To Tan A Hide:
An approach to tanning an animal pelt in a Pre. 1900 fashion.
By: Taylor Tomlin
I have been tanning hides for about ten years now, using all the various methods available both modern and pre modern, and have gained a volume of knowledge in the skill through my own experiences and research. However, I owe great thanks to a number of people in the trade for there expertise and contributions to my working knowledge of the profession. I would like to thank the following people: Wes “Wild Bill” Housler Sr., Wes has been a long time friend and teacher and has taught me a great deal about the brain tanning trade. Ken Wilson , long time friend and I owe him a great thanks for making me brain tan my first hide, correctly, and coaching me through the process. Tom “Varmit” Arnold, Tom is a long time friend and never hesitates to point out my mistakes and provide advice on how to improve. Glenn “Timberline” Quick, long time friend and a great tanning critic. Rodney Nance, long time friend and Rodney via numerous conversations on the topic has helped to build my tanning knowledge. Mark Secord, Mark is a long time friend and former employee in the taxidermy field, I obtained a great deal of skill and training from him in the modern tanning methods and in hide preparation. And last my parents for continually supporting me during my early tanning years no matter how much, hair, salt, and remains I left in the yard.
There are many different ways to tan a hide today, whether using an old world or modern method. Animal hide tanning has been a human skill from the time we learned to walk upright and there are a variety of methods to do so. Although, as I’m sure many have discovered on their own, tanning a hide is about the most complex and difficult task to undertake. Hide tanning can be a long, drawn out process whether it is done right or wrong . Thus, after acquiring a capable amount of knowledge and the regular requests for advice on the subject, I thought that I would sit down and record the methods I know for those that know me to have a hard copy of and for those that have not had the honor of meeting me 😉 something to look to for advice. Now I am not claiming to know it all, but I feel that I have a fair amount of knowledge and opinion on the subject to provide those interested with some help. Enjoy and Good Luck!
Acquiring Your Hides:
There are numerous ways of obtaining skins for the tanning process. Many of the tanners I know save the skins of the animals that they take in the hunt each year to be later processed into leather. Friends and other persons that you know of that hunt and do not plan on tanning the hide themselves can be a good source for hides. Meat processing plants and local butcher and game processors are a great source for hides, since there is virtually no longer a market they are usually more than willing to give them to you so that they do not have to dispose of them. There are a number of tanneries that deal in green hides, and sometimes this is a good source for those that cannot partake in the hide preparation process, because usually these hides are fleshed and have been cured and are ready to tan. Taxidermists can be a good source of hides, they usually have either whole or parts of hides that they have to dispose of, and some can or will provide a pre pared hide but usually at a price. Some states have public roadside disposal sites for hunters to off load their hides and if you are in one of these states and are in range of a disposal site I would suggest raiding them for the better non butchered or already decomposing hides.
The Pre Tanning Process:
Once you have received some hides you must them begin the pre tan process or your hide will inevitably rot. If you do not plan on tanning your hide right away then store it in the freezer in a fairly air tight bag or container to prevent damage. A hide will stay good for less than one day if left out, and for roughly three days if kept in an ice chest with ice, but after that harmful bacteria will begin to set in an break the hide down. If you plan on tanning your hide without the hair on then you do not need to worry if the hair begins to slip early or is damaged while in the ice chest or freezer, as it takes much less time for the hair follicles to break down than the skin itself.
Fleshing is the first step in the pre tan process. There are a variety of ways to “buck” a hide but they all take about the same amount of effort and time and all end with the same effect. Fleshing is the removal of the fat and meat that is still on the hide after it has been taken of the animal. There are ways to cut down on the amount of remnant left on the hide in the skinning process. Either cut off as much of the remnant while skinning, or let the skinner know that you plan on tanning the hide. The latter is even more important because it will determine the amount of holes that will be in your hide, as skinning an animal with the intent to tan its hide takes a little more time and effort to prevent cutting excessive holes.
Next you will need to determine the method of fleshing based on the materials available. Beams have been an effective fleshing device for myself and others. A beam can be created in a variety of ways, a round log set above the ground at a 45 degree angle is very effective. If you decide to use a log try to use one with a small diameter so that you can place a piece of PVC pipe over the end, the log can be used without the PVC but I have found it far more effective to place about piece of PVC roughly three feet in length over the end of the log as it will allow you a harder working surface and prevent tearing holes in your hide due to the wood becoming soft while using it and pitting out. Beams can also be a 2×4 up to a 2×12 piece of lumber, if you choose to use cut lumber for your beam cut the end of the beam (the end that you will be working on) to a point, round the edges and sand it thoroughly so that your hide doesn’t get caught on splinters or your hands either. Another effective structure is a frame, frames can be built as large or small as needed and out of any sturdy material. A frame is a square or rectangular structure composed of four pieces of material so that the hide can be stretched out to flesh. Once you have built your frame you will either need to string your hide up by using rope or cord, the medium sizes of nylon cord have worked the best for myself. Lacing the hide will require you to cut holes roughly six inches apart all the way around the hide and then lacing the rope or cord threw the hide and around the frame until the hide is stretched taut, I would suggest screwing eye bolts into the inside of the frame to make the lacing process easier, or you can screw in eye bolts and instead of rope or cord use s-hooks to stretch the hide around the frame. Lastly, the hide can be stretched and staked out on the ground.
Now that you have your fleshing structure in place you will need to select a tool for removing the remaining flesh. Scraping on a beam will require a blade of some type, a butcher knife with a dull edge, an old draw knife with a dulled edge, or a fleshing knife/tool (which is a specially designed knife just for fleshing and can be easily purchased) can be used for pushing he flesh off of the hide in a forward motion from your body. A caping or paring knife or any knife with a short clip point or rounded point can be used for removing the flesh in a downward, almost shaving, motion going from the hide at the top or end of the beam down towards your person. If you are using a frame will need to use the Sioux style of scraper that can be purchased or made at home. A Sioux style scraper is piece of wood, antler, or metal that is roughly arm length and has a sharp usually square cutting point laced, pegged, nailed, or screwed into the handle at a 45 degree angle. The cutting point can be a piece of sharpened file steel or other high carbon steel, flint, or piece of knife blade. I suggest using a piece of a file because, files are readily available and easy to sharpen. Once you have chosen your cutting point for the Sioux style scraper, grind or work the point from the top down until you have a 45 degree cutting edge and only sharpen the point form the top and never from the bottom. Scrape the flesh side of the hide until all the remaining meat and fat is removed. Some areas of the hide such as the neck and rump may need to be thinned down if they are too thick, with heavier hides such as elk, mule deer, ect… this may need to be done to ensure that the tan set thoroughly in those areas.
Once you have removed all of the flesh from the hide you can begin the hair removal process. However, you must flesh the hide before dehairing because damaging bacteria will set in to the meat and fat and spoil the hide. The hair removal process also has a variety of methods, it can be scraped off in the same manner as the flesh or removed by other chemical or natural means. A common method of hair removal is using garden variety lime or potash ( ash from any fire ) in a mixture of ¼ ash or lime to ¾ water in a sealable container, this method can take some time 1-10 days for the hair to begin to slip properly and you must check the hide and solution daily to make sure that it is working correctly and the solution and hide should also be stirred daily. After the hide is removed from the solution it will need to be neutralized in water by letting it soak in a container with clean water and rinsing and repeating this several times, baking soda or borax can be added to the neutralizing solution, to give a greater effect but the hide will still need to be soaked and rinsed in clean water only afterwards. A method sometimes used by the Native Americans was to either stake or place a heavy rock on a hide in a flowing creek or stream and let the running water remove the hair. Another method is to take rope, usually cecil, hemp, or nylon and tie it taut between to trees or posts and work the hair side of the hide over the rope and a fairly quick pace to create friction. Metal cable can also be used in this manner. Other hair removal substances can be purchased via several companies and all require different methods of solution and neutralizing. When or after you have dehaired the hide make sure that you get all of the epidermis off of the hair side of the hide (shiny side) or it will not have the right texture or tan as well. If you are tanning hair on then you don’t need to worry about this.
Curing a hide will depend on the tan you intend to use. The hide will need to be reamed out and allowed to drip dry for some time, usually 2-8 hours depending on the size and thickness of the hide being prepared. Once the hide has reached about 30% moisture content you can begin the curing process. There are different ways of determining the moisture content of a hide, there are numerous electronic tools available to measure the content, or it can be done by sight and touch. When the hide is no longer dripping and feels only damp to the touch then it is ready to be cured. If you plan on using a “brain” type tan smoke the hide some over a fire for about thirty minutes, this is not necessary but it can help with the curing and tanning process later on. If you plan on using any other method, or just want to opt out of the smoking, lay the hide out on a plastic surface, tarps work great for this, or the hide can be pinned to a board or places on a commercial or home made hide stretcher. Hide stretchers can be purchased from most major trapping, tanning, and taxidermy suppliers, or they can be made by taking two boards of equal length and width and fixing a hinge of either leather, rope or metal on the top and then pining the hide to the boards and widening them until the hide is properly stretched. Then you should place anther piece of material over the widest area of the two board and fastening it to them so that the stretcher will stay in place. (Using the former mentioned stretcher is only practical when tanning a cased hide, or a hide that has not been split.) Once the hide is in position place non iodized or food grade salt over the hide until it is completely covered. Borax can be added in with the salt to help prevent bacteria and it give a great distaste to any critters that might attempt to indulge itself in your hard work. Non iodized salt can be purchased at most grocery stores in one pound containers, or if more salt is needed you can purchase 20-50 pound sacks of non iodized food grade salt from most agricultural feed stores or food industry providers. The hide will need to sit in a cool dark place to cure, and you will need to check on the hide daily to measure the saturation of the salt, when the salt looks mostly saturated with the water and oils from the skin and if the skin is not yet dried out, remove and dispose of the saturated salt and place a new coating of fresh salt over the hide. This may have to be done in two or more instances. Do not reuse saturated salt as it will not absorb any more water or oils out of the hide and will only cause the unsaturated salt to absorb less from the hide. The hide should be turned over and salted on both sides to insure that the hide will cure thoroughly. Once the hide is completely dried out, nearly rock hard, it is cured. The remaining salt should be removed and disposed of and then the hide can be stored in any dry place until you are ready to tan. The hide can also be re frozen at any point during the process, but you should not do so more than three times as some damage can occur from refreezing. The environment that you live in will determine the amount of time the hide will take to cure. In dry climates it may take as little as one day with very little salt applied, but in humid climates it can take several days and several re salting to completely cure the hide.
There are numerous methods and formulas for tanning hides, you must decide if you want to tan your hide naturally or chemically, and then between using past or modern formulas. The time it takes to tan and the quality and texture of the tan vary with the formulas used. All of the formulas follow the same procedure in application.
Brain tanning is becoming a more popular tan among persons that truly want a historically correct tan. And the methods and materials implied are far more available today then they have been for some time. A brain tan is just what the title suggests, using the brains of the animal or the brains of an animal to tan the hide. Every animal has enough brain to tan it’s own hide with the exception of some humans.
The tanning process commonly called “braining” has a few forms of practice. If you used a frame to flesh your hide you can re lace your hide to the frame unless you did not remove it for the curing process. You will need to wash all of the salt ( and borax if used ) out of the hide before tanning and allow the hide to dry back to its former rock hard condition.
Concocting your brain tan formula can be done several ways: the brain can be cooked in a pot of clean water, never allow the water to get so hot that it is unbearable to touch, use your hand or fingers to measure the intensity of the heat by frequently dipping into the pot to check the water temperature, if you cannot comfortably place your hand in the water it is too hot. If the brain is cooked whole, let it cook until it turns a light brown in color and then taken out and smeared into the hide, try to place an equal amount of brains all over the hide (both sides, unless you are tanning hair on and then it you would apply it to just the flesh side) and let it sit for a few minutes, then take the water that you cooked the brain in and begin to paint it onto the hide. With your free hand rub the brains in or you can use the back side of your Sioux scraper or the blunt side of your fleshing tool to work the tan into the hide. Another brain formula is to mash the brains into a pulp and cook into a paste, again not letting the water to become too hot, and the paste and either be painted on or if your cooking container is large enough, you can ball up the hide and place it entirely into the paste. Let the hide sit in the paste for a few minutes and check it often, after 15-30 minutes you will notice that the hide has absorbed a great amount of the solution, the hide should then be removed and reamed out into the cooking container. You should try to save as much of the solution in the hide as possible. The hide should then be taken to your beam or stretched back out on the frame and the solution should be worked into the hide using the methods mentioned previously. You may have to repeat this process several time as it usually take at a minimum of three brainings to completely tan the hide. After each braining and each time you work the solution back out of the hide you should smoke the hide over a fire for a several minutes and allow the hide to dry back out to roughly the 30% moisture stage to insure that the tanned areas of the hide are set. One way of checking the hide to see if it is thoroughly tanned is to hold it up to a light, any areas of the hide that you can see thru are not tanned and should be re brained and worked until you can no longer see thru the hide. Once the hide is thoroughly tanned you can then smoke it to you desired color, all hides should be smoked some because the smoke sets the tan and any un smoked areas will revert back to rawhide when wet. Different woods will provide varying colors, pines and aspen will usually give a yellow or what is commonly thought of as “buckskin” color, hard woods, such as oak, walnut, hickory, pecan, ect… will provide a more brown or beige color, and mesquite will give your hide a clay red color. The longer you smoke your hide the darker it will become. Brains can either be taken from the animal or purchased at your local meat market.
There are some other natural tans that are similar to brain tans as all the brain is doing is setting proteins and glutens into the hide and all of the other tans will need to be smoke also. One is an egg tan using raw eggs without the yolk, although I would suggest putting one yolk into the solution. It takes roughly a dozen eggs to tan a medium size deer hide and the solution is made in the same manner that the brain paste is made. The egg tan will give your hide a different texture instead of a soft cotton like texture you will get a more rubbery texture. Some egg whites can be added to the brains to give you more solution to work with. Another is a soap tan, using a non detergent or natural soap, Ivory soap is an easily found non detergent soap for this type of tan. The soap tan uses the same process as the brain paste, it takes roughly a quarter to half a bar of soap to tan a medium size deer hide the soap should be shaven off the bar into the water to solute better, and you can add soap shavings to any of your natural tans to give you more solution to work with. You can also use a bar of non detergent soap to work out hard spots or wash your leather. You can oil the hide afterwards with neat’s-foot oil, mink oil, or vegetable oil to help set the tan and soften the hide but use the oil moderately because to much oil can cause the hide to rot or it will always be slick and oily. If you decide that brain tanning is just not for you but still want leather with that brain tan look you can take any commercially tanned leather, remove the dye with a dye remover, scrape the epidermis off (the shiny side) and smoke the dog out of it, and it will produce a quasi brain tan look and feel. Or you can purchase the German fish oil tanned hides via the appropriate suppliers (Crazy Crow Trading Co. or Wooden Hawk Trading Co.) and get a naturally tanned hide that resembles brain tan ( if you can stand the smell, which does eventually go away).
There are some varieties to vegetable tanning but they use substances with high amounts of tannic acid. Some good sources of tannic acid are oak and elm trees as well as any other plant containing high amounts of tannic acid, you can find out about plants in your area by searching the internet or visiting your local plant nursery. Vegetable tan, if done correctly can be a very good tan and is often used for saddle leather and for gun holsters and knife sheaths because of the absence of salt in the tan. To create a vegetable tan solution you will need to acquire the leaves and/or bark of a plant with high amounts of tannic acid, the bark or leaves should then be grinded up into a grain or powder and boiled in water. (You have to wash all the salt from the hide before tanning.) You should boil the substance until the water turns to a dark tea or coffee color, and I would suggest boiling it for a while after it turns color to ensure that you get the most acid out of the substance. You will then need a sealable container to mix you solution in. The formula is about one gallon of boiled substance to four gallons of clean water, so a five gallon bucket with lid will suffice for tanning. The tan will take some time to set usually 5-15 days depending on the thickness of the hide being tanned. You can use the same method as the brain tan to check the hide to make sure that it is tanned, by holding it up to a light and inspecting of areas that the light penetrates. And you can pull the hide out of solution every day or so and work it over a beam or lace it in a frame and work the tan in further, soap can be added to the vegetable tan but not brains or eggs as the acid will kill the proteins. Once the hide is tanned you will need to neutralize the acid or it will eventually cause the hide to deteriorate. You can neutralize the acid with baking soda, by mixing a box of baking soda with about five gallons of water and soaking the hide in the neutralizing solution for thirty minutes to an hour, but not beyond that as you do not want to pull all of the acid out of the hide just the majority of it. The hide should then be soaked and rinsed a few times with clean water. Then let the hide dry to about 30% moisture content and either smoke or oil the hide with the oils mentioned above. I suggest a little of both and again use the oil in moderation.
For those of you considering alum tan I greatly advise against it. Alum tan is an effective but unpractical tan that will eventually dry rot you hide. And it is harmful to the skin. So I will skip the alum tan and those of you interested can find information on the internet or in various books.
Modern and Chemical Tans:
There are many modern tans that are actually older tans disguised as a modern chemical tans. Many taxidermy suppliers provide a variety of chemical tans and there are a good number that are enhanced versions of vegetable tans, in fact many of them will have vegetable tan somewhere in the description. These tans come with their own tailored instructions and are usually easy to follow and inexpensive. For those of you considering this I would suggest any of the EZ Tan brands from the Van Dyke’s company which is a branch of Cabela’s. Chrome tans are the most common commercial hide tan but they can only be done practically in a professional tannery and can have some health effects over a long period of time. Many of the modern tans are salt water tans, which means that salt water is part of the solution formula and leather tanned with these solutions are not practical for use in making knife sheaths or gun cases/holsters, because they can eventually damage the metal. Always use a vegetable or natural tan for your weaponry if you can.
Well that about sums up the hide tanning process. I hope that I have provided and adequate description of the processes and what is required for each. Tanning is hard work and should you should never expect to get quick results so don’t try it unless you are willing to put forth the time and effort necessary. Most of the methods mentioned above can be found in numerous publications in hard copy or on the internet so if you are curious to other methods or just want to do some more research it is there for the taking. These are just my experiences with tanning and how I tan hides with the above formulas, tools, and materials.
Good Luck and Happy Tanning!