How to Tan a Rabbit Hide

From a homesteader who raises rabbits for both meat and leather, here are the basics of how to tan a rabbit hide.

| January/February 1983

  • how to tan a rabbit hide - sleeve pulled hides
    Here are some cased or sleeve-pulled green rabbit hides, the first step in how to tan a rabbit hide.
    Photo by Kathy Kellogg
  • how to tan a rabbit hide - fleshing the hide
    After the skins have soaked for two days in the first tanning solution, they are fleshed: that is, the fatty tissue and meat are removed.
    Kathy Kellogg
  • how to tan a rabbit hide - drying hides
    The furs go back into a second tanning, after which they are washed and hung up to dry.
    Kathy Kellogg
  • how to tan a rabbit hide - breaking the ski
    "Breaking the skin" involves taking a barely damp pelt (left) and stretching it to obtain a soft, flexible skin (right).
    Kathy Kellogg

  • how to tan a rabbit hide - sleeve pulled hides
  • how to tan a rabbit hide - fleshing the hide
  • how to tan a rabbit hide - drying hides
  • how to tan a rabbit hide - breaking the ski

Like many modern homesteaders, I keep rabbits for meat. However, unlike most small-scale breeders (who consign their animals' pelts to compost piles), I also save the hides, tan them, and use the fur to make beautiful hand-sewn items. I've discovered that small pelt tanning isn’t time-consuming, difficult, or expensive. In fact, it's a source of both pride and great satisfaction, since it enables me to create beautiful, useful fur articles from skins that would otherwise have been discarded.

You probably know that tanning (which is also called tawing or pickling) is the process of converting a raw hide into leather, thus making the skin more pliable, more durable, and more resistant to water, wear, and decay. You may be surprised to learn, though, that home tanning costs very little and requires a minimum of equipment. In fact, you'll find that your biggest investments in the craft will be your time and energy.

The availability, convenient small size, and variable colors, patterns, and textures of rabbit skins make them perfect material for the novice tanner. Before I describe in detail how to tan a rabbit hide, bear in mind this important point: No tanning formula is foolproof. There are no shortcuts to learning this skill. You'll need to practice, practice, practice! However, I'm not a professional furrier. I'm only a homesteader raising some rabbits to help keep my family supplied with meat and extra cash. So take heart: If I can tan pelts, so can you.

Butchering a Rabbit

As most breeders are already aware, once a rabbit has been killed and the head removed, it is suspended by one or both back legs to allow the blood to drain. Thus hung, the animal is then flayed, which is a term referring to the act of removing the hide from the carcass. To perform this task, simply cut the skin around each hind foot and carefully slit (or tear) the hide inside each leg from hock to anus (be careful not to slice into the meat). Strip the skin from the carcass by gently pulling downward toward the rabbit's head (the motion is somewhat like that used when peeling a banana but a bit more force will be required). Use your fingers or a sharp skinning knife to loosen any difficult spots.

The freshly flayed hide (which is known as a "green" skin) is now cased, or sleeve-pulled, to put the fur on the inside and the flesh on the outside. Let the cased pelt soak in cold water while you finish dressing out the carcass and storing the meat in your refrigerator or freezer.

Washing and Cooling the Skin

Once the butchering duties are finished, thoroughly rinse the hide in more cold water to finish cooling it as quickly as possible. Don't worry about any remaining fat and tissue at this point. Rather, apply your effort to washing away all the blood left in the skin, since any that's not removed will leave permanent brown stains in the leather after tanning. (Soap or detergent is really unnecessary, but if you do use such a cleanser, be sure that all traces of that are rinsed out before you proceed, too.) With the rinsing done, carefully squeeze (never wring!) the excess water from the pelt.

6/18/2019 8:46:32 AM

I have used the salt/Alum mixture and the one that I did turned out very nice. I am in the process of raising a a few more Rex rabbits and will be harvesting them for tanning in the next couple of weeks. My question is, how do I find furriers that may be interested in my pelts? I would love some guidance on this, and what specifically they might be looking for in the pelts? Thank you for your help.

Francesca Dunn
6/1/2019 3:53:39 AM

First timer query. Thank you for the guidance, I have got 4 hides in the alum mix, but have some questions about the fleshing step. I had scrapped most of my skins before stretching and drying - as I said I am a complete beginner. One of my skins didn’t scrape well, and despite soaking well in the mix, I still haven’t been able to remove all the fat/dermis layer. All sensible help appreciated, also please note I am in the UK where there is not much local info.

4/8/2018 10:31:18 AM

This article is not accurate. Pickling is NOT a tan. A pickle is a low pH acidic solution that is used to stabilize skins in the tanning process and stop deterioration. Pickling plumps the skin, which makes shaving easier, and sets the hair. Salt alone simply creates a poor environment for bacteria to live; but unfortunately it doesn't kill it all. The low pH does kill bacteria. Once the hide has been pickled it Must be neutralized with sodium bicarbonate and then tanned with one of many tanning chemicals. I suggest McKenzie or Van Dykes Taxidermy supply for tanning chemicals. Safety Acid is an environmentally safe pickle that you can actually dump on your grass and will not hurt it. As thin as a rabbit hide is just take off the fat with your fingers and put it in the acid bath. After 3 days it will plump up and easier to take the thin membranes off and any small pieces of meat without tearing the hide.

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