Tanning a hide

Nov 07 2011 0 Comments Tags: butcher, cattle, hide, steers, tanning


The hide from the steer that we had butchered in June (Bruce) had been lying on the floor of our shed for several months, covered in salt and waiting for us to start working on tanning it. We had been putting off the job because we remembered how much work it was last time, but we finally got around to it a few weeks ago.
Bruce, and his massive steer hide.
Tanning a hide is hard work, so if you're going to do it, you need to be organised and prepared to put some time into it, but if you do a good job you can produce a lovely rug (or useful leather if that's more your thing). We like to think that we are using as much of the animal as possible, and even though our first tanning attempt didn't turn out perfectly, we still use the hide cut in half, one half on each side of our bed, which is lovely on a cold winter morning! And as one of my tanning books says "every time you tan you will get a better result as you will have more experience", so we hoped that this hide would turn out better and maybe with the help of this post you will have a head-start too.

We have now tanned two steer hides, and even though I'm not very experienced, I wanted to write this because there isn't much information available on the internet on steer hides. If anyone reading this has something to add from personal experiences with tanning, please do, I'm not claiming to know everything on the topic, I'm just recording what we did. We also have two books, which are not the best references, but are better than nothing. These are 'Leathercraft', by RM Williams, which is mostly about working with leather and has a small jumbled chapter on tanning at the start, and 'Tan Your Hide', which is from the US and early 70s, mostly about small hides, but has given us a few tips on steer hides. I think because there are so many different methods of tanning, its been a challenge to write about them all in one book, and this had led to very confusing instructions! There's also not one best way to do it, it will just depend on your access to resources and time. Its certainly been difficult to find a modern Australian account of tanning a steer hide.

This is the method that we have pieced together for tanning our two steer hides:

The Tanning Process
Tanning is the process of modifying the protein structure of an animal skin so that it will not naturally decompose. There are many different ways to tan hides, depending on the size, the intended purpose and whether you want to retain the hair or fur.

The steps we have used to attempt to create rugs are:
  • Drying and salting - leave the hide stretched out, fur side down, covered in coarse table salt (sodium chloride) for several weeks until dry 
  • Fleshing - with the hide draped over a log, fur side down, use blunt tools to scrape the fat from the hide 
  • Washing - soak the hide in detergent and water for several hours to remove the last of the fat/grease and any dirt, blood etc 
  • Tanning - soak the hide in a tanning solution for several days (we used a chrome tanning solution) 
  • Breaking - remove the hide from the tanning solution, rinse, break the hide by stretching over a frame and working with a blunt tool 
What to organise before you tan a hide 
  • a dry safe place to spread out the hide 
  • 20-25 kg of salt
  • remember to tell the butcher so that he doesn't damage the hide 
If you are having a beast butchered on your property, you will need to dispose of all the waste, including the hide. If you would like to tan the hide instead of burying or burning it, you need to tell the butcher, so that he can cut the hide away from the flesh without putting any holes in it. As soon as possible when the hide is removed from the carcass it needs to be spread out hair side down, somewhere dry and away from potential predators (including the family dog, Cheryl tried to gnaw on the our first one, but it was too heavy for her to move!). We spread our hide out in the shed, on a frame of roofing iron, surrounded by mouse bait. You need to put salt on the hide immediately, so have a 20-25 kg bag ready. This can be purchased from rural supplies stores, especially if they cater to horses. Just sprinkle the salt so that it covers the entire flesh side of the hide, this should draw out the moisture and start to cure the hide. Once the hide is safe and dry and covered in salt, you can leave it for weeks, even months, especially in winter, until you have the rest of the equipment organised. In fact, we left the second hide longer and found it far easier to work with, so its worth just leaving it until you're ready for the next step, because here comes the hard work!
The fresh hide out on the shed floor to dry
this is the frame we made later for drying the hide
Equipment you will need for tanning
  • a blunt tool for fleshing 
  • a large log (or similar) for fleshing 
  • a large watertight non-metallic container (we used an old wheelie bin) 
  • detergent 
  • tanning solution 
  • frame for breaking the hide 
The first step is to drape the hide over the log and use a blunt tool to scrape all the fat off the skin. We have the log on the ground and straddle the log to stop the hide from sliding around (at times this involves sitting on the hide, wear old clothes, you will stink of beef fat, but your skin will be silky smooth!). The drier the hide, the easier this is, but you will always have some large wet chunks to remove. This time we tried scraping the hide completely, and allowing it to continue drying for a few weeks, under salt, as we weren't quite ready to tan.
it was a huge hide, so we weren't worried about trimming off some daggy bits

after several months the hide has dried out ready to flesh
scraping the fat off the hide
When you're happy with the amount of fleshing, its time to soak it in detergent to remove the grease, this is where you need a large container, such as an old wheelie bin (you can buy these from rural stores), but it shouldn't be metal, as that will react with the tanning solution, enamel is ok though. Its important to consider your timing at this point, as the soaked hide should then go into the tanning solution after soaking for a few hours or a day, and then as soon as its finished tanning you need to start breaking it. Its best to leave the fleshed hide until you know you will have time to complete each step. On the first hide we didn't work out the timing and ended up leaving it in the tanning solution for 2 weeks before we had time to break it, we think that's one reason why it came out so tough.

Wheelie bin with tanning solution and hide
After the hide has soaked for several hours it can be rinsed and then placed into the tanning solution. We used a Leder chrome tanning kit purchased from our local gun shop for about $100. I was hoping that it would come with some further instructions, but it didn't! It just contained the tanning solution, the 'leather lube' and a fleshing tool. We kept the solution from last time, so we just reused it for the second hide, which doesn't seem to have been a problem (there's no reason for it to "go off" if its sitting in the wheelie bin with the lid on). You can also make the tanning solution from the individual ingredients - chromium sulphate, aluminium sulphate and sulphuric acid - if I can get hold of them, as it should work out cheaper. Its also possible to buy the tanning solution separately to the kit, see here. According to RM Williams, its also important to keep stirring the tanning solution to make sure it penetrates the skin completely, he suggests to make a small cut in the skin to check that its soaked through before removing the hide from the tanning solution. The hide should then be rinsed and then the hard work of breaking begins.

The aim of breaking the hide is to stretch the fibres of the hide so that the final result is a soft and supple leather. On the first hide we didn't really understand how to do this and just spread the hide out on the log and scrapped it again, the same as the fleshing step. This didn't really work, and is probably the other reason why it is still a bit stiff. The methods described in the books above are a bit vague and mainly refer to small hides, but they do have the common feature of stretching the hide in some way and either passing a blunt instrument over the hide or passing the hide over the blunt instrument, in order to stretch it in every direction. After a long think about how to apply these principles to our large, heavy steer hide, the best solution we could think of was to stretch the hide over a large gate, prop it up on axle stands and......jump on it like a trampoline! I have to give my husband full credit for this one, I would never have thought of jumping on it! He was first up and bouncing up and down like a kid before I was game to step up too. As we were jumping we could see the hide stretching, and periodically we hopped off and moved the tek screws to keep the hide taught. This took most of the morning and the gate will never be the same again (don't worry, it was a freebie).
steer-hide trampoline anyone?
We then washed the dirty boot marks off the hide using a pressure cleaner and applied the "leather lube" left over from the last hide. The minimal instructions stressed the need to apply sufficient lube, so we weren't stingy! In future I'd like to use a recipe of neatsfoot oil and tallow, as this is recommended in the books, I assume that the lube is just a cheap moisturiser type lotion (that's what it smelled and looked like).
the hide smeared in leather lube
Finally we put the whole thing back in the shed to dry out and crossed our fingers that all the hard work would pay off and we would end up with a lovely soft steer hide rug! Actually it was a huge improvement over the first hide. The first one was so stiff we couldn't roll it up like a rug, its like cardboard. This one is soft enough to roll.  We've spread it out on the lounge floor and I often sit on the rug instead of the couch.

finished product :)

Have you ever tanned a hide?  Any suggestions?  Do you think you'd like to try?

See more details on how we tanned this hide here, and then how we used a grinder wire brush to speed up the fleshing step here.

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