Tanning Skins and Hides on the Homestead

Jenny Flores
16 Min Read

When I tell people I tan snakeskins and animal hides, they politely try to make the disgust on their face look like surprise and interest.  Until I explain the reason I do it and they see a beautiful snakeskin or touch a super-supple hide, they can’t imagine why anyone would attempt this art form.  Yes, it really is art—from inception to completion.  One of my goals as a homesteader is to reduce the amount of waste around me.  Although individuals will readily agree reducing waste is important, collectively our society is not set up to function well when we do that.  Just because we live in a throw-away society does not mean we have to participate in that bad behavior.

We do not kill snakes or hunt enough to provide a significant amount of hides.  The snakeskins I have made were from snakes found on our rural roads, already dead.  Most of the hides were found piled up in ditches during hunting season.

Snakeskins are the easiest to process so we will begin there.  The most important thing to remember is that a venomous snake still poses some danger after death.  Wear gloves when removing the skin, taking care to keep the fangs from scraping your skin.

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First, you need to cut a line through the skin down the length of the snake.  You can use any non-serrated blade that feels comfortable in your hand.  If you are processing a rattlesnake, do not cut all the way to the tip of the tail; this will enable you to keep the rattle intact.  Peel the skin back while pulling the snake out of it.  Once you have your skin, rinse it well.  Stretch it out and tack it, outer skin down, to a sturdy piece of cardboard.  Sprinkle a liberal amount of table salt onto the skin and rub it in.  Make sure the entire fleshly side is covered in salt for the best results.

Leave the snakeskin outside to dry.  This can take one to two weeks.  Once completely dry, remove tacks, and brush off any excess salt.

There are many techniques for tanning animal hides.  Our ancestors used the animal’s own brain matter and wood ash.  The techniques I outline in this article are more modern, using alum and neatsfoot oil.  Alum can be found in most pharmacies or ordered online and neatsfoot oil can be purchased online, as well, or in some hardware stores.

Tanning hides is a relatively simple, but time-intensive, process.  Follow each step carefully to ensure the very best results.  The end product is well worth your investment of resources and time.  Time and humidity seem to be the factors that most impact the results.  Start the tanning process when you have at least a week of relatively low humidity and you will want to be able to dedicate the necessary time to complete all of the steps once you get started.

The easiest hide to tan is rabbit hide.  Two things make rabbit hide a good place to start when learning this craft.  First, if you are butchering your own animal, rabbit hide is extremely easy to remove.  Second, the hide is small, making the project less intimidating.  An added bonus is that rabbit is small, delicious, and easy to cook, which is perfect since I do not want anyone to butcher an animal solely for craft materials!

Once you have the pelt from a rabbit, make a tanning solution by mixing two gallons of water with one cup of alum and one cup of salt.  Place your hide in this solution and let soak for forty-eight hours.

After forty-eight hours flesh your hide by pulling off all of the meat and skin with a sharp knife.  Do this carefully; rabbit hides are delicate and you do not want to cut through the pelt.  Lay your hide across a piece of wood and scrape until all flesh and meat have been removed.

Make a new batch of the tanning solution.  Soak the fleshed hide for seven days.  Stir at least twice a day and keep hide submerged with a heavy object.

Rinse hide thoroughly under running water.  If desired, you can hand-wash the hide at this point with dish soap or pet shampoo and rinse again.  Ring out any excess water and turn the hide inside out.  Cut off the arms and legs, then slice hide down the middle to create an open hide.  Hang the hide to dry for twenty-four hours.

Once the hide is completely dry, loosen the fibers by stretching it.  If it isn’t stretching as it should, it isn’t dry enough.  Hang it to dry for a few more hours before stretching it again.  This is a very important step as it makes your hide soft and supple.  Finally, brush the fur to remove any loose hair.

A fun project to make with rabbit hides are fur-lined mittens.  The first thing you need to do is pick a fabric for your mitten shells.  Double the material and trace your hand in a mitten shape, leaving two inches of extra space.  Cut the pattern out and sew the right sides together.  Turn mittens right-side out so the seam is on the inside. Press flat with an iron to steam block them into the right shape.

Now you need to make your liners.  Fold the hide in half so the fur is on the inside.  Make sure you orient the fur so that your hand slides in with the grain of the fur rather than against the grain.  Pin the mitten shells to the fur, placing the pins far enough from the edge that you can leave them pinned while sewing.  Cut the fur pattern, cutting the fur two inches longer than the shells.  Sew the shell and liner together using a straight stitch on your sewing machine.  Pull the excess length of fur up and over the shell and attach, creating a fur cuff.

Tanning a deer hide is similar.  First, you need to skin the deer.  Using a sharp knife scrape every piece of fat from the hide.  If you are not going to begin the tanning process immediately you can preserve the hide by rubbing a liberal amount of non-iodized salt into the flesh side of the hide.  You can leave salted hides to air dry until the weather turns warm or you can roll the salted hide up, place in a plastic bag and freeze it.

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The first step in tanning deer hide is to soak the skin in a plastic bucket full of warm water until it has softened.  Change the water often.  Once the hide is soft, squeeze out excess water and pull skin back and forth across the edge of a beam or board.  Working in sections, scrape the fleshy part of the hide again with a knife, taking care not to expose the hair roots.  If you have accidentally cut through the hide, now is the time to sew the hole closed.  Fishing line is a good product to use.  Sew as tightly as possible.  Once you have completed the tanning process, the stitches will disappear.

Make a tanning solution by dissolving two and a half pounds of salt in four gallons of water in a plastic bucket.  In a different plastic bucket, dissolve one pound of alum in one gallon of water.  Slowly pour the alum solution into the salt solution, stirring to thoroughly mix solutions together.  Soak the skin for four days, stirring daily and keeping the hide completely submerged.

Rinse the hide thoroughly and squeeze out any excess water.  Tack the hide, hair side down, to a sheet of plywood.  Dry partially in the shade.  While hide is drying, make a fat-liquor solution by combining three and a half ounces of neatsfoot oil with three and a half ounces of warm water and one ounce of ammonia.  Rub half of this mixture into the hide and let stand one hour before repeating the process with the other half of the fat-liquor solution.  Cover with plastic and let sit undisturbed overnight.

Remove the tacks and rub the hide with a damp cloth.  Stretch the hide and pull back and forth across the edge of a beam or board again.  Continue dampening with a wet cloth and pulling over the board until hide becomes as soft as you want it.  If necessary, more fat-liquor solution can be applied sparingly.  Once hide is supple, smooth the surface with a fine-grit sandpaper.

Another thing you can do with animal hide is to make buckskin.  Making buckskin is time and labor-intensive, but once you remove all the hair from the hide, you can suspend the tanning process by storing hide in the freezer.  Freezing the hide prevents rot and enables you to pick up where you left off.

The first step is to scrape off any meat that is still on the hide.  Next, you are going to prepare a lye bath.

Lye will temporarily swell and shrink the hide, loosening the hair and grain.  Lye is a strong chemical so you want to read and follow the warning label.  Fill a bucket large enough to submerge your hide in with warm water.  Add lye until the water is slippery to the touch.  Submerge your hide and let it soak for two days.  Change the water at least once to keep the hide fresh.

The next steps in the process are de-hairing and graining.  The hide should be thick and rubbery at this point and the hair should come off easily with the back of a knife.  To grain the hide, you will need to lean a beam against a sturdy surface.  Drape the hide across the beam and grain it in manageable sections.  The best tool for graining is a dull knife or a rock with a sharp edge.  Take care; you want to remove the outer layer of skin without damaging the layers underneath.

Once the grain has been scraped, it is time to rinse the lye out.  Submerge hide in a bucket of plain water.  Change the water every two hours until the hide is white and flexible.  Wringing out this water is necessary so that the softening solution will be absorbed.  Some people like to use a wringing bar, where they loosely wrap the hide around the bar and twist.  I find it easier to solicit the help of a friend.  Two people twisting the hide goes much smoother and faster.  Wring the hide until you have removed as much water as possible.

Now you can choose your softening solution.  The traditional solution was made with the brain of the animal.  You can also mix half a bar of grated Ivory soap with two cups of cooking oil.  Egg yolks are another replacement for brain matter.  Mix eight to ten egg yolks with a couple of cups of cooking oil.  Slather your hide in the softening solution and let your hide soak in it for two hours.  Wring it out and soak it in the same solution.  Repeat once more.

Take the hide back to the beam and work on softening it by dragging it back and forth across the beam.  Use the weight of your body to really stretch the hide.  Continue this softening and stretching process throughout the drying process.  Your hide should be soft and fluffy when dried.

The last step is to set the softeners and make your hide water repellent by smoking it.  Sew your hide into a bag shape.  Attach an old pant leg to the neck to make a “handle”.  Suspend the hide bag over a smoky fire.  Be certain your fire is made of hot coals—never flames—and can maintain its smoke.  When the smoky color bleeds through to the outside, turn the hide inside out and suspend over smoke again.  After the smoke has penetrated the hide, you can remove it from the fire or leave it until you achieve the color you like.

Tanning hides does take some time and effort, but so does everything worthwhile.  I hope you have fun with the process and enjoy the results.

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