Curing Large Animal Pelts
Although small hides will dry thoroughly from air
circulation alone, large pelts must be salted.
Promptly salt deer hides and other large pelts (such
as coyote skins) to remove moisture, prevent spoilage
and discourage flies. In general, hides should be
tanned soon after they are dried. However, dry
hides may be stored as late as the onset of warm
weather in April or May. Do not keep untanned
hides or skins over the summer because they may
deteriorate and be damaged by insects.
Salt the hide: Spread the hide, hair side down,
on a flat surface. Sprinkle fresh, clean salt over the
flesh side of the hide, using a pound of salt for each
pound of hide. Be sure to sprinkle salt on all parts
of the flesh side; rub the salt into the cut edges,
neck, legs and wrinkles. Remember, any unsalted
spot is unprotected. The salting procedure should
be repeated after the first application of salt becomes
saturated with moisture, usually in two to
To cure several hides at once, pile them with the
hair side down, and salt each one on the flesh side.
Be sure not to disturb the salt layer when piling on
another hide, as this will cause unsalted spots and
spoiled hides. Tilt the pile slightly so liquid from
the hides drains away from the pile and doesn’t collect
on the bottom hide.
Dry the hide: Position the hide so that fluid can
easily drain from it. The salt will serve to remove
most of the moisture from the hide in 10 to 14
days. If needed, hang the hide after salt treatment
until thoroughly dry.
II. SOAKING AND CLEANING
Before tanning, the hide must be softened and
cleaned thoroughly so it is free of flesh and grease.
• 5- to 10-gallon nonmetallic container such
as a wooden barrel, plastic garbage can or
• Large smooth board
• Scraping tool such as an old hacksaw blade
• Baking soda or Borax–available at local
• Dishwashing soap (optional)
• Stirring paddle
• Single- edged knife
1. Soak the skin in several changes of clear cool
water. Use a wooden barrel, large earthen crock
or 5- to 10-gallon plastic garbage can for all
soaking and tanning processes. Never use a metal
container, as the salt and tanning chemicals will
react with the metal.
While a skin must be soaked until soft, do not
allow it to stay wet longer than necessary because
the hair may start to slip. Soaking time depends
upon the condition of the skin; some skins require
only about two hours while others need a
much longer time.
2. When the skin begins to soften, lay it on a
smooth board and begin working over the flesh
side to break up the adhering tissue and fat. (To
work the skin, hold the skin taut and pull it back
and forth over the edge of a board.) All dried
skins have a shiny tight layer of tissue that must
be broken up and entirely removed; this can be
done by alternately scraping and soaking the
hide. Take care not to injure the true skin or
expose the hair roots, especially on thin skins.
A good tool for scraping the tissue is a metal
edge with dull saw teeth or with notches filed in
it. An old hacksaw blade works well. (The flint
scrapers Native Americans used were good tools
for this task.)
3. When the skin is almost soft, put it in lukewarm
water containing an ounce of baking soda or
Borax per gallon. For greasy skins, adding a
tablespoon of dishwashing soap per gallon of water
may help clean the skin. Use a paddle to stir
the skin around in the solution. This treatment
promotes final softening, cleans the skin
and cuts the grease.
4. Place the skin on a smooth board, flesh side up.
Work the skin with the back edge of a knife held
nearly flat against the side. This operation is
called “scudding” and is of utmost importance.
Scudding removes unwanted fatty and glandular
tissue, dirt and other debris that remains in the
skin after scraping. Scud until all loose tissue and
debris are removed from the skin (this may require
rewetting the skin in the
solution used in step 3).
5. Rinse the skin thoroughly in lukewarm water.
Squeeze out most of the water, but do not wring
6. Repair any unwanted holes or tears by stitching
with a waxed thread. Dental floss works well
for thin skins. Take care not to pull hair
through the holes while stitching. If the skin is
to be tanned with the hair on, proceed to the
section on tanning.
III. HAIR REMOVAL (OPTIONAL)
If you are tanning a deer hide into buckskin,
remove the hair before tanning.
• Hydrated lime–available at landscaping supply
stores or nurseries
• USP lactic acid–may be available at
• Vinegar–available at local grocery stores
1. To dehair, mix 4 to 5 quarts hydrated lime with
5 gallons of water. Make sure the hide is
completely immersed and no air is trapped in the
hide. Soak the hide until the hair slides off easily
with a push of your hand (6 to 10 days). Place
the hide over a board and push off all the hair
with the backside of a dull knife. Scud both sides
of the hide as in step 4 above to remove hair
follicles and other debris.
2. After the hide has been dehaired, soak it in
clean water for four or five hours, then scud
the skin again.
3. Fill a container with 10 gallons of water and stir
in 1 ounce of United States Pharmacopoeia
(USP) lactic acid, mixing thoroughly with a
wooden paddle. (If you cannot get lactic acid,
substitute 1 pint of vinegar for each ounce of
lactic acid.) Soak the hide in this solution for 24
hours to stop the action of the lime.
The best results for home tanning can probably be
achieved by using tanning agents that are available
commercially in home tanning kits. For those
wishing to make their own tanning solutions, three
procedures are given below. Salt and alum tanning
is the least expensive method and probably the
most common of the three. Alcohol and turpentine
tanning is a simple but less common method best
suited for small fur skins. Brain tanning offers a
simple old-fashioned process for those who are
more adventurous. With experience, home tanners
may modify these methods slightly through
trial-and-error based on individual preferences.
Salt and Alum Tanning
This is an old, widely used method for fur skin
tanning. When properly carried out, it produces
skins with stretch and flexibility. However, alumtanned
skins often come out stiff and hard and
must be worked repeatedly or sometimes retanned.
• Non-metallic container
• Ammonia alum (ammonium aluminum sulfate)
or potash alum (potassium aluminum sulfate)–
may be available at local pharmacy, farm supply
store or through taxidermy supply catalogs
• Washing soda (crystallized sodium carbonate)–
available in laundry section of many
• Salt (preferably technical grade, but non-iodine
• Flour (if applying as a paste)
• Brush or scraper knife
1. Prepare a salt-alum tanning solution by
dissolving 1 pound of ammonia alum or potash
alum in 1 gallon of water. Dissolve 4 ounces of
washing soda (crystallized sodium carbonate)
and 8 ounces of salt in 1/2 gallon of water. Pour
the soda-salt solution very slowly into the alum
solution while stirring vigorously. The soda-salt
solution must be poured slowly enough to
prevent an overflow of foam from the container.
Amounts may need to be increased
proportionately for larger skins.
2. Immerse the skin in the tanning solution for 2 to
5 days, depending upon its thickness. Two days
should be sufficient for a rabbit skin, while a
deer hide may require up to 5 days. Since a hide
cannot easily be over-tanned using this process,
it would be better to leave the hide in solution
too long rather than not long enough.
Because alum affects some furs, it may be best
to first test a scrap piece of the fur in the tanning
solution. If the test fur is affected or there are no
scrap pieces to test, it may be best to apply the
tanning solution as a paste to the flesh side only.
• Mix the tanning solution with sufficient flour
to make a thin paste, adding the flour in small
quantities with a little water and mixing
thoroughly to avoid lumps.
• Spread the hide so it lies smoothly and tack
down, flesh side up. Using a brush or scraper
knife, coat the skin with the tanning paste
about 1/8" thick. Let stand until the next day.
• The next day, scrape off most of the paste and
apply another coating. Apply two or three
coatings at daily intervals. Only thick hides
should need as many as three treatments.
Leave the last coating on for 3 to 4 days.
• Scrape off the paste.
3. Rinse the hide clean in a gallon of water containing
about 1 ounce of Borax. Rinse again in clean
water. Put the skin on a smooth board and use a
dull edge to press out most of the water. Proceed
to the oiling and finishing process.
Alcohol and Turpentine Tanning
This method is best suited and perhaps the easiest
for small fur skins (rabbit and squirrel). Although
simple, alcohol and turpentine tanning is a method
more valuable for preserving hides than for
producing quality skins.
• Large-mouthed gallon jar
• Wood alcohol (methanol paint remover)–
available at local hardware stores
• Turpentine–available at local hardware stores
• Dishwashing soap or laundry detergent
1. Mix the tanning solution in a large-mouthed
gallon jar with a screw top. Add equal parts
wood alcohol and turpentine to the jar to cover a
small fur skin. A half pint of each is sufficient for
a squirrel or rabbit skin.
2. Immerse the skin in the solution and secure the
lid. Shake or stir the solution each day, because
the alcohol and turpentine will separate.
3. After 7 to 10 days, remove the skin and wash it
in dishwashing soap or laundry detergent water
to remove the alcohol, turpentine and grease.
4. Rinse the skin well several times to remove the
detergent. Dry the skin by squeezing, not wringing.
When the skin is partly dry, proceed to the
oiling and finishing process.
• Pig or horse brain (pig brain may be available at
local butcher or meat market)
• Chlorine-free water
• Large board or stretching frame
• Smooth wooden tool such as a canoe paddle or
1. Prepare the tanning solution by combining 1
pound of pig or horse brain with 2 gallons of
warm water. For best results, use untreated water
such as rainwater. If you do not have access to
rainwater, purchase bottled spring water at your
local grocery store. Water treated with chlorine
may reduce the effectiveness of tanning solution.
2. While the hide is still damp and pliable from
preparation and cleaning procedures, immerse it
in the brain tanning solution. Soak the hide
3. Remove the hide from the solution. Remove a
majority of the solution from the hide by
squeezing it thoroughly or running carefully
through a clothes wringer.
4. Nail the hide to a board or stretch with a frame.
A smooth tool such a canoe paddle can be used
to work the hide. The hide should be worked by
pushing and stretching it in a stroking motion
until it dries.
For thick hides, some prefer to reapply the
warmed solution to the flesh side, cover with
cloth overnight and repeat step 4 to ensure that
the solution has been adequately worked deep
into the hide.
5. The final step for brain tanning is smoking the
hide. Brain tanned hides are most durable if they
are smoked for several hours in a smokehouse.
However, be careful not to heat the hide too
much. Use dry, semi-rotten wood to produce
lots of smoke and low heat.
V. OILING AND FINISHING
• Fat liquor or tanning oil (such as Sulfated
neatsfoot oil)–available through taxidermy
• Household ammonia
• Sheet of plastic
• Electric fan
• Sheet of plywood
• Nails (no. 6 finish)
• Gasoline (optional)
• Sandpaper block
Let the wet, tanned leather dry somewhat. While it
is still damp, apply a coating of suitable fat liquor
oil (such as sulfated neatsfoot oil). The amount of
oil required will vary depending upon the natural
oiliness of the skin. For instance, a raccoon skin,
which is naturally very oily, will require
proportionately less oil than a deer hide.
1. Make the fat liquor oil by mixing 3 1/2 ounces
of sulfated neatsfoot oil with 3 1/2 ounces of
warm water and 1 ounce household ammonia.
This fat liquor solution is for a 10-pound deer
hide. Adjust the measures accordingly for
2. Place the hide on a flat surface hair side down.
Apply part of the fat liquor solution to a portion
of the hide and spread it evenly with a paintbrush
or your hand. Continue until one-half the
solution has been applied to the hide. Allow the
hide to stand for 30 minutes, and then apply the
remainder of the oil in the same manner.
3. Cover the hide with a sheet of plastic and let
stand overnight. If several hides are fat- liquored
at one time, they may be piled flesh side to
4. The next day, drape the skin, hair side out, over
a pole or sawhorse and allow the hair to dry (the
flesh side should remain moist and pliable). Use
an electric fan to speed the drying.
5. While the flesh side is still moist and pliable nail
the skin, flesh side up, to a sheet of plywood,
stretching the skin slightly. Space the nails (no.
6 finish) every 5 to 6" around the circumference
and about 1/2" from the edge. The flesh side will
begin drying and should be kept at room
Success in producing a soft skin lies in
repeated working, which must be done while the
skin is drying out, not after it is dry. This process
may be repeated several times if necessary;
simply dampen the hide evenly and work it
again while it dries.
7. After the skin has been softened and dried, it
can be given a hasty bath in white or unleaded
gasoline, especially if the skin is too greasy.
This bath also helps to deodorize some skins,
such as skunk.CAUTION: Gasoline is extremely
flammable and should be used outdoors
away from fire or flame. The gas must
be used in an appropriate pan or receptacle
and disposed of safely.
8. To clean and brighten the fur, tumble it
repeatedly in dry, warm sawdust—preferably
hardwood sawdust. Bran or cornmeal may also
be used. Clean the particles out of the fur by
gently shaking, beating, combing and brushing
9. If necessary, the hide’s flesh side may be
smoothed by working it with a sandpaper block.
This also helps to further soften the skin. If
desired, thicker sections of the skin may be
thinned and made more flexible by shaving off
some of the skin.