Scraping knives used for removing fur, flesh and fat from animal skins hang on Mark Humpal's workshop wall.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tossing Liz Vezina up and down on a deer skin makes the work of stretching a deer hide fun during the workshop.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Tossing Liz Vezina up and down on a deer skin makes the work of stretching a deer hide fun during the workshop.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jonathan Bransfield of Stow, Mass., warms his neck with a fox fur while standing around the fire at the tanning workshop.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jonathan Bransfield of Stow, Mass., warms his neck with a fox fur while standing around the fire at the tanning workshop.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hannah Humpal wipes a tear from her father Mark Humpal's eyes after his yearly reading of a blessing to kick off the workshop's Saturday night feast. "People thank us for giving them things," Mark Humpal said. "But they're giving back." <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hannah Humpal wipes a tear from her father Mark Humpal's eyes after his yearly reading of a blessing to kick off the workshop's Saturday night feast. "People thank us for giving them things," Mark Humpal said. "But they're giving back."
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jesse Rosene of Vinalhaven, Maine, takes a break from scraping a racoon pelt at Mark Humpal's tanning workshop to get her tired arms massaged by Shawn Nordlund, of Jamaica, Vt. "It is such an amazing gift, really," Rosene said of the workshop. "The atmosphere is so light and welcoming."<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jesse Rosene of Vinalhaven, Maine, takes a break from scraping a racoon pelt at Mark Humpal's tanning workshop to get her tired arms massaged by Shawn Nordlund, of Jamaica, Vt. "It is such an amazing gift, really," Rosene said of the workshop. "The atmosphere is so light and welcoming."
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Workshop participants pack the dining room to serve themselves lamb, beef, venison, bread and salads.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Workshop participants pack the dining room to serve themselves lamb, beef, venison, bread and salads.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Participants at Mark Humpal's annual brain tanning workshop learn to scrape, soak, stretch and smoke skins ranging from moose to red squirrels.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Participants at Mark Humpal's annual brain tanning workshop learn to scrape, soak, stretch and smoke skins ranging from moose to red squirrels.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jon Turner of Middletown Springs, Vt., abrades a hide with a pumice stone as Josh Worthington, one of the workshop's instructors, works with another participant.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Scraping knives used for removing fur, flesh and fat from animal skins hang on Mark Humpal's workshop wall.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Tossing Liz Vezina up and down on a deer skin makes the work of stretching a deer hide fun during the workshop.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Jonathan Bransfield of Stow, Mass., warms his neck with a fox fur while standing around the fire at the tanning workshop.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Hannah Humpal wipes a tear from her father Mark Humpal's eyes after his yearly reading of a blessing to kick off the workshop's Saturday night feast. "People thank us for giving them things," Mark Humpal said. "But they're giving back." <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Jesse Rosene of Vinalhaven, Maine, takes a break from scraping a racoon pelt at Mark Humpal's tanning workshop to get her tired arms massaged by Shawn Nordlund, of Jamaica, Vt. "It is such an amazing gift, really," Rosene said of the workshop. "The atmosphere is so light and welcoming."<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Workshop participants pack the dining room to serve themselves lamb, beef, venison, bread and salads.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson
  • Participants at Mark Humpal's annual brain tanning workshop learn to scrape, soak, stretch and smoke skins ranging from moose to red squirrels.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

Cornish — Leatherworker Mark Humpal learned traditional animal skin tanning decades ago from Apaches in Arizona. Since then, he’s tried to pass the skill along, taking on apprentices and hosting free workshops at his home in Cornish. Last weekend, about 60 people came, mostly from New England, to take part.

By Friday afternoon, more than a dozen students were already set up in Humpal’s yard and leatherworking studio, chipping away at projects in various stages of completion.

Belinda DeJesus concentrated on a doeskin draped over a wooden post set up on the grassy lawn. Wearing blue rubber gloves and a black-and-white patterned apron, she used a metal fleshing blade with handles on both sides to scrape membrane from the skin. After three hours, she had removed only about half of the hair and membrane.

“It’s because it’s my first time,” explained DeJesus, a barista from Burlington.

She stopped now and then to moisten the tan-colored hide with water, to prevent it from tearing. She wasn’t sure exactly how she would use the skin, DeJesus said, but she wanted to make something to wear, “something I can really … be close to all the time.”

Whatever she made, however, she wouldn’t “parade it.”

“To take something’s life is a huge deal,” said DeJesus, 26. “It’s a sacrifice on their part.”

The workshop is a free-form affair, with students receiving one-on-one lessons throughout the weekend.

“We instruct them from start to finish,” Humpal said. “Each person has got their own pace.”

These days, most of the teaching is done by Humpal’s former students, who return year after year as facilitators, he said. “I’m just the guy who oversees everything now.”

Inside his studio, several people gathered around the wood stove, stretching skins or cleaning hides in soapy water. The soap washes out some of the oil and blood, and it also removes some of the gluten, Humpal said. “The more of that you wash out, the softer the skin can be.”

After they were cleaned, the hides would be soaked in animal brains, in this case deer and pig, which helps soften and preserve them, said Nick Cannon, 25 .

The Brattleboro resident sat close to the wood stove, pulling at the edges of a deer skin. It’s important to stretch the skins as they dry, Cannon said, “otherwise they will stiffen up.”

Each year Humpal, a hide and fur buyer, sets aside several hides for participants to use in the workshop. Others supply their own, from game they have shot or farm animals such as goats, sheep or pigs, he said. Participants generally stay on site, either in the house or shop, and some sleep in tents.

“Most everyone here is pretty outdoorsy,” he said.

Outside, Beck Norman and Shawn Nordlund tended melting bear fat in a large metal pan over a fire. The rendered fat has any number of uses, including cooking, treating leather and oiling tools, Nordlund said.

Norman, who was attending the workshop for the 11th year, said she learns something new every time.

“They always come up with different methods,” the Montpelier resident said. And she looks forward to seeing the same people year after year. “It’s kind of like family.”

That community feeling extends to the Saturday evening feast, a potluck affair that is well appreciated after a day of fresh air and hard work. The game dinner would include venison, bear, and “other tidbits,” possibly buffalo, wild hog or some of the alligator he shot this year, Humpal said Thursday. “I’ll see what’s in the freezer.”

On Friday afternoon, Humpal’s wife, Briane Pinkson, was in the kitchen cooking up an aromatic lamb pilaf.

“Everyone chips in and brings food and snacks,” said Pinkson, who organizes the meals. On Saturday night, they all squeeze into the kitchen and living room for dinner, she said. Before they eat, Humpal says a blessing.

“That’s my favorite part,” she said. “It just feels like the clan has gathered.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.