How To Tan A Deer Hide

bowhunting deer
Nowadays, bowhunting is a sport. But think of American Indians, and how their clothes, and homes were made with animal pelts, and their families depended on a harvested deer to live. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

You have just harvested what is easily the biggest buck of your life and, like any other deer hunter would, you want to savor the entire experience. The thrill and excitement you experienced after the shot has been branded into your memory forever. You will consume every bit of that deer to help feed yoaur family and simply because he tastes delicious. And, of course, your taxidermist will do a beautiful job preserving his rack, but what about the often-overlooked hide? You’re an ethical and responsible sportsmen and you don’t want anything to go to waste. So, how do you tan your own deer hide? Simple, you can tan your own deer hide yourself! Tanning your own deer hide is not difficult and it’s a unique way to honor your trophy buck.

Tanning has been around for hundreds of years and there are several effective methods to tanning deer hides. Fortunately, modern techniques allow you to accomplish this process at home with just a few tools and household chemicals. There are, however, tanning kits available commercially that provide all the necessary components needed for successful deer tanning. There are kits available that can be used for hair-on or leather tanning and includes enough materials to do an entire elk hide or two deer hides. All the chemicals are non-toxic and biodegradable which make them safe for you and safe for the environment. Some kits also includes a complete instructional DVD and book and the entire process is completed on a board with no large tubs or vats required. Its deer tanning made easy!

Deer tanning is a delicate process that requires an extreme amount of hard work, patience and attention to detail. It’s likely that the first hide you tan will not be of professional quality, but don’t let that discourage you; rather use it as motivation to get better in the practice!

deer hide
To tan your own deer hide you will need a very sharp buck knife to split the hide.

How to Tan Your Own Deer Hide

To start the process you will need a very sharp buck knife to help split the hide and a flat board such as piece of plywood to keep your materials organized and to ensure your hide is flat and straight. Be sure to salt and cure the hide in case you are not able to complete the entire process in one day. Salting or curing the hide will help preserve its natural state. Before the actual tanning process begins, you will need to soak and clean the hide in a 10-gallon nonmetallic container. A wooden or plastic barrel is recommended for use because the salt and tanning materials will counter-react with the metal. Soaking time is entirely dependent on the condition of the skin, but generally speaking, it should take no more than two hours. Keep in mind not to soak the hide any longer than necessary. Once the skin begins to soften lay it on your flat board and begin working the skin to remove any remaining pieces of flesh, tissue or fat. Scraping the hide will produce the best, shiniest hide possible, as it is the most effective way of ridding the skin of everything you don’t want on the hide. Be advised though, not to scrape too hard and damage the hide. Alternating back and forth between scraping and soaking is a preferred approach. Just your handyman’s hacksaw will suffice, as the dull notches will remove the unwanted material effectively without damaging the hide.

Once your skin is almost soft, put it in a container with lukewarm water and add one ounce of baking powder per gallon of water. This encourages final softening, cuts remaining greases and completes the cleaning process of the skin. Next, lay your hide on a flat board with the flesh side up and work the skin with the backside of a knife that’s laid nearly flat against the hide. This will eliminate any final fat, dirt, grease or flesh remaining in the hide that wasn’t removed during scraping. This is an extremely important step and one that requires the utmost attention and care. Finally, rinse the skin in warm water and squeeze, but do not ring, the water of your hide.

Next comes the actual tanning process. When tanning at home there are two processes that are most popular when tanning deer hides. Salt and alum training, and brain training are practiced the most and each has it’s own advantages. Salt and alum training is the most popular and least expensive method. Conversely, brain training is the most complex and suited for the most experienced and skillful tanners.

Salt and Alum Training Your Deer Hide

Salt and alum training is the most widely used tanning process simply because it’s the easiest. Be warned, however, that alum-tanned hides often come out stiff and hard and sometimes may need to be re-tanned. To salt alum tan a deer hide prepare a tanning solution by dissolving one pound of aluminum or potash in one gallon of water. Next, dissolve 8 ounces of salt and 4 ounces of baking soda in a half gallon of water then slowly pour the two mixtures together and stir strongly. Depending on the thickness of the skin, immerse the skin in the solution for five days. That may sound a bit extreme, but since it is impossible to “over-tan” a hide, it’s better to soak for too long than too short. Using a one-gallon water container with 1 ounce of Borax you will then need to rinse the hide clean and then rinse again in clean water. Next, place the hide on a flat surface, and press out most of the water. Then proceed to the oiling and finishing process which we will discuss later.

Brain Training Your Deer Hide

You will notice that the older the deer, the rougher the pelt. If you have your heart set on a comfy rug or bedspread, start taking younger deer.

Brain training a deer hide is the most complex and requires the most skill. It also requires one other thing: a brain! To brain train your next deer hide you will need an animal brain. Fear not, the needed pig or horse brain can be found at your local butcher or meat locker! You will begin the process by adding one pound of pig or horse brain to two gallons of water. If at all possible use untreated water such as spring water, river water or rainwater. Chemically treated water will adversely affect the tanning process.

While the hide is still damp from the cleaning and softening processes, immerse it in the brain soaking solution and leave it overnight. The following day remove it from the solution and squeeze out the majority of the remaining moisture. Next, using Number 6 finishing nails, nail the hide to flat board and work the hide back and forth with by pulling and stretching it with a flat surface; do this step until the hide is almost dry. The last step in brain training your deer hide is to smoke the hide. Brain trained hides are the most durable and flexible if smoked for several hours in a smoke house. If at all possible, use slightly damp and rotten wood when smoking your hide to produce a lot of smoke without producing much heat.

Tanning, Oiling and Finishing Your Deer Hide

Now that the training processes are complete, it is time to begin the oiling and finishing processes. While your hide is still damp, apply a fat liquor solution by mixing 3 ½ ounces of sulfated neatsfoot oil with 3 ½ ounces of warm water and an ounce of ammonia. Then, place the hide on a flat surface and apply half of the fat liquor evenly and smoothly to half of the hide. Let stand for 30 minutes and apply the remaining half of the fat liquor to the remaining hide, cover with a plastic sheet and let sit overnight. Preferably the following day, lay your skin, hair side up, over a pole or sawhorse to let the hair dry. During this process the bottom (the flesh side) should remain relatively damp and flexible. This is important to achieve the next step successfully. Next, using Number 6 finishing nails to nail your skin flesh side up to a piece of plywood, slightly stretch the skin by placing the nails every 5 or 6 inches around the edge no more than ½ inches from the edge of the skin. This will begin drying the flesh and this step should be executed at room temperature. While the skin is still slightly moist remove the skin from your piece of plywood and work the skin in all directions. The key to successfully creating a soft skin is repeated working of the hide and this step can be repeated as often as desired.

Now that your skin has been softened, dried and tanned it is time to vigorously bathe it in unleaded gasoline, this will help neutralize some of the odors associated with your skin. Be careful when handling the gasoline. It’s highly recommended you perform this step outside in a well ventilated area away from heat, high pressure and fire. Be sure to dispose of the gasoline safely and effectively. Tumbling the hide next will brighten and dry the fur. It is recommended to dry it repeatedly in dry, warm hardwood sawdust. You can easily clean out the saw dust after the fact by gently shaking the hide or brushing it softly. To further soften the hide and remove any unwanted flesh you can apply a sandpaper block to the remaining flesh. This step is not at all necessary and its use is based solely on personal preference.

deer hide
The final step to finish your deer hide is to to oil and bathe your deer hide.

A Successfully Tanned Deer Hide!

Believe it or not, that is all it takes you to successfully your deer hide at home. Tanning your own deer hide provides an incredible feeling of self accomplishment and you may find it to be a very pleasurable hobby. All it takes is some hard work, a few tools and chemicals and a little patience to create a trophy deer hide you can be very, very proud of knowing you preserved the beauty of an animal you harvested.


Q)What chemicals and tools do I need to complete my own deer hide?

A)You need only a few tools and chemicals to tan your own deer hide, many of which you can find in your home. As far as tools you will need a very sharp knife, a large piece of plywood, a hacksaw, stirring paddle, single edged knife, paint brush, non-metallic container, electric fan and sandpaper block. Chemicals and other liquids, mixtures or solvents needed include non-iodized salt, baking soda, dishwashing soap, hydrated lime, lactic acid, vinegar, flour, turpentine, ammonia and gasoline.

Q) How long does it take to tan a deer hide?

A) Depending on your available time and resources it can take as little as two days (it is required to soak the hide overnight to help soften) or as long as 5 days should you repeat steps to ensure your hide is soft and of professional quality. It all depends on how the quality you are expecting from your tanned deer hide and your time availability.

Q) Can I use the brain from my harvested deer when using the brain training method?

A) Yes, you absolutely can. Most folks simply go to their local butcher or meat market for a pig, sheep or horse brain to avoid the hassle of removing and preserving the animal brain as well as the hide. Deer tanning is a diligent process that requires a lot of hard work and patience, and preserving a deer brain is viewed as an unnecessary step when they can be cheaply purchased.

Q) Am I limited to just tanning deer hides? What other animal hides can I tan?

A) While the instructions were specifically for tanning deer hides, you can tan any fur bearing animal. You can have success tanning, elk, caribou, marten, muskrat, fox, raccoon, bobcat, coyote, beaver, wolf, etc. Again, any fur bearing animal can be tanned, although be forewarned some are more difficult that others and require a different process.

Q) What can I use a finished tan deer hide?

A) That is really up to you. Be creative with how you use your tanned deer hides. They can be used simply as decoration, you can stitch them into vests or carrying bags, they can be constructed into stylish moccasins. Of course, a tanned deer hide is the first step to a beautiful mount should you be interested in taxidermy. The possibilities are endless!



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