Tanning Deer Hides and Small Fur Skins
NMSU branding

Tanning Deer Hides and Small Fur Skins

Guide L-103

James E. Knight, Extension Wildlife Specialist

College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences New Mexico State University

Because preserving hides and furs is a very old art, many successful methods have been developed through the years. Native Americans used wood ashes to remove the hair and used deer brains as a tanning agent. Women chewed the hides to produce a soft buckskin, but few modern hobby tanners would want to try these methods.

Deer hides and small fur skins can be tanned at home. Tanning requires few tools, and chemicals required for most methods can be obtained locally. Because possession of wildlife pelts is governed by game laws, consult your local game warden before you begin.

Tanning leather or furs requires time and patience. No tanning formula is foolproof, and success can be attained only through hard work, close observation, care, and patience. Inexperienced tanners should realize that their first attempts will not produce professional-quality leather. If the fur or hide is quite valuable, it would be best to send it to a professional and use a less valuable hide for beginning projects.

Deer and squirrel hides and furs are probably best to start with, primarily because they are easy to prepare for the tanning process. Others such as rabbit are thin-skinned and require more care to avoid damage.

PRELIMINARY PREPARATIONS*

If tanning cannot begin within one day, hides or pelts must be treated or cured to prevent deterioration.

* For a complete explanation of preparing skins prior to tanning, see Extension Guide L-101, How to Prepare Pelts.

TREATING SMALL ANIMAL PELTS

To preserve small animal pelts, air-dry them thoroughly. This may done two ways: To prepare skins for sale, case the skin and dry it on a frame. For hobby tanning, split the skin down the belly and dry it flat; tack the skin to a board with the flesh side out to facilitate drying.

CURING LARGE ANIMAL PELTS

Small hides, such as rabbit, will dry thoroughly from air circulation alone, but large pelts must be salted. Promptly salt deer hides and other large pelts (such as coyote skins) to remove moisture, prevent spoilage, and discourage flies. The salting procedure may be repeated after the first application of salt becomes saturated with moisture, usually in two to three days. Dry hides may be stored as late as the onset of warm weather in April or May. Do not keep untanned hides or skins over the summer because they may deteriorate and be damaged by insects.

Flesh the hide: Cut away any pieces of flesh that may still be attached after the hide has been removed from the carcass.

Trim the hide: Trim any ragged edges on the hide, being careful to cut from the skin side.

Salt the hide: Spread the hide, hair side down, on a flat surface. Sprinkle fresh, clean salt over the flesh side of the hide, using a pound of salt for each pound of hide. Be sure to sprinkle salt on all parts of the flesh side; rub the salt into the cut edges, neck, legs, and wrinkles. Remember, any unsalted spot is unprotected.

To cure several hides at once, pile them with the hair side down, and salt each one on the flesh side. Be sure not to disturb the salt layer when piling on another hide, as this will cause unsalted spots and spoiled hides. Tilt the pile slightly so liquid from the hides drains away from the pile and doesn't collect on the bottom hide.1

Dry the hide: In 10-14 days, hang the hide(s) to dry thoroughly.

SOAKING AND CLEANING

Before tanning, soften the skins and clean it thoroughly so it is free of flesh and grease. If you cured the skin, soak it in water to soften it.

1. Split the tail the entire length on the underside. If the skin is cased, split it neatly down the middle of the belly.

2. Soak the skin in several changes of clear cool water. Use a wooden barrel, large earthen crock, or 5- to 10-gallon plastic garbage can for all soaking and tanning processes. Never use a metal container, as the salt and tanning chemicals will react with the metal.

While a skin must be soaked until soft, do not allow it to stay wet longer than necessary because the hair may start to slip. Soaking time depends upon the condition of the skin; some skins require only about two hours, while others need a much longer time.

3. When the skin begins to soften, lay it on a smooth board and begin working over the flesh side to break up the adhering tissue and fat. (To work the skin, hold the skin taut and pull it back and forth over a the edge of a board.) All dried skins have a shiny, tight layer of tissue that must be broken up and entirely removed; this can be done by alternately scraping and soaking the hide.

A good tool for scraping the tissue is a metal edge with dull saw teeth or notches filed in it. An old hacksaw blade works well. (The flint scrapers Native Americans used were good tools for this task.)

Take care not to injure the true skin or expose the hair roots, especially on thin skins.

4. When the skin is almost soft, put it in lukewarm water containing an ounce of soda or borax per gallon; you may also add soap to this solution. Use a paddle to stir the skin around in the solution. This treatment promotes final softening, cleans the skin, and cuts the grease.

5. Lie the skin on a smooth board, flesh-side up. Work the skin with the back edge of a knife held nearly flat against the side. This operation is called "scudding" and is of utmost importance.

6. Rinse the skin thoroughly in lukewarm water. Squeeze out most of the water, but do not wring the skin.

If the skin is to be tanned with the hair on, proceed to the section on tanning.

7. If you are tanning a deer hide into buckskin, remove the hair before tanning. To dehair, mix 4-5 qt hydrated lime with 5 gal water. Make sure the hide is completely immersed and no air is trapped in the hide. Soak the hide until the hair slides off easily with a push of your hand (6-10 days). Place the hide over a board and push off all the hair with the back side of a dull knife. Scud both sides of the hide.

8. After the hide has been dehaired, soak it in clean water for four or five hours, then scud the skin again.

Fill a container with 10 gal of water and stir in 1 oz United States Pharmacopoeia (USP) lactic acid, mixing thoroughly with a wooden paddle. (If you cannot get lactic acid, substitute 1 pint vinegar for each ounce of lactic acid.) Soak the hide into this solution for 24 hours to stop the action of the lime.

TANNING

Several tanning methods are given below. Salt and alum tannage (or tanning process) is the least expensive method and a good choice for the beginner. Alcohol and turpentine would also be a good choice for a beginning project on a small fur skin. Chrome tannage produces a durable buckskin, but is more difficult. Glutaraldehyde tannage produces the best quality home-tanned skin; however, it is also the most costly and the chemicals necessary are not easy to obtain.

ALCOHOL AND TURPENTINE TANNAGE

This method is perhaps the easiest for small fur skins and has been used successfully with rabbit and squirrel skins.

1. Mix the tanning solution.

Use a large-mouthed gallon jar with a screw top. Add equal parts wood alcohol and turpentine to the jar to cover a small fur skin. A half pint of each is sufficient for a squirrel or rabbit skin.

2. Shake or stir the solution each day, because the alcohol and turpentine will separate.

3. After 7-10 days, remove the skin and wash it in dishwashing or laundry detergent water to remove the alcohol, turpentine, and grease.

4. Rinse the skin well several times to remove the detergent.

5. Dry the skin by squeezing, not wringing.

6. When the skin is partly dry, proceed to the oiling and finishing process.

SALT AND ALUM TANNAGE

This is an old, widely used method for fur skin tanning. When properly carried out, it produces skins with stretch and flexibility. It often happens, however, that alum-tanned skins come out stiff and hard and must be worked repeatedly and sometimes retanned.

1. Prepare a salt-alum tanning solution:

Dissolve 1 lb ammonia alum or potash alum in 1 gal water. Dissolve 4 oz washing soda (crystallized sodium carbonate) and 8 oz salt in 1/2 gal water. Pour the soda-salt solution very slowly into the alum solution while stirring vigorously.

2. Immerse the skin in the tanning solution for 2-5 days, depending upon its thickness.

OR

Apply the liquor as a paste. Because alum affects some furs, it may be best to apply the tanning liquor as a paste to the flesh side only.

  • Mix the tanning liquor with sufficient flour to make a thin paste, adding the flour in small quantities with a little water and mixing thoroughly to avoid lumps.
  • Spread the skin so it lies smoothly and tack down, flesh side up. Using a brush or scraper knife, coat the skin with paste about 1/8" thick. Let stand until the next day.
  • The next day, scrape off most of the paste and apply another coating. Apply two or three coatings at daily intervals. Only thick skins should need as many as three treatments. Leave the last coating on for 3-4 days.
  • Scrape off the paste.

3. Rinse the hide clean in a gallon of water containing about 1 oz borax. Rinse again in clear water. Put the skin on a smooth board and use a dull edge to press out most of the water.

CHROME TANNAGE

All chemicals for this process must be good quality and weighed accurately. Also, measure the water carefully. Make the tanning solution at least two days before it is to be used.

1. Make the tanning solution.

The following chemicals are required for this tanning solution: chrome alum (chromium potassium sulfate crystals); soda crystals (crystallized sodium carbonate); and common salt (sodium chloride).

For two or three deer hides weighing not more than 30 lb total, use the following quantities for the tanning solution:

  • Dissolve 1 3/4 lb of soda crystals and 3 lb of common salt in 1 1/2 gal of warm, clean water in a plastic bucket. The soda crystals must be clear or glasslike; do not use any white crusted lumps.
  • At the same time, dissolve 6 lb of chrome alum in 4 1/2 gal of cool, clean water. Use a large plastic garbage can, wooden barrel, or crock, not a metal container. Use only the very dark, hard, glossy, purple-colored chrome alum crystals, not the lighter, crumbly, dull lavender ones. The alum will take some time to dissolve and will need frequent stirring.
  • When the chemicals in each container are dissolved, slowly pour the soda-salt solution in a thin stream into the chrome-alum solution, stirring constantly. Take at least 10 minutes to pour the soda solution to prevent foaming over container. Keep this stock chrome solution in a covered container.

2. To begin tanning, pour one-third (2 gal) of the stock chrome solution into a clean 30-gallon plastic garbage can and add 15 gal of clean, cool water. Mix the solution thoroughly.

Place the hides in the solution. Move the hides about and stir the solution every hour or so throughout the first day, and frequently during the next day or two, as stirring gives the hides an even color. Suspend the hides in the solution and keep them as smooth as possible for the best tannage.

After the hides have been in the solution for two or three days, temporarily remove the hides from the barrel. Add one-half (2 gal) of the remaining stock chrome solution, thoroughly mixing it with that in the barrel. Suspend the hides in it for another day or two. Move the hides about and stir the solution three or four times each day.

Once more, temporarily remove the hides. Pour the rest of the stock chrome solution into the barrel, mixing it thoroughly with the solution in the garbage can. Suspend the hides in it for two days. Move the hides about and stir frequently as before.

Test for completion: Cut off a small piece of the thickest part of the hide, usually in the neck, and examine the freshly cut edge of the piece. If the cut edge seems to be evenly colored greenish or bluish all the way through, the tanning is almost finished. Boil the small piece of skin in water for a few minutes. If it curls up and becomes hard or rubbery, the tanning is not complete and the hides must be left in the tanning solution for a few days longer, or until a small piece is changed little when boiled in water.

3. When the hides are tanned, take them out of the tanning solution and put them in a barrel of clean water. (The barrel in which the tanning was done can be re-used after it has been washed thoroughly.) Wash the hides in about four changes of clear water.

CAUTION: When emptying the tanning barrel, be sure to dispose of the tanning solution carefully. Check with your local waste management authorities for proper disposal of the solution. Although not poisonous to the touch, the solution is harmful to soil and would probably be fatal for farm animals.

4. Soak the hides overnight in a solution of 1 lb borax in about 20 gal of water. Move the hides about in the borax solution often.

5. After soaking the hides in the borax solution, soak them in clean water for an entire day, changing the water five or six times. Remove the hides and drain.

GLUTARALDEHYDE TANNAGE

1. Weigh the damp hide or skin and record the weight; use this measure whenever the instructions below refer to the weight of the hide.

2. Mix the tanning solution:

For each pound of deer hide or fur skin, place 5 qt of water (approximately 85 deg F) in a clean wooden barrel, crock, or plastic garbage can. Add 1/2 lb of technical grade salt for each gallon of water and stir with a wooden paddle until dissolved. Measure 2 1/4 fluid oz of glutaraldehyde (25% commercial solution) for each pound of hide. Pour the glutaraldehyde carefully into the salt solution and stir well.

CAUTION: Glutaraldehyde is an irritant. Avoid contact with skin and eyes. Avoid inhaling the vapors. Use rubber gloves, a rubber apron, a safety visor or safety glasses, and adequate ventilation.

3. Tan the hides: Immerse the hides in the glutaraldehyde solution carefully to avoid splashing. Stir for about 5 minutes with a wooden paddle, then for 1 minute at hourly intervals during the day. Cover the container between stirrings and overnight. The skin will become pale yellow as tanning proceeds. Allow the skins to stand overnight completely immersed in the solution.

Continue the tanning for at least another 48 hours, stirring the solution 1 minute per hour on the second day.

Test for completion: Cut off a small piece of the thickest part of the skin, usually in the neck, and boil the small piece in water for a few minutes. If it curls up and becomes hard and rubbery, the tanning is not complete and the hides must be left in the tanning solution a day or two longer. Even though tanning is complete when the boiled leather shows little change, a fuller, softer leather can be obtained by continuing the tanning for another day.

OILING AND FINISHING

Let the wet, tanned leather dry somewhat. While it is still quite damp, apply a coating of suitable fat liquor oil (such as sulfated neatsfoot oil). The amount of oil required will vary depending upon the natural oiliness of the skin. For instance, a raccoon skin, which is naturally very oily, will require proportionately less oil than a deer hide.

1. Make the fat liquor oil by mixing 3 1/2 oz of sulfated neatsfoot oil with 3 1/2 oz of warm water; add 1 oz household ammonia. This fat liquor solution is for a 10-pound deer hide. Adjust the proportions for smaller hides.

2. Place the hide on a flat surface hair side down. Apply part of the fat liquor solution to a portion of the hide and spread it evenly with a paint brush or your hand. Continue until one-half the solution has been applied to the hide. Allow the hide to stand for 30 minutes, then apply the remainder of the oil in the same way.

3. Cover the hide with a sheet of plastic and let stand overnight. If several skins are fat-liquored at one time, they may be piled flesh side to flesh side.

4. The next day, drape the skin, hair side out, over a pole or sawhorse and allow the hair to dry. Use an electric fan to speed the drying.

5. Nail the skin, flesh side up, to a plywood board, stretching the skin slightly. Space the nails (no. 6 finish) every 5 or 6" around the circumference and about 1/2" from the edge. Dry the flesh side at room temperature.

6. When the skin is nearly dry but still slightly damp, work the skin in all directions, stretching it from corner to corner and working the flesh side over a stake or a wooden edge, such as the back of a chair or piece of board clamped in a vise. The skin may also be worked this way through smooth metal rings.

Success in producing a soft skin lies in repeated working, which must be done while the skin is drying out, not after it is dry. This process may be repeated several times if necessary; simply dampen the hide evenly and work it again while it dries.

7. After the skin has been softened and dried, give it a hasty bath in white or unleaded gasoline, especially if the skin is too greasy. This bath also helps to deodorize some skins, such as skunk.

CAUTION: Gasoline is extremely flammable and should be used outdoors away from fire or flame.

8. To clean and brighten the fur, tumble it repeatedly in dry, warm sawdust - preferably hardwood sawdust. Bran or cornmeal may also be used. Clean the particles out of the fur by gently shaking, beating, combing, and brushing the fur.

9. If necessary, the skin's flesh side may be smoothed by working it with a sandpaper block. This also helps to further soften the skin. If desired, thicker sections of the skin may be thinned and made more flexible by shaving off some of the skin or hide.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

This publication was adapted from Hobby Tanning of Deer Hides and Small Fur Skins, by Charles W. Ramsey, Extension wildlife specialist, Texas A&M University.

REFERENCES

Anderson, Rudolph Martin. Methods of Collecting and Preserving Vertebrate Animals. National Museum of Canada. Bulletin No. 69 (Ottawa: 1948).

Home Tanning of Leather and Small Fur Skins. Farmers' Bulletin No. 1334 (U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C.).

Country Hides and Skins, Skinning, Furring and Marketing. Farmers' Bulletin No. 1055 (U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C.).

Happich, William F. Home Tanning of Woolskins with Glutaraldehyde. The Shepherd Magazine, Vol. 13. No. 3.

New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affimative action employer and educator. NMSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating.


Written December 1993
Revision on Electronic Version December 1998