There is more than one way to skin a cat and there’s more than one way to tan it’s hide too. Home tanning is not for the faint of heart. It takes patience, determination, and a hell of a lot of sweat equity, but it is well worth the time and effort. I am a learner of the traditions so my elders and ancestors shall always be remembered; so I use primitive methods (or as in this case, slight substitutions). The method I’ll be discussing is a brain tanning substitute.
There are those in the professional tanning and taxidermy realm that will fight you tooth and nail to convince you that this method does nothing. History has shown otherwise, so don’t let them discourage you. Brains have been used as a natural tanning agent for centuries. An oil in the brain called lecithin is responsible for this: this oil is also present in egg yolks. I use the yolks because I don’t have easy access to brains. The deer hides I collect from local hunters who don’t use them. It’s a great way to get some good practice without a monetary investment. If you have access to brains, feel free to use them. You will just have to find a “recipe” or “ratio” for the size hide you’re working. And there may be a slight difference in the amount of time to soak the hide in the solution. But let’s get started!
Step 1: FLESH THE HIDE
Of all the steps, this is the most crucial, so be sure it’s well done. There’s a few ways you can do this, one is to use a fleshing board and knife. You don’t need any special tools, a dull knife and a board will do the job. Just be ready for some hard work, a $30-$40 fleshing knife can really make a difference. If you are able to be the one to skin the animal be sure to leave as much meat on the carcass as possible. It will save you a lot of time and effort during the fleshing step. For larger and thicker hides, deer, cow, etc., a pressure washer is a great friend to have😂 whatever method you choose, be sure to remove the translucent membrane that is found between the skin and the muscle. If this isn’t removed your tanning agent won’t be able to penetrate the hide. if you want to be sure you’ve removed it all, let your hide dry completely. You’ll be able to see the membrane, it’ll have a slightly different color than the skin and be a noticeable layer. You can either rehydrate and re-flesh, or dry scrape it off. A pumice stone is nice for this.
Step 2: SALT THE HIDE
Salt the hide very well, fold skin to skin, roll up on itself and lay on an incline. The salt will draw moisture from the hide, let it drain until no more moisture runs, about two days. NOTE: once it’s done draining it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be completely dry; this is ok. You can also leave it salted until it is completely dry if you don’t have time to get to the next step right away. If doing this during the warmer temps, cover the fur and sprinkle some borax over it to keep the bugs off.
Step 3: REMOVE SALT
Pretty self explanatory here. I just scrape it off and use a damp rag or towel to wipe off the rest. You can also take a hose to it or rinse it out in a bucket of water. If you do, just be sure to squeeze out any excess water. Don’t wring it, it could damage your fur follicles.
Step 4: APPLY YOLKS
The size of the hide you’re working will determine how many yolks you will need. This deer hide I used a full dozen and it was just barely enough. For a squirrel one should do it, rabbits about 2-4 depending on breed. You’ll just have to play around with it. Scramble your yolks and massage into the skin side of your hide. Try your best not to get any on the fur. It’s not a huge deal but I may cause the fur to slip. When doing searches online you’ll come across recipes telling you to mix water with the yolks. They’re not wrong in suggesting this, I just have not had success with it so I use just the yolks. Once the hide is covered in the yolks, fold skin to skin and let sit for 48 hours.
If applying solution to a completely dry hide, leave skin side up and cover with a damp towel. This will keep the eggs from drying out, and the moisture will help the hide pull in the yolks. Some hides may take more than one application, knowing this for sure is just something that comes with practice. If you choose to re apply just be sure to rinse off the old solution really well.
Step 5: WASH THE HIDE
Here you want to wash the skin and fur side very well. Not only do you want to remove the yolks but any residual dirt and grease trapped in the fur as well. Any shampoo, pet or human, or body wash will work. If it’s shampoo just be sure it’s not a 2 in 1. I like to use Dawn dish soap and a little borax. Rinse well, and again, squeeze the excess water out.
Step 6: BREAK THE HIDE
Breaking is another term for stretching. You want to pull your hide every Wich way as it dries. Skin fibers are kind of like a woven fabric, so to keep the hide pliable you need to pull all of those fibers apart from one another. This step also has various methods to choose from. Some work the hide over a taut rope, chain, or rough barked tree. Some string it to a frame and work it with a stick, oar, or other blunted implement. I don’t have a frame so I tacked too a sheet of plywood and worked it with a large dowel rod and some scrap wood.
When the hide breaks you can see it happen. The skin will turn and stay white. If this doesn’t happen, the hide is still too damp and you’ll have to let it dry out some more. If you aren’t able to stretch the hide well enough before it dries, don’t fret, you can rehydrate and begin again. This is that sweat equity I mentioned earlier🤣. If you don’t want to lose the progress you’ve already made, you can smoke it and re break it, or like me apply a salve. I used a salve made of beeswax and olive oil, it’s similar to folks who apply leather oils while breaking their hide. This was a first for me so time will tell how well it worked. But after a few hours the hide took up the salve and I was able to continue breaking and made great progress!
Once you’ve reached your desired pliability for the intended use you’re good to go! It is preserved and will last quite a few years. If you wish to make it weather resistant you’ll need to smoke it. This will prevent the fur from stiffening back up too much if it happens to get damp. This step I am still new at so unfortunately I don’t have any guidance for you yet.
A FEW THINGS TO CONSIDER:
Each fur will differ from one another, even within the same species. The biggest factor in my experience has been the age of the animal and the time of year it’s harvested. A young animal tends to have a thinner hide so they’re easier to flesh and stretch but are also easier to rip or put holes in. The quality of the fur will be better if harvested in colder months vs. warmer. An older animal is a pain in the ass to skin, and flesh and break, but the quality of their fur is so worth it! If you’re working with wild game I would not advise processing a fresh hide. They’re usually loaded with ticks. You can flesh right away and let dry into rawhide, but I toss mine in the freezer for a couple of weeks and then process. If you don’t have a freezer and can’t flesh right away, salt really well and store for a few weeks. Just remember to set them on an incline so the bodily juices don’t pool underneath the furs.
Processing furs at home is an incredible skill to have that can provide you with a great bartering advantage, especially in a time when the concept of a cashless society is drawing closer. It’s a lost art that needs a desperate resurgence if we are to adapt to our changing times.