How to Tan Leather Hides

by Mercedes Valladares
Leave the animal hair on when tanning hides.

Leave the animal hair on when tanning hides.

Working with hides from animals such as sheep, cattle or deer requires a preparation process prior to tanning. Leather workers skin the hide by scraping all leftover meat pieces and fat with a dull knife. The hair is left on or removed with different substances such as wood ash, which loosens the hair for scraping. Rubbing the flesh side of the hide with technical grade salt or tallow, an oil-like solution, preserves the hide from rotting or stiffening as it cures and dries with air circulation. Dried hides are softened with a mixture of baking soda and lukewarm water. This process prepares the hide for different tanning methods such as salt and alum tanning.

1. Put on rubber dishwashing gloves and a respirator in a well-ventilated area prior to preparing the tanning mixtures.

2. Dissolve 1 pound of ammonia alum into 1 gallon of luke-warm water in a non-metallic container or plastic bucket by stirring with a mixing stick. If you use a metal container, the tanning chemicals can react with each other and ruin the hide. Most pharmacies sell ammonia aluminum sulfate as alum, which resembles white crystals.

3. Dissolve 4 ounces of laundry washing soda into a mixture of 8 ounces of salt and ½ gallon of lukewarm water in another non-metallic container or plastic bucket. Mix the solution with another mixing stick. If you cannot locate technical grade salt for curing hides, substitute with a non-iodized salt.

4. Pour the soda and salt solution from Step 3 slowly into the alum mixture from Step 2. The soda and salt solution reacts with the alum mixture causing it to foam. Pour slowly to avoid spills. This mixture is the tanning solution.

5. Mix the tanning solution from step 4 thoroughly with another mixing stick.

6. Dip the hide into the tanning solution until fully immersed and covered. Stir the hide in the solution every few hours.

7. Let small hides soak for a minimum of two days and large hides for five days. Continue to stir the hides during the soaking period every few hours. When the hide appears completely white, the tanning process is complete.

8. Remove the hide from the solution and rinse in lukewarm water. If the hide feels slippery from the tanning solution, mix ½ cup of Borax in one gallon of water in a plastic bucket for a minimum 15 minutes to wash out the slippery substance. Rinse and wring the hide several times to wash out any traces of the Borax.

9. Place the hide with the flesh side up on a flat wood table or work bench. Stretch the hide and tack to avoid shrinkage. Leave the tacked hide until thoroughly dry. Do not add leather dye color solution until the tanned hide is completely dry.

Items you will need

  • Rubber dishwashing gloves
  • Respirator
  • Ammonia alum
  • Water
  • Non-metallic containers (3)
  • Plastic bucket (3) optional
  • Mixing sticks (3)
  • Laundry washing soda
  • Non-iodized salt
  • Borax
  • Tacks

Warning

  • Do not use measuring cups or spoons for cooking after measuring chemicals. Do not use containers or buckets for personal use after mixing tanning solutions. These chemicals are toxic.

About the Author

Mercedes Valladares is the founder of M721Organics and has been an independent designer for over 15 years. Her work experience commenced during college with manufacturers based in New York and Hong Kong. Her education includes LIM College, International Fine Arts College and design certification from the Paris Fashion Institute. She produces eco-crafting videos and writes recycling articles online.

Photo Credits

  • Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images