Research Update — Deer Hide Tanning Instructions, Part 1

I am continuing my first foray into deer hide tanning. In this post, I’ll outline the methods that I’m following. Tanning has three main steps with a few additions (given in parentheses): skinning and fleshing, (salting and rinsing, refleshing, hair removal,) pickling and neutralizing, and softening. We’ll go through these step by step.

Before we get going, I should note the half dozen resources I’ve been using to summarize these instructions. The magazine Field & Stream published a simple set of instructions in 2004. Texas Monthly has a similar set in 2010. The Backcountry Chronicles has a longer description of a wide variety of tanning methods in addition to tanning book reviews. The Mantaka American Indian Council has a wider-reaching set of instructions and commentary as well. The most technical guides come from New Mexico State University and Cooperative Extension, Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, and the Garza Institute for Goat Research, . The EPA has also put out a study of the environmental impacts of commercial hide tanning industry, which is useful for the home tanner to read and contemplate.

Also, I should note that in future years, I’ll be experimenting with more traditional tanning methods, including using brains, oak chips, streams, and stone tools. Because each of these additional techniques will add a layer of variables to the tanning process, I want to try the most simplified version available for my first attempt.

Skinning and Fleshing

The first step involves pulling the hide off of the animal and cleaning off all the excess fat, muscle, and membrane. Each type of animal has a different mode of skinning and many animals can be skinned in a variety of ways. My experience is mostly with deer and the way I learned to skin a deer starts by hanging a field-dressed deer up by the neck. The sternum is split from the bottom to the top (if not done in the field), and the skin is sliced up the throat to a few inches below the head. A sharp skinning knife is used to make a slice around the skin of the neck. One of the corners of the hide is pulled down. When the skin sticks too tightly to the body, the membrane, meat, or fat holding them together is gently sliced, taking care not to cut through the skin or too deeply into the meat. In all honesty, this is a skill best taught in person. In short, the hide is pulled down and sliced away from the body until it is free of the deer.

Once the hide is free, it must be defleshed. The best apparatus for this is a dedicated fleshing bench or sawhorse with a 2-x-6-in board on the top. The hide is draped over the board and a dull knife is used to scrape all fat, membrane, and meat off of the back of the hide. Don’t cut too deeply into the skin or it will rip the hide and leave a hole. The knife can be a dull hacksaw blade, butter knife, or even a skinning knife if used carefully. Work systematically, clearing one line across the hide, shifting the skin to one side, and working an adjacent line across. Repeat this process till the hide is clean of these materials.

Salting and Rinsing (optional)

Unless you are going to treat the hide immediately (or even if you are going to treat it soon), it is best to salt the hide. You’ll need as much salt (by weight) as you have hide. I’d estimate an average deer hide weighs 15-20 lb. You should find a pickling or sea salt without iodine or anticaking agents. You might be able to get finely ground salt for cheap by looking at hardware stores, but be sure it is real salt, not a similar compound used for deicing walkways or some such.

Lay the hide out on a flat surface that is slanted in one direction. Put a 1/2-in layer of salt over the entire hide. The salt will draw excess moisture out of the hide. The moisture will run (or ooze) off the low end of the surface, so beware of the puddle! The next day, add more salt to areas that have become fully saturated with hide liquid. Salting buys you time before you have to move on to the next steps of tanning the hide.

Once the hide is dry, it can be stored in a cool, dry place for weeks or months before moving on.

Before starting the next step, the salt needs to be dusted off the hide, and the hide must be soaked in a few changes of water. Each hide needs a tub that holds about 10 gal. Put the hide in, pour in the fresh water, and let it soak for 12 hours before emptying and refilling the tub. Repeat this until the water runs pretty clean, usually after 2-5 rinses. I had to weight down the hide with bricks to keep it under the water during the soaks.

To be continued in Part 2.

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