I have always had an interest in primitive survival techniques, and I enjoy teaching myself the lost arts of our ancestors. These days I normally kill three or four deer per year to fill our freezer, and I do what I can to use every part of the animal. However, I noticed that our deer camp throws out seven to ten deer hides every year.
I made the decision to find a way to use these hides. The more I thought about it, the more I settled in on an idea. Every winter I complete a survival challenge during which I spend three or four days in freezing temperatures to hone my winter survival skills. However, I can never seem to find a warm and comfortable buffer between myself and the ground.
I have tried building beds, building hammocks, piling up leaves, stacking spruce boughs, and sleeping on the ground. Every attempt either left me in pain or freezing cold. These methods work in a pinch, but for once I would like to be comfortable. If I have several deer hides tanned and rolled up in my pack, I can stack them and have a warm and comfortable sleeping pad. Tanning the hides would also teach me a valuable skill that I would not otherwise learn.
Learning the Skill
The problem was that I did my normal online search for instructions and Youtube videos and came up short. Any time I teach myself a skill, I find plenty of material online. I was able to find only three sets of instructions, and all three were drastically different. I was left confused and worried that I may be wasting my time.
The fact of the matter is that tanning a deer hide is one of those skills that has overall been lost. People just do not take the time to preserve this part of the deer. At one time people used deer hides for everything from clothing to teepees, but those times are ancient history. I was not prepared to accept that as an excuse to be wasteful.
After studying the three sets of instructions, I decided on a course of action knowing that the first hide would be mostly trial and error. I figured that the first hide would be practice and hopefully the rest would be done the right way. I purchased the products I needed and prepared to get to work. I still had the reservation in the back of my mind that this project may not be worth the effort it would require.
Be prepared that this process is stinky, nasty, sweaty work. It will take time, patience, and dedication. We all know that anything good requires effort, time, and dedication. I can assure you that you will be proud of the finished product if you take the time to struggle through the process. You can hang it on a wall, make a rug, fashion a satchel, or find another function for your hide as I have. My goal is to tan enough hides to eventually tack them together and make a skin for a teepee as Native Americans have done.
To prepare to tan a hide, you first have to gather your supplies. This may take some time, so make sure you store your hide the right way in the meantime. Cut off any meat or fat you can, salt it heavily, roll it up, and freeze it until you are ready to work on it. When you are ready, unroll it and thaw it before starting the process.
Gathering your supplies may be tougher than you expect. Some of these products may need to be purchased online. Some hardware stores, grocery stores, and pharmacies carry these products, but I had no luck. If you want to save time, you can buy all of this on Amazon and have it delivered.
Supplies You Will Need:
- 2.5 lbs. Salt
- 1 lb. Ammonium alum (commonly known as alum powder)
- 1 Piece of plywood at least 3 ft. by 4 ft.
- 3.5 oz. Neatsfoot oil
- 1 oz. Ammonium
- Fine grit sandpaper
- Board propped at an angle (2 by 10 works well, better if you can round the corners)
- Fleshing knife (if you do not have one, you can use a butter knife or other blade without a point)
- Plastic garbage can
Pull up a stool to sit with the end of the board facing you. Drape the hide fur down over the board lengthwise. Press your chest/stomach against the hide to hold it in place and push downward against the hide with the knife to scrape it clean. Remove all the flesh, membrane, and fat. Continue to move the hide around allowing you to work on the whole thing. This is the most time consuming part of the process and has the greatest effect on the finished product. Be sure not to punch through the hide, and get it as clean as you possibly can.
In a plastic garbage can dissolve the salt in 4 gallons of water. Keep stirring until it is completely dissolved.
Dissolve ammonium alum in 1 gallon of warm water. Mix until it is completely incorporated.
Slowly dump the alum solution into the trash can and mix it thoroughly. Put your fleshed hide in the water and slosh it around until the fur is completely saturated. Put something on top to weigh it down and keep it submerged.
Keep the hide submerged for four to nine days stirring several times per day. The garbage can may start to stink a bit, so you may want to find a shady place outside for it to set.
Rinse your hide thoroughly and then stretch it over your plywood fur side down. Tack the edges stretching it as much as possible. Then leave it upright to let it partially dry. This will take a few hours, so you want to keep it out of the sun.
Mix your Neat’s foot oil, ammonium, and 3.5 oz. of warm water. Spread half of this mixture across the flesh side of the hide. Let it set flat with the hide facing up for one hour. Apply the rest of the mixture and then cover with plastic. I just laid a few garbage bags across the hide and it worked fine. Leave it to set facing flesh side up overnight.
Remove the tacks and wet the flesh side with a damp cloth. Stretch it out as much as you can and then work the hide. Find a smooth surface like the edge of a table or a pole and pull the flesh side of the hide roughly over the pole or table. This is important as it will break down the fibers of the hide making it flexible and supple. Take your time and keep working until you are happy. Remember that the hide will firm up a bit as it dries.
Tack the hide down to the plywood again and rub it with the sandpaper. This will further smooth the surface and remove any tool marks or imperfections. You will end up with a more refined product through this step.
Lie your hide fur side up in the sun to dry out. If you completed the process correctly your fur should dry but your hide should stay supple. When you are done, you can roll the hide to store it or hang it up.
Bacteria is the biggest obstacle to a good tanning process. If you take too long to get the hide frozen or leave it sitting out before placing it in the alum solution, bacteria will start to grow on the hide. You will notice that it starts to stink, gets slimy, and the flesh side gets darker in color. The primary issue with bacteria is that it will cause the fur to fall out. There are times when the fur will fall out after the tanning process is complete because of prior damage. Try to avoid this issue.
Also, my experience has been that a fleshing knife makes all the difference in the world. If you struggle with the fleshing process, spend a few bucks and get the proper tool for the job.
Have your supplies bought and delivered before you go hunting. Ideally you want to start this process as soon as you skin your deer.
Old timers sometimes use a mixture of deer brains and water to tan hides. My understanding is that the fat from the brains replaces the Neat’s foot oil in the preservation process. If you add all the brains from one deer to boiling water you should have enough for one hide, but there should be more brains than water in your mixture. I have not tried this process as I am a bit wary of chronic wasting disease.
The first hide that I tanned turned out better than I expected. I had a little fur loss due to bacteria and punched a few holes with my knife, but it will still be functional for my needs. After my first hide, I spent the money on a fleshing knife and rounded the ends of the board I used for the process. I found a better stool and zipped through the process. My second hide turned out perfectly, and after a big deer season I have four more hides in the freezer waiting for me.
All in all this has been a difficult but rewarding process. I am so proud that I have learned this skill and cannot wait to use these hides this winter. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time to learn what my ancestors used to do with every deer they killed. I always feel better about my kill when I know I have used every part of the deer. In the end this is what survival and preparedness is all about… using all of the resources that are presented to you.
By Ryan Dotson