Home Tanning Your Deer Hide

The season is over, you have processed all your meat, put away your gear for next year and begin to plan new hunts. If you didn't kill a monster that required the fine artwork and skill of a taxidermist and took the time to put your hide in the freezer, now is the time to take on a home hide tanning experiment. The process isn't difficult and is fairly inexpensive and the results are good enough to display in your home as a memorable piece that further honors your harvest.

Read on but get the quick reference guide here: The Creepy Yet Diligent Hunter Home Tanning Process


Over the past few years I have played with a few methods and the one I will detail has given me results that I am happy with. If you are expecting a perfect hide that rivals that of large scale fur manufactures or are looking for a lesson in the chemistry required for commercial tanning, you may want to move on, but if you want to put in some time and get a result that follows a simple step by steps production process, then read on and follow these instructions. I will also provide a quick reference guide with the steps, formulas and items needed to perform this process at the end of this article.

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Deer Hide

Step 1: Careful Skinning

If you are looking at this for an attempt next year, take a little extra time skinning your deer and minimize all cuts that penetrate the leather. Avoid those choppy slices that leave cuts into the hide. If you do cut through the hide, it can be repaired but does reduce the quality of your final result. There are many videos on the skinning process out there on the internet you can study and then apply to your own style. I will put a photo at the bottom of this article that shows the result of "slicing" into the leather when skinning. When the skin doesn't pull away easily from the body, use low pressure slicing motions with just the the tip of the blade. Slice perpendicular to the direction you are pulling the hide away on the tissue between the hide and the body, avoiding cutting meat and leather.

Step 2: Thaw and Wash

If your hide has been in the freezer, pull it out to thaw in a cool place, avoid direct sun. Once it is thawed, place it in some clean water to rinse any dirt, burrs or other items that could cause a bump you could catch with the a blade while fleshing. I reach in and hand churn the hide in the water for a few minutes. I also take note of how much water it takes to completely submerge the hide so I can calculate how much solution I will need to mix later in the process. Remember about how much water you need by filling a bucket with water before placing the hide in for rinsing. Once you have rinsed the hide, let it hang for an hour or two to allow for excess water to drip off. I drape it over a saw horse flesh side up. If it needs to wait until the next day for fleshing, refrigerate it.

Step 3: Fleshing

Taxidermists and trappers do most fleshing with a fleshing knife, but if you are someone like me that can't justify purchasing a fleshing knife for a one or two time use per year, then there are ways to use what you have. The Indians would do this with wood and stone scrapers, I have used just my pocket knife in the past but now use an old steel machete like a fleshing knife. I grab the handle with one hand and carefully grab the blade with the other, the blade does have an edge on it but it is not sharp enough to cut me.

Fleshing

Use the edge of your tool to push fat and tissue
off the hide all the way off the edge.

Fleshing Board

A clean hide will look smooth like this section
but can vary in color.

The motion used is similar to the motion of using a rolling pin to flatten dough.I start from the middle and work my way out to the edges, spinning the hide like a face of a clock. Working from the middle I would flesh towards 12, then 1, then 2 and so on until I have a clean looking skin like shown. There will be some places it wont look perfect, be sure to work all fat you find off but some of the thin connective tissue remaining is fine and can be worked off later in the process.

Fleshing Outfit

Fleshing Outfit if you don't have a fleshing apron.

I also fabricate a long fleshing apron out of plastic with a head hole and a bungee cord. This does good to keep your clothing clean. I also suggest wearing some mud boots or something that you don't mind getting some animal fat and tissue on.

Two Fleshed Whitetail Buck Hides

Two Fleshed Whitetail Buck Hides.

Now that you have fleshed the hide, lay it down flat and rub "non-iodized salt" into the leather side of the hide.

Salting

Push Salt into all places on the skin side of the hide

Use your hand and rub generous amounts of salt over the entire hide and into all folds and edges. The salt will leach out excess moisture in the hide. After a few minutes you will see it begin to sweat. Now hang it somewhere that moisture can drip off of it and leave it at least overnight or for 24 hours.

After the first salting, brush and shake off loose salt and do it again, rub in more salt for another overnight leaching of moisture.

Extract moisture

Salting will extract moisture from the hide, allowing penetration of the pickling solution.
It will drip so make sure you have plastic under it or have it in a place you can wash off.

Step 5: Rinsing and Pickling

This process sets the hair in the leather and prevents it from pulling out of your finished product. First rinse the hide. Use a water hose to spray off the salt then rinse it in a bucket with clean water by hand or stick churning it for several minutes. Empty the water and then replace the water with clean water and hand churn again. Pull the hide out and let it hang drip while you prepare the pickle solution.
Using a ratio of 1 gallon of regular white vinegar to 1 gallon of water to 1 pound of salt, mix up enough solution to cover your hide completely (remember how much water you used to wash and rinse the hides). If you are just doing one hide, this 1 gallon to 1 gallon to 1 pound ratio is probably enough to submerge it in a 5 gallon bucket, for two hides in a larger 20 gallon container I tripled the amounts. Use a stirring stick to dissolve the salt the best you can in the mixture.

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Soaking

Image Description

Place the hide in the mixture and churn it around so you get the mixture in all places within the hide and ensure that no pockets of air are trapped where the mixture cannot get to. Find a way to keep the hides from floating to the top by adding a weight to the top of the hide. I use left over sections of wire closet racks and bricks to weigh it down. In the past I have used pieces of wood with bricks.

Holding the Hide Down

I use these closet rack scraps to place in the hide with a brick or two on top to hold it down.
If you look in the solution, you can see the wire shelving in the solution.

Leave this for up to 3 or 4 days but try to churn the hides twice a day with a mixing stick or wear gloves if you wish to use your hands.

Step 6: Neutralizing

After you remove the hide from this solution, rinse it off with fresh water and then prepare a solution to neutralize the hide with baking soda and water. The formula ratio I use is 1 cup baking soda to 1 gallon of water. Place the rinsed hide in the neutralizing solution and allow it to sit in it for a few hours. You are trying to achieve a balanced neural hide, not to acidic and not to alkaline, I do it without the use of litmus strips to determine acid content by using my nose for my backyard method, if it still smells like strong vinegar, let it sit a little longer but from my experience, the two hour mark seems to work for me.

Stretching

This represent the end goal I am going for with stretching using screws and dental floss to retain this taught shape.

Step 7: Stretching

You will need to make a frame for this next part. I use 1x4 or 1x2 and 4 screws for the frame. Sometimes you need to adjust where they fasten to one another so you can get a good stretched out hide, a perfect rectangle or square doesn't always fit the hide. The frame needs to be large enough to allow the hide to lay out flat between it. I build mine just wide enough to drive screws into the outer edge of the hide at a few places. When I start, I am often unscrewing and re-screw the frame to achieve the the best shape for maximum contact points on the widest and longest parts on the hide. As for the term stretching, I am really letting the hide do the work because it will begin to shrink as it sits in the frame and dries but if you don't have it taught in every direction, the looser areas will be harder to break further on in the process.

Screw

Set Main Contact points with Screws, The hide will bind so good pressure and just a turn or two in the frame will do.

Initial Stretch

Get a the hide stretched out with the screws first.

Dental Floss

Use Dental Floss as your String, its cheap, long and strong. You will also need some big needles.
Weave floss or a strong string back and forth, one side at a time. I insert the needle from the hair side towards the leather side, this make it easier to grab and pull the needle through the hide. Be sure to have a few extra needles, they can bend and break depending on the forces needed to get through thick parts of the hide

needle

Tying sections of about 18 inches separately will save a catastrophic failure if the floss broke and tension was lost on large sections of the hide. Load your needle with about 4' of floss for each 18" section. You are going for a spider web like look.

If you have large holes in the hide, you can mend them together with the dental floss if you want to remove the stitching or find a flesh colored thick thread that you plan on leaving on the hide in its final state. Pulling together large and small holes before the hide dries in the frame will make a better fur side presentation. This is also a great time to practice your backwoods wound stitching ability.

Baby Magic

Baby Magic

Once you have the hide stretched out with no loosely hanging edges, it is time to use a penetrating oil, you can give brain tanning a try if you like, but I have found that a baby lotion that is mostly mineral oil does the trick for me and makes the hide smell pleasant. Rub a nice coating onto the still moist hide and set it in a cool dry place to begin drying out. It will take several days to a week to dry completely depending on humidity. On day two, I rub in another good coat of the baby mineral oil lotion.

Drying

The lightest color is reaching the point that it can be broken but the darker parts still need to dry.

The hide will begin to dry, lighten up and begin to have a drum like feel as it tightens and dries. When the hide appears to be dry over the entire leather side, you can remove the screws from the frame and cut away the string. Look for damp or darker sections to determine if it is ready to come off the frame. It will be stiff and retain its shape.

Broken Hide

Here you can see the hide rolling over the breaking edge.

Breaking the Hide

Now that the hide is free of the frame, you have come to the most difficult part, breaking the hide, and if you have worked hard your whole life like me, your shoulders won't like it. I find that breaking a little here and a little there and taking my time works best for me. Don't expect to do it all in one evening, but if you do, you have my respect!

You will need an edge to pull the hide over back and forth. Some people use a sawhorse, some use the edge of a table, I have found that placing my appliance hand-truck blade up on a few 5 gallon buckets does the trick for me.

Imagine hide as a clock, grab at 12 and 2 and work the hide, leather side towards your breaking edge, back and forth with downward pressure for a minute, then move your hands over one number in a clockwise direction and do it again, working your way around the entire hide back to where you started. This will begin breaking the outer edge.

Breaking

My preferred breaking edge.

Travel around the hide a few times and the hide will become more flexible and you can begin working towards the middle. Twist turn and do whatever to work all parts of the hide so it is soft enough you can grab good chunks of it in your hand. Just don't overwork holes into it, which is tough to do.

If I am done working it for the evening, I rub in a small amount of the baby mineral oil into the leather side and let it absorb in over night. It seems to make it more workable the next day.

leather

Pliable Leather Side

Hair

Pliable Hair Side

trimming

Trimming away the edges for a clean cut edge.

Step 9: Trimming and Finishing

Once you have worked the hide to a softness you like, you still may have some difficult to break edges. Lay the hide hair side down and trim away the rough edge. By cutting from the leather side and being cautious of the hair, your edges will look clean with full length hair along the edges.

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Scraps



Side note: If you are into tying flies, save these bits.

sanding

You can also get rid of all those loose bits of leather fiber with sand paper. I uses an orbital sander but a sanding block with 220 grit sand paper works fine to.

Smoothing the Leather

Be careful not to sand to deeply or to hard, just knock the loose pieces off and cut harder to remove pieces with a sharp razor blade. Then shake it off and apply a small amount of a leather conditioner or the same mineral oil based baby lotion. Allow it to absorb and air dry.

Step 10: Display and Enjoy

Now it is time to display and enjoy your work. Pin it up in the man cave, drape it over the back of a couch or use it in any way you desire. It is a fun process that is inexpensive and can lead to more advanced results in the future.

Occasionally I treat my leather side with the same baby mineral oil lotion and sprinkle baking soda into the hair and vacuum it out for freshness and general dust removal.

Finish

My finished whitetail buck, ready for me to enjoy.

Get the quick reference guide here: The Creepy Yet Diligent Hunter Home Tanning Process

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