Leather Tanning at Home

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by Adobestock/killykoon
Keeping a detailed journal of your tanning methods will help you learn from the process and will improve the end result. Finished hides have many practical applications.

Leather tanning at home can help reduce waste and make the most of your hunt by learning how to preserve hides.

Tanning animal hides has been a long-standing practice in human history. But it’s no longer as common to learn and practice this skill. These days, you’ll most often find tanned hides as specialties sold through online marketplaces and in-person craft shows. Tanneries will often sell finished hides, such as sheep or cattle hides, which can then be made into a plethora of products. However, a great sense of accomplishment can be found in going through the entire process step by step and putting the hard work into taking a skin from harvest to finished product.

Making the Most of the Animal

Hide or leather tanning can be economical and can also offer a source of alternate income. If you’re already harvesting an animal, take this opportunity to be a responsible individual and put every part to good use. The rabbit farmer could save the pelts and create a beautiful blanket, or the hunter could practice and eventually tan their very own deer hide. Even for the survivalist who wishes to know about ways to aid in emergencies, learning to break down the different parts of an animal and tan hides can help yield supplies for clothing, shelter, and so on.

Red deer stag in winter on a chilly morning

Hide and leather tanning isn’t just for the hunter or homesteader. In the hide- and fur-tanning community, you’ll come upon vegetarians and vegans who tan hides to help reduce waste from already harvested animals. While they’re not taking the life of the animal themselves, they’re giving a new purpose to a byproduct. If they sell their finished product, the individual can then use the revenue to help support animal-friendly charities, rescues, and related causes. They may also take the opportunity to think about the animal and wish it peace.

Leather Tanning at Home

This day and age has given us a variety of methods for learning how to tan hides. What kind of learner are you? Are you able to read and follow along, or are you a visual or hands-on type of learner? Some people can follow instructions that are in a guide, such as The Ultimate Guide to Skinning and Tanning by Monte Burch, which features helpful photographs and diagrams.

Others may require a more visual approach or hands-on training with a mentor. In that case, you could use a source such as Matt Richards, the author of Deerskins into Buckskins and member of the group Traditional Tanners, which offers online Zoom courses alongside occasional in-person training. For those wishing to learn on their own with videos, try searching a video-sharing website, such as YouTube.

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Now that you’ve got a source to learn from, here are some further considerations.

Keep a journal. Take notes not only on your process and successes, but also on the times you don’t succeed. By examining a “failure” in detail, you may be able to learn what went wrong. Many factors play a part in the finished product, including your methods of sourcing, cleaning, tanning, and preserving the hides.

Join a community or forum. If you’re not a fan of social media or online communities, ask around and find someone within your community whom you can learn alongside and compare notes with.

Research your local regulations. Know the legalities for possession of hides and selling your finished product. This is especially important when handling game-animal hides. In the United States, chronic wasting disease (CWD) has infected our deer, moose, and elk populations, and thus, there may be restrictions on keeping or handling cervid hides. Also, look into regulations on fur-bearers, such as beaver, mink, raccoon, fox, coyote, bear, and bobcat, to determine when the animals can be harvested and which may be off-limits entirely. Hunting certain animals or preserving their hides may also be off-limits to non-Indigenous people. In some cases, a tag must be present with the pelt, and in cases with deer hides, you may be required to have information on hand about the origin of the hide if you received the hide for tanning from another person.

Exercise caution when tanning a hide with brains from deer or other cervids. The brain of a cervid infected with CWD has the highest concentrations of these dangerous prions, and, as such, poses a risk to humans and other mammals. Always test the carcass for CWD before brain-tanning.

Obtain your tools. You may need a skinning knife for cutting; a fleshing knife for removing meat and fat; protective equipment, such as aprons and gloves; salt for preservation and tanning; and supplies to make a stretching beam.

If you’re harvesting the animal yourself, you’ll need tools for processing the animal so you can remove the hide from the carcass and potentially keep the meat as well. If you’re sourcing your hide from an outside source, such as a processor, the hide will most likely already be removed from the animal. In that case, tools for skinning can still be valuable but perhaps unnecessary.

Plan your workspace. Think about where you can set up and flesh the hide, wash your tools, wash the hide, tan it, and so forth. If you’re pressed for time, consider where you’d be able to either store a frozen hide or have it laid out and salted. Ensure your workplace, your hide, and your tools are all out of reach of children, pets, and wildlife, for their safety and your own.

Start Small

Leather tanning (or hide tanning) is an in-depth learning process that can be quite messy and also somewhat discouraging if you’ve never done anything like it before. Again, taking notes can be valuable in understanding what’s happened along the way. Start with small and easy, and work with only one hide at a time.

Natural animal skins hanging to dry in the sun. Horizontal image

I began by watching others and then tanning my first hide, which was a squirrel’s pelt. The squirrel’s pelt was small and fragile, as were those of wild rabbits. I tried to jump into cleaning and tanning the fur of a raccoon and was quickly overwhelmed by the amount of greasy fat and meat left on the hide that was difficult to remove. Moose or cattle hide would’ve been much too large and quite a lot of effort, and if I’d had a problem along the way, I might have felt my efforts were a waste.

Start with a hide you don’t have an attachment to, so you can gain experience and properly tan the hides you want to preserve, such as one from a first deer harvest or one from a beautifully colored cattle.

A happy medium for learning about hide and leather tanning is to start with a single small deer hide, sourced from a friend or processor if you’re able. Try working with a freshly removed hide (also called a “green” hide, though the color shouldn’t appear green) without too many holes or an excess of blood, meat, and fat on it.

Cut a small portion of your green hide, trimming away places with rough and jagged edges or a lot of staining. Prepare yourself for not only the smell of this process, but also for the time commitment. The fleshing process, which is important to ensuring a proper tan, may take the beginner over an hour, depending upon the hide’s appearance. Using a fresh hide is important, because you’ll be fighting against bacteria as time goes on.

many natural raccoon pelts

Carefully read and follow instructions for your chosen tanning method as written. In your journal, record the details of what method you’re using for your tan and how long the tanning process takes you. If possible, take photographs along the way.

Remember that learning is just that, and we often can’t have success without first working hard and troubleshooting. Experience will help you develop and retain the process through study and repetition. Hide and leather tanning isn’t just for the farmer or the hunter, but also for those who want to help make a difference in reducing unnecessary waste.


Fala Burnette is a crafter and homesteader alongside her husband at their little farm, Wolf Branch Homestead. She enjoys creating unique items from repurposed material, tanning, crafting with local processor waste, and woodworking with the help of their bandsaw mill. She also enjoys using positive-reinforcement training to build partnerships with their farm friends, including dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, and goats.

  • Updated on Oct 2, 2023
  • Originally Published on Sep 25, 2023
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