Tanning a Deer Hide: Part 1

First off, I have to say this – Mom, happy birthday! I love you! Now, you might not want to read this post, but go ahead if you’re interested. 🙂

Warning: the pictures in this post are very graphic. If you don’t want to see pictures of a bloody deer hide, don’t continue reading! 🙂

Last November, DeForest’s brother-in-law hunted a couple deer for his family, and gave me the hides to try tanning! My initial reaction was holy cow, yes, but what if I destroy them? I don’t know what I’m doing here, after all. But apparently deer processing plants don’t pay very much for unprocessed deer pelts – last year, they were paying $4 each. So it didn’t matter if I destroyed the hides, because $8 wasn’t much for him to lose. So exciting!

The hides were well-salted and folded with the skin-side in (fur out), so that the skin wouldn’t dry out and harden before tanning could occur. They were then put into a big cooler of mine and put into my shed for the winter, since I didn’t have tanning supplies yet. This past week, I started the tanning process, and I took pictures as I did it.

Here is a picture of the second hide, still folded up in the cooler. I was really worried that the hides would have started to smell over the winter, but surprisingly they didn’t – the salt and cold weather did a good job of preserving it. It did smell like wet dog, but that’s not too bad.

The main instructions I’m following were posted on a forum at Connecticut Hunting and Shooting. I’m going to quote the steps as I go, here.

First, give that hide a wash. Even if its been skinned perfectly it will still have an animal reek to it, and that will get stronger as the hide ages. If you can’t put it in the bath, get it on the lawn and shampoo and rinse both sides thoroughly. Hang it up to drain until you can handle it easily. This stage will make you much happier to get good and close to the hide in the next stage!

I actually forgot to re-read the steps before starting the process, and didn’t wash it with soap. It still smells faintly like wet dog, but I will wash it again near the end of the process, so hopefully this won’t matter much. I did do all my skinning the bath, though, so it got well rinsed.

Above, you can see the start of the process. Some of the hair fell out of the hide, especially around the edges. The water is starting to change color with the bits of blood that remain. One of the chunks of fat was cut off of it and set on the side of the tub.

Two: The hide may well still have small scraps of flesh, or a whitish membrane with tiny blood vessels in it adhering to the skin. You MUST get as much of this off the hide as possible before curing it. The easiest way seems to be to use a section of log or similar as a support, stretching the hide hair down around it, and working over small sections of the skin side at a time, picking or scraping off the bits to leave a smooth surface underneath. You will find that the membrane will pull away in sections if you work at it patiently. Do your best to clean up the hide properly, but if you really have a small stubborn bit, don’t panic, you will have another chance to scrape it once its been in the pickle- but you need almost all the skin clean for the stuff to work properly. If you are lucky, a hide sometimes needs hardly any work at all, but have a good scrape at it anyway just in case you haven’t spotted the membrane.

I’m not sure I actually saw this membrane and got it off. I did do a lot of scraping with the knife blade to get off all the bits of fat and muscle that were remaining from the butchering.

This process took me over 3 hours to scrape the hide clean (I had my laptop set up and playing Vlogbrothers videos the entire time). You can see the water getting really bloody as time goes on. I didn’t have a log that I scraped the hide over (it’s still really cold outside right now), and so I used my hand. Below, you can see how I gripped the hide so that I could push against my rolled knuckles with the knife. It worked pretty well.

Yes, I am in the tub with the pelt. This was a very messy process.

Three: Make up your solution. In the big bucket mix salt, alum and water in a ratio of roughly 1 gallon water, 1 kilo salt and 100g alum until you have enough to just submerge the skin. Tip the skin in, and splunge it around a bit to get the salt into all the areas. Put the lid on and stand the bin somewhere reasonably cool. If the hide is clean, there will be no smell at all from the bin, so don’t worry about distressing the neighbours at this stage!

I used all the rough salt I had (8 lbs, or 3.6 kg) and one bag of alum (1 lb, or 454 g) in about five gallons of water. So my pickle is a little weaker than the one called for.

Below is the plastic tub I’m using to tan the hide. I’m several days into the process, and it still smells faintly like wet dog when I open the tub, but nothing more than that. My house smells normal when I return to it after being away for a while.

Four: Splunge the hide every day or two , making sure you turn it over and giving the solution a chance to work. It needs at least two weeks, but after a week or so you can pretty much ignore the bucket until you are ready to continue.

Other sources about tanning say to mix twice a day for two weeks, and then it’s finished. I’m mostly doing it twice a day (one day I only mixed it once). I started by stirring the hide by using a stick, but I found that I splashed myself doing that – I’d rather not splash myself with tanning solution, even if it is the mildest form of tanning. Instead, I put on disposable nitrile gloves and mix it by hand.

The underside seems like it’s getting tougher, and you can see how it still has some of the membrane on it. I’m currently debating whether I want to take it out and scrape it again in the middle of the process, or if I want to wait until the end to give it a final scraping. Later instructions say that more membrane will come off in the final scraping. I’m leaning towards waiting. If worst comes to worst, I can always put it back in a tanning solution again later.

Here you can see where some parts of the hide lost the hair. I’m really interested to see how the hair part vs. de-haired parts compare.

That’s where I am now! I’ll continue with the rest of the process when it’s finished in a couple weeks. I’m excited to see how this turns out. ~Kell

Author: Wynter

I'm a scientist from Ann Arbor, MI! Leatherworker. Sewist. Exuberant gardener. Board game addict. SCAdian. Huge nerd. :)

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