We scrape every last scrap of meat from the carcass. We make knife handles out of deer bones and jewelry from deer teeth. We use deer sinew for sewing and deer tails for making flies for fishing. Some of us even use the hooves to make racks to hold up our deer rifles. We do it because we respect the animal and its sacrifice, and we desire to honor its life. Yet, of all the ways to use every part of the deer we harvest, the one that seems most obvious—but is most frequently overlooked—is tanning our own deer hide. Every season, thousands of hunters who wish to utilize every part of their kill still leave their deer hides behind in the woods or discard them after butchering. Most do so not because they don’t want a nice deer hide for their wall or bed. Nor is it because they don’t want a nice piece of leather to make into a knife sheath or sturdy gloves. Most hunters leave deer hides behind because they simply have no idea how to tan them. But the process is actually incredibly simple. With a bit of ingenuity and elbow grease, and following a few simple steps, almost anyone can tan their own deer hide.
Step one: Skinning the deer
Many hunters don’t take much care when skinning a deer. They simply use the “grip and rip” method, where they peel the hide off quickly, cutting away any part that resists. If you want to tan a hide, though, you have to skin with care.
After gutting the deer, remove the hide carefully by first making shallow cuts down the center of each of the deer’s legs to the center of the deer’s carcass. Peel the hide away from the carcass slowly from the deer meat, starting at the rear legs and peeling hide from the carcass to the front shoulders, only cutting gently beneath the surface of the skin when it won’t be pulled away from the meat easily. Continue to peel and cut slowly until the hide is entirely free.
Step two: Fleshing and salting
Once the hide has been entirely removed from the carcass, it should be fleshed and scraped immediately. Do this by laying the hide out, fur side-down, then scraping away every part of fat or flesh from the underside of the hide with a relatively dull knife or scraping tool, being careful not to punch through the hide.
After all flesh and fat has been removed, the hide needs to be salted. Tack the hide to a flat piece of plywood or on a square frame built of dimensional lumber so air can better circulate around it. Once the hide is tacked down with no parts of the hide folded over, cover the entire thing in a thick layer of non-iodized salt. This process should be repeated two to three times. Salt absorbs the moisture and dries the hide, preventing rot and preparing the deer hide for tanning.
Step three: Softening and scraping
After salting the hide for a day or so, the hide will become stiff and dry. Shake off whatever salt remains, then untack the hide and place it in a bag or bucket and fill it with water, making sure the hide is completely covered. Soak the hide until it begins to soften, changing out the water every few hours. When the hide is soft and easy to manipulate, pull it from the water and wring the water from it. Once the hide has dried, fold it over and pull it back and forth across the edge of a board until the hide softens.
Now pin it back up on a rack or board and start scraping away the mucous membrane from the underside of the hide with a dull knife. This is a vital point: If the membrane isn’t removed it won’t soak in the tanning solution. This is also a point where you have to make a decision. If you want to leave the hair on the hide for a wall display or blanket, be careful as you scrape so you don’t expose the roots of the hair. If you’re making leather, you can be less cautious—once you are done scraping the underside of the hide, turn it over and scrape off all the deer hair from the hide.
Step four: Prepare a tanning solution
There are several different ways to make a solution to tan a deer hide. Two of them work extremely well for hair-on-hide and leather. The first and most traditional way is brain tanning. Brain tanning is the act of using animal brains (approximately ½ a pound per hide) mixed with warm water to tan the deer hide. You can use any brains you have available, from the deer’s own to cow or pig brains you can find in a butcher’s shop. To prepare the solution, simply mix the brains with about a gallon of water and then heat them slowly on a stovetop until the brains have dissolved. Be sure not to heat them too quickly, as cooked brains won’t release the emulsifying agents required for a proper tanning solution.
The second tanning solution is a bit more complicated to make, but if you’re squeamish about working with brains, it’s a bit less…icky. Start by dissolving 2 ½ pounds of non-iodized salt in a trash can with about 5 gallons of water. In a separate bucket, mix one pound of ammonia alum in a gallon of water. Once both are dissolved separately, mix the two together in the trash can.
Step five: Tanning the hide
If you left the hair on the hide, it’s best to paint the tanning solution onto the underside of the skin with a brush. Thickly paint the solution onto the hide and let it soak into the skin, rubbing it in with your hands as you go. Once the tanning solution has thoroughly soaked into the hide, tack it back up on your frame and let the hide dry before reapplying the solution a second or third time.
If you’re making leather, simply put the entire hide into a bucket or trash can with the solution and let it soak for a day or two. Once the hide has soaked up enough of the solution, pull it out and tack it up to dry to prepare the hide for stretching.
Step six: Stretching and softening
After the hide has absorbed the tanning solution and dried, it must be stretched and worked over the make it soft again. To stretch the hide, secure one side of the hide with tacks or nails to a frame or board and physically stretch it to the point of almost tearing before securing the other side. Once the hide is stretched, begin rubbing the underside of the hide or leather with a rounded, smooth-edged object (I prefer a canoe paddle). While you are doing this, rub in a fatty oil (such as neatsfoot oil or even extra virgin olive oil) until the hide is soft and supple as velvet.
Being a deer hunter is about honoring tradition. For thousands of years the deer has been a part of our very survival. They have fed us and clothed us. Although there are many ways to honor this tradition, utilizing every part of the deer—beyond just a head on the wall or meat in the freezer—is the best way to do it.
Featured image courtesy of braintanbushcraft.com.