For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an outdoors person. I spend most of my free time hunting, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. This lifestyle came naturally, as my mother and father sent my siblings and me outdoors as much as possible. My family also processed much of what we ate at home. Whether we were butchering cattle, hogs, chickens, and all varieties of wild game or canning meats, garden vegetables, and fruit from my grandfather’s orchard, my family and I knew where our food came from.
However, after our successful hunting trips, no one in my family tanned any of the animal skins. Those were hauled to the local locker plant and were then sent to a commercial tannery. Several years ago, I started experimenting with tanning deer and other wild animal skins so I could become self-sufficient in this part of processing, too. I eventually honed in on a step-by-step process that creates durable hair-on hides and good, wearable leather from deer skins.
You can buy most of the equipment you’ll need to tan a deer skin — or a few smaller skins — at a local hardware store. Gather a large plastic trash barrel that will hold from 20 to 32 gallons; an 8-gallon tub; plastic sheeting or an old tarp; 6 feet of 4-to-6–inch-diameter PVC pipe to serve as a fleshing beam; sawhorses and a sheet of 4-by-4-foot plywood to use as a drying rack; protective gloves and eyewear; and a stirring stick (I use an old piece of 1-1/2-inch PVC pipe that’s about 4 feet long). You’ll also need a skinning knife or a drawknife, which you can purchase from a sporting goods store, and a fleshing knife, which you can source from a taxidermy supply business.
The supplies you’ll need to make leather (hair-off tanning) are fine-grained, non-iodized salt; hydrated lime; deliming powder (ammonium sulfate); pickling crystals (citric acid); sodium bicarbonate (baking soda); tanning oils (Curatan); pH test strips; water; and an abrasive material, such as pumice stone or sandpaper.
The supplies you’ll need for hair-on tanning are fine-grain, non-iodized salt; pickling crystals; sodium bicarbonate; tanning oils; pH test strips; water; and a sanding material.
You can source most of these supplies (except water, salt, and sanding materials) from a taxidermy supply business, such as Van Dyke’s Taxidermy. In fact, Van Dyke’s sells hair-off and hair-on Curatan kits that include all the supplies to tan a deer skin or the equivalent number of smaller animal skins. You can also purchase the supplies in bulk. For instance, I buy fine-grain, non-iodized livestock salt in 50-pound bags from a farm supply store.
I always freeze the skins for at least 3 weeks, which kills ticks and other parasites. For hair-on tanning, it’s important to skin the animal when it’s cool and then freeze the skin quickly. If the skin starts to rot and the hair begins to fall out or slip, nothing can be done to save the skin for hair-on tanning. I only tan in winter months when insects are absent and outdoor temperatures and humidity are low.
After you’ve got your skin stashed away and are ready to get your hide in gear, follow these steps, tips, and tool recommendations to start the transformation process. I’ve included how much time you’ll need to allocate for each step. Typically, the whole process takes a couple of weeks. Note that you’ll skip some steps depending on whether you’re leaving the hair on the hides or removing the hair to make leather.
Time: 1 to 2 hours. Supplies: Fleshing beam, dull fleshing knife, sharp skinning knife or sharp drawknife.
Fleshing refers to removing all the fat and muscle and as much of the membrane as possible from the inside of the skin — the side that faces the muscle. To get the skin properly tanned, it must be free of this excess material. Place the skin over the fleshing beam hair-side down and use a dull fleshing knife to remove the fat, muscle, and membrane. Work from the neck-and-shoulder end of the skin to the rump. By using a dull fleshing knife, you’ll be able to put a lot of pressure on the skin without cutting it. For muscle that’s strongly attached, carefully use a sharp skinning knife or sharp drawknife to fillet the muscle from the skin.
For hair-on tanning, move to Step 2, and then complete Steps 6 onward. For making leather (hair-off), skip Step 2, and jump straight to Steps 3 onward.
Time: 30 minutes to apply the salt and then 20 minutes each day to reapply if necessary. Supplies: 15 to 20 pounds fine-grain, non-iodized salt; drying rack; plastic sheeting or tarp.
Salting the skin cures it and sets the hair so it doesn’t slip. Lay the skin hair-side down and rub salt into the membrane side of the skin. Fold the skin into quarters and lay the folded skin on a slanted surface overnight. The salt will draw moisture from the skin, and in the morning you’ll see a puddle of liquid that has been pulled from the skin. Unfold the skin and shake off the wet salt, brushing any stuck grains away with your hand. Place the skin hair-side down on a drying rack and apply another round of dry salt, this time keeping it open. Check the skin at least twice each day. When the salt is wet, remove it and reapply dry salt. When the salt is no longer pulling moisture from the skin — which usually happens after about 4 days — it will be ready for pickling. At this point, the dry skin could be stored for several months, but I recommend pickling it immediately. If the skin is stored before the pickling step, it will become stiff and could break when you fold it to place in the pickling solution. Relax the skin by soaking it in water for a few hours prior to pickling, and then continue with Step 6.
Time: 30 minutes to mix the solution and then 10 minutes per day to agitate the skin. Supplies: protective gloves and eyewear, large container, 8 ounces hydrated lime, 7.5 gallons water, stirring stick.
In this step, you’ll be floating the skin in an alkaline solution that will cause the hair to fall out or slip. The solution will also cause the skin to swell and feel like rubber. Don eye protection and gloves, and then mix 8 ounces of hydrated lime powder with 7.5 gallons of water in a large plastic trash container. Place the skin in the solution. Agitate the skin, gently lifting it in and out of the solution, for about 5 minutes once in the morning and once in the evening. Check the skin each day by pulling on the hair. When it comes out with little effort (usually after 2 to 3 days), the skin will be ready for graining and membraning.
Time: 3 to 5 hours. Supplies: protective gloves and eyewear, fleshing beam, dull fleshing knife, sheeting or tarp.
Wearing gloves and eye protection, remove the skin from the bucking solution and gently wring the skin over the trash barrel to get as much of the bucking solution out as possible. Place sheeting or a tarp under the fleshing beam. Put the skin on the fleshing beam with the neck end toward you and the hair-side up. Use the dull fleshing knife to remove the hair from the skin by pushing the fleshing knife in the direction the hair lays, from neck to rump.
After the hair is removed, you’ll need to go over the entire skin again to remove the grain. The grain is the thin, protective epidermis layer of the skin that sits just under the hair. Using the same dull fleshing knife, apply more downward pressure with each pass to remove the grain layer from the skin. Experiment with different angles and pressures until you achieve the right combination. Once you find the sweet spot, the grain will peel off the skin in thin sheets. As graining progresses, the parts of the skin that are grained will be white in color, and the ones that still need work will be tawny or light gray. After it’s grained, turn the skin over and remove any membrane that remains.
Time: 5 to 7 hours. Supplies: protective eyewear and gloves, large container, 3 ounces deliming powder (ammonium sulfate), 5 gallons water, stirring stick.
This step will remove the bucking solution from the skin and return it to its former non-swollen state. Mix 3 ounces of the deliming powder and 5 gallons of water, and immerse the skin for 4 to 6 hours. Stir the skin with a stirring stick every hour or so. When the skin is no longer swollen, rinse it in cool water for 15 to 20 minutes. After this is done, proceed to pickling.
Complete the rest of the steps in the tanning process for both hair-off and hair-on tanning.
Time: 30 minutes to mix the solution and 10 minutes per day to agitate the skin. Supplies: protective eyewear; gloves; large container; 24 ounces pickling crystals; 8 gallons water; 8 pounds fine-grained, non-iodized salt; pH test strips; stirring stick.
Pickling involves soaking the skin in an acid solution that will preserve it. Mix 21 ounces of pickling crystals with 7 gallons of water and 7 pounds of salt, and then test the pH. It needs to be in the 1.0-to-2.0 range. Then, mix the last 3 ounces of crystals, salt, and water to adjust the solution so it’s the proper pH. Immerse the skin in the solution. Over the next few days, stir the skin and solution at least twice a day. The skin is pickled when you can press a fingernail into the skin and the mark doesn’t disappear. This usually takes 2 to 3 days. If you’re not ready to move to the next steps, you can keep the skin in the solution for a few more days as long as the solution’s pH remains in the 1.0-to-2.0 range. Remove the skin from the pickling solution and gently wring it out to remove as much of the solution as possible.
Time: 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Supplies: 2 ounces dish soap, 15 gallons water, 8-gallon tub.
This step is only necessary for greasy skins, such as raccoon and badger skins — you can skip it for deer skins. Mix the soap with 5 gallons of water. Place the skin in this solution for 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Rinse the skin in clear water. Then, check the skin for fat. If extra degreasing is needed, place the skin back into the solution and soak it for another 15 to 30 minutes. Finally, rinse the skin in clear water.
Time: 45 minutes. Supplies: 10 gallons water, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), 8-gallon tub, pH test strips, stirring stick, protective eyewear, gloves.
The goal here is to get the skin to a pH of 4.0 to 5.0. In the 8-gallon tub, add 3 to 4 gallons of water. Test the pH and add baking soda until the pH is 4.0 to 5.0. Place the skin in the neutralizer for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Test the pH of the neutralizer a couple of times during this process. If the pH goes lower than 4.0, add water to raise the pH.
Time: 1 to 4 hours, depending on weather conditions. Supplies: sawhorses, plastic sheeting or tarp.
Remove the skin from the neutralizer and gently wring it out to remove as much liquid as possible. Lay plastic sheeting or a tarp over the sawhorses. Lay the skin over the sawhorses and allow it to drip-dry. Proceed to the next step when water is no longer dripping from the skin but the skin is still moist.
Time: 1 hour. Supplies: plastic sheeting or tarp, gloves, 8 ounces Curatan oil.
Place the skin membrane-side up on a tarp or plastic sheeting. Working from the middle to the edges, rub the Curatan oil into the skin. Completely coat the skin with multiple layers of Curatan. If using the kit, keep about 1⁄2 inch of Curatan in the bottle to use for spot reapplication if necessary during softening.
Time: 1 hour each day for 1 week. Supplies: sawhorses.
Place the skin membrane-side up on the sawhorses and allow it to dry overnight. The next day, begin softening the leather by pulling and stretching the skin in all directions. This is very physical work. At this point, the skin will still be quite moist. Bend and stretch it over a sawhorse or board. Over the next week, work the skin for at least an hour each day by pulling and stretching the skin in all directions until it’s completely dry. As the skin dries, you’ll be able to pull it and stretch it over your knees. It’s important to spend this time working the skin daily because the more it’s worked, the softer the leather will be. If spots become too hard, apply more Curatan and work those areas.
Time: 2 to 4 hours. Supplies: sandpaper or pumice stone.
Sand the skin only after it’s completely dry and softened. Place the softened skin membrane-side up on a flat surface and gently hand-sand the skin using coarse sandpaper or a pumice stone. This will remove any clinging bits of material and will complete the softening process by thinning the skin. For hair-on skins, don’t sand too deeply, as you might sand off the roots of the hair and cause it to fall out. Stop sanding hair-on skin when channels in the skin begin to appear.
Now that you’ve learned how to tan a deer hide and have a tanned hide on your hands, you can dream up your next project. Hair-on hides make nice wall hangings, rugs, hats, lap blankets, robes, and more. Tanned deerskin is perfect for making mittens, bags, pouches, garments, moccasins, and sheaths. Some of the best homemade slingshots have pockets made with heavy buckskin shoulder leather, and some of the softest and toughest frontier shirts are made of thin and supple doeskin. Let your imagination run free and you might wonder how you ever got along without a steady supply of home-tanned hides.
Dennis Biswell works for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and its sister publications as assistant director of information technology. He gives workshops on how to tan a deer hide at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs, where his nickname is “The Griz.” An avid outdoors person, he spends as much time as possible hunting and fishing.
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