How to Tan a Hide

Walt and Donna Thorne explain how to tan hides from home raised animals as well as wild ones killed for food, providing useful leather goods to use around the homestead.


First I carefully tack the hide — stretched well — to the rack on the side of the framework that faces the wind (the hair must lie with, not against, whatever breeze is blowing). I then place a large commercial cookie sheet under the skin to catch the drippings, and build a small fire on the windward side of the structure about 3 feet from its legs.


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Every rural carnivore knows that home-raised rabbits, goats, sheep, and such — plus whatever wild animals may be trapped or hunted locally — can provide the family table with rich and nutritious food at far less than the cost of store-bought meat. Nevertheless, I've known many such people who passed up the opportunity offered by those same creatures' skins.

That's unfortunate, since hides and pelts are just as valuable as the meat they protect land possibly more so). Well-tanned skins can be fashioned into warm, appealing clothing for only a fraction of what you'd pay in the stores . . . and natural rugs, furniture covers, large floor pillows, and bedspreads add a special decorative touch that seems to blend with nearly any style of home furnishings.

I've often asked acquaintances why they never made use of hides, and got answers that varied from lack of knowledge or time to cost of tools and supplies. "Humbug!" I respond. "I've been tanning for just 18 months now and it's really very simple. Besides, it's quite a satisfying thing to do . . . and you can even make a little money from it if you like." Then I go on to describe my system on how to tan a hide, and usually end up persuading my cautious friends to give it a try (maybe with a little help from me the first time or so). I hope I can persuade you, too.

How To Tan A Hide

The following is the tanning method I use, laid out in 10 easy-to-follow steps with one optional procedure thrown in for good measure.

[1] First, build a rack as shown in the illustrations with this article. We made ours of green alder limbs about 3 inches in diameter: two 8-footers for legs, and seven poles about 5 feet long for the crosspieces.

Construction of the framework is simple. Just lay out the legs on the ground, mark off 3 feet from one end (which will be the bottom), and secure a crosspiece to each support at that point. Then add another horizontal pole every 7 inches (a spacing which makes the rack suitable for skins of all sizes).

When you're finished, dig a hole about 2 feet deep for each leg, set the uprights in the ground, and bury them so that they're good and solid. I fill the holes about three-quarters of the way with concrete for added stability, but a simple brace will do just as well.

[2] Most tanners use flesh knives or hunting knives to scrape flesh, fat, and excess blood off the hides they work. This method of cleaning skins has caused me many tears, since I usually end up taking off either too much or not enough. Most often, in fact, I've put holes in the pelts. Which is very discouraging.

Well, good news: That scraping isn't necessary at all. Instead, I simply melt off the guck that clings to the skin . . . and here's how:

First I carefully tack the hide — stretched well — to the rack on the side of the framework that faces the wind (the hair must lie with, not against, whatever breeze is blowing). I then place a large commercial cookie sheet under the skin to catch the drippings, and build a small fire on the windward side of the structure about 3 feet from its legs. Location of the heat source is important: too close and the pelt may dry out or even catch fire (I once lost a deer hide this way) . . . too far away and the job will never get done.

Be warned that this is a time-consuming procedure. I've spent as long as eight hours — one windless day when I was working on a bear hide — waiting for the fat to drip off. Make sure you have plenty to do (chopping wood, maybe, or reading back issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS) . . . but don't get so involved that you forget to keep an eye on the situation. Should the droppings catch fire — and one wild spark can do the trick — you'll quickly learn that fat makes a really nasty blaze. If the flames aren't smothered immediately, you may lose the skin.

[3] When you've decided that all the fat is off, prepare Solution No. 1, which consists of a pound of salt dissolved in each gallon of water you use. (I make 5 gallons of this for small animals and 20 for the larger ones.) Soak the pelt thoroughly in the liquid for about five hours.

[4] Wring the skin carefully to remove the brine, lay it on a flat surface flesh side up, and cover the pelt with plenty of salt. Gently but firmly rub the preservative into every pore. Then fold the hide in half (salted side in), roll it into a bundle, and let it cure overnight.

[5] The next day, thoroughly rinse the skin to free it of salt and hang it in a shady spot to dry.

[6] Next, tan the hide in Solution No. 2, which is made as follows: Dissolve 1 pound of alum in 1 gallon of hot water. In another container, dissolve 2-1/2 pounds of salt in 5 gallons of water. When both solutions are ready, mix them together thoroughly and let the skin soak in the liquid for three days. Stir the tanning fluid three times daily.

[7] Wring the hide carefully and thoroughly and rinse it with cold water for about 20 minutes.

[8] Hang the skin up to dry in a shady spot.

[9] After the pelt is completely dry, dampen it again and tenderly but firmly stretch it in all directions.

[10] With your knuckles or palms, knead and rub warm lard or butter into the skin. (The Indians used a mixture of animal brains, liver, fats, and vegetable broths.) Then fold the hide in half (hair to hair) and twist it back and forth between your hands. This step softens the pelt so that it can be turned into a usable product.

[11] (Optional.) The Indians dampened their finished skins, smoked them over green hardwood to waterproof them, and then dried them quickly. I've used this method just once, with results that pleased me.

What you do with the hide from here on is up to you. We find uses of our own for most of our home tannery's output . . . and also make periodic trips to local flea markets and craft shows to sell handbags, coats, floor pillows, hats, and other craft products.

Incidentally, don't throw away the drippings left in the pan when the fat is melted away from the skin. They're a darn good substitute for that expensive boot grease the stores sell to preserve our heavily used and abused footwear . . . and the renderings can also be used to make homemade soap by the process explained in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 13:

Soap Making With Tallow
How to Make Soap from Ashes
Soap Making Recipes and Tips for the Homesteader 

Matter of fact, very little of an animal need be wasted. For example, we save any bones that are large enough, dry them out, and make pipes and rings (excellent items to sell at craft outlets).

That's it! We've tried several methods of tanning, and have passed on this one — a combination of several processes — because we've found it the easiest and most effective. We hope it helps some of you. Good luck, and may you be blessed with many fine skins!

brian walne
12/25/2012 12:54:49 AM

your tanning solution sounds more reasonable than the Mother Earth News one, I was able to print it off, and hope to try it on coyote the season.Brian

susan morgan
12/12/2012 10:53:06 PM

Wow. Coming from Mother Earth News, this surprises me. Battery acid? Where to dipose of this mixture when you're done with it? To remain natural and environmentally friendly, lets explore the art of braintan. As a 16yr veteran of the art, its alot less expensive than the recipe listed here. You can either harvest the brain from the animal or purchase some from the grocery store (food grade). There are different steps, but you can make garment leather, and use this method for hair on as well.

7/16/2012 12:07:04 AM

how did your alpaca hide turn out?

duane burkitt
2/20/2012 3:55:50 AM

Hi everyone, I,m new to these comment thingys but not new to home tanning. In Canada its very hard to acquire battery acid so I tried substituting muriatic acid which has worked well for me. A recipe that I have found has worked on all types of hides delicate or not is as follows : 1 gallon of water, 1 quart of salt (I have found finding bulk fine salt without iodine works best but course pickling salt works as well just takes longer to dissolve) 1 fluid ounce of sulfuric acid. (or substitute 1.25 fluid ounces of muriatic acid) Dissolve the salt in the water by heating the water till all salt is dissolved. Do not try to add more salt because this amount of water can only dissolve 1 quart of salt. Let salt water full cool to room temp. Slowly add in acid. Remember to always use a non metallic container. This solution has worked for me on everything from a red squirrel to a moose as well as raccoons and foxes. The best part is for small animals can be done in 12 hrs some larger ones longer, but what I like is if you have a large container you can make a large quantity and put in several hides which can stay in the solution for months to yrs without ill effect to the hide or fur. This option then allows you to take out one hide at a time to do the softening stage which is very time consuming. I am a hunter and trapper and found this recipe from an old trapper, hunter, tanner and taxidermist. If there is any questions plz feel free to email me an I can hopefully help you out. Remember each hide acts differently and sometimes just doesnt work out the way you want it to. Trial and error an with experience you will get professional results. Hides must be fully cleaned and scraped before this stage. A hide that has been scraped and dried can be soften by place directly into solution but sometimes is more practical for very large hides to be soften in a different solution first. I have just received my first alpaca hide I'll let you know how it goes. Ive been experimenting for 12 yrs and this is my fav recipe. So good luck.

ben gauger
11/20/2011 8:13:31 PM

do you have to use battery acid, or will any acid work, such as the acid used to wash milking equipment?

scott bodenstadt
11/18/2011 1:43:07 AM

then theres always the brain tanning method clean the meat side of the hide to remove the innerskin then mix cowbrains in warmwater to make a soup. soak the hide in the soup forcing the solution thru the hide it will feel greasy then careful wring it out and stretch it to help remove the liquid then take it down and stretch over your knees till its completely dry any library should have a book on brain tanning it makes a water resistant very soft hide have fun

michelle gates
10/1/2011 6:19:14 PM

It sounds like this would work well on larger animals. The pelts from smaller critters like rabbits or even squirrells may no work well with the mixture here as it "eats" the pelts up. Is there any way to save this solution? I mean if you work on something today but later on in the season have something else to work on, will this solution keep? And, is there any alternatives to using the battery acid? I am working on getting more green and this just doesn't sound real green to me. Just wondering.