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Thread: How to tan

  1. #1

    How to tan

    The right way to tan deer by Amy.


    Are you a taxidermist who has been using dry preserve for your mounts and are interested in what's involved in the tanning process? Maybe you've been sending your hides off to a tannery, and are tired of waiting months for your hides. Or perhaps you are just looking for a way to tan a special pelt. Tanning in-shop is a lot of work but the results can be very rewarding. I am going to go over the steps I use in my shop for tanning all my hides, from squirrel to elk. The process is exactly the same.

    You may already have some of these products in your shop. If you are a beginner and have no products, this is what you need to order:

    2. RITTELS EASY TAN (EZ100), 1 lb.
    3. TANNING OIL ("PRO PLUS OIL") 1 qt.
    4. 25 lb. bag of salt
    5. Sodium Bicarbonate (Baking Soda)
    6. Ph testing strips

    You're also going to need water, a large bucket, measuring spoons and cups, and a fleshing/shaving tool.

    Let's begin with the first step. This comes right after you finish skinning the animal...

    1. SALTING

    Salting is very important because it makes the skin dry fast, leaches out unwanted liquids, and sets the hair tight. Some swear by placing a hide straight into the pickle, but wait til you see the amount of liquid the salt will draw out!

    Salting is the very first thing you should do after the animal has been skinned. Do not waste time trying to remove small pieces of flesh; you can do that during the pickling stage, when the hide is easier to shave. As long as the skin is in it's raw state, unsalted, it is collecting bacteria. And bacteria is the main cause of hair slippage.

    Remove all large pieces of meat. Turn the ears, lips, and eyes. Thin down any areas that feel thick with meat (such as the area around the nose of a deer).

    Apply a heavy layer of salt to the flesh side. Rub the salt into the flesh, making sure that it reaches into tight areas such as the ears. Then, fold it flesh-to-flesh, roll it up and place it on an inclined surface for several hours.

    When drained, open the hide up and shake out the excess salt. Re-apply another layer of clean salt and hang the hide up to dry. If you desire a very hard-dried hide, or the humidity is high, a fan placed in front of the hide will turn it rock-hard in no time.


    When you are ready to pickle your skins, you'll need to relax them in a brine solution, as they will be stiff from salting. One good product for this is Rittel's Ultra-soft relaxing agent. Or, you can just mix 2 lbs. of salt to every 1 gallon of cool water. Salt-dried skins usually relax easy (all my deer capes I simply relax in a salt and water solution) but other types such as air-dried and African flint dried skins may not relax easy. The Rittel's Ultra-Soft is definitely recommended for these kinds of skins. Add 4 tablespoons of it to each gallon of water needed to submerge the skins (8 tablespoons per gallon of water for greasy skins). Watch your hides to see how well they are relaxing. A deer cape usually relaxes in 8-10 hours, with thinner skinned animals taking less time and thicker ones could take 24 hours or more.

    The salt content in the water keeps your hide safe "for now", but the sooner it can relax and get to the pickling bath, the better.


    A pickle is a low pH acidic solution that is used to stabilize skins in the tanning process and stop deterioration. Pickling plumps the skin, which makes shaving easier, and helps to sets the hair.
    Salt alone simply creates a poor environment for bacteria to live; but it doesn't always kill it. The acidity of a pickle does, however.
    A pickle also helps remove the non-tannable proteins in the skin. Skin is made up of two types of protein - globular and fibrous. Globular protein is the unwanted protein in the skin, and that is what the pickling solution will remove. It will wash the protein away, leaving open sites for the tanning chemicals to attach to.

    So, once your skins have been salted and relaxed, they are ready to go into a pickle bath! Make sure you have removed any blood stains before you put the skins into the pickle. This will not only keep your pickle clean, but you will have less problems controlling the pH of the mixture.

    Pickling acids…

    There are many acids used to create pickle solutions. These include Formic, Citric, and "Safetee" acid. Formic is a very stable chemical used by many but is dangerous, with harmful fumes and will burn skin on contact. Citric is common as well, but tends to be weak. I use Safetee acid. While it is still an acid and care must be taken, I have put my bare hands into the solution with no ill effects other than a slight reddening of the skin (I do recommend gloves though). My dog even drank some once, and was alright. In the world of pickling acids, it is very safe.

    For every ONE GALLON of water, mix:

    1/2 oz. Safetee acid
    1 lb. Salt

    A 3-gallon mix will fully cover an average whitetail cape. A two or three gallon mix works well for a fox-sized animal or smaller. Just make sure the capes or skins are completely submerged in the pickle, no sense in overcrowding things or you could get folds in the skin and the pickle won't penetrate.

    No matter what acid you use, after mixing the pickle up, you should check the pH level using quality pH papers or pH meter. It should read below a 2.0. Best is to have it around 1. You should not let the pH go about 2.5 during pickling, and definitely not about 3.0, because then bacteria will continue to grow.

    If the pH is too high, add more acid. If it is too low, add more water and salt or a little baking soda diluted in water.

    The time it takes to thoroughly pickle the skin will vary depending on the thickness of the skin. You can tell it is completely pickled when the skin is a milky white color all the way through, with no pink color.

    The minimum time to pickle is at least 48 hours for small game, bobcats, fox, etc. and a minimum of 3 days for whitetail capes.

    Be sure to check the pH levels on a regular basis during the period the skin is in the pickle.

    Do not let the temperature of the pickle go any lower than 55F. Low temperatures cause the salt level to drop, thus lowering the protection of the pickle. For best results, keep the mixture at room temperature.

    4. SHAVING

    After at least three days in the pickle, you should take the skins out of the mixture and shave them using a fleshing/shaving machine. The thinner the skins are shaved, the softer they will be in the end. Light furs, such as fox or coyote, can be tanned soft without shaving. However, heavier thick skins like deer, buffalo, moose, or elk should definitely been shaven. This will allow you to get maximum stretch out of your skins, and let the pickle penetrate thoroughly.

    If your skins do not need to be degreased, you can now return them to the pickle. Always return the skins to the pickle after shaving. This will allow it to penetrate to areas that have now been exposed.


    If you skin is a greasy type, such a bear or raccoon, it will need to be degreased after shaving. Use Rittel's Super Solvent (1 capful to every 1 gal. Of water), or you can use 1/2 oz. of Dawn dish soap per gallon of water (if only light degreasing is necessary). Leave the skins in the solution for 30 minutes.

    Then rinse the skins and return them to the pickle for at least another 24 hours. Using Safetee Acid, they can safely be left in the pickle for a very long time as long as pH and salt levels are maintained.


    When you are ready to tan, remove the skins from the pickle and let them drain for 30 minutes or so. While they drain, mix up a neutralizing bath.

    The purpose of a neutralizing bath is to bring the pH level of a skin up. EZ-tan will bond best to the skin at a pH of 4 to 5, which is approximately the pH that your neutralizing bath should be.

    For every gallon of water needed to submerge the skins, add 1 tablespoon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Put the skins into the mixture and stir them in the mixture for 20 minutes -NO LONGER. The idea is to "partially" neutralize the skin, that is - the outside of the skin will be at a pH of 4, while the inside is still slightly acidic. The tan will go for the most acidic areas first (the inside) and work it's way out. This assures a fully penetrated tan. After neutralizing, rinse the skins well.

    7. TANNING

    EZ-Tan, in my opinion, is one of the best tanning agents you can buy (although it's not the only great tan out there! It is just waht works for me!). The skins are white-leathered, durable, soft, and stretchy, and there is little shrinkage! It is great to use for pelts, garments, taxidermy use, and rug work.
    Tanning agents are very sensitive, and you should always check the pH before putting the skins into the tanning solution. EZ-Tan tans at a level of 4.0 pH. If properly mixed, it should read a pH of 4. However, If the pH is too low, add small amounts of baking soda. If higher, add small amounts of the pickle. Check the pH before putting the skins into the mixture.

    There are two different formulas for mixing EZ-Tan:
    Tanning Formula based on wet drained weight:

    After neutralizing the skins and letting them drain, weigh them. This is their wet drained weight. For every 1 lb. of wet drained weight, mix:
    2 quarts water
    1/2 oz. EZ-tan (4.5 level teaspoonfuls = 1/2 oz.)
    4 oz. salt
    Tanning Formula based on water volume:

    You may prefer to make things simple (like me) and simply mix enough solution to completely submerge the skins. This formula is based on the amount of water used. For every 1-gallon of water wanted, mix:

    1-gallon water
    1 oz. EZ-Tan (3 level tablespoonfuls = 1 oz.)
    8 oz. salt

    You should be careful not to overcrowd the skins when using this method.
    When mixing, you should first add the EZ-Tan to a cup of warm water and let it dissolve. I find it very hard to dissolve in cold water. Then mix it, along with your salt, into your bucket of water.

    Keep the tanning solution at a comfortable room temperature (between 65-75F). Leave the skins in the mixture for 16-24 hours. 16 hours will work well for a small fox-sized animal. Almost all skins will thoroughly tan in 24 hours. After the required amount of time, remove the skins from the solution. Overtanning can cause a rubbery hide. Rinse them and allow them to drain for a while (30 minutes is what I do). Any longer and they may start to get dry.

    7. OILING

    Oiling is a very important factor in producing a soft, supple hide with minimal shrinkage. That's why it is so important that you invest in good quality tanning oil. There are several kinds of great tanning oils available. I use Rittel's "Pro Plus oil" now. I have also used Van Dyke's "Protal" in the past which is a great oil, I just don't order from that company as much.

    Once the skins have drained for 20 minutes, they are ready to be oiled. Mix the oil using 1 part oil to 2 parts warm water. It is important that the mixture be warm, because the oil will bond to the skin best when warm. Make sure that the pelt you are oiling is at room temperature, too. Apply the oil to flesh side of the pelt using a paintbrush. You may also want to rub it in with your hands (I would advise wearing plastic gloves). Apply it carefully around the edges and around holes. Keep applying the oil until the skin will take up no more. Then fold the skin up tightly, flesh to flesh and hair to hair. Put it in a warm spot to "sweat" for 4-6 hours. Maximum take-up of oil will occur in this period.

    8. DRYING - or MOUNTING!

    If the skin is to be mounted, after sweating it can be toweled dry and then mounted, or frozen for thawing and mounting later.

    If you want to dry and finish the skin (for a rug or wallhanger)… after it has sweated in the oil, open it up and hang it to dry. The time it takes to dry depends on the thickness of the flesh. It will usually take several days, but some of my very thin pelts have only taken a few hours to dry!
    When the skin is starting to dry, begin to work and stretch the fibers of the skin with your hands. This is where the work comes in, but it must be done to produce a soft pelt. If you stretch the skin carefully and the place you stretched turns white, then that area is ready to be worked and stretched. If it doesn't turn white, then it is not quite dry enough. Continue carefully stretching and pulling on the skin until the whole thing is white and it feels very soft. Working it over the edge of a table or similar object will help.

    When the skin is completely dry, you can use sandpaper to clean up the flesh side, and trim away any ragged edges. If the skin feels too stiff, you can try sanding down the flesh to produce a softer skin.

    If everything goes well, you should be rewarded with a soft, stretchy pelt with a nice white leather, that will last for a long, long time!! Or, if you're mounting it, you will have a quality mount with minimal shrinkage!

  2. #2

    Thank you very much for the extremely detailed information.


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