How to Tan a Deer Hide

Follow these steps for tanning a deer hide, complete with time requirements and tool recommendations, to make your own beautiful, quality leather.

  • Learn how to process wild-animal hides to round out your self-sufficiency skills.
    Photo by
  • Tanning tools include (from top) a skinning knife, a fleshing knife, and a drawknife.
    Photo by Dennis Biswell
  • Use downward pressure to remove muscle, fat, and membrane from the skin.
    Photo by Richard W. Biswell
  • After it’s fleshed of excess material, the skin will be ready for salting.
    Photo by Richard W. Biswell
  • Shake off the wet salt and place the skin on a drying rack.
    Photo by Dennis Biswell
  • Cover the skin with salt a second time to pull out even more moisture.
    Photo by Dennis Biswell
  • While graining, experiment with various angles to find the sweet spot.
    Photo by Tammy Biswell
  • As you remove the light-gray grain, the skin will become white in color.
    Photo by Tammy Biswell
  • Use a 4-foot-long PVC pipe or a similar tool to stir the skin in a neutralizer.
    Photo by Dennis Biswell

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.

Tanning Equipment and Supplies

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.

11/24/2018 1:56:08 PM

Could you use brains instead of curatan oil?

11/7/2018 10:45:57 PM

I need to know what pickling crystals are. It is not defined in the tanning article. Can you please use Facebook messenger to answer that.

12/3/2017 9:38:46 PM

Me and hubby doing our first buck skin ..thanks to childhood friends skill of harvesting a 9 point buck,on Sunday Dec.3...let the fun begin,our hopes to see bonding an a awesome memorys that can be had for many generations to come,,

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