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How to Tan animal hide pelts into Leather in 10 Steps

Hunting is a staple activity for long term wilderness survival. Wild game can provide a valuable supply of protein rich food. But that’s not all they’re good for. Animals are also a good supply of leather, a strong and effective protection from the elements.

But HOW do you get leather from wild game? The process is more intensive than you might think. While intensive, it’s not impossible, however. Here’s the 10 steps needed to turn an animal pelt into usable leather.

Before we begin, here are some general tips:

  • The process can be messy, so we don’t recommend doing this inside your living space.
  • The process also takes a rather long time, mostly the soaking (if you’re using natural tanning methods). So you can’t do this purely outside. You should have a workspace protected by the elements that’s away from your home. A garage, shed, or overhead shelter would work.
  • This is a time sensitive project. You should start the process shortly after receiving the pelt. If you take too long, it can rot before it’s tanned into leather.

Step 1: Get the Pelt

Can’t make leather without a pelt, right? If you’re doing the hunting yourself, you’ll have to skin the animal. It’s a gruesome and messy process, so don’t eat right beforehand. Otherwise, you can always get pelts from someone else that hunts and you just do the tanning.

Step 2: Soak the Skin

Before you can begin, you need to let the hide soak in a bucket of water overnight. This will help it be more workable. It’ll also be super heavy when you pull it out. Heavy AND wet, so expect a struggle and a mess when you take it out. Some folks recommend a “pickle” solution to use during this phase.

Step 3: Scrape the Flesh Away

Using a sharp blade or knife, you need to scrape the flesh off of the pelt. This is the organic remnants on the inner side of the skin, such as fat and tissue. The process can take several hours, depending on the size. But be patient! If you rush, you can end up cutting the skin on accident, creating unsightly holes in the pelt.

Step 4: Remove the Hair (Optional)

If you want smooth, hairless leather, then this is when you make that happen. Soak the pelt in a water/lime solution to help break down the hair molecules. Leave it to soak in the mix for a week. Once its soaked for a while, remove it and scrape the hair away with your knife. You can skip this step if you intend on keeping the fur on.

Step 5: Remove the Last Layers

While the flesh and fur are gone, it’s time to remove the secret layers. On the fur side, the epidermis still remains. On the flesh side, the membrane remains. Removing these layers further ensure that the tanning solution will soak into the hide completely.

When dry, scrape the hide with your knife one more time. Follow this up with a medium grade sandpaper to ensure an even removal.

Step 6: The Actual Tanning

There are two ways to go about this. The standard practice is to use a tanning solution available online or in hunting stores. Using the solution is quick, taking as little as 24 hours to set in and dry. 

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The process is simple, shake the bottle well, then apply it to the entire pelt. If you left the fur on, then only apply it to the flesh side. If you removed the hair, apply to both sides. Make sure to coat the entire pelt and that it’s as evenly coated as possible. Hang the pelt to dry for at least 24 hours (until fully dry), ensuring it doesn’t encounter freezing conditions.

But maybe you want a more natural method. You can do it how they did back in the day: tree bark. It’s called tanning because of a chemical in tree bark called tannin acid that is used in the process. For a DIY wilderness tanning method, go out and collect the bark of trees with high levels of tannin in them. Oak or Hemlock are popular examples. Review local trees for the best info relating to your situation. Please don’t pull bark off of living trees, this can hurt them. Look for fallen or dead trees.

Collect the bark and place it in a large container of water. Make the water warm, if you can help it. This will create a sort of bark stew. Soak the hide in the stew for about nine months. This ensures that the stew soaks into every bit of the skin. For best results, create a new stew and change it out every three months or so.

If you used a commercial tanning agent, you’re essentially done, the remaining steps are for if you tanned the hide in the old-school way.

Step 7: Curry the Hide

After those many months, it’s time to “curry” the hide. This is where you poke holes along the outer perimeter of the hide, string thin rope through them, and suspend the hide in the air. This phase is commonly seen in media when someone is tanning.

While still wet, poke small holes along the outside rim of the hide. Tie ropes to these holes. Get a frame that is a little larger than the hide. You can make one from basic wood boards. Pull the ropes and tie them to the frame, suspending the entire pelt flat in the air.

Once the pelt is semi-dry, scrape the hairless sides of the pelt with a very blunt blade, a wooden paddle, or other smoothened rod/stick. This process, called Sleaking, stretches out the leather fibers in the skin. This ensures a smooth, soft final product. You have to keep doing this until the skin is completely dry, taking hours if needed. As such, it’s often recommended to take turns with someone else when you get tired. The longer you do this, the smoother, softer the leather will be.

Step 8: Smoke the Hide

This isn’t actually a mandatory part of tanning, but doing so will help produce a waterproof coating and help darken the pelt’s color.

Start a small fire using greenwood. Hang the pelt over that fire, letting it get covered in the smoke. Be careful to not let it fall in or catch fire itself.

Step 9: Oil the Pelt

The final conditioning step is to rub a bit of oil on the pelt. You dont need to soak it in oil, just rub a clean layer of it over the surface. This helps seal it in and soften it up. There are plenty of leather conditioning oils available online, but homemade oil sources can also work.

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Step 10: Cut and Craft the leather.

Technically, you’re already done. You’ve made leather. The final step is to then form that leather into whatever item you were wanting to make. If you had no plans and just wanted to keep it the natural shape of the animal (which is common) then you can just stop here. Otherwise it’s time to cut, sew, and craft the leather into whatever you wanted to make.

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