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Saturday 27 September 2014

How To Make Leather

Feeling skinny? Making leather can be a way of honoring an animal that has perished and is a lost art that can turn something gross into something really beautiful. Today, leather is produced in factories using powerful chemicals, but you can still safely make your own beautiful leather and buckskin at home with a little bit of work. I must warn you that this craft is not for queasy people and if you are vegetarian or vegan this will be TMI.

The first thing you need is the fresh hide from an animal that has been recently "dressed."

This is the gross part - okay, its all kind of gross. The skin has just been removed and will be covered on the inside with bits of meat and membrane. This step is called "fleshing" the hide, and all of that meaty stuff has to be scraped off with a knife. I use a little kitchen knife that is not dull but not overly sharp.

One method of preparing a hide for fleshing is to nail it, stretched, to a piece of plywood. Small roofing nails around the outside are perfect because they are easy to remove once the hide is dry.

Here Noel scrapes the hair from a cow hide that has been soaking in a solution of hydrated lime, wood ashes, and water.
Once it has been fleshed there are a few options for tanning, including bark tanning, where the hide soaks for weeks to months in a tea made from bark and/or leaves with a high tannin content. Trees local to me that are good for tanning include Acacia, Hemlock, and most nut trees. Soaking the hide in a solution of wood ashes or hydrated lime for a few days will make the hair pull off easily.

Another method of tanning is to rub animal brains into the skin. I've never tried it that way, but hides have been tanned traditionally with brains for thousands of years. Sometimes the raw hide is stretched to make drums or doggie treats. Yet another method of tanning is to cure the hide in a smoker. All of these methods produce different results, colors, and textures of leather, but the method I use is Salt and Alum.

After the hide is fleshed and before it starts to dry out, sprinkle a generous amount of salt over the surface, and then sprinkle alum everywhere, and you're ready to rub it all in. I use a grill stone for this, but any old pumice stone meant for your feet would work. It takes some elbow grease but rubbing in the alum will tighten the pores, and the stone will scrape off any membrane missed in the fleshing.

Now the hide should be allowed to dry out. When it has dried and stiffened, the nails are removed and the hide is washed with warm water and soap. Then the hide is also allowed to dry - but not fully! Before the hide dries there is a window for working the hide into soft and supple leather. At this stage the hide is conditioned with oil, massaged into the soft underside of the hide. Neet's Foot Oil is the best for tanning but cooking oil that has gone rancid will work fine, as will skin conditioners and lotion.

Working or "currying" the hide is the last leg of effort. The more the hide is stretched, twisted, pulled, and rubbed as it dries, the better the leather will be. My best piece of leather is a goat hide that was soaked in lime to remove the hair, and then steeped in a bucket of chestnut leaves for 2-3 months and worked for hours as it was finally being finished. Soft buckskin requires an extra tanning step, there is a membrane underneath the hair that must be removed, therefore the hair side of the hide must be scraped as well.

I hope none of these pictures were offensive and for anyone interested there is much more information on the internet and youtube. Now you have a general idea of how to turn an animal skin into something beautiful that can then be made into all kinds of practical items! A bag, wallet, drum, rug, belt, jacket, pants, football, et cetera. My friend Noel makes cargo belts, plush rugs and even vests and stoles from beautiful raccoon and beaver pelts.

Thanks for reading about hide tanning at home, the stinkiest craft I can think of.


  1. This is a great article and you've made it look easy and I'd love to know more about what you make with leather?

  2. may never try this but it's good to know



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