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 complete hide.

how to tan a hide example of different animal hidesI 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 mostly hunt public land with Over-the-Counter tags. I usually hunt by myself, but sometimes my wife goes with me. We butcher, wrap and freeze the meat and make our own sausage, ground meat and patties for burgers.

stretched deer skin

Raw mule deer hide from hind quarter.

I occasionally tan the hides from hind quarters of elk or deer that have been packed out because it’s always good to have deer and elk hair on hand for tying flies, but I plan on making a rug or blanket from a whole deer or elk hide.

If I ever draw a limited entry tag, I also plan on making my own European style mount of the skull and antlers.

Before I tackle a whole skin, I need to acquire a few more tools, but I will update this post when I get started.

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 even the 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” six rabbits.

hybrid rabbit

This rabbit looks similar to 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 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? Not possible, plus domestic rabbits are really from European Hare stock (22 chromosomes) and wild cottontail rabbits have 21 chromosomes, so that was not the answer. He just had white rabbits that still had some genes for wild color type. Still, all the hides were beautiful, especially the wild “cottontail hybrids”.

The purpose of telling this story now, is that once I saw those hides, I 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 tanning 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 the 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 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. Also, make sure to read the comments at the end of this post. Much info has been added there.

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 sealed 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, 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. 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 fur 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.

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  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.
    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.

  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:

      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.


  3. Where to start? Oh yes, HELP!@$!!! Never one to be daunted by a challenge, I decided 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!

    • 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.

      • 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

        • 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!

        • Hi, I’m tanning sheep hides with the wool on them. I have cleaned and salted them. Are you rubbing the borax in dry or as a wet paste? Also since the wool is thick is it going to be able to be rubbed hard without ruining the skin? The wool makes it very squishy! One hide is very tight and the other is questionable since didn’t get it fleshed right away. Some of the wool has already slipped so repeated the salting step as a brine with borax due to having to wash off fly eggs. The brine did kill them! The hide is dry salted now and I am making a frame. I’m just not sure on how to rub the borax in? We farm in MI and flies are a problem. Thx Kim

          • Hi Kim: Sounds like you are on your way. If using Borax, rub the dry powder over the entire hide with your hands. This is hard work so find a comfortable position and keep the hides in the shade. You will probably need about 4 lbs of Borax per sheep hide. You will need to rub the Borax into the hides until the are dry and the membrane starts to role up, then let the hides dry for another 24 – 48 hrs. The hides will be very stiff and you will have to break them to make them soft.

          • Hi,thanks for getting back to me!
            I worked half the night last night to finish fleshing the questionable hide. I have heavily salted the hide and wool because I have a lot going with my livestock and two other places. I have killed 9 coons in last 2 1/2 weeks that are killing my rabbit litters!!
            I cleaned both sides of my Angor doe and kept fur on her 1/2 grown grey baby skin! But the sheep hide I’m hurrying to flesh because the thicker parts of the hide smell strong, but the completed parts are very flexable and the wool is white. Still using lots of salt because of all the flies!
            So do I wash salt off next and let dry a little, then rub in borax while damp?? I’ve read a lot of ideas on it, but not sure and don’t want to ruin the hides. Do I oil it before breaking? Thx Kim

          • Hi Kim: Sounds like you are busy. Tanning hides takes lots of time in addition to everything else you have going on. I hate to ask, but are you also considering tanning the raccoon hides?
            Keep putting the salt on your “questionable” hide to keep the decomposition under control.
            One additional thought… You mentioned the thick part of the hides are still smelly. These thick parts are the hardest to tan, because it is hard to get the salt and borax or brains or whatever you are using to penetrate the thick skin. It may help to scrape these parts until they are thinner. You can also make shallow knife cuts into these thick areas to help the salt get into the skin. Add more salt every time you have to leave the hide for any period of time. Just make sure not to scrape the hides so thin that the hair can slip.

            To answer your question about what to do next, I would brush the salt away and start rubbing the Borax into the hide.
            Break the hide by working it back and forth (hair side up) over a board, log or tight cable until the hide is broken and soft. An earlier comment (from John) suggested using a palm sander and 100 – 200 grit sandpaper will make the breaking part easier. Be careful not to sand too much or the hair may slip.
            Another thought. You seem to have access to the whole animal. You should consider using the brains to tan. Also, since you seem to be tanning lots of hides, you should probably buy one of the books I recommended in the post. Matt Richards’ book “Deerskins into Buckskins” may be the best overall for tanning, but The Complete Book of Tanning Skins and Furs (James Churchill) may be more useful for you since you are tanning hides with the fur on.
            Good luck and send a picture or two when some of your hides are finished.

  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).
    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.

    • 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.

  15. Ma Tanner says:

    Man, I wish I’d been here for all y’all a lot earlier… The truth is, you don’t have to use any chemicals at all… Nope, not even salt… And with the Dryscrape Method, your hide won’t rot, you can finish it to SUPER SOFT of leave it stiff depending on what it’s gonna be used for, and it’s not confusing, in fact, the most confusing part of it is deciding what you’re gonna use to dress it with. Brains, soap and oil, or just oil and water… And this method will save you a lot of frustration, especially for the new tanner, who is confused and slightly intimidated by the whole process anyway. I’m telling you, it’s not that hard. I’m a girl, and I can do it with ease, you can too. :) And remember… If at ANY point in this process, you have to stop, you can just stop… Except fleshing… Gotta get that done in one step, or freeze it, but it doesn’t take very long. Under 30 minutes usually, unless you have a large animal.

    As soon as the hide comes off the animal, flesh it really well with a square bar of metal with at the most, a 90° edge… 45° works great. I use a long, non-serrated kitchen knife, with the pointy end wrapped in duct tape for a second handle. I have run the blade on concrete to dull it. It should be dull enough that you can run your finger down the blade without fear of getting cut. It gets under the membrane that’s under the fat and goop. A fleshing beam can be a 4-6″ diameter PVC pipe or a smooth log.

    Then wash the hide in clear water, poke holes all the way around it, about 3/4″ from the edge.

    String the hide up in a 2×4 frame that fits the size of the animal with a foot of clearance on each side of the hide… One or more strings per side/top/bottom the hide is the standard, so you can more easily adjust the strings… Don’t lace in too tight, but just a little tighter than what would lift the hide off the ground while lacing… Tip: use bungee cords on each corner to center the hide in the frame, then lace one side at a time, going to the opposite side next. For lacing, I use orange, plastic baling twine.

    Let the hide dry. NOT IN THE SUN!!! In a shady, breezy area if possible. Or inside. Rain will not hurt it unless it rains non stop for more than a day or two. You can always find a tree, or side of the house to attach a tarp to, so you can hang a tarp over it, but don’t let the tarp touch the hide.

    Now, while the hide is drying, you need to make or find a Dryscraper (Example of hide scraping tools). It is shaped like a hammer, sort of… with the blade being in the same orientation as the hammer claw, meaning it is perpendicular to the handle, so you can drag the blade straight down, and scrape hair, grain, and membrane off the hide. This also works well for thinning a hide with thick spots like the back of the neck, spine and rump. Google “Hide Tanning Dryscraper” Ya, it can be a little expensive, but WELL WORTH IT!!!!!!!!! Or you can make one if you’re the DIY type… Plus, when you get good with it, it will save you A LOT of confusion, and work… and will save you money in the long run, because you won’t have to buy chemicals, there is no rancid or rotting smell, and you can sweep away any mess. Plus the hair can be left on or taken off… What ever you want… The scraper has to be SUPER SHARP, which you can learn how to do. It’s not hard to sharpen. A honing stone is usually enough. The bevel is on the top, and completely flat on the bottom. The edge is sharpest where the bevel meets the bottom.

    So now that you have your scraper:
    If you want to leave the hair on, scrape on the FLESH side, and thin where it needs it, being careful to not scrape so deep that you see hair follicles… Lay it down on the ground, hair side down and apply one type of dressing until it’s SATURATED. It should get pretty floppy again… Really rub it in and then slop more on… until it won’t take no more… Then stand it back up, and with a stick, really push and pull down and do this all over the hide and take a 20 minute break. Do this every 20 minutes or so, until it starts getting stiff in areas… Concentrate on those areas and keep manipulating until they are soft. Sometimes you may need to re-wet stiff areas and really work ’em over… Do this until the entire hide is dry and really soft.

    If you want the hair off: Do the same thing, except scrape both sides with your dry scraper… There are layers of skin. The hair is in the top layer, which is called the grain. You gotta get that off. You may ask, well how will I know if I’ve gotten it off or not? Depending on what kind of skin you’ve got, whether it be deer, goat, rabbit, cow, buffalo… it is a little different. But what stays the same, in all these skins, is that the grain is more of a yellowish color, and the actual skin is white. Unless it’s an animal like skunk which the skin is the same color as the hair… But still, the grain is basically the same, and it curls off with the hair when scraping.

    Then slop your dressing on it just like what’s described above, except on both sides, till it’s saturated, and soften with your softening stick.

    My softening stick is a small limb of a Cedar tree, with the bark removed, and cut to a 45° angle on the end. It works GREAT!

    Then to smoke or not to smoke, is up to you, but smoking it will help set the hair (only smoke on the flesh side of hair on pelts). Smoke both sides of hair off hides. Smoking is what provides the irreversible change of the skin into leather.

    Now it’s washable, and doesn’t require near as much work to get it soft the next time. I smoke mine for about 3 hours on each side, and when I wash it, I can usually just hang it up to dry, and when it’s dry, I can snap it like a towel off the clothesline, and it’s very luxuriously soft again. Like so soft, I would rather use IT instead of my bath towel. 😉

    It will take a few hides worth of practice, but this method has a lot of Pros, and not many Cons.
    1. A frame softened hide will retain a nice flat shape, even when made into garments, where as a hand softened one will be kind of rough… which isn’t bad, but depends on what you’re making.
    2. Very few ingredients and no harsh chemicals to keep it from spoiling, are necessary, because it’s dry most of the time, throughout the process. Just don’t let it stay out in the rain for more than a day or two.
    3. Most of the work is done at your Leisure… The hour by hour deadlines, because of spoilage, or hair loss is not an issue at all. Just be sure to either flesh it and frame it right off the animal, or put it in the freezer and thaw, to do when you’re ready.
    4. The messiest part is scraping the hair and grain off. Try to do this on a non windy day, and put a tarp down under the frame, then simply gather the corners up and haul to the woods. The hair is wonderful organic matter for soil nourishment.

    Con’s: Well, I don’t know of any…

    Happy Tanning,

    Ma Tanner

    • Thanks Ma Tanner, for taking the time to share your knowledge. I am a little surprised you don’t even use salt. Can I assume you live in a fairly dry and/or cool climate? I could probably also get away without using salt here in the Intermountain West, but I can’t imagine trying to tan without salt when I lived in the tropics, especially if I wanted to keep the hair from slipping.
      Thanks again and Happy Tanning to you too.

    • This is my first time trying to tan a hide, so like most I have a lot to learn about tanning. How long in between applying the dressing? Also, the hide is showing a blood vein. Fleshing the hide was a little hard because I left it to long. There are some area on the hide have dried. The comments you have made where very helpful. Thanks Tim

      • Good luck on that first hide Tim. Also sounds like you could benefit from one of the books I recommended. The main suggestion I would make after reading your comment is to keep fleshing until all meat and the other tissue is removed from the skin. That includes blood vessels. You can wet the hide again as many times as necessary. If unfinished areas are small and the hide is dry, you can sand small amounts of tissue off. The hide (skin) can not absorb the dressing if it is covered by other tissue.
        Continue to add the dressing and to work the hide to allow the hide to absorb the dressing which allows the fibers to relax their bonds with each other. This makes the hide supple instead of stiff.

    • Hi,

      Your post has been the first encouraging thing that I’ve come across in my pursuit of tanning a hide! I want to try and tan hair on cowhides… I have rancher friends with some beautiful animals and access to the hides if I want them. I have read again and again that cow and buffalo are too much work to do yourself… But if a deer or elk can be done why not a cow? Anyhow, do you have an email address I could write you at? I wish Missouri were closer!


      • Ashley: Too much work is in the eye of the beholder… People have been hand scraping and tanning hides since the stone age. Yes, a full cow hide will be lots of work and you will never get rich doing them by hand. But that is obviously not why you want to do it.

        Don’t let others talk you out of an idea before you give it a try.

        I hope Ma Turner responds to you. She has a wealth of knowledge about tanning hides.
        If she does not respond quickly, remind me and I will send her an email.

      • From Ma Tanner to Ashely: I hope this message finds you…
        I no longer have a computer, so I am sending this from my phone to Backcountrychronicles.

        Yes, it is well worth tanning cow and buffalo. Buffalo can be brain tanned, but to brain tan cow is most unsuccessful. Cow should be bark tanned. I refer to posts by Pa Skinner in the forums at Look in the tutorial subsection of the leather section to see how to bark tan a cow. There are also tutorials on brain tanning Buffalo.

        Send a message to me (Ma Tanner) there and I will give you the links to read. You may need to become a member to comment or message, but the wealth of knowledge you can obtain from talking to the old tanners is truly astonishing.

        Thank you for the compliments, but I owe all my knowledge to a lady named Quillsnkiko and the other older fellers on PP. 😉 have a great day… And don’t let that hide whoop you…

  16. Actually, Backcountry, no. I live in Missouri, where it is very hot and very humid in the summer. This summer was a mild summer though, I was shocked, but normally, hot and sticky… :)

    The hide will still dry on a frame in a couple of days, unless it’s getting rained on. If you’re keeping it under roof or tarp and it isn’t dry in a week, or starts to smell any at all, then use salt… The only way I can think of, that would cause this, is if it’s 100% humidity every day, all day long, with no break. If you can dry clothes on a clothesline, I think you could dry a hide. But if you do use salt, just make sure to wash it out REALLY, REALLY well, before you dress the hide. If there is salt in the hide, in a humid climate, it will cause the salt in the hide to draw in the humidity and rot it, so make sure you get ALL the salt out. Then dress the hide with water, soap and oil, or water and brains, or water and egg yolks (or something non chemical or that doesn’t use chrome salts, such as the tanning solutions in a bottle).
    Then re-frame the hide, and with a sharpened (not real sharp, but has a dull edge) wooden stick, using some force push into the hide and push down, or out to the sides, and rotate the frame to get even coverage, to soften and dry. If you’ve left the grain and/or fur on, only use the stick on the opposite side, which is called the flesh side.

    The object to keeping fur on, is to either keep it dry in the first place, or get it dry asap, as in… only apply dressing to the flesh side until hide is very flexible. Either on or off the frame, immerse the hide into the dressing, massaging it in, until it’s sopping wet and soaked thru, then re-frame and use the softening stick. If there are hard spots, the brain didn’t penetrate enough in that area (unless it’s a scar, because scars are really hard to soften) You can re-brain, and re-soften as many times as you want, to get it softer. After 4-5 re-brainings, it is probably as soft as it will ever get.

    Also, there is a pre-smoke method. Brain the hide once, soften till completely dry and smoke it. This will ensure that you won’t loose any progress. Then you can re-brain and it should get softer. If you want, you can re-smoke and it will stay soft like that for a long time… If you are wearing this item, you can wash it every once in a while, with mild detergent, or water only, and re-smoke as needed to keep the softness. Example… Say, you wore your dressed and smoked garment (fur on), over clothes, like a coat, you may only need to wash it every 5 years. If you wear it on your skin, you may need to wash more often depending on how sweaty or dirty it got, but it may need to be smoked every 6th to 10th time it’s washed.

    To smoke, I staple the hide together in a sack with a hole in the bottom for the smoke skirt to be attached to. The smoke skirt hangs over the bucket or hole that contains my coals (prep coals by starting a fire with punky wood). When there is some white on the wood (like charcoal), extinguish the flames with a squirt bottle, leaving the coals still warm) Under no circumstances should flame be allowed.

    I smoke my buckskins for 2 ½ – 3 hrs on each side, then let it sit in a closed bag for a week. Then I wash it and hang it up to dry. When it’s bone dry, I can flip it like a towel and pull in each direction once and it’s all soft again.

    • Thanks again Ma:
      I still find it interesting that you rarely need to use salt, but you have convinced me to give it a try, especially in my high dry climate. Your warning about the importance of controlling the flame when smoking the hide was demonstrated by Tom Oar on the Mountain Man TV show (History Channel), where Tom’s hide caught fire.

  17. Yes… Yes it was. I had a goat hide over a little pot bellied stove and asked my husband to watch it like a hawk. I asked him to be out there with it, and make sure it didn’t get too warm either, while I went to the store real quick. As in… you need to be able to comfortably hold your hand 12″ over your smoking container. You just want smoke, not heat. If it’s too hot for your hand, it’s too hot for the hide. Same with the warmth of the dressing solution.
    Well, he didn’t watch it as close as he was supposed to, and it got too hot, and puckered in some places. It didn’t actually catch fire, but it could have. I was still able to use this hide, and cut out the puckered places and work around them. But a hide can easily be ruined, and all that hard work goes down the drain.
    BTW, I did forgive him, because his expression looked like a puppy that just peed on the floor. It really was an accident. LOL


  18. Alexander Park says:

    Hello there wondering if you can help me with something. I tanned a bear hide a few years ago and just had it in my man cave on the floor. Was kinda stinky on account of the tanning oil I had used was repulsive.
    Anyways the wife wanted me to wash it so she could hang it on the wall so i did in the tub with cool water and some really gentle bubble bath. The moment I started washing it the hide just started ripping everywhere so i was thinking damn its rotten. But the hair is still as strong as it was when I first tanned it.

    I don’t know whats wrong with it. Every hide I’ve done that had rotted a bit the hair started slipping. There is absolutely no hair slippage bit the hides as weak as wet paper. Any thoughts its really been bugging me and I’ve read all over the net for the reason. Thanks

    • Thanks for the comment Alexander and sorry to hear about your bear hide.

      That is a mystery. I can understand how the hide can deteriorate, but don’t understand how/why the hide can tear so easily (especially a relatively thick hide like bear) while the hair still does not slip.

      You said the hide was “kinda stinky” because of the tanning oil. Did you notice that the first day you used the oil or did the stink grow over time?

      I found a resource for understanding hide tanning from a more scientific basis. The article is directed towards leather and not hides, but contains very good information for all interested in tanning. The article was written by a student (Katherine Kelly) at the University of Texas titled Imputrescible Corium: The Production and Structure of pre-1900 Bookbinding Leather (Meaning leather not capable of putrefaction).

      Referring to the “Recent Development” section, Kelly lists five factors responsible for leather deterioration: relative humidity and temperature, chemical deterioration, biological attack, mechanical damage and inappropriate conservation treatment.

      Evidently, most leather deterioration is caused by humidity & mold, high temperature and oil rancidity, temperature and humidity fluctuations can lead to migration of tannins to the surface of the hide and chemical deterioration from oxidation or acid hydrolysis.

      I guess this should be a wake up call for all of us to check on hides and retreat/re-tan if necessary. In Ma Turner’s comment above, she talks about re-smoking leather after washing to keep it soft and presumable to help preservation.

      The last two paragraphs of the article were particularly interesting and mentions scientific testing leather for shrinkage and acidity, which were the best predictors for leather stability. Evidently, leather does not shrink at temperatures below 167°F (75°C), which is why smoking needs to be at low temperatures.

      And anyone using acid during the tanning process should use a base to counteract the acid as much as possible before calling the job done.

  19. Alexander,
    Can you remember enough of the details from tanning the bear hide? Maybe I can troubleshoot with you.

    Did you use acid/base kind of tanning agents? A tanning kit? Brains, eggs or soap/oil mixture? What kind of oil did you use? Did you dry the hide and then apply oil to soften it? Did you smoke it?

    Ma Tanner

  20. I have recently tanned dozens of rabbit hides using a battery acid/salt. I’m really happy with how they have turned out. I have a deer hide saved in my freezer shortly after skinning. I didn’t flesh the hide and now, I’m wondering how I should proceed. I want to make buckskin. Here’s my plan (but I don’t know if its a good one!). Thaw the hide and flesh it as soon it can be worked. Throw it in a lime bath for a few days and wet scrape (remove hair and membrane). Then soak in an acid/salt bath for a few weeks. Remove squeeze out and hang to dry. Work and break the hide as it dries until it is soft and pliable. Finish by smoking the hide. I’m also considering trying brain tanning, if the above method is problematic. Thanks

  21. I have a deer hide (with hair on) that has been salted for several days now. I originally cleaned a lot of the skin/fat off, and last night I started on it again and got off as much as I could. I am soaking it in salt water now. Can I re-fletch (reflesh?) it again once I get it out of the water?
    I don’t want to remove the hair. I was going to remove more fat and tissue and then dry it. I bought some tanning oil I plan to use. Would that be the correct process? Or do I have to wait until it dries again and/or does it need to be re-salted. I am confused.

    • Dianne: Sounds like so far so good. It sounds like you could benefit from one of the books I recommended in the article, but I will list the main steps again.
      1- Flesh as soon as possible – sounds like you have done this at least most of it.
      2- Stretch the hide – punch holes all the way around and string it up on a frame.
      3 -Let the hide dry slowly in the shade.
      4- Dry scrape the flesh side.
      5- Dress the hide with brains or in your case, the tanning oil (Can I assume tanning oil has instructions?)
      6- Work the wet, dressed hide. This makes it supple.
      7- Some methods (see Ma Tanner’s comments) suggest smoking the hide.

      It is important to remember the hide can wait as long as necessary when dry without spoiling or slipping the fur. It may hold in salt water, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I had a deer hide slip the hair while in salt water. Hide was still O.K.

      Anyway, good luck and let me know how it turns out.

  22. Okay. I have let the hide pickle and now its draining. Do I put the oil (dressing) on while its still wet?

  23. I am a beginner and I think I have messed up? I fleshed my deer hides and bucked them using KOH (Potassium Hydroxide), grained them, rinsed using vinegar. This is where things went sideways. After rinsing, the hide was still swollen. Not sure if not rinsed enough or soaked too long in vinegar. Anyway, not knowing any better instead of scraping the membrane I scraped the tawny mucus off then laid them out flat to dry. Are my hides any good now or did I just learn a hard lesson? I also find it hard to distinguish between the grain an flesh sides after graining.

    • CRB: The tanning process is very forgiving. A swollen hide just means it is full of water or vinegar. Make sure the vinegar is rinsed off and wring the hide out very well.

      It’s best to stretch the hide on a frame for drying instead of laying it out flat. You can always re-hydrate the hide and start over. Your hide is not ruined, but I am sure you are learning hard lessons. The only people that never fail or make mistakes are those that never try anything.

      How do you plan to dress the hide? What is your goal for the final product? I recommend Matt Richard’s book for what you are doing.

      • I plan to Brain Tan and make Buckskin clothes right now. I was not sure if I messed something up by taking off the extra layer on the grain side or not? From the reading I have done it seems like I will have the same thing as if I had Dry-Scraped the hide?
        I have the book and video that Matt Richards has….. very informative, but it doesn’t mention anything about what happens when you do something wrong.
        Thanks for your help! I am learning first hand and do not have anyone with experience to help! I will send pics when I get done.

        • CRB: Look at other leather that you have and notice if it has grain or not. Full grain or “top grain” leather obviously shows the grain pattern from the original skin. Suede leather does not show the grain pattern because it was made from a split hide. Some suede leather is made by brushing or sanding the grain off. So you are making suede buckskin clothes, which will be softer, but maybe not as durable. Remember the Seinfeld episode where Jerry ruined a suede jacket in the snow?
          Yes, I will be very interested in seeing pictures of your leather making process and the final product.

  24. Okay, I’ve been putting the tanning oil on the hide, but it seems to becoming a little stiff on the skin side. Would this be acceptable for a wall hanging? It seems to be pickled, hair intact and no smell. It’s just not, let’s say, like a very soft blanket you would roll up.

    • Dianne: Oiling the hide without working it will result in an oiled but stiff hide. If you plan to hang it on the wall, that may be all you need. But if you expect it to be pliable, it will have to be worked. A dried hide is basically glued together. All the fibers are stuck to each other. Oiling breaks those bonds, but working the hide is necessary to break many bonds between many fibers. A wet hide is not glued together, but the process starts as the hide dries. Dressing (with brains, eggs or your tanning oil) and working has to be done before the hide dries.

      Look at the picture on the front of the book Deer Skins into Buckskins. The Author is working the hide on a frame to soften it.

  25. Hi Backcountry, I have watched quite a few videos on this subject and the one on this page is by far the best and most informative and to the point. Thank you for it.
    I tried to tan my first deer hide this year. This is what I did;
    1. Rolled it up and put it in a freezer for a week until I could get to it.
    2. Removed from freezer and fleshed it. (I really worried I didn’t get enough of until I saw this video).
    3. I stretched it and salted it with non Iodized salt (3 pounds) to dry it out, then let it set for three days.
    4. Then I scraped the salt off and tried to scrape off more of the “fibrous clingers” but could not get them. The hide never did dry out either.
    5. I put the hide in a solution of 1 pound Alum, 3 1/2 pounds kosher salt and 4 1/2 gallons of cold water
    6. I let it soak for 4 days and then stretched it and tried to let it dry out but it had been so humid out that it never did dry out.
    7. I looked at another site and saw someone smoking their hide so I used a low fire with moist wood and dried it out that way. It took about 8 hours.
    8. When it got mostly dry I rubbed in a solution of 1 part warm water, 1 part Neatsfoot oil and 1/3 part ammonia. Then I took it off the rack and vigorously rubbed the hide (hair down) with the pommel of a wooden hammer handle to try and soften it. Then I put it back in the smoke.
    9. Smoked It for another few hours then vigorously rubbed it again and applied strait Neatsfoot oil.
    Its been about two weeks and I have a supple hide (not bad for first time I guess). But the problem is That I think I used too much oil. If I pick up the hide I get oily fingers, even on the hair side. plus the hairless side just looks dirty. Sorry so long winded but I wanted to be as detailed as possible so you can tell me where I messed up. I would really appreciate any help to make it not so oily or any advice to improve my procedure. Thank you very much.


    • Hi Patrick: I can’t imagine the humidity problem you must have if the hide never dries. I have the opposite problem.
      I have seen that recipe for dressing (water, oil & ammonia), but have not used it. I have not smoked hides either, but after conversations with Ma Tanner (see her comments in comment section) plan to do so for comparison.

      If the hair is holding on the hide and if the hide is soft and supple, you obviously did something right.
      As for the excess oil…
      I would lay the hide on newspaper or saw dust to soak as much oil off as possible. Smoked deer skins are washable, but may need to be re-smoked to remain soft (see Ma Tanners comments), but you also want to take care of the hair. I guess you could try a shampoo or a mild detergent, but I would try corn starch first.

      My wife read about using corn starch to clean hair instead of washing it. She tried it and it works. She simply rubs corn starch in her hair and brushes it out and it takes all the oil with it. So, I would try corn starch on the oily fur.

      I have read suggestions for tumbling hides in saw dust, but I don’t have a tumbler except for a dryer. I doubt the dryer would ever be the same again.
      I have also seen baking soda suggested as a cleaner.

      So whether using, corn starch, sawdust or baking soda, I would rub it in, then shake it outside and then use a shop vac to remove the “dust”.

      Let me know how the hide turns out.

      • Thank you for replying. I’ve done a couple of projects with the hide and the hair is holding very strong, but the skin still seems quite oily. I laid the hide flat, skin down on a few layers of newspaper and rubbed a bunch of sawdust in the hair (didn’t have corn starch), then covered it with another layer of newspapers. I left it for three days and I could see how the paper pulled out a lot of the oil. It was no longer oily to the touch. Thanks for that tip.
        I’m currently making a pouch and thru the course of sewing the seems is when the skin really tends to produce the oil. I figure that would be a good thing but I don’t know.
        This is only the second deer I shot and first try at tanning but I really couldn’t be much happier even though not everything turned out just right. Deer hair really seems to have some remarkable qualities and I can’t wait to try this again next year. Less oil though and more patience.
        I don’t know how to add a picture or I would post a few. Thanks again.

  26. I am currently tanning a deer hide. I have fleshed and salted the hide. Now, I am drying the hide with a heat lamp because the weather has been rainy. The hide is drying awesomely. I am set up for the oiling process, but are there any tips I can use?

    • I am amazed how many people are interested in tanning hides. Glad to see the interest in keeping old skills alive. Jacob you are like many that get past the fleshing stage then look for help. The big messy chore is behind you, but the hard work begins now if you want the hide to be soft. Since you mention the oiling process, I assume you do want a soft hide.
      You mentioned you are drying the hide. Is it on a frame?
      Look at the picture on the front of the book Deer Skins into Buckskins. The Author is working the hide on a frame to soften it.
      I would proceed like this:
      1- Stretch the hide – punch holes all the way around and string it up on a frame.
      2 -Let the hide dry slowly in the shade. But not too dry. Basically the hide should be rung out and not dripping, but not starting to get stiff (be careful with your heat lamp).
      3- Dress the hide (there are many recipes using brains, eggs, mayonnaise or tanning oils).
      4- Work the wet, dressed hide. This makes the hide soft as the bonds in the skin are broken and coated with oil.
      5- See Ma Tanner’s comments about smoking the hide.
      Good luck and send a picture or two.

  27. Hi, I am very new at tanning hides, but I was wondering. How old can a hide be before you begin tanning it. I know that’s probably a stupid question, but really? My uncle butchered a cow a couple months ago, he left the hide outside and it was frozen for a couple weeks. Now it has thawed and has once again been left out for a couple weeks. It is VERY stiff and their is still some dried fat and meat on it, but I was still wondering if anyone thought it would still be salvageable. Thank you!

    • Hi Caylie:
      It all depends if bacteria have started working on the hide or not. If not, being dried stiff is not a problem. It may be that you can salvage the leather, but not the hair. You can try to soak it in salt water and check to see if the hair stays on or if it slips off. If you want to tan the leather, the hair has to be removed anyway. I say give it a try.
      Start by soaking the hide in salt water until hide is loose and scrape of all the fat and flesh. If it is real stinky, rinse clean and soak again. Then stretch it on a frame and let it dry until you decide what to do next.

  28. Hello. I have a zebra skin purse. Inside of the purse is black grease like substance that gets all over my hands, and anything that I put in the purse. Any idea what this is, and what I can do to get rid of it?

    • Hi Maria:

      Do you know where the purse was made? If the purse is real zebra skin, perhaps it was tanned in Africa. I lived in Africa for about three years and know that hides were sometimes tanned with motor oil or grease.

      I would suggest using paper towels to start, then use sawdust and/or oatmeal to try to remove as much excess oil or grease as possible. Then use flour or cornstarch to remove even more.

      You may need to use something like a butter knife to scrape out the oily flour or cornstarch, but there should be less oil after each application. Repeat the process until you could touch the hide without feeling the grease.

      I would like to see a photo of your purse.
      Good Luck

  29. Hello again.
    I see that we are getting many more people through the process of tanning. That’s awesome! However, I’m seeing that some get stuck at a stage when they don’t understand something, and so they rush into oiling the hide with no emulsifier and water, which leads to the hide becoming too greasy/oily to be used for what it was intended for, or they don’t realize that the hide has to be worked dry.

    I know that it is extremely frustrating and heartbreaking to put in so much work, and then it not be everything you imagined when it was finished, and that makes people feel like quitting or maybe even that they’ve been lied to. Trust me when I say, IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT. Any hide, in any stage can be frozen till you find the answer to your question. If it’s dry, leave it dry till you find your answer.

    Let me run through the steps again.
    For soft, velvety buckskin: (this will not work for cattle skins), You can wetscrape or dryscrape.

    WETSCRAPE METHOD: (or see Dryscrape Method below)
    #1.) Obtain hide.
    Not ready yet? That’s OK. Fold it flesh side to flesh side, then again, like a towel, put it in a garbage bag and freeze it. Get all your tools and solutions together. When you’re ready…

    Thaw in a big container and pry layers apart as it thaws. It will be close to fresh as if coming straight of the animal. Thawing needs to go as quickly as possible in cool fresh water, so don’t forget about it for more than a day or it will start to smell.

    #2.) Flesh it.
    Put it over a smooth log, (a 4-5′ piece of 4-6″ PVC pipe works well). Build and attach it to legs made from lumber and butt it up against something immovable like a tree or the non-public side of the porch. 😂 The working end needs to be hip high so you can pinch the hide between belly and pipe to hold it still while you scrape. The back end of pipe needs to be sloping downward to where it’s butted up to.

    Your scraping blade needs to be just dull enough so that it will not cut your finger if you ran your finger down the blade. I used a really long straight edged knife and wrapped the poky end with duct tape to make a second handle. Some folks are lucky enough to obtain a draw knife for this purpose.

    You would be surprised to feel how much pressure you can use to scrape all the meat, fat and membrane off. When you got it all, you should be able to stretch the hide a little and see the fiber network of the hide. The fibers are very fine. Depending on the size and breed of animal, this may take 20 minutes to 4 hours.

    #3.) Soaking (this is done to help soften the grain/epidermis/hair layer)
    You do not have to use a chemical here. Plain fresh water, changed 2x daily can work. Sometimes your climate can affect this stage. Cold weather may make it take forever, hot climates, it may get stinky quicker, thus the frequent water changes. It could take a few days. It can be made easier by using hardwood ash and water with enough ashes to make an egg float, or by using Potassium hydroxide (KOH) and water. I use hardwood ashes and water, or just water. With ashes and KOH it takes less time than with just water, but water is less caustic. Test hair slip a couple of times per day. Make sure it is completely submerged by weighing it down with rocks or wood.

    #4.) Degraining
    For buckskin, you want the grain off. The grain is the layer that contains the hair follicles and is a slightly different color than the hide. Using your fleshing tool, scrape off hair and this layer. You may find that you need to either sharpen your scraper, or get another one that is (slightly) sharper. Careful though, you don’t want it so sharp that it makes holes. If you still have trouble getting the hair and grain off in some areas, toss it back into the bucking bin. Make sure it is completely submerged, weighing it down with rocks or wood. Try some more tomorrow. When you’ve got all the grain off…

    #5.) Wring as much of the water out as possible. Hang the rump end of the hide over a smallish branch so it hangs over about a hand length. Smooth it out flat as if you were hanging a towel out to dry. Bring the neck end up from the opposite side and hang over the rump end. Roll both sides in towards the middle and tuck in pieces that hang out along the way. You should have something that looks similar to a floppy uncooked doughnut. Now put a strong stick in the middle and start twisting. You can put a lot of pressure on it. Get all the water out that you can, then turn around and twist the other way. Then undo the loop and rotate it a quarter rotation. The top and bottom should move from top and bottom to front and back. Then wring it both directions again. Now turn the doughnut inside out and repeat. Now the hide should be sufficiently dry. If you use only water then you can proceed to the next step. If you used wood ash or KOH in your water then you must neutralize.

    #6.) Neutralize
    KOH and wood ashes are strong bases, so you have to neutralize the hide or it will disintegrate later. Fill a five gallon bucket with water and add two cups of vinegar. Stir this around with the hide in it and let it sit for a day. This would be a good time to decide what you’re using as a softening solution. The next day wring the hide out again.

    #7.) Braining
    A solution of brains and water, egg yolks and water, soap and oil or soy lecithin and water and oil, will now be used to soften and dry the hide. Brain solution is considered the best conditioning agent for the hide because it has oils and emulsifiers in the brain already. Here is the recipe.

    One pound of brain, with a couple of cups of water. Blend well so that it is a thick milkshake consistency. Then add warm (not hot) water to make up a gallon total of solution.

    Egg yolks also have an emulsifier in them. The recipe is as follows. 12 egg yolks, and a gallon of warm (not hot) water. Mix well.

    Here is the soap and oil recipe:
    1/4 bar ivory or lye soap, grated
    1/4 cup olive oil, grapeseed oil or neetsfoot oil
    1/4 gallon water

    In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat this solution, but don’t boil. Stir gently Then mix in 3/4 gallon of water.
    I don’t know the recipe exactly for soy lecithin, oil and water, but I would imagine but not much soy lecithin is needed to mix the oil and water. Just enough soy lecithin is needed to make the oil dissolve into the water.

    All of these recipes should use spring water or distilled water not city water. The chlorine and fluoride in city water interact with the solution and does not do as well for the hide.

    Dip the hide in, making sure to cover all areas. Massage hide in the solution, making sure that you touch all areas of the hide, for 20 minutes. Then ring out the hide again, making sure to catch the solution back in its original container and repeat a few times. This is to ensure that all areas of the hide are penetrated by the solution. You may leave the hide in the solution overnight.

    If you are using brain or egg yolk you should leave the bucket with the hide in a cool location so that it doesn’t spoil. Remember that brains and egg yolks are the best solutions for tanning hides. Soap and oil and soy lecithin and oil solutions do not spoil so quickly, however since the hide is in the solution it will spoil after a day or two, so it is good practice to soften your hide the next morning or as soon as possible.

    If you don’t have enough time to soften it tomorrow, you can go ahead and soften it after dunking and ringing the first few times today, and is not totally necessary to leave in solution overnight. And when I say warm, I mean warm, but cool enough that you can comfortably leave your hand in for 30 seconds.

    #8.) Softening
    To soften the hide you will wring out all excess moisture and stretch the skin in every different way possible until it is completely dry. A great way to tell if the hide is completely dry is to touch it to your lips or cheek. If your lips or cheek remains cool after taking it away then the hide is not dry yet.

    If your hands, arms, back or shoulders get tired you may take a break for a few minutes, but get back on it as soon as possible because if it dries too fast without being stretched the hide will get stiff in some areas. Then you will have to re-brain it. This the most labor-intensive step. When you think about quitting, please remember that this will be rewarding. Don’t stop now, you’re almost done. When the hide is completely dry, pat yourself on the back. This was hard work and is something you should feel proud of. Even if the hide is not completely soft, it’s okay. There is one more step.

    #9.) SMOKING
    This could be the most important step of all. This step provides your hard work with the irreversible change that it needs to be considered tanned buckskin. Smoking your hide will prevent the hide from getting hard or stiff when it gets wet. If the edges of your hide aren’t completely soft, sparingly cut them off. Now sew or staple the edges around the hide, flesh side in and Lengthwise (like a tube sock), leaving a small opening around the neck (about a foot round). Make stitches or spaces between staples very small, so very little smoke can escape. Attach a kitchen towel or pant leg around the opening that you left open for a smoking skirt.

    I use a metal bucket for my coals, but you can dig a hole down in the ground or devise another way to smoke your hide. The general idea is to get a lot of smoke up into the hide without burning it. The smoking skirt should come down around the bucket or secured to the ground with rocks so that the smoke doesn’t escape. The bottom of the hide should be at least a foot (if not more) above the coals. After you have everything positioned, move the bucket away or move the hide away from the hole and make a small fire using “punky” (partially rotted wood) or sawdust, and let it burn down to coals. You may have to add more wood or sawdust, but make sure the fire does not flare up or you may burn the hide. Put out any flame by squirting them with some water. When you squirt out the flames, ash and steam rise up. This is perfectly fine. The heat should be cool enough that you can stick your hand in at the level of the bottom part of the hide for 30 seconds.

    I usually smoke the inside first for at least 2 hours, then I turn the hide inside out and smoke the other side for at least one hour. If there are any holes in your hide where the smoke escapes, plug those holes with toilet paper. Keep extremely close watch and do not let your hide burn. I have been told that you don’t have to smoke it that long but I have never had a problem with them being under-smoked doing it this way.

    The reason for smoking a hide is so that it never goes back to being hard after getting wet. I can wash my buckskins in the washing machine and hang them up to dry completely. All I have to do is shake them out and they are soft again. That is the irreversible change I spoke of earlier.

    If the skin it is not soft enough after you smoke it once, then you can re-brain it, and re-soften, but it will dry faster and you won’t have to work nearly as hard to get it more soft. Usually, it will not have to be smoked again. Every once in a while, you may run into a particularly stubborn hide and have to smoke it twice, but that is not a usual case. After many washes, you may need to smoke it again.

    If you bucked the hide with an acid or a base, you MUST NEUTRALIZE.

    DON’T use straight oil on a hide unless you want it to be like an oilskin. I think that’s just for bark tanned leathers.

    DRYSCRAPE METHOD is in my opinion much easier and faster because you can skip some steps and you don’t soften the hide with your hands. Much easier on the body, especially if you have joint issues.

    From fresh of the hoof or thawed, flesh it and then poke holes about 3/4- 1″ away from the edge of the hide, all the way around. String it up tight but not too tight, in a frame. To test for tightness, if you flick it the sound should deaden and not sound like a drum. It should have a little sway when you quickly push on it and release right away. Let it dry in the shade. When it’s completely dry it will sound like a drum when you thump it.

    Get your dryscraper and scrape both sides clean. You have scraped the hair side enough when no tiny black dots are visible. The tiny black dots are hair follicles. Most of those need to come off. There are a few that won’t, but get as many as you can.

    Take the hide down and brain it till it’s sloppy wet and string it back up. Proceed with softening. Get a hardwood stick and cut both sides of one end so that it’s a “v” and then file it so it’s not sharp. Push in and down and go over the whole hide till it’s completely dry. Take it down and cut the edges off and sew or staple it into a sock, like above and smoke it.

    Soaking/ Bucking: you can also use lime. Lime has to be rinsed from the hide VERY well and has to be neutralized with vinegar.

    If you use an acidic bucking solution, use a base for neutralizing. If you use a base for bucking, use an acidic neutralizer. KOH, hardwood ashes and lime are all basic. Use vinegar to neutralize.

    Happy Tanning!

    Ma Tanner

  30. Ma, so do you wash it after fleshing and before stretching it up on frame? Then let dry and dry scrape?

  31. I went to an outdoor show and got a book from a guy who uses a method similar to Ma Tanner. However, I was just curious about the oak bark method. It sounds like the tannin is what tans it. I’ve heard that there is a lot of tannin in acorns and was wondering if anyone has used those. Hope to hear from you and thanks for gathering so much useful information!

    • I have also heard acorns contain lots of tannins. But have never found a source that tells how much tannins in comparison to bark.

      I also haven’t seen any positive results from tanning with acorns. If you search for “acorn tanning”, a few articles will pop up, but they are all speculation. The site “EHow” (l00% junk in my opinion) claims to tell you how to tan hides using acorns, but I will bet a $ against a doughnut hole, the author has never tanned a hide. The article does say acorns contain less tanning than bark for what that is worth.

      Ma Tanner does not tan using bark.

  32. Hi there,

    I was given some rabbit pelts that were brain-tanned last season. They were not worked to be made soft, nor were they smoked. As a result, they are stiff, some of the fur is falling out, and moths have laid their eggs in the hairs. At this point, is there any way for me to soften them? Or should I accept the stiffness and just smoke them?

    Thank you!

    • First, I would say you need to deal with the moths and/or eggs. Putting them in the freezer (sub zero) is probably the best way to kill moths and eggs without using poison.
      Second, the whole point of smoking hides is to maintain the softness. If they are not soft, why would you smoke them?

      At this point, they may already be damaged, but you could try to re-wet one of them and work it to try and make it soft.

  33. Thanks for all the great info here, and for the great step by step from Ma. My main question is about the soaking step. Ma, you say the soaking is to soften the grain and hair layers, so if you are keeping the hair on would you skip this and the other steps and just jump to braining after fleshing it? Also, how do you know if you have fleshed it enough? I cant see any remaining blood vessels or anything like that, but when I scrape there are still fibers coming up after at least 5-6 hours total scraping with a trowel and an empty can. Thanks!

  34. Elizabeth says:

    Ok… I have just spent the last 3 hrs reading all this and looking at different instructions… And I am just plain confused.

    I personally talked to a taxidermist. And he said all I had to do is flesh my two deer hides, salt and salt again. Wash out with soap and water and let it start to dry. Once it starts getting a little dry, put Neatsfoot oil it and start breaking it before it dries completely.

    That’s all he told me to do. So far everything is going good. I am to the point of starting to work/break the hide. It is turning white as I break it. Hair is holding good…

    Is all good or have I missed anything??? Tia..

    • Hi Elizabeth:
      Are you missing anything? That depends on what you plan to do with your deer hide.

      I agree that tanning hides (fur on and fur off) seems to be a complicated subject with very different methods for achieving the same purpose.
      My original article was a basic research into different tanning methods. The comment section includes many more methods and hints.

      Lets start with the basics.

      Step 1 – Salt the Hide.
      Why salt the hide?
      To stop bacteria from decomposing the hide. This is usually because we don’t have time to tan the hide immediately. This is for both fur on and fur off hides.
      Ma Tanner (one of our most active commenters does not even use salt, but she starts the tanning process as soon as the animal is skinned.
      If you salt the hide, it can wait until you are ready to tan the hide. I have part of an elk hide that has been fleshed, salted and rolled up in the basement for over a year.

      Step 2 Flesh the hide.
      Why flesh the hide?
      To remove meat, fat and tissue that is not part of the skin. This also helps keep the hide from decomposing. If all you want is a preserved hair on hide to hang on the wall, this is all you really have to do. The hide will be stiff as a board after it dries, but the hair will not fall off for many years (depending on your climate).

      If you want a soft hide, you will have to break it. When the hide dries out, it is stiff because the fibers glue themselves together. To prevent this, the bonds have to be broken. The bonds are broken by working a damp hide in the presence of fat or oil (preferably animal fat).

      All kinds of fats are used. Brains work because they have a lot of fat. Think about that the next time someone says you should be on a fat free diet. Your Neatsfoot oil will also work because the oil is extracted from animal hooves.

      If you want to make clothes from your buckskins, they will eventually need to be washed. After they are washed, they will have a tendency to get stiff again. This can be prevented by smoking the hide.

      Depending upon what you want to do with your hide, you may also need to grain or split the hide. Some hides are so thick, it is hard to get the thickest part of the hide preserved or softened.

      So no, you are not necessarily missing anything.

      You probably read about methods that use acids to pickle the hides. This is another method to preserve the hides, but if you use acid, it has to be counteracted with a base or the hide will deteriorate from the acid left behind.

      I suggest you go back and read Ma Tanners methods in the comment section. I like her simple and natural methods. She occasionally stops by to read comments, so maybe we can get her to make another comment.

      Anyway, good for you trying to learn to tan those deer hides. Good luck. Send us a picture when you finish them.

  35. Elizabeth says:

    I’m only going to use them (buck and doe) as throw rugs or wall hanging. Lol or if I get tired of them like that maybe I’ll make something out of them…hahaha

    The question I guess I’m really asking now is why is there no “tanning” formula needed?

    I have my doe hide all worked, broke and oiled. I was going to sand it next to make it more smooth on the leather side. Will this suffice for what I am wanting to use them for?

    Btw-(by the way) tia=(thanks in advance) 😉

    • If your hide is soft and supple and the hair isn’t falling out, it sounds like you have it…

      I think you were looking for some complicated, magic formula for hide tanning. Remember who tanned the first hides. Our stone-age, caveman ancestors. What materials did they have and what tools did they use? They had water, dirt, stones, plants and parts of animals they could catch. They probably didn’t even have salt unless it was from salt water. Over time, people learned to use different methods and incorporated different chemicals and technologies. But the simple, basic ways still work.

      Some of the modern formulas included toxic chemicals like Chromium, which can be very dangerous when handled and pollutes the environment when dumped into the water, especially in places like China, India and Bangladesh.

      Congrats on your first hide. Your ancestors would be very proud.

  36. My very first tanning attempt was a buffalo. A little bit harder than I thought it was going to be, especially thinning the skin around the hump area, but all went well. Once I was nearing the end, a bunch of hair started to slip from the back half. I was beyond disappointed. I ended up cutting the back half off and using it for drums, so no huge loss there, but I’m still not sure why the hair slipped.

    I contacted the only person I knew who tans buffalo, Larry Belitz, and he said it was most likely not frozen properly before they shipped it to me. The slaughter house told me they skinned it, then rolled it up and froze it, then shipped it. It was not frozen by the time I got it, which was overnight shipped in February from SD.

    My question is, was there something I would have been able to see, or tell, if the hide was not frozen completely, or properly? Like, is there any way to tell if hair is going to slip later in the process, early on when you first start? Or is it more of a wait and see and hope you did everything right?

    • Laurae, you sure picked a tough one for your first try. I like that. I feel for you that it didn’t turn out so well.

      You wouldn’t think February would be a bad time to ship something from S.D., but the mail facilities and smaller trucks are heated.

      Do you remember if the hide had had any signs of decay? Any odor? Most people only try to salvage the leather if decay has started, but if you can stop the decay fast enough, you can save the hide. Problem is, a thick hide like bison is hard to penetrate with salt. As you know now, it is best to prevent problems than try to fix them.

      If I understand correctly, the hair has slipping from the back half (thinner) part of the hide. That would be the easiest part for the salt to penetrate, but it would also be the fastest part to thaw during transport.

      In answer to your question, if decay has started, you can probably stop the decay and salvage the leather and you may be able to save the hide (hair), but it all depends on how much damage has been done. If in doubt, you should test to see how easy the hair pulls out before your expend a lot of effort.

      If you proceed, it may still be a wait and see kind of thing. In your case, it was probably already beyond your control even if you did everything right. Next time you have a questionable hide (thawed, smells or has not been salted), salt and freeze immediately (freezing may not be necessary, but like in food items, temperatures below 40°F stops most bacterial growth.

      As you say, at least you have some drums out of the deal. Let’s hope you have better luck with the next one.

  37. Well my 10 year old daughter has just downed her first deer. I would like to do a soft tan on this hide. It is tacked up in the shed and the air is very cold outside. I will flesh it tomorrow. My question is, do I need to salt it or can I go straight to the tanning? Also I seen a video of a man who used the mayo egg oil recipe. He didn’t salt his but smoked it after. His steps were: flesh it , mayo it, wash it off with soap and warm water, work it and smoke it. After a few days the hair didn’t slip. Should I still salt it? I would really like this to be a soft finish. Thanks!

    • First thing, Congrats to your daughter.
      2nd thing, Stop worrying…
      There are several ways to Tan a Hide (hence the title of the post). There is no single way to tan and there is nothing magic about tanning. I prefer traditional methods because they are low tech, keep old skills alive and do not permanently pollute the environment.

      I suggest you re-read the post with your specific questions in mind. Then go read the instructions left by Ma Tanner in the Comments Section (she has left several). Also, the methods in the video will work, but I am not sure why you would wash off the oil until after the hide has been worked and is soft.

      Softening occurs because the fibers in the hide are coated with oil as they are worked to prevent them from re-bonding to each other. (Glue is made from hides and hooves because of the bonds that are formed between the fibers). Smoking is not necessary but allows you to wash the hide in the future without having to re-soften every time.

      I always salt or freeze first thing because we have to stop all bacterial growth. Ma Tanner does not salt, be she always starts scraping the hide as soon as it comes off the animal. Your hide is probably O.K. in the shed if the temperature is near or below freezing. Salt is cheap and it kills bacteria and removes water which shrinks the hide to help hold the hair, so I don’t see any negative from using salt. Except be careful where you pour the salt water (good weed killer, but can kill plants you like as well).

      I suggest several books in the post. Get a book or look at enough videos to see what tools and “set ups” people use for scraping and for working. Scraping the hide is light work compared to softening. Good tools and a good set up will make this part easier.

      I applaud your gumption. The hide will come out nice and soft if you (and your daughter) put in the work. Killing her first deer, then tanning her own hide… That is where self esteem comes from. I look forward to seeing the end result. Thanks for the comment.

  38. Hi Backcountrychronicles!
    I am trying to tan a hide and this is my first try. I was given a deer by a friend because he could not do anything with it (no room in the freezer). I got it a week after he killed it. I skinned it the night I got it, soaked it for two days because I did not have time to get to it, and now have salted it twice over a period of four days.

    Several sites I have seen on the internet said I need to salt the hide until it is dry, then soak it to clean it. Should I soak it or should I simply clean it? And the hide is 2×4 stiff. What, in your experience, is the best way to get the hides supple and soft? Thanks

    • Hi Nathaniel. I directed your question to this post.

      Salting is good. Getting it a week late may cause the hair to slip if the hide was not kept cold. If you want the hide with the hair on, you may want to test to see if the hair is slipping before you put a lot of effort into the hide. If the hair slips, you may still be able to save the hide.

      But first, scrape that hide clean. The salt will help keep the bacteria down, but you have to get all the extra fat, meat and tissue off to have any chance at all to preserve the hide. By then, you will know if the hair is going to slip or not. Then salt again to keep bacteria growth down and to dry the hide. If not already too far gone, the hide will then wait on you to get to the softening. You can also freeze the hide if the wait is going to be long. I have a partial elk hide in my basement that was scraped, salted and rolled up last year.

      The answers to your question about softening the hide are in this post and in the comment section (especially comments from Ma Tanner) and my answers to specific questions from others.

      Anyway, good luck and let us know how it turns out.

      In the post, I suggest several books about tanning hides and furs. Some videos are also useful to see the tools people use and also to see how they set up and how they do the work.

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