Serpent in Rawhide
Updated: Sep 3, 2019
Laophis Crotaloides based on the West African Gaboon Viper, constructed from Moose scrap
Laophis crotaloides: "People's snake" is the largest viper ever discovered estimated at 13 ft and 60 lbs ~ Rather than being found in the tropics like most vipers, this serpent lived in the cool grasslands of Greece during the Pliocene, 4 million years ago. When the original thirteen fossilized vertebrae discovered by Sir Richard Owen in 1857 were lost, only one more vertebrae was later found to confirm its massive bulk, making it the biggest venomous snake to date. Based on the Gaboon Viper ~ sculpted in Alaskan moose rawhide 🐍
In the past year I'd acquired a box of 8 lbs of moose rawhide scrap from Alaska.
Not sure what to do with it at first except admiring having a big box of rectangular sheets of moose rawhide from Alaska- all the way down in the other corner of Florida, I eventually worked up the nerve to experiment with it by wetting it for a prolonged period of time in the bathtub... as I'd heard of rawhide artists doing; those who braid and form with it for utilitarian works. Back when I would be around all the other leather artists at the big conventions they would say it's an entirely different animal... even if it's the same animal, it is.
I can recall being told while admiring some of the most exquisite rawhide braids in forms of whips and bridles, "There's no room for error when working with rawhide; if it breaks, it's over." I think hearing that is what made me long for trying it even years later... it was risky and kind of a weird medium to choose in the leather world if you didn't need to use it. So feeling edgy, I skipped starting with a potentially more forgiving deer rawhide and went straight to seeking out something more exotic and rare... Well, honestly, I'd actually completely forgotten about it and happened upon the moose by chance while looking at a website from a Alaskan tannery's flyer that came in the mail. That's when I saw boxes of moose scrap for sale and thought, "Who the heck would buy that," and so within five minutes, of course I'd purchased it and was having all sorts of daydreams of what I would be able to make with it... why I was gonna get to try a new art form! It was so exciting- there would be so many new things to learn and all I knew to do was what a rawhide artist told me years ago; soak it for a long, long time to get it workable.
Naturally, after leaving several large moose scraps in the bathtub overnight, I retrieved them to find them now floppy from their once solid, tough forms. First I tried cutting one by hand with some difficulty, then lasering it with a fair amount of flame-ups and finally using my tools and fingers to form the material over a period of many hours while it continued to warp and shrink in unexpected ways and just be generally difficult before becoming hard as a rock and un-shapeable. The whole thing turned out to be a very slimy, somewhat stinky (like a wet dog-chew) and rubbery experience. I found to have achieved some kind of simple shape but still felt disappointed in myself and the results of my first try after putting in a fair amount of time and effort. Ultimately, I went and twisted up some rawhide strips after much difficulty in cutting through the thick deposits of moose fat and made treats for the dog (who had been drooling over the box since its arrival) and had for the most part, resolved to put the scraps away in a closet after the not-so-successful experimenting stage.
What I learned from this first try was that sculpting in rawhide has proven to be a challenge vastly different in properties of wet-forming as opposed to those of vegetable tanned leather, my familiar, old medium. Then, as best as I can remember it, that being perhaps in some manic quick decision made in an afternoon, I decided it was incredibly important to get the box of rawhide out, fill up the tub a couple of inches with cool water and toss some sheets of moose in and try one more time...
Here's what happened: A big, annual leather show was approaching; it had been a long time since I'd been involved in it... but being so far away, I'd never be able to send any of my ordinary sculptures without a plethora of instructions which I'm sure would annoy anyone having to set my work up in an already busy gallery. I admittedly had tried it once before and without being there in person, would certainly not want to do that to them again... so after years of opting out, what could I make that wouldn't move.. what could I ship that wouldn't require excessive set-up and room for error? Something that wouldn't fall apart in transit but still retain the level of detail that's so fun to try and achieve in a piece of leather art? Most all I make is 3-D, so it would be impossible to unless---
That damned rawhide. The answer was that hard-as-a-rock, thick, fat, Alaskan bull moose rawhide... so.. I didn't know how it was gonna go, but the bathtub faucet was on and there I was frisbee-ing sheets of moose into the water while my mind raced of thoughts to hurry up and sketch down.
I needed smaller scale, perhaps delicate, intricate, but not too bulky; something able to lie a bit closer to a surface, a shadowbox type of presentation... then I had it... I was gonna make a snake.
Immediately I began researching snakes and snake skeletons, couldn't do pythons; their jaws weren't the look I was going for and definitely not the scale.... rattlesnake was too predictable for a western leather show and I'm sure I'd seen one there before, albeit with skin on. King cobras stood up way too much- terrible for shipping... and regular king snakes were too skinny, I wasn't sure I could cut detail that small into rawhide for my lack of experience with it without breaking it. Then I found the vipers... particularly the Gaboon Viper, a fat snake, not too long but with plenty of character; a skull unmistakably serpentine and with the bonus of multiple fangs!
I began sketching the side of the skull and it took a few days to entirely work out the puzzle of the upper and lower jaw in all of its angles, especially the confusing bones within the nasal cavity as the Gaboon Viper has a pair of tiny, fleshy horns protruding from its nose used for sensing prey. It's quite a complex predator; what's fun and interesting is while solving the translation of a puzzle of an animal's skeleton into another medium is learning all sorts of various facts about it. By the end, you've gained knowledge about a new creature which is really quite wonderful!
Combining my leather art with modern tech has been something of great value to me as an illustrator and sculptor. Whereupon I make all of my models from scratch at the start, following a sketch and then a rough larger-scale draft version cut by hand in veg-tanned leather scrap to be sure the shape works, I'll then regress and transfer a successful pattern to a vectored version and create the rest from there. This is something I was never able to do with previous larger sculptures and has made for much less waste and an ability to save and more importantly, edit a pattern for design and scale. Once again, proceeding to attempt a lasering of the rawhide, I not only had to pick out the pieces which seemed to go from thicker to thinner depending upon the section of snake, (not wanting thick bones on the tail or around skull) but had to try and divert the design around areas which had been skived too close to the grain side because there would be a burn-off, a melted warping and rapid shrinking simultaneously as the laser passed by the thin ribs which were already set as small as I could imagine getting away with. Worst of all, they could be cut right off.. and as I recalled, when rawhide breaks, it's over.
This was gonna be hard; I had already cut out one vertebrae by hand in veg-tanned leather and then a smaller one from rawhide to see how small I could shape it. It was slippery and difficult... yet I was excitedly showing off one tiny piece after an hour of drying into its form, as though I didn't have over 166 to go. These sectionals of rawhide were tough to plan out; it would've been great if there was a way to simply cut out the whole lower skeletal rib-cage in one piece, but the rawhide was all different sizes. I would have to measure each one to match the length of a section split equally to this skeleton as well as design a way to connect them without impeding too much on the overall look and then make sure it actually works. I only had one shot at all of this; I only had so many scrap rectangles that were a proper width for this particularly plump snake's rib-cage and what was more tricky, was getting the rawhide to a place where it wasn't quite wet and slimy, but not dry and hardened... it needed the surface dry enough for the tack paper to protect it from burn marks but not to the point of drying and beginning to change from flat to wavy by the demands of the quickly-drying fat deposits underneath.
Even on high and running slowly as the laser could go without burning away the finest details, (which I did test in small parts before the main event to be sure my settings were correct and could manage the moose) the results were a thick, rubbery and now very sticky- incredibly sticky... I mean, just a nightmare getting all the tiny tack paper pieces off as they'd somehow fused during the lasering process and made everything, including my hands covered in a surprising new substance composed of liquid moose fat and partially melted tack-paper glue, which immediately merged into one massively annoying task of picking little bits off one-at-a-time and trying to get them into the trash while sticking to everything but. I would wash my hands thoroughly afterwards.
The vast majority of the thick, moose rawhide was not cut through... I dreaded what came next.. due to the shrinking and movement of the partially wet hide during the heat that had passed through it, it could not be cut again over the precise areas. I would now have to cut every single rib and vertebrae out completely by hand. This isn't the first time this has happened to me; on lower wattage lasers I've had patterns not cut all the way through, but it was my usual material then. Normally, vegetable tanned leather could be torn from its places where it remained stuck and the edges burned where it had frayed; not this rawhide... I found with some hopeful force of pulling it that if I continued my actions, it would snap. I had no choice and I was out of the right sized pieces to attempt to cut it again.
As I was monotonously cutting, I'd noticed how small some sections were becoming as they dried and I could begin to shape them from their previously floppier-form. I would use tweezers, a miniature swivel Xacto knife and a pair of sharp, leather-working scissors for most of my time on this project. I could only make the vertebrae as small as the smallest piece would cut without being burned away, something I'd learned in scaling previous skeletal sculptures. But rawhide could be different... I risked to follow the same rule here, but later found it would shrink much more.. almost by 40% in some cases where there was ample fat distributed over a piece. This is of course after the rawhide has been wet for many hours; it's as your fingers would become after being submerged in water for too long before drying and returning to normal and this felt somewhat bizarre to work with. I would find having to soak and re-soak some tinier pieces if they were to dry too quickly, even if it meant wrapping a micro sized strip of paper towel around them while soaking for fifteen minutes with a couple of droplets of water in order to reshape or shift a piece of rib-cage.
The rawhide was alive and constantly moving as it dried. I came to understand that the fatty deposits affected these changes... trimming fat off of sections became necessary for uniformity in drying time and how much a piece may curl in onto itself once dried. The problem was that this was an animal of the cold north, these were scraps from being hand prepared from tanning, and there was a lot of fat. The uneven places made for highly difficult cutting and hours of sore hands from the persistent trimming away on the tiniest of vertebrae.. the ribs had been much easier compared to pinching each tiny piece to snip the fat off one bit at a time. They were too tiny to skiv and so it became very painful, taking several days to prepare, upon which they all had to be re-wetted and placed into a tiny container to soak again overnight so I could once again work with the shapes over some hours as they would dry again the next day.
Meticulously and methodically is the only way I could describe the way the remainder of the structuring of the skeleton went... I would repeat the process of gently threading a needle through the rawhide, tying and wood gluing each piece into position with tweezers and a toothpick to create a shape that felt authentic. At this point I'd decided I was going for an older taxidermy look; an antiqued, scientific specimen from the jungles of Western Africa. This idea arose while I was waiting on certain small sections to dry and I would play around etching into smaller scraps with my pyrography machine, which was being used to clean up any roughened edges at the time. Right before the rawhide would become dry seemed to be the best time to burn on it... it became a really fun sort of activity and I ended up sketching several snakes based on old nature book references and information on the species that I learned. A piece that now goes with this display aside from the specimen's label is a small section of rawhide that is about the size of a field notebook page and is meant to resemble a found article on the viper as written by a scientist who might've been stationed in the region at the time. The yellowish coloring is a major factor that contributes to this feel and I enjoyed the aged look of the rawhide which not only appears as an old page from a lost book, but finely shows off the moose rawhide in its amazing natural form, complimenting the more detailed skeletal sculpture beside it.
Mounting the viper was another challenge, although nearly the final one. A series of wooden pegs had to be stained and measured precisely before being marked over the box's base, drilled and set into place so the skeleton wouldn't move. Many strands of hemp were then threaded through secondary, smaller drilled holed in the upper portions of each peg for the extra securing around each of the sections before being tied off and sealed. A collapsible, wooden stand was also designed in the last stages of the project in order to fit the shadow box which was laser-cut out specifically for the most effective viewing angle of the sculpture.
In the end and after all of these weeks of work, other important personal things came up and this viper was never to actually make it to the leather show it had been intended for. Sad as I was about this, there were a lot of lessons learned over the course of this project and I have to admit that I no longer feel intimidated (at least entirely) by rawhide. Also, there's always next year.
"Serpent in Rawhide" The moose rawhide Gaboon Viper is composed of 167 vertebrae, mounted with wooden pegs, hemp cord over a 18 x 18" oil stained birchwood shadow box and set on a basswood collapsible stand. *Fun-fact: Gaboon Viper has the longest fangs and the highest venom yield of any snake in the world.