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.

| November/December 1975


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.


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).

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.

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