How to Tan a Hide

Here is a method of tanning leather that is low cost and low labor compared to other methods of tanning.
By Anita Evangelista
October/November 2001
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Remove all flesh and fat from the hide before salting it.
Photo courtesy ISTOCKPHOTO/VICTOR MAFFE


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After hunting or processing livestock for the table, it's a shame to have to toss out a nice pelt. Here is a method of tanning hides that is low cost and low labor compared to other methods of “custom tanning.” I've personally used this system to tan sheepskins, deerskins, groundhog pelts, rabbit hides and goat skins. The procedure can be used for all kinds of mammal pelts when you want the fur to remain on the skin. It results in a soft, workable hide, which can be used as is or cut up for sewing projects.

Salting Fresh Skins

Fresh hides right off the animal should be cooled immediately. Trim off any flesh and scrape visible fat from the hide. Place the skin in the shade, laying it completely flat with the fur side down, preferably on a cold concrete or rock surface. When the skin feels cool to the touch, immediately cover the fleshy side completely with plain, uniodized salt.

Use three to five pounds for a sheep or deer skin. Don't skimp.

If skins aren't salted within a few hours of removal of the flesh, you might as well forget it. They will have begun to decompose and will probably lose their hair during processing.

Transport the skin flat. We've had problems with predators gnawing the edges of skins, so put the hide somewhere out of reach. You don't need to stretch the skin; just make sure it is perfectly flat, with no curled edges. If you've lost a lot of salt while moving the pelt, add more. The salt will draw moisture from the skin and liquid may pool in low spots. Just add more salt. Let the skin dry until it is crispy. This may take a few days to a couple of weeks. When completely dry, the skin is very stable and won't change or deteriorate appreciably.

Tanning Recipe

When you're ready to tan the skins, assemble the following:

7 gallons water
2 pounds (16 cups) bran flakes
16 cups plain or pickling salt (not iodized)
2 large plastic trash cans (30 gallon) and one lid
4 foot wooden stirring stick
3 1/2 cups battery acid (from auto parts store)
2 boxes baking soda
wood rack or stretcher
neat's-foot oil
nails
wire bristle brush

This recipe makes enough tanning solution to tan four large animal skins; or ten rabbit skins; or about six medium-sized pelts such as groundhog. (Cut the recipe in half for fewer skins).

Mixing the Solution

A couple of hours before you plan to tan, soak the dried skins in clear, fresh water until flexible. Boil three gallons of water and pour over the bran flakes. Let this sit for an hour, then strain the bran flakes out, saving the brownish water solution. Next, bring the remaining four gallons of water to a boil. Put the 16 cups of salt in a plastic trash can. Pour the water over the salt and use the stirring stick to mix until the salt dissolves. Add the brown bran liquid. Stir.

When this solution is lukewarm, you are ready to add the battery acid. Read the warning label and first aid advice on the battery acid container. While wearing gloves and an old, long-sleeved shirt, very carefully pour the battery acid down the inside of the trash can into the solution — don't let it splash. Stir the battery acid in thoroughly.

At this point, you can peel off the hide's dried inner skin. If you have fresh skins, use as is. Add the skins to the solution and stir, pressing the skins down carefully under the liquid with the stirring stick until the skins are fully saturated. Leave them to soak for 40 minutes, stirring from time to time to make sure all parts of the hides are exposed to the solution. During the soak, fill your other trash can with clear, lukewarm water. After 40 minutes, soaking is complete. Use the stirring stick to carefully move the skins one by one into the other trash can. This is the rinsing process, which removes the excess salt from the skins. Stir and slosh the skins for about five minutes, changing the water when it looks dirty.

At this point, some people add a box of baking soda to the rinse water. Adding baking soda will neutralize some of the acid in the skin - this is good because there will be less possibility of residual acid in the fur to affect sensitive people. However, this also may cause the preserving effects of the acid to be neutralized. You need to make the choice to use baking soda based on your own end use of the skin. If skin or fur will spend a lot of time in contact with human skin, I'd use the baking soda. If the pelt will be used as a rug or wall hanging, I probably wouldn't.

Remove the hides from rinse water; they will be very heavy. Let them hang over a board or the back of a chair or other firm surface to drain. Now, using a sponge, rag or paint brush, swab the still-damp skin side of the hide with an ounce of neat's-foot oil. It should be absorbed quickly, leaving only a slight oily residue. Tack the hide to your "stretcher." We use salvaged wood pallets. Gently pull the hide as you tack it so there's some tension in the skin. No need to exert excess pressure or overstretch. Set the hide in a shady place to dry.

Your acidic tanning solution can be neutralized for disposal by adding a couple boxes of baking soda. It will froth and bubble vigorously and release a potentially toxic gas, so give it plenty of ventilation and get away from the bucket while this is happening. We have a small farm and generally pour the used solution on dirt driveways to keep them clear of weeds. Do not pour it down your drain.

Check the hide every day. When the skin side feels dry to the touch in the center, but still flexible and somewhat soft, take it down from the rack. Lay the fur side down and go over the skin with a wire bristle brush. This softens the skin and lightens the color. Don't brush heavily or excessively in one spot, just enough to give a suedelike appearance. After this, set the skin where it can fully dry for a day or so longer.

Once your friends know you can tan hides, be prepared for them to bring around their hunting trophies and livestock skins for treatment. If you decide to do this, take my advice: Don't do it for free. Commercial tanners get $25 to $45 to tan a hide, and you should price your work accordingly, even if your return is just a case of beer. Otherwise you'll find yourself swamped with every little skin in your region and left with no time for anything else. In exchange, your friends can expect to get a professional, quality job, with an upfront understanding about what might go wrong and what compensation you will get. People get very sensitive about their skins and this precaution will prevent potential misunderstandings and help you keep your friends.


From a 2001 issue of Backwoods Home magazine


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Post a comment below.

 

Randy
4/27/2014 6:44:28 PM
Did an alpaca looks great but kinda stiff, I want to make it soft, what do I do.

Randy
4/27/2014 6:42:42 PM
Did an alpaca hide looks great but a little stiff, just not real soft. What do I do?

ggarbear
11/23/2013 5:52:11 PM
sorry I didn't see my first post I thought it got lost so I repeated it.

ggarbear
11/23/2013 5:50:41 PM
I brain tanned a deer and it worked well except I stretched and stretched while it was drying and it still kind of cardboardie I was hoping for really soft. Any ideas?

ggarbear
11/23/2013 2:09:53 PM
I tried brain tanning a deer skin and all went well except after drying and stretching it is still kind of cardboardy I would like to get it really soft any ideas?

Carl
11/12/2013 2:15:58 PM
I was wondering why on earth Mother Earth News would recommend such a caustic and expensive process as this ? Battery acid ? Really ? Brain Tanning is natural , traditional and exceptionally inexpensive. You won't get acid burns on your skin or lungs , you won't do unnecessary damage to the hide and you won't have a noxious slurry to dispose of, dumping it on the ground for weed killer ...seriously?

Marie Levert
10/29/2013 2:39:12 AM
Hi, I read a 'recipe' that one can use ashes and water, which becomes lye, which I have an idea that it approximates to battery acid. Lye is causic, and battery acid definitely is too! To make lye, you rinse the water through the ashes in a trough, so that the runoff goes in a bucket. I haven't done that myself, I still have three raccoon skins that I dried with salt and alum (alum really gets the oils out.) I hope to post the results of my raccoon skins when I do tan them properly, as I want to make pouches, and of course, a Daniel Boone kinda hat. I managed to skin the whole face and the feet and everything off the critter (except the 'private parts', I left them on the body. It just felt right. They were boys.) I skinned a friend's rabbit that got killed by my dog; I was visiting there with my dog, a big husky/shepherd with a bit of lab, and my friend goes for a tootle to the store, and, unbeknownst to me, he had allowed his momma bunny free from her hutch (why, I don't know, she had babies, and her hutch wasn't a box, it was a fenced in area, there was no reason why he should have let his rabbit out) So, next thing I know, while I was tranquilly reading a book in his cvollection, I heard from his kids that teh rabbit was dead. I go and look, and sure as sh*t, it's dead, all right. So, I skinned it, my friend came back from the store, I was done giving my dog shit for killing a rabbit, even though it was in his nature, and it was ridiculous of my friend to have done such a thing. It's almost like he planned to get his rabbit killed so they could eat it, but that's not right either, because she had babies that were still on the teat, and my friend is a bit of a capitalist, so the idea of wasting potential bigger bunnies didn't go either. I dunno. I diverged from my story, which was about using water and wood ashes. Not sure what kind of wood, but I think there is a kind of wood to use to make the best kind of lye, not just any old wood ash. a nut tree ash is what I get the impression. I would have to find that out, unless someone reading this might know and elucidate on this subject? Thanks for putting this kind of knowledge, Marie.

Marie Levert
10/29/2013 2:33:10 AM
Hi, I read a 'recipe' that one can use ashes and water, which becomes lye, which I have an idea that it approximates to battery acid. Lye is causic, and battery acid definitely is too! To make lye, you rinse the water through the ashes in a trough, so that the runoff goes in a bucket. I haven't done that myself, I still have three raccoon skins that I dried with salt and alum (alum really gets the oils out.) I hope to post the results of my raccoon skins when I do tan them properly, as I want to make pouches, and of course, a Daniel Boone kinda hat. I managed to skin the whole face and the feet and everything off the critter (except the 'private parts', I left them on the body. It just felt right. They were boys.) I skinned a friend's rabbit that got killed by my dog; I was visiting there with my dog, a big husky/shepherd with a bit of lab, and my friend goes for a tootle to the store, and, unbeknownst to me, he had allowed his momma bunny free from her hutch (why, I don't know, she had babies, and her hutch wasn't a box, it was a fenced in area, there was no reason why he should have let his rabbit out) So, next thing I know, while I was tranquilly reading a book in his cvollection, I heard from his kids that teh rabbit was dead. I go and look, and sure as sh*t, it's dead, all right. So, I skinned it, my friend came back from the store, I was done giving my dog shit for killing a rabbit, even though it was in his nature, and it was ridiculous of my friend to have done such a thing. It's almost like he planned to get his rabbit killed so they could eat it, but that's not right either, because she had babies that were still on the teat, and my friend is a bit of a capitalist, so the idea of wasting potential bigger bunnies didn't go either. I dunno. I diverged from my story, which was about using water and wood ashes. Not sure what kind of wood, but I think there is a kind of wood to use to make the best kind of lye, not just any old wood ash. a nut tree ash is what I get the impression. I would have to find that out, unless someone reading this might know and elucidate on this subject? Thanks for putting this kind of knowledge, Marie.

Denise Stetler
10/22/2013 8:32:55 AM
Don't have battery acid available. What else can I use? Also, can I use baking soda in place of the Alum? Want to start the tanning process for my rabbit skins, so, I need to get answers soon. Going to make slippers out of them. Thanks everyone.

Deirdre
10/4/2013 8:09:06 PM
In answer to Doug Strapley; you never want to salt and then freeze any of your skins. This will cause slippage of the fur. For things with thin skins you can purchase tanning cream solutions from nearly any taxidermy supply company. The creams are safe, reliable, fairly cheap and best of all can be applied and then froze with no worry of slippage. Please make sure it is a tanning "cream" and not tanning oil. You simply add a generous layer to the skin side of your mount being careful to avoid the fur as much as possible and wait the recommended time on the packaging. Then proceed as normal for the mount you are doing. A word of caution, do not use the tanning creams on things with thicker skins. The cream is great but has its limitations for proper penetration of animals with thicker skins, such as bear. Hope this helps.

Jeanine
5/28/2011 5:04:46 AM
I have Alpacas to butcher and would like to tan the hides. I'd like to know if the fleece on the hide will survive all the soaking. Alpaca has no oils or lanalin in the fleece so would the procedure be altered any for their hides? The fleece/wool is thick and about 4 inches long on average.

Doug Stapley
3/3/2011 5:13:33 PM
I'm about to try tanning a couple rabbit hides. Its about 20 degrees outside. Can they be airdried in this temperature or should I salt them, throw them in the freezer and wait for warmer weather?

KIMBERLY Smith_2
2/3/2011 12:31:16 AM
First, I'd rather use a different method, so as to not have to deal with toxic battery acid. Not only on my hides, but in desposal. Second, rabbit hides do NOT need to be tanned with an acid. lay flat (slit up the belly), salt, and sprinkle with alum (like you use for pickling), fold flesh side in, and roll up neck to tail, and pack into ziplock freezer bags until you are ready to process. Give it at least a couple days in the freezer, with the salt, before processing. Pull out the fur you want to process, lightly rince off excess salt, but don't saturate your fur. Scrape the flesh off, starting at the tail and work towards the neck. It rips easy, so be firm but gentle. Once fleshed, hand wash in your favorite mild detergent or shampoo, only using squeezing action, never wring it. Rinse well, squeeze out excess water. Blow dry for a bit to kick start the drying, and fluff the fur a little. Hang in a warm, dry place, out of reach of pets. Once they are nearly dry, but still cold feeling (damp), start stretching and working. Work each fur a while, then let it dry more, before working it again. As you work the fur, the hide becomes white, soft and pliable. If it doesn't soften enough the first time around, dampen the hide, and start again on the stretching.

Johnathon_7
9/12/2010 7:53:18 PM
I just tried this method on two rabbit skins that I had recently killed. After skinning I dried them with salt then a week or so later I went through the process. Upon pulling them out of the battery acid solution the skins began to fall apart on me, I have no idea why. This was my first attempt at tanning of any kind and any advise that a pro woodsman out there could give me would be much appreciated.

Petr_2
9/1/2010 1:47:53 PM
To those wondering about hides frozen for several years: as long as the hide was properly cooled before going into the freezer and not stuck into a plastic bag while still warm it should be fine. I recently did a mount of the first whitetail doe that I had shot several years ago. She was in the freezer for about four years and the mount turned out beautiful.

Lillian_6
6/18/2010 8:55:29 AM
I was told that you can "put skins up Green" Meaning that the skins, (Rabbits) don't have to be scraped. Just wash out any blood from the fur, wrap in newspaper and freeze. I was told that once you have the number of skins you need to make your coat or boots, etc. then you can un-freeze them and then tan them all at once. First, Is this true? How long can the skins remain frozen untill they are no longer usefull?

Karen Morgan
1/6/2010 9:01:46 AM
I did a long horn cow hide like you said, with the hair, but it is bubbling up. What can I do to stop this? It is very stiff. Will the hair fall out? Thank you.

Paul Matzek
12/22/2009 12:31:31 PM
It would seem that the bran flakes solution would be to put them in the pillow case, then the pillow case in the water, like making manure tea. No straining needed.

Paul Matzek
12/22/2009 12:30:22 PM
It would seem that the bran flakes solution would be to put them in the pillow case, then the pillow case in the water, like making manure tea. No straining needed.

Paul Matzek
12/22/2009 12:29:36 PM
It would seem that the bran flakes solution would be to put them in the pillow case, then the pillow case in the water, like making manure tea. No straining needed.

Paul Matzek
12/22/2009 12:29:12 PM
It would seem that the bran flakes solution would be to put them in the pillow case, then the pillow case in the water, like making manure tea. No straining needed.

Paul Matzek
12/22/2009 12:28:30 PM
It would seem that the bran flakes solution would be to put them in the pillow case, then the pillow case in the water, like making manure tea. No straining needed.

Paul Matzek
12/22/2009 12:26:39 PM
It would seem that the bran flakes solution would be to put them in the pillow case, then the pillow case in the water, like making manure tea. No straining needed.

Adrianne Jordan
8/10/2009 10:58:10 PM
I froze the hide of the first ram we slaughtered because he had a beautiful fleece. Now, 4 years later, I'm wondering if it is still possible to tan it? Any suggestions? Thanks!

Jan_5
1/16/2009 11:17:54 AM
Is it possible to tan a sheepskin that has previously been dried but not tanned? The one I have is "crunchy" on the skin side.

Kymberlyn Weber
10/16/2008 5:49:37 PM
I'm about to make my solution. The husband bought Bran Flakes cereal. I want to use the wheat bran that is available at the health food stores... the bran that looks more like a bit of seed. Considering Kathy's situation I believe that my bran pellets would be a better choice. I dread the thought of having to try to wash and brush cereal mush out my lambskins. The hair is nearly 3-inches long. Can you imagine the mess that cereal is going to make on these? Well, if we don't drown each other while arguing over it, I will write back and share my experience.

kathy_42
1/7/2008 11:09:46 AM
I just finished a buffaloe hide using this recipe & the hair has stayed on great. The only thing negative about it was that the brand flakes desolved in the boiling water & straining it without brand flakes getting in your solution was impossible. I even resorted to using a thinly worn pillow case & it just plugged up the holes. Also, once I soaked it in this solution, I took it up to the car wash & used the high power sprayer on it to try to get out to bran flakes. I then air dried it overnight (about 46 degrees) and then brushed out what I could. I think there's got to be another recipe without this in it. Being smaller pellets it would still work good on & easier to comb the flakes out when dry.

Tina_21
11/19/2007 3:58:18 PM
Can you use this recipe for deer hides with the fur on?








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