With these seven steps, tanning a deer hide is an obtainable feat.
Wait! Don't throw those deer hides in the garbage can!
Before you toss that heap of hide you just peeled from your deer, why not preserve it for display or use?
Follow these step by step directions and see why the way to tan hides may be a bit easier than you think. Sure a taxidermist could do it, but it doesn't have to be that expensive. It's not all hard work, and the payoff is pretty awesome.
Step 1: Skin Your Deer
The first thing to do when tanning deer hide is (obviously) to skin your deer. If you happen to be skinning your own buck, you might as well go for the entire hide; you can decide later if you want to keep it intact as a "rug" or turn it in to functional leather.
The process of skinning is lengthy, but for the purpose of explaining the tanning steps, we'll assume the hide is off and intact. I like to skin from the tarsals to the jaw for this purpose.
Step 2: Flesh the Hide - The Most Important Part!
With the animal hide now off, it's time to get in to the more tedious act of the tanning process: the fleshing.
It's important to get all the flesh and film you can off of the back of the hide, because it'll ultimately make for a more successful and cleaner finished product. You can purchase a double-handled fleshing knife, but I've always had the best luck with a semi-dull 6" folding hunting knife (notice I said dull; a sharp knife isn't exactly the best tool for this job).
Stretch the hide and secure it. Some people recommend staples or nails, but I prefer the big metal spring clamps from a hardware store (they're a few bucks a piece) to secure the hide to a cheap piece of flake board or plywood. It makes for a great fleshing beam!
Start in the corner of the flesh side of the hide and get to work with pressured strokes, holding the knife blade or scraper perpendicular to the hide. You'll see the slime-ish film start to peel away from the hide, exposing the white fiber deer skin underneath. You don't want to go deeper than this or you'll cut through the hide.
This part can be a bit time consuming, but the idea is to wind up with a clean, flesh-free hide. Trust me, it'll pay off in the end.
If you're lucky enough to have a pressure washer then the process can be even easier. Check out this video to see what I mean:
Step 3: Time to Salt
With the hide fleshed, the next step is to add some salt and let it sit. You can keep it right on the board you used to flesh it on.
Go to a supermarket or Wal-Mart and grab a bunch of non-iodized salt (iodized will work but may stain the hide). A 1-pound container shouldn't cost more than a buck. Get about 10 pounds of salt.
Now, with the flesh side up, work the salt into the hide, making sure to salt all areas. There's little risk of over salting, here; more is probably better. The purpose is to draw out all moisture and dry the hide out.
Leave the hide sit overnight. The next day there will likely be a pool of fluid sitting on top of the now wet salt. Scrape the old salt off and reapply a fresh layer.
The salt essentially preserves the hide, but if you aren't going to continue the tanning process now then simply roll the hide up and freeze it until you're ready to continue. The hide will be dry and stiff from the salt but once soaked will become supple again.
Step 4: Choose your tanning solution
There are multiple methods to use at this point. You can use the deer's brain solution (if you saved it), an alum solution, or a commercially-prepared tanning solution (probably the easiest method).
Since the commercial solution isn't very expensive and is probably the easiest, we'll focus on that method. You can purchase a double pack of Deer Hunter's and Trapper's Hide Tanning Formula from the Sportsman's Guide for less than 20 bucks.
Follow the instructions on the back of the bottle for the application portion of the tanning. You'll want to clean the hide of any salt that remains and then soak it in warm, clean water with a decent amount of soap added for about a day to break down any remaining grease. I prefer a high quality dish detergent for this process, and a five-gallon bucket usually works. Otherwise a clean plastic garbage can will do nicely.
Step 5: Work in the solution
While the hide is still damp, work the tanning solution in to the non-hair side of the hide (wear gloves). Don't be afraid to use pressure and creative strokes to really help the solution penetrate the hide. Focus on your inner Karate Kid for technique.
Step 6: The Waiting Game
With the tanning formula applied, spread the hide out and wait the prescribed amount of days (usually about five) for the curing process to complete.
Step 7: Time to Soften Up
The hide will likely be stiff at the end of this process but don't worry, you can make it as soft as you like. I like to use a spray bottle and moisten the hide enough to work the fibers loose.
A saw horse or stretched line works well at this point to drag the hide back and forth over. Repeat this process to your desired liking.
For a suede-type finish, try rubbing the tanned side with a fine grit sandpaper.
That's it! You're done!
You should now have a soft and usable deer hide to create a wall hanging, rug, or turn into a wearable fashion trend.
While not necessarily "quick" learning how to tan a deer hide is fairly easy. Before you dump that hide, think about putting it to good use by home tanning it.
Then you'll have your very own buckskin!