Tanning Sheepskin Rugs at Home

Roberta Kirberger's instructional guide for tanning sheepkin to create house-warming rugs, including skinning, tanning, preparation and dyeing information.

| November/December 1975

  • 036-042-01a
    Remember that sheepskins must be cooled before they're salted (how many hours this cooling takes depends on the weather).

  • 036-042-01a

As readers of More About Milk Sheep may recall, we keep a small flock of Corriedale sheep on our place in Minnesota. The breed is a very heavy wool producer, and as our first slaughtering time neared I began to look thoughtfully at our lambs' thick jackets. "Wouldn't it be nice," I thought, "to make the hides up into rugs? We'd have those around long after the chops and roasts are gone from the freezer."

I figured I ought to be able to prepare the sheepskins myself, and got some encouragement when the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Bookshelf promised that two of its offerings — Home Manufacture of Furs and Skins and Home Tanning and Leather Making Guide, both by A.B. Farnham — told all one needed to know about tanning hides in the "old homey way."

My early enthusiasm was dampened a little, it's true, when I called a professional tanner to ask about one of the chemical solutions the books recommended. "Madam," the expert informed me, "there is no way you can possibly tan those hides at home." Fortunately, he was wrong. I could, and you can too.

First, though, there was the little matter of the slaughter to get past. Come now, Mother Kirberger, you didn't go and make pets of your good gray ladies' young'uns, did you? Oh, didn't I? That first butchering day has to be a super shock to a city–raised person, and it was several weeks before the packages in the freezer could be looked upon as meat and not as personalities.

My introduction to tanning was also a bit of a shock, and yours will be likewise. Nothing I can tell you will truly prepare you for working with a fresh-off-the-sheep hide. I'll simply put it on record that when Mr. Farnham says tanning is essentially hard, dirty work, he ain't just a-foolin'. The business of getting, cozy with a dead sheep isn't something polite society (whomever that might include) would applaud ... though even the most genteel will have to admit that the finished product is a fine sight to behold.

If my warning hasn't discouraged you from "tanning your own" — and I hope it hasn't — I'll be glad to tell you about own first try . . . and then summarize the method we use now nor that we have a little more experience.

4/2/2018 7:25:50 PM

I didn't have quite enough salt for the salt and acid mixture(I just put the whole hide in a tub...). Do you think that is a big deal? :/ Whoops.

8/24/2017 6:57:10 AM

I've never tanned an animal hide but I have been the chief engineer in very large complex processing factories and now I'm retired. I've always enjoyed learning and through my career I've had to learn the many technical aspects of various processes as well as understand the physics behind the very many pieces of equipment used in the processes. Some years ago, I joined a Chinese trade group. My purpose was to get bulk pricing on things like oxalic acid which, as I understand it, is primarily mined in China. At the time, about 10-15 years ago, the price per ton of oxalic acid was $25/ton. I've purchased like a 25 pound bag of oxalic acid which is the primary ingredient used for cleaning copper and silver. However, the patina that forms on copper is actually protecting it and removing it is not good for your copper. Every time you remove the oxidized copper (patina) you are removing copper. The same thing applies to silver. As to using the oxalic acid for cleaning copper, considering that you still want to do that, I highly suggest that you wear surgical gloves to protect your skin. As to tanning, it's logical to put salt on the underside of the hide to dry it out and kill the Bactria. It's just my opinion on my next point but here it is; I suggest that you buy in bulk your oxalic acid and seek out the best price. By putting a layer on the meat side of the hide and then using a spray bottle to apply plenty of water to interact with the OA, let the hide stay like this for 48 hours and then using a sharp thin blade, scrape the whole mess off of the hide. I seem to recall reading something years ago that indicated that hides were placed near large ant hills thus allowing the ants to eat away all of the biologicals but leaving the hide and fur behind. As to the coat or fur, you might want to heat up some water and then mix in baking soda. You then spray the baking soda, once it's gone into solution, on both sides of the hide. This will serve two purposes. The first is to neutralizing the OA on the flesh side and the second is to clean and remove smells from the coat side. As I recall, the last time I bought OA, it was in a 25 pound bag and the delivered cost was under $20. Considering the $25/ton price at origin and around $4,000 per 40 yard conex box for delivery to one of America's ports, the price of OA is small. I have burned my hands while working with OA so be careful. It's no where near as acidic as hydrochloric acid for example but can still be irritating.

greg lovellette
11/23/2011 5:43:42 PM

I have tanned several sheep skins following the directions in the atricle "How We Tan Sheepskins into Beautiful Rugs", and have recieved very good results. I use regular salt for initial curing. All you're doing here is drawing moisture out of the hide and preventing it from spoiling. Not sure if or why iodized or kosher salt would make a difference. I have always used oxalic acid as specified in the directions. I would think that muriatic acid would be too strong. Oxalic acid can easily be found on ebay. I prefer painting (with a paint brush) the solution onto the hides as opposed to submerging into a vat of solution. You use way less solution if done this way. The directions say to start stretching the hide after the fleece is mostly dry, but the skin itself is still damp (and pliable). At this point, I tack the hide, skin side up, to a piece of plywood. I use a staple gun - it's quick, and I staple along the very outer edge, all the way around. This keeps the hide flat and stretched out and defines the final shape your rug will have. From here, I work the surface of the hide with the end of a 3 foot piece of 1 X 2. Keep the wood at about a 45 degree angle as you rub it in all directions, accross every square inch of the hide. The soft layer of fleece between the hide and the plywood allows the hide to stretch where you rub it. Round off the corners of the 1 X 2 so it doesn't poke though. Watch out for weak spots to prevent tearing. Keep this up a few times a day while the hide dries, and until the hide is dry. This is a good time to apply saddle soap or neats foot oil ( I have used both, depending on what I had on hand at the time) and work it in with the 1 X 2 as well. When done, pry the staples out of the plywood with a screw driver, and cut or pull the staples out of the hide. Finish fleece as desired ( to comb or not to comb, I prefer not to comb). I never wash my rugs with water or let them get wet, otherwise, they may get stiff and shrink as they re-dry. I find a good shaking or whacks with a broom stick outdoors cleans them just fine. I completed my first hide using this method 5 years ago, and it is still holding up great.

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