a Witch's Guide to Tanning Hides

Old Skinning Knives

This is part 2 of a 3 part post on at home tanning methods. These are relatively simple methods that will produce tanned hides and soft leather, but do vary considerably in amount of effort and time. Part 1 introduced some important terms, as well as discussing skinning, fleshing, and long-term preservation for hides. In this, part 2, we'll jump into a relatively quick way to tan a hide, leaving the fur on.

​This complete post makes up the fifth part of a series on Working with Zoological Remains. Zoological remains are carefully preserved animal parts that are used with reverence within witchcraft. They may house the spirits of animals or other entities or be used exclusively for their symbolic or archetypal value. Previous posts in this series include An Introduction to Working with Zoological Remains, Bone Collecting: How-to Acquire Bones and Other Zoological Remains Regardless of Where you Live, Of Skull & Bone: Cleaning & Whitening, and The Joy of a Salt Box: Preparing Wing & Paw. The final post of this series will focus on methods and techniques for working with bones in witchcraft, as well as other zoological remains, such as wings, feathers, feet, horns, hooves, and antlers.

Tanning Hides with Battery Acid

The following method is relatively simple, though it will require a number of materials. It also is much faster than the brain and smoke tanning method, which will follow it. This method allows you to tan a hide -keeping the hair on- to produce a soft and pliable hide that can be used for just about anything, dependent upon the size of the hide and your sewing skills.
I originally found this exact recipe on Mother Earth News and it has worked well for tanning deer, jack rabbits, and squirrel so I’ve not modified the recipe at all. Note, that this recipe is enough for four deer hides, so saving hides to tan in one big batch or cutting the recipe down considerably may be necessary.

This method will take a couple of hours initially, with a few days for drying, then another hour or so for softening. In all, it should be no more than a week from start to finish for a large hide and may take as little as two days for a small hide.

Materials Needed

  • 2 clean plastic garbage cans or large plastic totes
  • 5-gallon pale
  • a long wooden stick to stir the hides (a broom handle or sturdy branch for larger hides or a long wooden spoon for smaller hides works well)
  • 7 gallons of water
  • 16 cups of salt
  • 16 cups of bran flakes
  • 3 ½ cups battery acid (this can be found at an auto supply store: do not pry open a car battery to get some!)
  • 2 boxes of baking soda
  • Neats foot oil (this is an oil rendered from the shin bones and hooves of cattle, you can find it at large chain hunting supply and farm supply stores)
  • Something with which to apply the oil: clean paintbrush, a rag, etc.
  • A handful of nails
  • Something to stretch the hide on (this can be as simple as tacking the hide to the wall in your garage or shed, or you can construct a stretcher with a few pieces of lumber, or you can even use a wooden pallet or piece of particle or chip board)

If you’re starting with a green hide, be sure that it has been fleshed before beginning. For a hide that has been salted, you’ll need to soak the hide in clean water before tanning it. The hide must be soft and pliable, otherwise it will tear and crack. You can soak the salted hide while preparing the tanning solution and then thoroughly rinse the hide before proceeding with the next step.

Preparing the Tanning Solution
Place the bran flakes into the 5-gallon pale and pour in 2 to 3 gallons of boiling in water (keep in mind you’ll need about 7 gallons of water total, so you’ll use about half that much water now.) Allow the bran flakes and water to sit for at least an hour, after which time you will strain out what’s left of the mushy flakes. Discard the mush but keep the brown water.

Into one of the garbage cans (or totes) place the salt and add the remaining water. Mix until thoroughly dissolved. Now add the bran water, stirring a bit to ensure that this mixture is no more than lukewarm before proceeding.

Now, it’s time to add the battery acid. Be sure that the area is cleared of small children and pets. Wear safety goggles, old clothing, and a heavy pair of work gloves just in case. SLOWLY pour the battery acid into the water in order to avoid splashing. SLOWLY mix the tanning solution.

If you’re working with a fresh hide, you can now place it into the tanning solution. If you are working with a salted hide, remove it from the soak water now. Check the flesh side for a thin dry membrane layer. If there is one, it will need to be removed before placing the hide in the solution.
Use your mixing stick to push the hide beneath the surface of the tanning solution so that it is fully submerged. The hide should be left to soak for about 45 minutes but no more than an hour. During this time, you’ll want to stir the hide about every few minutes to ensure that every part of the hide is submerged and soaking up the solution. This is especially important when working with larger hides.

Rinsing the Hide
As the hide soaks, fill the other garbage can or tote with warm water. A box or two of baking soda can be added to the water to help neutralize the acid on the hide, but this isn’t necessary. If you have sensitive skin and plan on using the hide in a way that requires you to touch the hide often (such as for clothing, a bed spread, or casting cloth) this is an extra step well worth considering. There is no difference in results whether or not you add baking soda to the rinse water. It merely neutralizes any remaining acid trapped in the hair and left on the skin, which can be an irritant.
Use your mixing stick to pull the hide from the tanning solution. Allow it to drip a little before placing the hide into the rinse water. Stir continuously for several minutes in order to remove any salt from the hide and wash off as much of the battery acid as possible.

The water will become very dirty. Change out your rinse water with clean, warm water and continue to mix the hide about for several more minutes.  Once thoroughly rinsed, remove the hide and hang it to dry. You can lay it over an old chair, a wooden saw horse, a deck rail, a grate, or even a screen -depending upon the size of the hide. Smaller hides could even be draped over a clothes line. Allow the hide to hang until it is mostly dry, but still damp.

Disposing of the Tanning Solution
Be sure you are in a well ventilated area and that small children and pets are nowhere around. Pour two boxes of baking soda into the solution and then leave the area (this will produce a chemical reaction with some nasty fumes.) Dependent upon local ordinances in your area and ph requirements, you may be able to safely dispose of this liquid by pouring it down the drain.

Softening the Hide
Now, apply the Neatsfoot oil. Use an old paintbrush or cloth to rub the oil into the skin side of the hide. This oil works to keep the skin soft and supple; it also helps to preserve it. The oil will absorb quickly, leaving a light sheen. This oil can be found in gallon jugs and smaller bottles of just a few ounces. But, if you have any interest in amateur taxidermy or simple preservation methods for animal remains, it can be really useful to have on hand.

Drying and Stretching the Hide
In order to dry the hide, it is necessary to stretch it. This is because the hide will actually shrink considerably during drying. You’ll need your stretcher for this step or to tack the hide to a garage or shed wall (place the hair side of the wall against the wall if you go this route.) Start with one corner of the hide, nailing it about a half an inch in from the edge of the hide and spacing your nails about four inches apart. Now stretch the hide gently from the opposite side, pulling it so the skin is tight and smooth. Remember that your goal here is not to make the hide larger than it already is, just to keep it from shrinking. Continue until the entire hide is nailed down and the skin is taut, smooth, and free of wrinkles. You may need to re-nail some sections to achieve this.

Allow the hide to sit for a few days. It should be kept in the shade, away from heat, and somewhere with good air flow. Check the hide every day to see if it is dry. Once the center is dry, you can take the hide down.

Additional Softening
While the hide is fully preserved and tanned now, without additional softening the leather side will be rough and feel more like cardboard than that butter smooth texture you’re probably hoping for. Spending another hour or so to soften the hide will make a huge difference.

There are a number of options at this stage. You can gently work the skin side with a wire bristle brush, taking care to move evenly and gently across the hide. You can also work the hide back and forth across a taut wire (think Nordic track style) with your arms pumping back and forth as you pull the folded hide over the wire.

At this point, you can use a dog brush to smooth out the hair and restore its loft, as depending on the type of animal the time of the year it was killed, the hair can be pretty disheveled from the tanning and drying process.

In part 3, we'll look at a more traditional method of tanning that can still be used easily at home. The exact method will produce a soft, smooth piece of leather without any hair remaining.