Alligator Hides

 The Problem   The Solution   Hide Care Tips   Skinning Tips   Brine Preparation   Grading System

The American Alligator is a very valuable natural resource in Louisiana. From its rugged hide is made some of the most elegant and expensive leather products in the world.
Quality is a must to any customer willing to buy alligator products that cost several hundred to several thousand dollars each. Such an investment is made only in products that meet the highest standards. That commitment to quality must start with the trappers who harvest the alligator and must be shared by the helpers and processors who skin the hides.

The alligator is one of the two most valuable classic exotic leathers in the world. Second only to the scarce Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), the alligator is a uniquely American product that is steadily increasing in value. From average prices of only $6 a foot in the 1960's and around $9 a foot as recently as 1983, the price per foot rose to well over $40 in the late 80s.

As a "classic leather", alligator is the "mink of the exotic leather trade" and sets the standard for top of the line fashion and western wear products. Stylish European purses at $1,000, cowboy boots at $600 and briefcases at $3,000 establish American Alligator as the luxury leather product--long valued for its natural beauty and durability. With the increased value of alligator hides comes the responsibility to improve the quality of salted skins coming from Louisiana.

Much has changed in the leather markets since the 1930's when E. A. Mcilhenny described how trappers, who were not paid any more for a twelve foot skin than for a seven foot skin, would cut the larger skin in two.

" In other words--If a hunter kills a twelve foot alligator he cuts the skin so as to get two seven foot pieces from the one by cutting the skin in a diagonal manner from a point forward of the front leg to such a point on the tail that it will net him seven foot pieces, and the buyer pays full price for two seven foot skin." E. A. McIlhenny


It was common practice even into the early 1980's for buyers to round down the length of alligator skins to the nearest foot if the extra inches didn't total at least six, and in some instances ten inches. Today, buyers pay to the inch, and the importance of increasing the quality of salted alligator skins can't be stressed too much.

While increased demand for American Alligator skins has pushed prices higher each year, the overall quality of skins from Louisiana has declined in recent years. If trappers are not careful this situation will eventually catch up and push both prices and the reputation of Louisiana skins down.

In fact, "Louisiana's", as the trade refers to alligator skins from the bayou state, are noted for their high natural quality and fewer number of buttoned hides. "Louisiana's" have always been much in demand by the trade, and still are, but the average quality of the salted skins now produced are less than those of five years ago.- The information in this page is not intended to criticize the current harvest and processing of alligators in Louisiana. After all, the best trappers in the state conduct the world's largest harvest (about 20,000 skins) in the shortest period of time (about one month). But the speed required to harvest, skin and cure thousands of alligator hides, most of which are harvested the first week of the season, has begun to cause some unexpected problems.

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THE PROBLEM:

The Louisiana Fur and Alligator Advisory Council has been closely monitoring the problem for several years and it is as easy to explain as this: too many knife holes in the belly pattern of the skins and too much meat left unscraped on some hides.

This isn't something we just suspect, but have measured by grading several thousand Louisiana alligator skins under the independent American Classic grading system.By independent, it means the grade is neither a buyer's or seller's grade, but one that records the condition of each skin according to standards developed after inspecting more than 35,000 alligator skins from both Florida and Louisiana. More information is given later on how the American Classic grading system works and what it is intended to do.

After the 1987 Louisiana alligator season more than 5,000 skins were graded at five locations in different parts of the state under a cooperative project with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Fur and Alligator Advisory Council and J. Don Ashley. The results of that independent grade were then compared to a sample grade conducted in Louisiana in 1985 and to the average grade of more than 20,000 Florida alligator skins over the last eight years.

The initial results showed the average 1987 Louisiana grade of 60% number ones was down about 4% compared to the average grade of 700 skins from Cameron and Vermillion parishes in 1985. The average percentage of grade in Louisiana compared to Florida is as follows:

 

 

 

Louisiana (1987)

Florida (8 yr. avg.)

Grade 1 60%
62%
Grade 2 38% 31%*
Grade 3 2% 7%


* includes belly buttons which
average 7% in Louisiana and 17% in Florida]

Most of the unnecessary downgrades are the result of improper or careless skinning (holes in the belly pattern). While skins with too much meat (not enough scraping) were not downgraded during the study, it was noticed as a problem at several locations. The excessive stretching of some skins was also noted at several grading locations during the 1987 study. At one grading site, 5 percent of the skins were excessively stretched. This type of damage, identified by neck scale separations or nail holes in the lip, is a particular concern because excessive stretching may cause fiber damage that could weaken finished leather.

Alligator hides from Louisiana should grade an average of ten percent higher than Florida skins due to the fewer number of buttons in "Louisiana's."

An average grade of 70 to 75 percent is possible due to the natural quality o£ carefully skinned hides. One Louisiana landowner during the 1987 grading study recorded an 80% grade--the highest ever for wild skins anywhere. Unfortunately, some other locations recorded a grade as low as 49%, and there is the problem.

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THE SOLUTION:

First, Louisiana trappers, landowners and others interested in the alligator program must recognize there is a problem with declining quality of Louisiana skins that will eventually affect both the price and reputation- of Louisiana's hides. Then, everyone-trappers, helpers, skinners, processors and landowners-must work together to make "Louisiana's" the highest
quality classic skins offered to the world market. The natural quality is already there. The proud trade name of "Louisiana's" is already there. Only a little extra care with the skinning knife and hide scraper is needed to make American Alligator from Louisiana the highest quality classic skins in the world.

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HIDE CARE TIPS:
This page is not a basic guide on how to skin an alligator, but we can offer a summary of skinning steps, tips on how to best care for alligator skins and explain why careful skinning and scraping is important. Most current quality problems with Louisiana alligator skins can be cured by simply using extra care with the skinning knife and extra effort with the hide scraper.

Start with a good place to skin an alligator and have the right tools to do the job. Obviously, you need a steady table at a comfortable height, a good light, a knife and a sharpener, a scraper and salt to get started. You also need to develop your own skinning routine. The best skinners say this comes with practice and experience, but learn to skin an alligator the same way each time instead of changing from one way to another. That way you begin to develop your own system. You will develop a feel for each spot in the skin, and by doing it the same way each time, your moves and knife strokes almost become second nature. A standardized method of skinning, curing and handling alligator skins increases the value of the product and improves buyer confidence in a uniform lot of skins. Diagram 1 shows the standard opening cuts When skinning an alligator and the belly patterns of the skin.

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SKINNING STEPS:

  • Outline the body where skinning will start.
  • The cut along the sides is made between first and second row of scutes on the back.
  • A straight cut is made from the back along the top of each leg (through the largest scales).
  • Cut completely around each foot at the wrist or ankle.
  • The outline cut on the tail is below the top row of tail scutes.
  • When cuts reach the single row of tail scutes midway along tail, cut through base to end of tail
    (butterfly end of tail).
  • Skin tail completely along the sides.
  • Begin skinning body section with front legs and adjacent side skin.
  • Slowly cut skin away from front legs and side of body.
  • Some pulling can be done on upper leg portions.

 

 

 

  • Skin hind legs and adjacent side skin same as front legs.
  • The sides should be completely skinned and only the belly portion should be left unskinned now.
  • After sides and legs are skinned, turn alligator on its side and make outline cuts along lower jawbone.
  • Cut is made along the outer edge of the lower jaw skin.
  • By pulling on the jaw muscle, the flesh can be tightened, allowing for easier skinning.
  • After skin is cut from lower jaw and neck, the alligator is ready to be skinned down the belly.
  • Skinning the under side of the alligator can be accomplished by both pulling and cutting.
  • Pulling is easier on small alligators, with careful cutting required otherwise.
  • Cut carefully around anal opening (vent) so this area won't tear if pulled.
  • Both pull and cut skin from the remaining tail section.
  • Meat and fat remaining on the skin must be removed.
  • Scrape with dull objects (pipes, scrapers, spoons, etc.) taking care not to cut or tear skin.
  • Once scraped, hide should be relatively free of flesh and white in appearance.
  • Skin should be washed in clean, fresh water to remove blood and other fluids.
  • Hang skin in shaded area and allow to drain.

 

 

The shaded area between the neck and vent in Diagram 2 is the part of the belly skin that is graded. Holes or cuts in this part of the skin make it difficult or impossible to cut full belly patterns for purses, briefcases or larger leather articles. Enough holes or cuts in the flanks can even make cutting shoe vamps or smaller leather-goods difficult. The one row of scutes along the sides of the alligator are left so the tanner has some extra skin to tack to when the skin is stretched and dried during the tanning process. Special care should be taken not to cut or put holes in the belly pattern of the skin (particularly around the legs and flanks where the thin skin is easy to nick with a knife).

The proper care of alligator skins begins as soon as the animal is harvested. Here are some more helpful tips:

1. Skinning should take place as soon after the harvest as practical.
2. Avoid direct sun or heat on the carcass or skin whenever possible.
3. Keep skin away from blood, entrails, or other contact with dirty surfaces where more bacteria can get into the hide.
4. Always skin carefully and particularly avoid holes or cuts in the belly pattern.
5. Scrape excess meat and fat from the underside of the skin with blunt knives, paint scrapers, beveled pipes or other dull tools.

Removing meat and fat £rom the skin is very important because of the time necessary to store and ship alligator skins overseas for tanning. This often takes several months and the -excess meat simply helps bacteria get started and can lead to "red heat" or
" slipping" skins. If excess fat is not removed it can prevent salt from properly penetrating the skin. Also, if the fat heats up, it can actually penetrate the skin and leave grease spots on the finished leather.

The purpose of curing alligator hides is simply to remove moisture from the skin so it can be better preserved before tanning. A fine grain mixing salt works best and should be applied generously (1/2 to 1 inch thick) and rubbed into all parts of the skin.
Salt should be rubbed thoroughly into the skin, making sure enough salt gets into the creases, flaps, tail and similar places where bacteria can get a start. Salt helps slow bacterial growth. Tightly roll the skins and stack in a well-ventilated place where they can drain. After three to five days in a cool or shaded place, the skins should be resalted for best curing. Don't use rock salt and don't freeze hides (freezer burned hides won't tan properly).

If done correctly, a brine solution for both curing and storing alligator hides is one of the best ways to handle them. But close attention must be paid to keep the brine saturated with salt and hides should be checked frequently to assure proper curing.

If any "red heat" or "slipping skins" are noticed in a trapper's .lot, the skins should be separated from the rest of the hides and treated in a solution of water, bleach, tide and borax. This "slip dip" is made by mixing a half gallon of bleach in 25 gallons of water and adding half a regular size box (about one pound) of Tide and Borax. The salt in an affected skin should be discarded. (Red heat in particular can spread from one skin to the next). Skins should then be submerged in the dip about 15 minutes. Drain the skin and liberally resalt. Re-roll the skin and if possible, store dipped hides away from other skins.

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BRINE PREPARATIONS:

Ingredients

50 gallon covered plastic drum
50 pounds of salt
1 pound of 20 Mule Team Borax (boric acid)
1 pint bleach
25 gallons water

In order for brine solutions to be effective they must be carefully prepared and maintained. A plastic or other non-corrosive covered container of sufficient size should be used. Heavy, 50 gallon plastic drums used for shipping olives, peppers or pickles are best, but large plastic covered garbage cans are good substitutes. The brine solution must remain saturated with salt. Too little salt in solution will cause the loss of skins. Fill container half full of water, add salt, borax and bleach to drum and mix thoroughly. After complete mixing a 2 or 3 inch layer of salt should remain on the bottom. The bleach and borax will assist in keeping bacterial growth to a minimum. Alligator hides are sensitive to many chemicals which may affect the tanning process. When it comes to chemicals, more is not better. Beware: DO NOT add formaldehyde or other chemicals which may affect the
hide. Hides should be properly scraped and salted with a one inch layer of salt, tightly rolled and secured with a rubber band prior to placing in brine. When submersing a hide in the brine it should be rotated to allow most of the air pockets to escape. If properly salted, the layer of salt in the rolled skin will act as a wick to draw the brine solution throughout the skin. All hides should be entirely submersed in the brine at all times. Each time a hide is added to the brine a few pounds of salt should be sprinkled over the top. This is important to maintain the saturated solution.

The brine container should be kept tightly covered to keep insects and airborne contaminants from entering. When skins are to be delivered for sale they must be removed from the brine and entirely resalted prior to being shipped or placed in refrigeration.

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THE AMERICAN CLASSIC GRADING SYSTEM

First, the American Classic grading system is based on more than 35,000 salted alligator skins that have been graded over the last eight years in Florida and Louisiana. The grade is still being developed, with a goal of 50,000 skins graded before the final standards are set. But the current grade is very consistent and is not based on an advantage to either buyer or seller. Each skin is compared to the average quality of the previous 35,000 skins already independently graded and given a comparative grade.

The most important distinction of the American Classic grading system is that it does not downgrade as much for natural damages in the skins (scars or scratches) as it does for damages the trapper can control (knife cuts, gig holes, slipping skins, etc.) The idea being that trappers should have equal incentive to properly care for a battle-scarred twelve footer as they do for a prime nine footer. By taking extra care not to gig, shoot or cut the belly pattern of the alligator, the trapper then only has to insure the hide will be properly skinned. So, natural scarring or scratching of the hides is not normally downgraded unless it has already resulted in holes in the belly pattern, or if a severe scar will obviously make a hole during the tanning process.

The grades are assigned by the traditional 1, 2 and 3 numbers, but different categories of damages are assigned by letters to each grade (example: 1a, 2b, 3c) in order to help collect information for the final grading standard. Both neck buttons and belly buttons are noted by the grade, as are slipping skins.

In general, any hole or severe scar in the shaded area of the belly pattern in Diagram 2 will be downgraded. If the damage affects about one-fourth of the pattern the skin will be a grade 2.

The American Classic grading system tries to estimate the percentage of usable, undamaged finished leather that will be available from each skin, after allowing for the natural damages explained earlier. Therefore, a number one skin should produce 100% usable leather, a number two about 75% and a number three approximately 50%. A good deal of judgment and experience is necessary to make these grading calls, but the important point to remember is the American Classic
grading system is done the same way each time, according to the same guidelines and is comparing alligator skin qualities to each other, not to price or customer.

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THE FUTURE:

Much is written and said today about the quality in American products. Clearly quality products build and keep the best business. Louisiana has a particularly difficult problem since the major part of its alligator harvest occurs in one month. There is an obvious trade-off between the need to skin and process thousands of alligators a day, and an equal need to insure those skins are the highest possible quality. It does little good to slow down the skinning process in order to cut fewer holes in hides, if the alligators to be processed then back up by the hundreds, with even more hides and meat spoiling as a result. What is
needed is a little better balance between speed and quality. Trappers, helpers, skinners, processors and landowners must all share a commitment to quality.

Louisiana has some of the best trappers and skinners in the world. The above average quality of alligator skins from Louisiana marshes give the state a natural competitive edge. The name "Louisiana's" still means quality and, with just a little extra care and effort, the highest quality classic skins in the world can proudly come from the American Alligator.

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