How To Tan A Hide Using Several Methods

how to tan a hide using several methods

I read a post recently by a guy that had finished tanning a deer hide for his daughter.  He said it was a fairly long ordeal (and he probably wouldn’t ever do it again), but it turned out beautifully and he had a picture to prove it.  The hide looked very soft and flexible and hung limp like a blanket over the bed.  So thanks to “livbucks” from PA. for providing the initial motivation for me to try my hand at tanning a hide.

I like the idea of DIY or as I would say, DIOY (doing-it-your-own-self) and I also like the idea of not wasting the hide and am glad to see that there are many other people that feel the same way.  I am encouraged to see so many people on websites and forums that are keeping old skills like how to tan a hide alive.  Chances are, if you are reading this, you are a do-it-yourself person too.

I plan on hunting public land, with publicly available tags.  It will  only be me, myself and I (and maybe my wife since she goes out with me some days) to find it, harvest it, gut it, skin it and pack it out.  We butcher, wrap and freeze the meat and make our own sausage, ground meat and patties for burgers. If I am skilled and/or lucky enough to harvest an animal this Fall, I plan on making a rug or blanket from the deer or elk hide. If I get a buck or even if I get a spike elk, I will also make my own European style mount of the skull and antlers.how to tan a hide example of different animal hides

I still have a lot of research to do and tools to acquire before I am ready to start tanning a whole animal hide.  There seem to be many different methods and I need to decide on a method that I can do myself at home.  So as I do the research and start acquiring books and tools, I will update this post with the information that I can find and will include all the steps of the hide preservation, tanning and breaking process once I have a hide and get started.  I will include pictures and maybe even some videos, so stay tuned to see how this journey turns out.

First Experience Tanning Rabbit Hides

Many years ago while I was still in high school, I was asked by a friend of the family to show him how to dress rabbits.  No… Not to put dresses on them like some people do with their small dogs, but to skin, gut and clean them.

how to tan a hide with brains, soap or eggs

Deerskins into Buckskins – How to Tan with Brains, Soap or Eggs.

He had bought a few acres, and though he had a good job in town, was trying to live as self sufficient as possible.  He was growing a garden, raising a few cows, goats, free-range chickens and had also started raising rabbits.

Well, you know how it goes… A cow has a calf (one calf), goats usually have two kids, chickens lay 8-12 eggs and you will be lucky to raise 4 or 5 chicks in a season if you don’t keep them penned up, but the rabbits were breeding like rabbits!  He already had baby rabbits that were having more baby rabbits and had built more cages, but the both the old and new cages were stacked full of rabbits.  Something had to give.

The original purpose for raising the rabbits was for food, but his wife and kids had become attached to the rabbits and hadn’t fully bought-in to the idea of eating what you raise.  I don’t think this fellow had actually “harvested” any of his livestock yet.  So I  was glad to help out and to make a long story short, we “dressed” 6 rabbits.

hybrid rabbit

This rabbit looks like the hybrid skins that were tanned

His original rabbits, (California giants) were large and white with a soft medium length coat.  But about half of the younger rabbits were mostly white, but with had an irregular wild-type colored blanket splashed across their backs.  My friend said he just assumed the wild native Cottontails were responsible.  How did those sneaky little devils do that through the chicken wire? All the hides were beautiful, but especially the wild cottontail hybrids.

Anyway, the purpose of telling this story now, is that once I saw those hides, I knew couldn’t just throw them away and I had to try to preserve them.  At that time (mid 1970s), small game was plentiful where I lived, but big game (white-tailed deer) was not.  People used to joke that you could hunt deer an entire lifetime and leave most of a box of shells for your kids.  I had skinned many-a-rabbit and squirrel, but had no experience tanning hides and didn’t know anybody that had done it.  My Grandfather said he used to know people, they tanned their own hides and even made their own shoes, but they were all “long gone”.

Foxfire Book 3; Chapter 2 Hide Tanning

This was obviously many years before Al Gore invented the internet, so back then, the only source of information at that time was our World Book encyclopedia set, the Golden Book Encyclopedia of Natural Science (1962; I still have that set today) and the public library.  I had to hustle too, because I didn’t know what to do with the skins, except to stretch and tack them to plywood.  My father told me to remove all the excess meat and tissue from the skins and to spread a little pickling salt on them.  Luckily, that was enough to hold them until I discovered the Foxfire books at the library the next day.

Foxfire was started as a class project in 1966 as students from northern Georgia interviewed elders and retold their stories about how they lived (self sufficiently) in the Southern Appalachians.  They had enough stories to produced a magazine, which later was turned into the book series.  There is also a Foxfire museum and non-profit  organization.  The name “Foxfire” comes the local name for a bioluminescent (glows in the dark) fungus that grows in the region.

The Foxfire 3 book was the one I needed to learn how to tan the hides, but the book also covers subjects like animal care, banjos and dulcimers, wild plant foods, churning butter and finding and using ginseng.

The Foxfire 3 book describes several methods for tanning hides, including bark tanning, brain tanning, alum tanning and tanning with lard and flour.  Most of the information is for tanning after the hair was removed.

The bark tanning method is a time consuming method that is very similar to method described by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Publication below.  They did mention how they ringed or cut down trees to get the bark and how they used the bark from different tree species for different colored hides.  Chestnut Oak would turn the hides brown and the bark of White Oak would turn hides a yellowish color.  Bark could be used either dry or green, but the “tea” or “ooze” made from the bark needs to be the color of dark coffee before using it for tanning hides.

The brain tanning method is similar to other brain taning methods described.  Brains are simply cooked and then rubbed into the hide.  Brains were rubbed on the hide either cool or hot, but seems the hot method also helps remove the hair.

The lard and flour method is a method I have not seen described anywhere else before. For tanning a hide with lard, the hide was rubbed with a thick coat of lard and then the lard was coated with flour.  The hide was rolled up until “the blood was drawn out”.  The hide would be oiled and worked to keep it soft.

None of the methods or equipment are described in great detail, and some of the methods (lard and flour method) were described from memory.  There are numerous black and white photos of skins and hides in various stages of skinning and tanning.

The Foxfire 3 book has a short section about tanning hides with the hair on, and that is the section that I followed.  The method describes scraping the hides to remove the flesh and fat and then salting the hides (which I did).  Then I covered the hides with alum and allowed them to dry.  At this point, they should be ready for use.

Another method described using half alum and half soda, but without salting the hide.   Another method that would probably be frowned upon today was to use a bar of laundry soap and six ounces of arsenic or lead.  This toxic mixture was made into a paste that was then rubbed into the hide.

My hides were preserved well and the fur held tight and remained beautiful for years, but I was disappointed that the hides were very stiff.  That seems to be the case for alum tanned hides.   I don’t remember much about the softening process (maybe that was the problem – I probably had to return the book before the hide was ready for softening), but the Foxfire 3 book only has a short section on keeping hides pliable.  Methods for keeping the hides pliable include using neat’s-foot oil or beeswax and beef tallow to “work” the hides.  Methods or techniques or tools used for working the hides are not described.

I remember that I tried chewing one of the hides for a while.  If chewing was really how native American women softened deer hides, I stand in awe of them!  Maybe someone told me to chew the hide just to play a joke on a gullible teenager.  What I didn’t know at the time, was that hides become soft from working them while still wet, not after they are dry.  I basically make raw hide with the hair on.  The hides were preserved, but maybe not really tanned.

Types or Methods of Tanning Hides and Leather at Home

  • Bark Tanning – Uses the Tanin or Tannic Acid from bark of oak, hemlock or other trees.  This method has also been referred to as vegetable tanning – Tanning with tannic acid from tree bark can take up to 6 months to complete, and will stain the fur of an animal, so I would try this method for tanning leather, but not for preserving a hide.  See recipe below – would need at least 100 lbs of bark for a cow hide, So maybe 40 or 50 lbs for a deer hide.
  • Brain Tanning – every animal has one (a brain) and it seems that every animal except bison have enough brains to tan their own hide.  I am a little concerned about using brains of ungulates as a tanning agent due to the possibility of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).  CWD is form of spongiform encephalopathy, similar to mad cow disease and several very similar to a very rare prion diseases that effect humans.  According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC); “To date, no strong evidence of CWD transmission to humans has been reported.”  Well that is good to know, but they (CDC) advises hunters to have game tested for CWD before consuming it and to take certain precautions in the field while butchering the animal, including; “…wear gloves, bone-out the meat from the animal, and minimize handling of the brain and spinal cord tissues.  I am still consider brain tanning, but I don’t think I will be using the brains of a deer or an elk.  If not, then I need to find a source for pig brains.  When I was young, canned pig brains were always at the grocery store (Armour – same people that make potted meat).  I never had them so I don’t know what I missed.  I used to wonder who actually bought them.  My Grandfather said he used to eat them, but only had them fresh when they killed hogs.  I don’t know if they are even available now after all the mad cow disease scare.  I will also check at some of the Asian food markets.  It also seems that most brain tanning instructions also recommend that the hides be smoked as well.
  • Tanning with Mayonnaise and Raw Eggs – Since mayo is raw eggs and oil, then the mix is lots of raw eggs and some oil – use the same way as brain tanning – Interesting, never heard of this method before – More research needed.
  • Tanning with Alcohol & Turpentine – seems that some people have used this is a 50% alcohol and 50% Turpentine solution – others say they never heard of this and suggested that the leather would likely be very dry when alcohol evaporated.  More research is needed here, but I don’t think I want my hides to smell like turpentine.
  • Salt & Alum Tanning  (ammonium aluminum sulfate or potassium aluminum sulfate)
  • Chrome Tanning (Chromium Sulfate) – commercial method – typical hard, shinny texture. Your motorcycle jacket was probably tanned this way – wash water is considered hazardous waste.
  • Glutaraldehyde Tanning – an alternative to Chrome Tanning? Related to Formaldehyde.  Dow chemical recommends their product Zoldine® be used in conjunction with Chrome Tanning.  The Safety sheet states that it is very toxic and extremely harmful to aquatic organisms.  Not for me. Probably not for home tanning at all.  Sure wouldn’t want my neighbor dumping Chromium or aldehyde compounds on the ground or in the creek anywhere near me.
  • Lard and Flour Tanning - method described in Foxfire 3

Steps of the Leather and Hide Tanning Process

Depending upon the source, there are various steps to the Hide Tanning process.  I have tried to summarize them here.

There seems to be some confusion between sources about what it means to preserve, tan or break hide.  Some separate these into different steps, while others don’t include some of the steps or they combine them into a single step.

        1. Skinning
        2. Fleshing – remove all fat and tissues

Here is a good detailed exampled of actually fleshing a deer hide.

      1. Preserving/Curing – freeze or salt – salt (non-iodized), alum – stop bacterial activity to preserve hides – equal parts salt and hide
      2. Washing/De-greasing – If the hide is very fatty, it might need to be washed
      3. De-hairing – if you want leather – lime – skip this step if you want to tan a hide with fur left on
      4. Thinning (if hide is thick) – Dry Scraping
      5. Tanning – Pickling – Neutralizing – uses an acid solution to prepare the cells of the hide for tanning (Pickle only if hide is not fresh) – test for completion, cut small piece from edge, look to see if color has completely penetrated hide – or put small piece in boiling water, if curls, it is not ready.  Must be completely rinsed and neutralized – careful about where you dump waste water.  Types of Acid; Battery acid, oxalic acid
      6. Breaking & Oiling

This is a good look of a nearly finished tanned deer skin (hide-on) and the kid knows his stuff…

To Salt or Not to Salt Hides to Preserve for Tanning?

If you are not able to begin the tanning process a soon as the animal is skinned, then the hide must be frozen or salted.  If in the field without access to refrigeration, then salt would seem to be the only option.   But some sources say to add plenty of salt to cure the hide and set the fur, while others say “Do not Salt!”.  One website says not to salt unless you are experienced as salting can ruin a hide.  It would help if they would have mentioned how salt could ruin a hide, so we would know what to watch for.  Then there is the choice of dry salting or wet salting.  Dry salted hides look like they could be stacked in the corner for some time, while wet salted hides must be stored in a plastic container.  Dry salted hides seem to be harder to rehydrate and tan when you resume the process.

The fur can start falling out (slipping) fairly quickly in warm weather due to bacterial growth, so what to do?  I plan on salting the hide as soon as possible in the field, but more research is needed on salting hides to learn what some of the pitfalls might be.  But if you do salt a hide, do not use iodized salt, and do not use rock salt because size of crystals is too large and too many impurities, but use a fine grained salt like pickling salt.  The hide needs to be completely covered with salt and a good guide to the amount of salt needed is to use about the same amount of salt as the animal hide weighs.

Hide Tanning Books to Consider

I think I have just about exhausted the credible online resources on tanning hides.  There are lots of You-tube videos,  and some have some good info, but most seem to be for leather and not for hides with the fir left on.  I need a little more in-depth information to decide on the type of tanning I will attempt.  I also feel like I need a little more step by step guidance, especially on the subjects like hide thinning and breaking.  I ordered some books on how to tan a hide and will be using them to help decide which tanning process I want to use and what tools I need to obtain.  The best one so far has been Deerskins into Buckskins.

how to tan a hide with brains, soap or eggs

Deerskins into Buckskins – How to Tan with Brains, Soap or Eggs.

“Lot of good detail and step by step directions. Also good history and easy to follow. I have already used it to buckskin and it works well. Thanks and can’t wait to do another one by a slightly different method.” -Gerald

Tanning Hides and Leather with Bark (Tannin/Tannic Acid)

I found an old U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (1884) publication Home Tanning of Leather and Small Fur Skins and have summarized the basic steps for tanning a cow hide with tannic acid from bark:

      1. Make bark liquor  – 30-40 lbs of finely ground (particles no larger than corn kernel) oak or hemlock bark
      2. Boil 20 gallons of pure water (rain water is best)
      3. mix in barrel (do not use iron container) and let stand for 15-20 days, stir occasionally
      4. when ready to use, strain off the bark by pouring through a sack
      5. Add 2 quarts vinegar
      6. hang sides (of cow hide) from sticks in the bark, the less folds the better, move around often to insure even coloring
      7. As soon as sides are soaking in the bark liquor mixture, make another batch of liquor mixture
      8. After 10-15 days, remove about 5 gallons of mixture from the barrel with the hides, and replace it with fresh bark mixture from second batch, and add 2 quarts of vinegar.
      9. After 5 more days remove another 5 gallons of mixture and replace with 5 gallons of the fresh mixture (no more vinegar needed)
      10. Repeat twice more every 5 days  – check hide by cutting a sliver from an end piece to see how much the hide has been penetrated.
      11. Then take another 40 lbs of bark and moisten with water, add bark directly to the sides and bury them in the bark for 6 weeks.
      12. After 6 weeks, check of hide should show tanning spread nearly to the center – pour out half of the old bark liquor water and fill the barrel with fresh bark – shake the barrel from time to time, add bark and water as needed to keep hides covered – checking hide should reveal all tanned, no white or raw streak – if not complete, leave in the mixture and add more bark and water to keep covered.  At this point leather to be used for harness or belt leather should be done, but leave for 2 months longer if leather is to be used for shoe soles.

Wow! A minimum of 100 lbs of oak bark and at least 77 -87 days of preparing or soaking the hide.

The U.S.D.A.  publication warns the reader that “The inexperienced cannot hope to make leather equal in appearance, or possibly in quality, to that obtainable on the market”… and “It is never advisable for an inexperienced person to try to tan valuable fur skins or large hides to be made into coats, robes or rugs.  The results would be disappointing, both in appearance and in quality”.  Doesn’t sound like govt. has changed much.

Sound like they didn’t really want to make the publication, but since the people demanded it, they did. But they didn’t want to be blamed if the hides did not turn out right.  Well that’s all I need to hear, for someone to tell me I can’t do it.  Now I might not try tanning a hide with 100 lbs of oak bark, but back when the bulletin was published, it was probably fairly simple to go cut down an oak tree or two and get that much bark.  Grinding it up into small pieces might not be so simple.

I have been trying to visualize how much in volume 100 lbs of bark takes up.  I have bought landscaping bark in bags and spread it around the shrubs as mulch.  I am thinking that 100 lbs of bark would be about 5 wheel-barrows full or about 30 cubic feet.  I’ll bet if you lived anywhere in the eastern or southern U.S., you could easily find oak bark at a small timber operation.

Photo of deer hide courtesy of “JefFroh”, animal hides on old cabin courtesy of “Photomatt28″, rabbit from “sheep”R”us” on Flickr.

Comments

  1. Brian from Alliston says:

    I have recently taned a deer hide from this fall using the aluminum sulphate and salt method hoping to acheive a deer rug to hang in the basement and make muzzle loader accesories. It was going well and when the hide dryed I noticed that some of the hair was falling out in isolated areas so here is the questions.
    1. What usually causes this hair to fall out?
    2. What should I do with the hide now?
    3. Is there a way to get the hair off now?
    Right now the hide is stiff and have not oiled it, I am following a recipe that was in the Ontario Out of doors magazine from 2 years ago. I am green at this and would take any help I can get.
    Thanks
    Brian from Alliston

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      Brian: I am not an expert on the subject of tanning. I tanned some small animal hides many years ago, but like you, would like to have a nice elk or deer hide. I have to admit I was too lazy to save the last elk hide. It was too late in the day, I was too far from the road and it was warmer than I liked, so I just packed out the meat.

      To answer your question. Since you did not use an acid solution, the hair is probably falling out because of incomplete salting. The salt and sulfates are supposed to cause the skin to hold tight to the hair follicles. Salt also kills bacteria that would also cause the hair to slip.

      If the hair is only falling out only in certain places, check to see if the other side of each patch has been scraped too deep when you were fleshing the hide. This is probably not the case with a deer hide, unless the deer has very thin skin (Southern Deer). If that is the case, that hair may fall out, but the rest of the hide may be O.K.

      I have read in several different places that a hide that is soaked too long can slip too much hair. So, how are we supposed to know how long to soak? Experience must be the answer. Try to find someone local that has experience. If not, keep good records about all your processes and techniques, after you do it a 1,000 times, you can tell the rest of us what we are doing wrong.

      Matt Richards’ book (Deerskins into Buckskins) says that the whole tanning process is very forgiving and steps can be repeated if necessary. He is obviously talking about tanning hides with the fur removed. Nothing forgiving about hair that has already fallen out.

      You could try restarting the process again, but at this point, who knows if the hair can be saved or not.

      If you want to remove the hair, try the typical lime or ashes methods. Send us a picture and let us know how it turns out.

      Good Luck.
      BcC

  2. I am a beginner at trying to tan a hide with hair on. I have read and watched a lot of good and bad videos about dozens of techniques for doing one. I have fleshed the hide and rinsed and salted repeated twice. I am at the point to put it in a acid soak now but would like to know if there is a home recipe for the citric acid one? And would that step help the softening more then alum?
    I would like to see a video from start to finish of a good tan online if you know of one.
    Thank you for your help

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      Susie:
      Good for you for trying to learn to tan hides. None of my books give a recipe for citric acid. Only one book gives a recipe for other acids.
      Somewhere online, I remember reading that pickling; either with too much acid or soaking hides for too long can lead to hair loss.

      I will give recipe from James Churchill’s book for pickling skins (but these were for hides not furs):
      Citric Acid should be safe to use, but sulfuric and oxalic acid is dangerous. Acid fumes are also dangerous to breathe. Consider using vinegar.
      ***********
      For automotive sulfuric acid, use 1/2 oz of pure sulfuric acid or 2 oz of battery acid (33% acid 67% water) & 14 oz salt in 1 gallon of water.
      But I have also seen the recipe of 1 oz. battery acid and 1 lb. salt per gal. of water, which is half of the previous concentration.
      For Oxalic acid, use 1 oz per gallon of water
      White Vinegar (5% acetic acid) can be used 2 quarts for each pound of skin and pound of salt.
      **************
      Van Dykes supply sells a “safety acid” which has pH of 1.5 that is mixed at 1/2 oz per gallon of water. Small hides should be soaked in this acid bath for 16 hours and large hides (deer or elk) should be soaked for up to 72 hours. I have read that if you pickle with acid, the acid should not be rinsed off with water, but should be neutralized with some sort of base solution, which of course, they also want sell to you.

      I have not been convinced that hides need to be pickled and do not plan on using acid on my next hide. Let me know how yours turns out. You may convince me.

      As for softening your hide, that is done by working it to break the collagen fibers. There are many books and videos that show how this is done. It is hard work, but it is necessary. Otherwise the hides will be stiff like cardboard.

      There are several good videos online that are both entertaining and show how to do the various steps. Some even seem to have good results, which is the most important part. I have not found a good video that talks shows specifically how to pickle furs with acid.

      I know how hard it is to try this without any help. Do some searching to see if anyone in your area can help teach you. Reading books and watching videos are good, but having an expert look over your shoulder would be better.

      Good luck with your project, and let us know how it turns out.

      BcC

  3. Where to start? Oh yes, HELP!@$!!! Never one to be daunted by a challenge, I deicded to bark tan a cow hide after we butchered our beef. I salted/cured, washed and began soaking (5 weeks ago) in a oak/hemlock solution. The hair doesn’t seem to be slipping, which is good, but the hide is beginning to smell rancid. I have added to and completely changed out the solution 3 times and as of the last I added some bleach. The first two soaks netted an oily white layer that rose to the top. The last solution with bleach hasn’t produced that and simply began to smell rancid from the beginning of that soak. I drained that solution and will rinse the hide and put it back in more bark solution now but do not know if I should add vinegar or even when I can clean the hide, oil it and put it on the floor as a rug. How do I know it’s done and can it be saved since it smells rancid? There is a lot of conflicting and incomplete info out there! Can you help so that I can save Goldie’s hide??? Thanks so much!
    Betsy

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      I have to admire your courage and yes, you jumped right in with both feet. Can I assume you have a book or recipe to use as a guideline?

      How well was the cowhide scraped? Was there still a lot of fat left on it? If there is, scrape it off. Kerosene or urine are old school degreasers.

      From what I have read about bark tanning, it takes a lot of bark (many bushels), which should be finely ground to make a strong bark tea in 50-100 gallons of water. A cow hide may take 3 or 4 months to tan in bark. I am curious to read more details about your bark mixture/solution.

      I also assume by rancid, that the fats are going bad, but not the hide itself, especially if the hair is still not slipping.

      Bacteria will cause the hair to slip, so the bleach should have killed any bacteria.

      You might want to try drying the hide now and finish tanning with a paste.
      When the hide is still damp, apply the paste and cover with plastic or newspaper so it doesn’t dry too fast.
      Let the paste sit for about two days, then remove (scrape) the old paste and apply a fresh paste.
      Wait two more days and repeat, but this last time, let the paste dry.

      Paste Recipe – 1.5 gallons water, 1 lb alum, 4 oz washing soda, 8 oz salt and enough flour to thicken. You may need more than one batch for a whole cow hide.

      You can test to see if tanning is complete by cutting off a sliver of hide and looking to see if the color has penetrated to the center of the skin.

      James Churchill’s book; (The Complete Book of Tanning Skins and Furs) also gives directions for an acid immersion process.

      Good Luck. I hope old Goldie makes a fine rug for you.
      BcC

      • I have tanned everything from rabbit to elk. I use salt, borax and a lot of elbow grease. When I skin the animal if I can’t tan right then I roll the hide hair in and freeze. I have only done hair on tans. The hide has to be fleshed well, or all the fat and meat removed, before you start the process. I use a saw horse and a sharp knife to scrap, I have used a draw knife and that has worked well too. When I’m ready to work the hide I spread newspapers out on my garage floor, roll the hide fur down onto the papers, and cover it with non iodized salt. Pickling salt works well and can be purchased in bulk. I let that sit over night. The next day add more salt. You are adding salt until you have a dry crust over the entire hide. Usually takes about 2 days. After the salting rinse the hide well. Make sure that all the salt is washed off. Build a frame that is about 6″ bigger than the hide you are working to stretch the hide. I use nails or staples to hold the skin to the frame. Let the hide dry to touch before starting with the soap. Use Borax washing powder and rub the soap into every inch of the hide with your hands. You can work the hide on the ground, standing up, or on saw horses. You will use about 4lbs for an average Texas deer. I have used 3-4 boxes for elk hides. You are rubbing until the hide is dry and the membrane is starting to role up. It will get all twisted and rolled and fibrous. It takes a lot of time, days sometimes to get this part complete, be sure to store away from critters and the sun. You want to do tan in a cool shaded place with good air flow. Once the entire hide is tanned, or rubbed to dry, you need to let it sit for another 24-48 hrs. It should be stiff like a board. Now the fun begins. Breaking a hide is a tough task. I have used the saw horse, telephone pole tension lines, and logs to break hides. It is a process of moving the hide back and forth, hair side up, on a surface until the hide is broken and soft. An easier way to do it get a palm sander, with 100 grit sandpaper or greater, and sand away. You still have to “break” the hide but it is much easier after you sand it. Be sure not to sand to much or the hair will slip. Most hair slippage is caused by not enough salt, too much fleshing, or over sanding. After the hide is soft I oil it with a paste oil or neats foot oil. I like the paste oils because you can work them into the hide, heat them up with your hands, and really get good penetration into the hide. If you are going to be storing your hides be sure to get some lindaine powder, lice powder, and sprinkle in the hair to keep mites, fleas, and bugs out of your work. Hope this helps. If anyone has questions or comments you can reach me at jclark@wcch.com

        • Hi, I hunt and raise rabbits as well as kill the coons & opossums that get into barn to eat my feed and rabbits. So I have 7 opossums still to skin. I would like to tan them and make a vest. I also have frozen sheep hides until I learn to tan. Do you think the salt and borax process would work on them? Thx Kim!

  4. Holly Wilke says:

    Howdy there! Amateur tanner here wishing I had a friend next door who knew it all :) my first project was a deer skin that I tanned with the hair on last fall. Turned out, a little stiff but by the time I was done with the project I had put way more work into it than planned,planned/realized was necessary. It on the wall anyways so stiffness is kind of nice. I have stepped it up now and have a cowhide in the basement. I have fleshed it (insanely hard) and salted, frozen for a month or so, and it is now thawed and under a paste tan made with aluminum sulfate, salt, flour and water (James Churchill recipe).
    Questions:
    1.when it says to cut a sliver and check if the color has penetrated all the way through…what color am I looking for? White? Off white, yellow? I’m guessing white but would just like confirmation especially when the skin looks white anyways. And how long generally will this take? The aluminum sulfate proved to be a pain getting a hold of but I can get more. How do I know if I need to do another batch?
    2. fleshing this hide darn near killed me and I don’t know why the flesh stuck so much. I soaked the hide in salt water for at least 24 hours fresh off the animal. Not long enough? I was afraid the hair would slip. *sigh sigh* this was very frustrating as I had just gotten brand new scraping tools as a gift and was looking forward to a much easier fleshing than the deer hide proved to be.
    3. I know I have to wash the hide in a borax solution after tanning, will this remove the manure stains? There is not many stains on the white hair (dairy cow) but I want em out. If this washing doesn’t do it does anyone know what might be the best? Maybe should have tackled this problem before I started tanning.
    I am hoping this project turns out, its been a painful/frustrating/tiring process and I wouldn’t want it to go to waste! Thanks in advance for any advice!

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      Hi Holly:
      Yes, no substitute for having a mentor nearby. Very impressive that you are working a cow hide after discovering how much work was involved with the deer hide.
      I am not a tanning expert, but I will try to answer your questions.

      1. The key to checking the process by cutting a sliver off the edge is not about a specific color, but to check that the color has penetrated all the way through hide. The center of the hide should be the same color as the edges. If not, the process will need to be repeated. Neither book I have gives time estimates, but it seems to me that a paste would take longer to seep into the center of a hide than a wet solution, especially a thick cow hide.
      2. Fleshing is not easy and you are to be commended if you were able to flesh the hide without cutting through it. Soaking longer may have helped, but good tools, including a well placed fleshing beam so you can get in a good position to apply pressure. Think of all the pushups you did while fleshing the hide.
      3. I think it probably best to remove stains before tanning and I assume you are talking about stains and not caked on poop. The poop will change the pH, allow bacteria to grow and is an infection risk if you were to nick yourself.
      I hope the borax works, but You could try small amounts of a mild soap only on the stained areas. Work it in and rinse it out with your fingers or a soft brush. If this doesn’t work, there are products made to clean white fur on dog or cats. A fur cleaner (not dry cleaner) may be able to tell you how to remove stains after the hide is tanned.
      Good luck with your project. I would like to hear how it turned out. Better yet, send us a picture.

  5. Oxalic acid is the way to go, this is how we tan cape for the taxidermy I work for.
    Salting capes pulls out moisture and kills bacteria that make the hair fall out(basically it spoils if you don’t). Submerge the cape in water (10gal or so) with a cap full of bleach (also kills bacteria) until the cape gets back to original feel. Let all the water drain from the cape. Make your acid bath (oxalic) with salt and water. After 12+ hours in bath thin down the cape and add acid back to bath and drop the cape in for another 12+ hours.Thin cape again. To neutralize the acid wash cape in water and baking soda, let sit for 15 minutes (longer may cause problems). The problem with the cape being soft is having to work it and break down the fibers of the skin. Takes forever. You’ll only do it once and you’ll realize it’s worth a little money to pay and have it done right. Good luck

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      Thanks Jon. Good to get information from a professional that does it every day.
      I assume you send your hides/capes to someone for breaking.
      I have a few questions:
      Are the hides broken/softened by tumbling them in giant tumblers with sawdust?
      How long does a hide need to be tumbled?
      How much does it cost (in addition to shipping) to have a deer or elk hide softened?
      Thanks BcC

  6. Hello there, Thanks for featuring my videos, always great to get the word out. I think in the future I shall get a video out on the pros and cons of preserving with and without salt, or freezing, or drying.

    To touch base a little, the best current advice for long-term storage for me has always been wet salting. I do it for my hair off buck skins, and even when I do hair-on buffalo robes. how long do they last? well I am still tanning some of my reserve that is over 10+ years wet salted, no hair slip (except what naturally happens with the process :-) ) and they all actually soften easier and the results are noticeable, in general, its natural, period correct, still the best, and in the event of power failure, you don’t have to worry about scrambling to get the hides out of the freezer and salting, or buying one…

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      Thanks Joshua. Yes, excellent videos. Good advice on long-term storage too. I wouldn’t intentionally plan on storing a hide that long, but who knows what could happen. Good to know that 10 year old wet salted hides don’t slip hair.

  7. Hi! I have been raising rabbits for the last 3 yrs and have been tanning my own hides from them every year. I have had a lot of luck with the alum salt method. I have learned to make the hides soft you have to work them, while they are damp, over an edge of some sort, like a table edge or 2×4. You have to break the fibers in the hide that make it stiff and hard. Its a lot of work and hard on the hands and elbows but if you do it enough the hides are butter soft. Don’t work the hair side because you will cause the hair to break and look bad. I will be making my first hat and gloves from my rabbit hides this winter!

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      Thanks Michele. We need to hear from people like you that have successfully tanned (and softened) hides. Cool that you raise your own rabbits too. I would love to see a picture of hides or hat and gloves when finished. Yes, the hides I tanned many years ago with alum and salt were perfectly tanned and preserved and held onto the hair very well, but were stiff because I didn’t know then that the hides had to be worked while wet.

  8. Greetings!
    For your dilemma of “to salt, or not to salt” – because it is a good question that confuses a lot of people. If you will not be freezing your animal… AFTER you have removed all of the bits of meat, membrane and fat from the actual skin part of the hide, you can burry the thing in salt. At that point it can be stored in a dry location for years with no loss of quality (literally 100′s of years). The problem with salting after skinning in the field, is that the meat and fat left behind is what the salt will be sitting on and drying. The salt does not get through to the skin fast enough and the bacteria will build up between the meat/fat areas and the still wet skin, which causes those areas of hair to release from the follicles. The best thing to do is keep the skins cold and wet until they can be properly fleshed for salting, or put in the freezer. Getting the salt on both sides (work the salt into the hair side as well) does help tighten the hair follicles and will make a non-chemical tan work better. For a chemical tan, there is usually salt added to the mix anyways, and you won’t need to salt it first unless you just need dry storage.

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      Thanks Arora: More Good information on dry salting hides. You recommend keeping the hides cold and wet until they can be properly fleshed, do you recommend adding any salt (wet salting) at that point? Would adding salt buy more time against bacerial damage?

  9. Loo Courtland says:

    ..Very interesting, so much research, so much information…I have questions:
    1. did you see Mike Rowe’s episode of Dirty Jobs at a hide preserving shop, they make parchment, for scrolls, and drumtops…might be some info there you could use..
    2. you mentioned urine briefly….I read somewhere that urine of pregnant women was used.
    3. how about smoking over a low burning fire? something about draping the hide over the smoke, draped over sticks…maybe that was for coloring as well as preserving…
    4. have you checked the Sammi/Laplander people of northern Europe, they do reindeer hides with fur on…
    and 5. this would be a fun episode for Duck Dynasty, hahaha
    …thank you for keeping this tradition of our ancestors live..

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      Yes, I did see the Dirty Jobs show on tanning hides. Definitely a dirty job. Since you bring up TV shows, Tom Oar (History Channels “Mountain Man”) showed how to brain tan and smoke hides. I also salute those that continue to keep all such skills alive.

  10. SurvivAllExpert says:

    I tanned the hide of a bobcat that I found freshly killed by a car using a hydrochloric acid and salt bath recipe I found online. It worked great and the hair held perfectly. It soaked about 2 weeks with episodes of removing all meat and fat between the changing of the wash. I wish I’d worked it a little more while it was wet to soften it a bit. It works great as a liner to my hat but I’d like it to be butter soft like Michele mentioned above.
    P.S. The tail looks very cool on the back of my hat and I just field tested it in Alaska while wiring up my Nephews new home. :-)

  11. Hello,

    Im just learning how to get into tanning deer,elk,and moose hides. Most of the tanning methods I found require the use of battery acid. I was hoping if there was a way around using battery acid or some tips on safe use.

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • Hi Brandon:
      Always glad to see someone trying to tan their own hides, but let me ask you a question. Did the old-timers use battery acid? No. So yes, you can tan hides without battery acid. If most methods you have seen suggest battery acid, I suggest you keep looking.To me, part of the attraction of tanning your own hides is to keep the old traditions alive and that means using materials that were available at least 150 – 200 years ago.

      This post lists many methods of tanning and suggests several books to read. Each book includes methods that do not include battery acid. Many of these and similar books should also be available at your local library.

      I suggest you start learning to tan hides with something smaller like a squirrel or rabbit (like I did) instead of deer, elk or moose.

      Let me know how it works out.

  12. I have fleshed and taken the hair off my first deer hide with ash and lime. What do I do next to preserve and tan the hide?

    • Nothing like jumping in with both feet. Good for you. I suggest wet salting until you decide exactly which method you want to use. My article lists many methods. Good luck and let us know how it turns out.

  13. Hi, tanning is something that really interest me, but I recently tried the alum and salt method on some rabbit furs. I followed the instructions, but the hides went really really stiff and are a funny blue black colour. Where have I gone wrong? Any help would be really appreciated as I’d like to get better at this.
    Thanks
    Bianca

    • Yes, hides will be stiff if not worked while wet. The tanning/preservation part is easy, it is the working part to make the hides supple that is hard. I do not know why your hides are a funny blue black color, but I should ask what you mean by funny? Funny ha ha funny or funny funny?

  14. My father and his father taught me and my older brother to be careful with salting. It works well on small game for long term (rabbits, and the like) but with large game such as deer and bear you can temporarily store the hide by salting but you have to be careful on the type of salt and the amount as it can burn the hide causing slippage (we use sea salt, in sufficient quantities and with a spare tub you can treat and store in *marked 5 gallon buckets* dozens of skins – just be sure to keep rabbits to rabbits and squirrels to squirrels). Large game have thicker skin (Pile, like carpet) and hair grows at slightly different depths (think black bear, or grizzly). A good sized doe skin will fit in a 5 gallon bucket after a salt dip, a small black or brown bear will too if you are making the coat cut half way up the neck. Don’t try to store skins of bears larger than 350-400 pounds – give them priority and try not to salt them, I was always told these are prized pelts and if you are lucky enough to get one you process it ASAP.

    My father uses bark tanning with oak in a drum – one hide each (NC, I’m up in NJ for work and can’t do that here). Takes about 3 months but could take a year or more. Anyone who is interested in this method should look around for local tanneries, I recently did for my son’s classroom and they were honestly shocked anyone would be interested. It was a great class trip just over the state line to PA.

    Hope that helps.

Comments, Opinions, Questions?

*