Tanning a deer hide at home is not an easy task – there are a few steps involved – but it is very rewarding to have put that time and effort in yourself, and to end up with a beautiful hide to display in your home. Although the methods and the chemicals may have changed, this is something that humans have been doing since the dawn of time.
Here is our step-by-step guide on how to tan a hide at home. We hope you find it useful and please let us know in the comments below if you have any questions (or have a read of our Taxidermy at home – FAQs).
Please note: this tutorial assumes that your animal skins have already been cleaned of all meat. We will be putting together a tutorial on how we use a pressure washer to do this. In the meantime, you can view a similar technique here.
Step 1 – Defrost your hides
If, like us, you didn’t have the time to begin the tanning process immediately after your hunt, you will need to defrost them. You don’t want to do this by just taking the hides out of the freezer and leaving them somewhere to thaw. This will allow unwanted bacteria to start growing on the skin and could cause hair slip on your finished hide (this is where the hair falls out in patches that have started to decay).
Instead, you need to prepare a brine solution:
Approx. 20L of clean, fresh water
4 kg salt
1L Methylated spirits
*enough for 2-3 deer skins
Once you have mixed the ingredients above, place the hides into the solution and leave to soak. If possible, you should return every few hours to stir the hides. This will ensure that the they are completely covered in the solution as they defrost. It shouldn’t take any more than about 24 hours for the skins to fully thaw.
**Please be careful to wear gloves and eye protection for the next two steps.**
Step 2 – Acid pickle
The acid pickle is a solution with a low pH (around 2-3 pH). It helps to get rid of the unwanted protein in the animal skin which helps the tanning chemical to better adhere to the skin. Pickling also kills any remaining bacteria on the skins and helps to set the hair.
85g (3oz) citric acid
450g (1lb) salt
per 4L (1 gallon) clean water*
*need approx. 20L for 2-3 deer skins
The pickle bath needs to stay at a pH lower than 3 while the skins are soaking. The closer to neutral that the solution gets, the more chances for bacterial growth which will affect the quality of your finished hide. We purchased an at-home pH tester kit from our local hardware store (used to test soil pH).
The skins need to soak in the pickle solution for between 2-5 days, depending on their size and thickness. For an average size deer hide, you want to leave it in the solution for approx. 3 days.
Step 3 – Neutralising the pickle
The pickle solution is quite acidic so both the skins and the solution will need to be neutralised before tanning. Remove the skins from the solution and mix 2-3 tbsp of bicarbonate soda into the acid pickle. Leave until the solution stops foaming and then you can dispose of it.
For the skins, you need to mix a neutralising solution:
1 tbsp bicarbonate soda
per 4L (1 gallon) water*
*need approx. 10L for 2-3 deer skins
Leave the skins to soak in the solution for a maximum of 15-20 mins. You should set a timer for this as the solution will make the skins go tough if they are left in there for longer. Rinse the skins with clean water.
Step 4 – Prepare the tanning solution
We use the Leder Tanning Kit. It includes the tanning chemical, leather oil and a fleshing knife. The 500ml bottle of tanning chemical will tan approx. 6kg of skins (between 4-6 deer hides, depending on their size). There are a number of different brands and options for tanning chemicals. We choose to use Leder, as it is a chromium-based solution, so it will not wash out of the hide.
We like to use our hides as rugs on the floor and they inevitably get dirty so it is nice to be able to throw them in the wash without any worry.
Once you have mixed your tanning chemical, leave the skins in the solution for as long as the instructions state (Leder’s is between 3-10 days).
Remove the skins and rinse them with clean water.
Step 5 – Pin the hides out to dry and apply leather oil
We use large plywood boards to pin our hides out to dry. Use small nails to pin the edges of the skin out while pulling it taught. It is useful to have two people for this process so that you can pull the skin in opposing directions to stretch it. Sit the board upright and leave the skins until they are approx. 90% dry. Apply the leather oil liberally with a paint brush. Leave to dry completely.
And you’re done!
You may want to trim the edges of the skin with a sharp knife to finish. Be careful not to cut the hair on the other side as this will leave the edges looking unnatural.
Have a read of our Taxidermy at home – FAQs and be sure to let us know in the comments if you have any other questions.
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