Photography: Courtesy Merlin's Hide Out
Photography: Courtesy Merlin's Hide Out

An expert in buffalo hides, this small town Wyoming leather artist has made a big name for himself around the world — even in Hollywood.

Merlin Heinze, head craftsman and namesake of Merlin’s Hide Out, has always loved hunting. Growing up on a ranch in Thermopolis, Wyoming, he’s been at it his whole life. In his early youth, he also took up sewing, in order to repurpose the leftover hides from his kills. But it wasn’t until adulthood, during a cold Wyoming winter in 1997, that Merlin tried his hand at tanning.

“He’d had a pair of beaver gators ­— those are leggings made from beaver hide­ — that had worn out, and he wanted a new pair,” recalls Merlin’s wife, Barb. “Unlike what I would call a normal person who would just get on the Internet and buy a new pair, he decided he would trap the beaver and tan them himself.” And he did. “We set up our spare bedroom with a tarp and some little Rubbermaid posts, and he tanned the beaver and made the gators,” Barb says.

Merlin was instantly hooked on his newfound craft. “As it often happens,” Barb says, “a couple beaver hides turned into many.” Next came coyotes and fox, but it wasn’t until a year later that his tanning business started to take form. The following winter a good friend asked Merlin if he would tan a buffalo hide. “And he said, ‘Sure,’” Barb recalls. “I put my foot down and said not in the spare bedroom!”

With buffalo instantly becoming Merlin’s hide of choice, the following year the couple built a small log shed as his studio. “And that was the first tannery,” Barb says. “For his birthday I gave him a sign, because I could never find him, that said Merlin’s Hide Out, meaning that’s where he always was.” The name stuck, and the business was born. In 2005, after Merlin lost his brother, he and Barb agreed that life is too short not to follow your passion. So Merlin made leatherwork a full-time gig. The couple opened up their first commercial tannery, “and within three months, we were turning away work,” Barb says.

Today Merlin’s Hide Out offers accessories for human and home ­— from rugs and blankets to jackets and handbags — handcrafted from fox, coyote, and beaver pelts. But tanning buffalo hair-on-hides remains Merlin’s specialty. What makes his hides the best? He only works with ones in their prime, and each hide is treated individually. “When we receive a buffalo hide, it is immediately inspected for any imperfections,” Barb says. “Then the process starts.” It’s fleshed, salted, rehydrated, shaved (twice), tanned, oiled, dried, tumbled, brushed, tumbled again, brushed again, inspected, sized, and graded. Forty-five days later, a soft and supple hide is ready to ship.

Photography: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP © 2015 The Weinstein Company
Photography: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP © 2015 The Weinstein Company

The company’s attention to detail doesn’t go unnoticed. From the tiny town of Thermopolis, Merlin’s Hide Out attracts clients from around the world — including, as of recently, Courtney Hoffman, costume designer for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a post-Civil War western set in the rugged Wyoming back country. One of her primary focuses for the film was costuming Kurt Russell, who plays a renowned bounty hunter referred to as The Hangman.

"I wanted him to be as menacing and large in person as the character was on the page,” Hoffman says. But he also needed to be authentic to the period. So she headed for the Autry Museum of the American West. That’s where she came up with the idea to dress him in buffalo. “The coat was a piece I originally saw in the Autry Museum archives and was able to see it in person and look at the construction from the 1880s,” Hoffman says. “It is a complicated coat because it incorporates many lengths of hides. I began my search of finding the best person to make eight of these coats in the country.”

Her search ended after meeting Barb. “A lot of people said it couldn’t be done, or the supply in winter hides wouldn’t be possible to accumulate­ — matching the furs and colors for eight coats as closely as possible was no easy task. Barb and Merlin’s were always so friendly, so helpful, and such ‘Yes’ people that I knew very early on the job was theirs.”

The end result became famous on the set of the film. “Kurt loves his costume and a huge part of that is the buffalo coat — or ‘The Big Boy,’ as we call it,” Hoffman says. “Quentin definitely considers it one of the most iconic parts of The Hateful Eight.”

So much so that it earned its very own museum exhibition. It’s currently on display at The Autry in Los Angeles, along with many of the other elaborate period costumes from The Hateful Eight.