Tanning hides using traditional and more natural methods is almost always less expensive and does not really add any extra time or work to the project.
Hide tanning is a process that requires extensive manual labor and lots of patience. There just are not any true shortcuts, regardless of what type of method you use, when tanning at home.
The cow hide I am tanning now will be used to make multiple pairs of moccasins for Christmas presents. Yes, at the time of publishing, it is only February… but I’m planning ahead!
- There are plenty of other things you can use with your tanned hides, too, like:
- A wallet
- A rug
- A firearm holster
- Any kind of clothing
…and so on!
I used to buy a commercial trapper’s hide tanning formula, which was pretty effective at working with cow and deer hide. I used a deer hunter’s & trapper’s hide tanning formula that was meant to work with these animals specifically (more info on this at the end of the post!). You can also use it on a wire wheel.
You do have to thin skin with a sharp knife before you get started and then wash the hide in warm water with liquid dish soap to get rid of the old salt and grease. You can also use coarse sandpaper for a higher degree of suppleness.
This product worked great, but it was expensive.
However, I realized that you can also make your own, which not only works just as well over the entire hide, but is more cost-effective. Easy home tanning of all fur skins is possible with these simple methods.
Let’s take a closer look.
What Does Hide Tanning Solution Do?
Hide tanning solution is a mixture of chemicals that help to preserve, soften, and make animal hides more durable. It is a crucial ingredient in the tanning process, especially when tanning leather.
The solution is typically composed of chemicals such as acids, oils, and salts that have varying effects on the buckskin leather hides (or whatever you’re working with).
Hide tanning solution comes in different forms, including liquid, powder, or paste, and each form has its unique benefits. It can be used on all kinds of different animal hides, including those from elk, fox, goats, moose, caribou, raccoon, squirrel, beaver, muskrat, and more.
There are some types that can even be used on non- fur skins, like alligator, though I don’t have much experience with those.
Basically, all you need to know is that a hide tanning solution functions by denaturing the protein structure of the hide, removing all non-essential substances and fats, and then rebuilding the protein into a more durable form. The solution works differently depending on the type of hide and the product used.
The chemicals in the solution break down the fibers creating an opening in the skin to allow the solution to penetrate to the core. This solution then crosslinks with the fibers, which results in a more rigid and durable product.
Most hides allow for a tan hair-on or a tan hair-off. This will produce an Indian-style tan (which is soft and supple, with hides ready to go and be used in projects in just 5-7 days). Some products can be used for snakeskin and alligators while others are meant to be used only for animals with fur.
For all the reasons above, though admittedly an optional step, one of the best ways to preserve your hide is to apply a tanning solution to it, either before or after the process itself. Below you’ll find no less than 9 recipes that use natural ingredients for your home tanning of game hides!
Always wear rubber gloves while working with these solutions, even if you are using natural products.
Brain Mash Solution Recipe
- Mix the brains in only enough water to make a mash that resembles the consistency of runny mashed potatoes. It is roughly a 2 parts brain to 1-part water mixture. I usually do a 2 parts brain to a ½ part water and stir in more cool water if the mash is too thick.
- Heat the brain mixture to warm it through, do NOT allow it to reach boiling temperature.
- Rub the brain mash thoroughly over the hide to coat it. Roll up the hide and allow it to sit at least overnight, but preferably for about 24 hours.
- Unroll the hide
- Stretching the hide again is the easiest and quickest way to scrape away the brain mash, but it can be done while laying flat.
- Scrape away all of the brain mash and rinse the hide with either warm water or warm and soapy water.
- Inspect the hide to make sure all of the mash is gone.
- Repeat the brain mash application if the hide turns out too dry and is not pliable enough to work the leather and crack the remaining membrane to soften it.
Brain Daiquiri Homemade Solution
I prefer this brain hide tanning solution recipe because the mash, or brain paste, has a daiquiri or Coke slushy consistency, making it easier to spread. It also seems to coat and adhere to the hide better than the mash recipe, in my personal opinion. Not only that, but the list of items you need is extremely short!
- Mix and warm the brains and water the same way you did to make the brain mash.
- Pour the brain tanning solution into your food processor or blender and pulse for about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Repeat the same coating and stretching steps outlined above.
Egg Yolk Tanning Solution
- Mix an egg yolk with 1 to 2 teaspoons of clean water – depending on the size of the egg. You will need less water with a Bantam chicken egg and more if you are using yolks from a duck or turkey egg.
- Spread the egg yolk tanning agent mixture thoroughly and deeply onto the hide – I use a pastry brush or sponge to complete this process. You could also use a paint brush.
- Cover the hide with a damp sheet made out of natural fibers if working with a large hide or towels if working with a smaller hide.
- Allow the grease mixture to work completely into the hide for a full 24 hours – waiting 48 hours sometimes works best. Some people say you can do this in 12-16 hours, but I recommend waiting longer. You’ll have some seriously greasy skins at this point and want to give the mixture as much time as possible to be absorbed.
- Rinse the egg yolk tanning solution off of the hide and proceed with the tanning process.
Soap Tanning Solution Recipe
You can use the same Castile soap or Fels Naptha soap you use to make homemade laundry detergent, for tanning your hides. You want a solid soap, not a liquid dish soap, like Dawn, for this method.
- You must grate the soap like you do when making detergent, to make a natural hide tanning solution.
- Mix the grated soap with just enough hot water to allow it to completely dissolve.
- Pour in just shy of an equal part Mink or Neatsfoot Oil.
- Slather the solution onto the hide like you did the brain tanning solution.
- Roll the hide up with the solution still on.
- Allow the hide to sit in the soap tanning solution for 48 hours before washing it off and proceeding with the tanning steps.
Washing Soda and Alum Tanning Solution Recipe
The amounts in this fur tanning agent recipe provide enough solution to tan 1 coyote or 6 rabbits.
- Mix together 1 cup of non-iodized salt, 2/3 of a cup of washing soda, and 2 and ½ cup of alum.
- Stir in approximately 3 gallons of very warm, but not hot, water.
- Stir the mixture together until all of the ingredients have completely dissolved.
- Soak the hide in the solution for at least 2-3 (sometimes as long as 5-7 days, if it’s still tough) days before removing it to rinse clean and proceed with the tanning process.
Oak Bark Tea Tanning Solution
Using oak bark tea as a hide tanning agent is the prime method of choice by tanners who want a thick and durable leather that can be used to make belts and horse tack. It often takes up to 100 lbs. of bark to tan a cow hide.
- Collect enough bark to fill a 5-gallon bucket – several 5-gallon buckets if doing a large hide.
- Mix the bark with enough warm water to make a solution that resembles tea.
- Clean the game hide, or soak it overnight, in the oak bark tea solution AFTER straining the bark out of the liquid – catch the liquid that has now been diluted by the water sprayed or dumped on it to rinse the hide, in a plastic tub or livestock tank.
- If removing the hair, soak the hide in a de-furring bath of wood ash or lime solution, or a mixture of both.
- Rinse the hide completely again and wring to remove excess water.
- Flesh the hide
- Put the hide in a bath, with the skin flesh side up, with the diluted oak bark tea for 7 days.
- Drain, then make another batch of bark tea.
- Remove the hide at the end of 7 days and dump the diluted oak bark tea water.
- Fill the tub with the new batch of bark tea and let the hide sit in it for two weeks.
- Remove and rinse the hide and continue on with the tanning process.
Distilled White Vinegar Tanning Solution Recipe
- Mix together 5 gallons of warm water and 1 gallon of distilled white vinegar.
- After de-furring and/or fleshing the hide, soak it in the mixture for three days.
- Remove the hide and rinse it clean using COLD water.
- You will need to repeat the soaking steps three times to tan the hide.
- The hide will be very still after the distilled white vinegar soaks, and must be oiled completely to soften the hide.
Lard (or Tallow) and Flour Tanning Solution
I found this great tanning recipe in my husband’s Foxfire books – every homesteader should have a set of those incredible books! The recipe is simple, natural, and barely costs a dime.
• After rendering your animal fat into either lard or tallow, smear it onto a de-furred and fleshed hide, covering it completely.
• Next, pour flour over the lard or tallow, again, coating it completely.
• Roll or fold up the hide, like you would if using a brain tanning agent.
• The Foxfire books say to keep the hide rolled into the solution until the “blood” is drawn out. In my experience, this takes at least two days, but sometimes 73 hours for large or thick hides.
• The hides will turn out pretty stiff, feeling a lot like a tightrope in certain areas of the skin. After rinsing them and allowing them to semi dry almost completely, you will need to oil the leather.
Eggs and Mayo Tanning Solution Recipe
• Mix together equal parts of mayonnaise and eggs.
• Stir them vigorously or run them through your food processor for about 1 minute on the pulse setting.
• Smear the egg and mayo tanning agent onto the entire de-furred and scraped hide, coating it thoroughly.
• Now, you can either roll the hide up for 24 to 48 hours, or cover the hide with slightly damp sheets or towels made out of natural materials.
• Rinse the hide and continue on with the tanning process. Oiling the leather is pretty essential when using this type of tanning solution.
Try out different natural tanning agent solutions each time you tan, until you find one that suits your needs best and helps you churn out a great piece of leather.
The amounts of the ingredients in each recipe are estimates based upon either past personal experience, or the experience of homesteading friends who have used the recipes and produced what I deem, in my “expert” opinion, as a really beautiful niece piece of leather.
What About Commercial Solutions?
If you don’t want to waste time making your own hide tanning solution, you can purchase this one below, but not before you read our caveat…
Cumberland’s Hide tanning Formula
Disclosure: if you visit an external link in this post and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. Read my full earnings disclosure here.
Cumberland’s makes one of the best hide tanning solutions out there. You only have to rub it once for it to work. It’s not exactly as soft as a brain tan, but it works really well. The smell is not of putting, and not very strong.
The company has great customer service if you have questions, plus other related products that might make your hide tanning efforts easier…
One downside is that the instructions aren’t as comprehensive as they should be, so hopefully, you know the process from A to Z, including how to properly stretch the hide. If you do, you shouldn’t have any problems – but that goes for any other formula, DIY or store-bought.
Do you have a homemade tanning solution we did not include here or a different variation of one on the list? Share it in the comments section below so we can all give it a whirl, too.
Tara lives on a 56 acres farm in the Appalachian Mountains, where she faces homesteading and farming challenges every single day, raising chickens, goats, horses, and tons of vegetables. She’s an expert in all sorts of homesteading skills such as hide tanning, doll making, tree tapping, and many more.