Curing and tanning the skin of a deer preserves it for use as fabric. As an ancient art used for thousands of years by Native Americans, among others, there are many techniques. Some, such as treating the hide with ashes and brain matter or chewing it to soften it for buckskin, are beyond what most home tanners are willing to take on. Modern, chemical-based tanning techniques are easy enough for hunters to do at home, and they use chemicals that are quite easy to purchase. The process is simple but labor-intensive.
Split the hide down the middle with a large, sharp knife and cut away any flesh still attached. Trim away any ragged edges, cutting from the flesh side outwards.
Cure the deer with salt if the hide will not be tanned within a day of its killing. Cover the flesh side of the hide with non-iodized salt, using 1 lb. salt per 1 lb. hide. Rub the salt into the flesh, and apply more salt in two to three days when the first application is saturated. In 10 to 15 days, the hide will be fully cured.
Soak the hide until soft in a large container full of cold water. Change the water several times through the process, which can last two or more hours. Once the hide is soft, remove it from the water quickly so the hair is not loosened.
Clean the hide. Pull the hide back and forth over the edge of a flat board to loosen the tissue on the flesh side. Break up and remove all of the shiny layer of tissue on the underside of the skin by alternately scraping it with an old hacksaw blade and soaking it in water. Once this is done, soak the skin a final time in a mixture of 1 cup borax or baking soda per gallon of water. Stir the skin around in this solution to finish the cleaning.
Stretch the hide, flesh side up, across a board and scrape it with the flat back edge of a strong knife until all traces of flesh and debris are removed. This is called "scudding." When finished scudding, rinse one more time in warm water and use a needle and thread to repair any holes.
Remove the hair. Soak the hide in 5 gallons of water mixed with 4 or 5 qts. hydrated lime for six to 10 days, after which the hairs can be wiped off with a soft brush. After wiping the hairs from the hide, soak it in clean water for four hours, scud it again, then soak it in a solution of 10 gallons water to 1 pt. vinegar for 24 hours.
Prepare a tanning solution by dissolving one pound of aluminium or potash alum in one gallon of water. Add 4 oz. washing soda and 8 oz. salt. Add this to the alum mix slowly to avoid the resulting foam spilling from the container.
Soak the prepared deer hide in this solution for five or more days. If you want to preserve the hair on your hide, turn the solution into a paste and apply it to the flesh side only. To make paste, mix the tanning solution with flour. Spread the paste in 1/8-inch layers on the flesh of the hide. Scrape off the coating the next day and repeat. For a thick hide you may need three repetitions, with the last left on the hide for three days.
Rinse the tanned hide by immersing it for a few minutes in 1 gallon of water containing 1 oz. borax. Pull it out of the water and squeeze it dry with the back of a knife.
Oil the hide using a fat liquor solution of 3.5 oz. neatsfoot oil, 3.5 oz. water and 1 oz. ammonia. Spread half of the solution across the hide with a paintbrush, then wait 30 minutes before spreading the rest in a second layer. Let the oiled hide sit for overnight under plastic sheeting.
Stretch the still-damp hide across a plywood board and nail the edges down. Remove the skin before it is entirely dry and work it over the edge of a board or chair repeatedly to soften it. Keep working the hide by hand, dampening it if necessary, until you get it as soft as you like.
Give the hide a quick bath in unleaded gasoline to remove any odors, then roll it around it in sawdust. Beat and comb the fur to get the sawdust out. Work the skin smoother with a sandpaper block.
Items you will need
- Large, sharp knife
- Non-iodized salt
- 5- to 10-gallon non-metallic container
- Old hacksaw blade
- Baking soda or borax
- Stirring paddle
- Dish soap
- Single-edged knife
- Hydrated lime
- Neatsfoot oil
- Flat wooden board
- Aluminum or potash alum
- Do not use a metal container to soak the hide, as the metal will react with the salts in the cured hide.
- Removing the hair is optional but necessary if you wish to make buckskin.
- If using gasoline to deodorize a skin, be sure to do so outside and away from any flames.
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