I read a post recently by a guy that had finished tanning a deer hide for his daughter. He said it was a fairly long ordeal (and he probably wouldn’t ever do it again), but it turned out beautifully and he had a picture to prove it. The hide looked very soft and flexible and hung limp like a blanket over the bed. So thanks to “livbucks” from PA. for providing the initial motivation for me to try my hand at tanning a hide.
I like the idea of DIY or as I would say, DIOY (doing-it-your-own-self) and I also like the idea of not wasting the hide and am glad to see that there are many other people that feel the same way. I am encouraged to see so many people on websites and forums that are keeping old skills like how to tan a hide alive. Chances are, if you are reading this, you are a do-it-yourself person too.
I plan on hunting public land, with publicly available tags. It will only be me, myself and I (and maybe my wife since she goes out with me some days) to find it, harvest it, gut it, skin it and pack it out. We butcher, wrap and freeze the meat and make our own sausage, ground meat and patties for burgers. If I am skilled and/or lucky enough to harvest an animal this Fall, I plan on making a rug or blanket from the deer or elk hide. If I get a buck or even if I get a spike elk, I will also make my own European style mount of the skull and antlers.
I still have a lot of research to do and tools to acquire before I am ready to start tanning a whole animal hide. There seem to be many different methods and I need to decide on a method that I can do myself at home. So as I do the research and start acquiring books and tools, I will update this post with the information that I can find and will include all the steps of the hide preservation, tanning and breaking process once I have a hide and get started. I will include pictures and maybe even some videos, so stay tuned to see how this journey turns out.
First Experience Tanning Rabbit Hides
Many years ago while I was still in high school, I was asked by a friend of the family to show him how to dress rabbits. No… Not to put dresses on them like some people do with their small dogs, but to skin, gut and clean them.
He had bought a few acres, and though he had a good job in town, was trying to live as self sufficient as possible. He was growing a garden, raising a few cows, goats, free-range chickens and had also started raising rabbits.
Well, you know how it goes… A cow has a calf (one calf), goats usually have two kids, chickens lay 8-12 eggs and you will be lucky to raise 4 or 5 chicks in a season if you don’t keep them penned up, but the rabbits were breeding like rabbits! He already had baby rabbits that were having more baby rabbits and had built more cages, but the both the old and new cages were stacked full of rabbits. Something had to give.
The original purpose for raising the rabbits was for food, but his wife and kids had become attached to the rabbits and hadn’t fully bought-in to the idea of eating what you raise. I don’t think this fellow had actually “harvested” any of his livestock yet. So I was glad to help out and to make a long story short, we “dressed” 6 rabbits.
His original rabbits, (California giants) were large and white with a soft medium length coat. But about half of the younger rabbits were mostly white, but with had an irregular wild-type colored blanket splashed across their backs. My friend said he just assumed the wild native Cottontails were responsible. How did those sneaky little devils do that through the chicken wire? All the hides were beautiful, but especially the wild cottontail hybrids.
Anyway, the purpose of telling this story now, is that once I saw those hides, I knew couldn’t just throw them away and I had to try to preserve them. At that time (mid 1970s), small game was plentiful where I lived, but big game (white-tailed deer) was not. People used to joke that you could hunt deer an entire lifetime and leave most of a box of shells for your kids. I had skinned many-a-rabbit and squirrel, but had no experience tanning hides and didn’t know anybody that had done it. My Grandfather said he used to know people, they tanned their own hides and even made their own shoes, but they were all “long gone”.
Foxfire Book 3; Chapter 2 Hide Tanning
This was obviously many years before Al Gore invented the internet, so back then, the only source of information at that time was our World Book encyclopedia set, the Golden Book Encyclopedia of Natural Science (1962; I still have that set today) and the public library. I had to hustle too, because I didn’t know what to do with the skins, except to stretch and tack them to plywood. My father told me to remove all the excess meat and tissue from the skins and to spread a little pickling salt on them. Luckily, that was enough to hold them until I discovered the Foxfire books at the library the next day.
Foxfire was started as a class project in 1966 as students from northern Georgia interviewed elders and retold their stories about how they lived (self sufficiently) in the Southern Appalachians. They had enough stories to produced a magazine, which later was turned into the book series. There is also a Foxfire museum and non-profit organization. The name “Foxfire” comes the local name for a bioluminescent (glows in the dark) fungus that grows in the region.
The Foxfire 3 book was the one I needed to learn how to tan the hides, but the book also covers subjects like animal care, banjos and dulcimers, wild plant foods, churning butter and finding and using ginseng.
The Foxfire 3 book describes several methods for tanning hides, including bark tanning, brain tanning, alum tanning and tanning with lard and flour. Most of the information is for tanning after the hair was removed.
The bark tanning method is a time consuming method that is very similar to method described by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Publication below. They did mention how they ringed or cut down trees to get the bark and how they used the bark from different tree species for different colored hides. Chestnut Oak would turn the hides brown and the bark of White Oak would turn hides a yellowish color. Bark could be used either dry or green, but the “tea” or “ooze” made from the bark needs to be the color of dark coffee before using it for tanning hides.
The brain tanning method is similar to other brain taning methods described. Brains are simply cooked and then rubbed into the hide. Brains were rubbed on the hide either cool or hot, but seems the hot method also helps remove the hair.
The lard and flour method is a method I have not seen described anywhere else before. For tanning a hide with lard, the hide was rubbed with a thick coat of lard and then the lard was coated with flour. The hide was rolled up until “the blood was drawn out”. The hide would be oiled and worked to keep it soft.
None of the methods or equipment are described in great detail, and some of the methods (lard and flour method) were described from memory. There are numerous black and white photos of skins and hides in various stages of skinning and tanning.
The Foxfire 3 book has a short section about tanning hides with the hair on, and that is the section that I followed. The method describes scraping the hides to remove the flesh and fat and then salting the hides (which I did). Then I covered the hides with alum and allowed them to dry. At this point, they should be ready for use.
Another method described using half alum and half soda, but without salting the hide. Another method that would probably be frowned upon today was to use a bar of laundry soap and six ounces of arsenic or lead. This toxic mixture was made into a paste that was then rubbed into the hide.
My hides were preserved well and the fur held tight and remained beautiful for years, but I was disappointed that the hides were very stiff. That seems to be the case for alum tanned hides. I don’t remember much about the softening process (maybe that was the problem – I probably had to return the book before the hide was ready for softening), but the Foxfire 3 book only has a short section on keeping hides pliable. Methods for keeping the hides pliable include using neat’s-foot oil or beeswax and beef tallow to “work” the hides. Methods or techniques or tools used for working the hides are not described.
I remember that I tried chewing one of the hides for a while. If chewing was really how native American women softened deer hides, I stand in awe of them! Maybe someone told me to chew the hide just to play a joke on a gullible teenager. What I didn’t know at the time, was that hides become soft from working them while still wet, not after they are dry. I basically make raw hide with the hair on. The hides were preserved, but maybe not really tanned.
Types or Methods of Tanning Hides and Leather at Home
- Bark Tanning – Uses the Tanin or Tannic Acid from bark of oak, hemlock or other trees. This method has also been referred to as vegetable tanning – Tanning with tannic acid from tree bark can take up to 6 months to complete, and will stain the fur of an animal, so I would try this method for tanning leather, but not for preserving a hide. See recipe below – would need at least 100 lbs of bark for a cow hide, So maybe 40 or 50 lbs for a deer hide.
- Brain Tanning – every animal has one (a brain) and it seems that every animal except bison have enough brains to tan their own hide. I am a little concerned about using brains of ungulates as a tanning agent due to the possibility of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). CWD is form of spongiform encephalopathy, similar to mad cow disease and several very similar to a very rare prion diseases that effect humans. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC); “To date, no strong evidence of CWD transmission to humans has been reported.” Well that is good to know, but they (CDC) advises hunters to have game tested for CWD before consuming it and to take certain precautions in the field while butchering the animal, including; “…wear gloves, bone-out the meat from the animal, and minimize handling of the brain and spinal cord tissues. I am still consider brain tanning, but I don’t think I will be using the brains of a deer or an elk. If not, then I need to find a source for pig brains. When I was young, canned pig brains were always at the grocery store (Armour – same people that make potted meat). I never had them so I don’t know what I missed. I used to wonder who actually bought them. My Grandfather said he used to eat them, but only had them fresh when they killed hogs. I don’t know if they are even available now after all the mad cow disease scare. I will also check at some of the Asian food markets. It also seems that most brain tanning instructions also recommend that the hides be smoked as well.
- Tanning with Mayonnaise and Raw Eggs – Since mayo is raw eggs and oil, then the mix is lots of raw eggs and some oil – use the same way as brain tanning – Interesting, never heard of this method before – More research needed.
- Tanning with Alcohol & Turpentine – seems that some people have used this is a 50% alcohol and 50% Turpentine solution – others say they never heard of this and suggested that the leather would likely be very dry when alcohol evaporated. More research is needed here, but I don’t think I want my hides to smell like turpentine.
- Salt & Alum Tanning (ammonium aluminum sulfate or potassium aluminum sulfate)
- Chrome Tanning (Chromium Sulfate) – commercial method – typical hard, shinny texture. Your motorcycle jacket was probably tanned this way – wash water is considered hazardous waste.
- Glutaraldehyde Tanning – an alternative to Chrome Tanning? Related to Formaldehyde. Dow chemical recommends their product Zoldine® be used in conjunction with Chrome Tanning. The Safety sheet states that it is very toxic and extremely harmful to aquatic organisms. Not for me. Probably not for home tanning at all. Sure wouldn’t want my neighbor dumping Chromium or aldehyde compounds on the ground or in the creek anywhere near me.
- Lard and Flour Tanning – method described in Foxfire 3
Steps of the Leather and Hide Tanning Process
Depending upon the source, there are various steps to the Hide Tanning process. I have tried to summarize them here.
There seems to be some confusion between sources about what it means to preserve, tan or break hide. Some separate these into different steps, while others don’t include some of the steps or they combine them into a single step.
- Fleshing – remove all fat and tissues
Here is a good detailed exampled of actually fleshing a deer hide.
- Preserving/Curing – freeze or salt – salt (non-iodized), alum – stop bacterial activity to preserve hides – equal parts salt and hide
- Washing/De-greasing – If the hide is very fatty, it might need to be washed
- De-hairing – if you want leather – lime – skip this step if you want to tan a hide with fur left on
- Thinning (if hide is thick) – Dry Scraping
- 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
- Breaking & Oiling
This is a good look of a nearly finished tanned deer skin (hide-on) and the kid knows his stuff…
To Salt or Not to Salt Hides to Preserve for Tanning?
If you are not able to begin the tanning process a soon as the animal is skinned, then the hide must be frozen or salted. If in the field without access to refrigeration, then salt would seem to be the only option. But some sources say to add plenty of salt to cure the hide and set the fur, while others say “Do not Salt!”. One website says not to salt unless you are experienced as salting can ruin a hide. It would help if they would have mentioned how salt could ruin a hide, so we would know what to watch for. Then there is the choice of dry salting or wet salting. Dry salted hides look like they could be stacked in the corner for some time, while wet salted hides must be stored in a plastic container. Dry salted hides seem to be harder to rehydrate and tan when you resume the process.
The fur can start falling out (slipping) fairly quickly in warm weather due to bacterial growth, so what to do? I plan on salting the hide as soon as possible in the field, but more research is needed on salting hides to learn what some of the pitfalls might be. But if you do salt a hide, do not use iodized salt, and do not use rock salt because size of crystals is too large and too many impurities, but use a fine grained salt like pickling salt. The hide needs to be completely covered with salt and a good guide to the amount of salt needed is to use about the same amount of salt as the animal hide weighs.
Hide Tanning Books to Consider
I think I have just about exhausted the credible online resources on tanning hides. There are lots of You-tube videos, and some have some good info, but most seem to be for leather and not for hides with the fir left on. I need a little more in-depth information to decide on the type of tanning I will attempt. I also feel like I need a little more step by step guidance, especially on the subjects like hide thinning and breaking. I ordered some books on how to tan a hide and will be using them to help decide which tanning process I want to use and what tools I need to obtain. The best one so far has been Deerskins into Buckskins.
“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:
- Make bark liquor – 30-40 lbs of finely ground (particles no larger than corn kernel) oak or hemlock bark
- Boil 20 gallons of pure water (rain water is best)
- mix in barrel (do not use iron container) and let stand for 15-20 days, stir occasionally
- when ready to use, strain off the bark by pouring through a sack
- Add 2 quarts vinegar
- hang sides (of cow hide) from sticks in the bark, the less folds the better, move around often to insure even coloring
- As soon as sides are soaking in the bark liquor mixture, make another batch of liquor mixture
- 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.
- After 5 more days remove another 5 gallons of mixture and replace with 5 gallons of the fresh mixture (no more vinegar needed)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.