Crosspost/gatherup of a series I did on my Tumblr. Enjoy!
I should probably mention at this time that rubber gloves and soap’n’water may be helpful in preventing nasty death bacteria from infecting you. I was stupid lucky and didn’t catch anything from a domestic goat skin that had spent considerable time under salt. I also have a relatively good immune system (when chemo had just finished? You wouldn’t have caught me near this shit). The chemicals involved will help protect you to an extent, but (ESPECIALLY when tanning wild and/or roadkill hides) rubber gloves and careful sanitation will help keep you from contracting NASTY DEATH-DEALING INFECTIONS OF PUKE BLOOD SHIT AND TERROR that will send you to the hospital and require medicines and money to fix if they don’t kill you outright. Much better to just wear rubber gloves and wash with good soap, yeah?
[I’m trying to scare you, but not completely off- with simple rules and precautions (NO LICKING THE HALF CURED HIDES. DO NOT DRINK THE BONG TANNING WATER.) tanning this way can be fun, pretty simple, and totally worth it. But there’s no need to be stupid about it, and an untanned skin can rot. Anything rotten can grow bacteria of a sort that can seriously hurt you. And it is far better to be safe than sorry when handling dead things. Be sensible here, people.]
So, you want to tan a hide, for various and sundry reasons. But you a) don’t know how, b) can’t buy a lot of special ingredients, and c) are more than a bit intimidated by the whole process.
Fear not. I have the answer 😉 The recipe is good for tanning hides with hair on or off. Not so good for feet-on, though. It works for any kind of skin, from rabbit to goat to cow. It is mammal only, so no tanning bird leather this go-round 😉
First off, we secure the necessary chemicals. Most can be found at a grocery store or a place such as Wal-mart- what can’t, can be ordered relatively cheaply online.
Here’s your list (for the very basic recipe):
- Borax, at least 1 ounce (20 Mule Team Borax, a 4lb 12oz box was less than $4 at Wal-mart. Is good shit to clean around house with, too.)
- Saltpetre [potassium nitrate], 1/2 ounce (I had some lying around, but since it is used to make stuff like corned beef its fairly easy and not illegal to get a hold of. Specialty foods store should have it, or any one of a plethora of online suppliers.)
- Sodium Sulfate, 1/2 ounce (According to my mother, this is optional. She didn’t have it to use and just omitted it. 20+ years later the skins she made were still good, so I think its ok if you can’t find it. If not, look online at chemistry supply sites.)
- Sodium Carbonate, 1 ounce (either look for washing soda in the laundry section, or pH balancer in the spa section. I got a 4 lb box at Wally World for less than $4, and it also makes excellent household cleanser. Just make sure you’re buying carbonate not bicarbonate at this time)
- Refined Soap, 2 ounces (I found Kirk’s Original Coco Castile at a tiny grocery store. It’s also available online. Though my mother recommends Kirk’s, I’m going to use a powdered hand soap [with borax!] that we found because I roll that way. Any good castile soap will work, as long as it has no scent.)
- Sodium Bicarbonate, or Baking Soda- anywhere from 2 to 8 ounces, depending on how much you repeat that part of the recipe (I got a 1 lb box for less than a dollar.)
- Alum, 4 to 16 ounces (OH MY FUCKING GOD BUY THIS SHIT ONLINE. Walmart does not have it. Kmart does not have it. Winco had it, for $4 a 1.9 ounce jar. BUY IT IN BULK ONLINE, YOU WILL SCREAM FAR LESS. It’s used in pickling, if that helps you find it.)
- Salt, 8 to 32 ounces (I had a bunch, but it doesn’t need to be special salt. Just yer basic sodium chloride, in bulk.)
- Distilled water, to mix chemicals in (you can rinse the hides in tap water, but you want to mix chemicals in good clean water)
That’s it! Please get ALL THE SUPPLIES before you start. Trust me, it will make shit a lot easier later on. And the beauty of it is that none of it goes bad, so you can get it far in advance of any skins.
In addition, you will need a bucket large enough to hold all the skin(s) fully submerged in water, a brush to scrub with, a sharp knife to scrape the hide with (if it wasn’t cleaned previously), a bowl to mix your ingredients in, a brush, a place to hang it to drip dry, a warm place, and a cool-but-not-freezing place. Once the leather is tanned, you’ll need sandpaper and/or a pumice stone.
I HIGHLY SUGGEST you do this outside in scrubby clothes. It has a definite aroma, so factor that into your preparations. Or, do it in an easy-to-clean bathroom.
(I leave it up to the reader to procure the skin. These instructions are for once you’ve got the skin off the animal in one nice floppy piece or more, depending on how good you were at cutting.)
Now comes the messiest and most time consuming part- de-fleshing the skin. With a sharp knife and a pair of pliers, scrape, pinch, and pull off every scrap of flesh and fat and membrane until you have only skin left, corner to corner, edge to edge. What you can’t scrape off will have to be trimmed off later. You could tell on my goat skin because the skin was clean and white, and where cut you could see the hairs rooted in the skin. It also took me two hours humped over the damn board to do that, my knife and pliers and hands were soaked in greasy goat fat, and I smelled. (A protip- sometimes the membrane comes off easier if allowed to dry slightly, especially on fatty animals.) (Another protip- do not wear your best clothes or shoes for this shit.)
Now, since I took a while to get my supplies together, I stretched and salted my hide to preserve it from flies (my mom managed to start a colony of dermestrid beetles in a forgotten skin so the concern is a viable one). (By stretching and salting it, I essentially made goat rawhide. Regular rawhide can be used to practice on, should you not want to ruin your pretty pieces.) To prepare it for use, I soaked all the salt out. You could freeze skins fresh, if time is a concern, or use them fresh off the animal. Just let them sit in salted water to draw out any subdural blood, rinse well, then continue with the tanning process.
Now you must decide if you want hair on or off. If you want hair on, ignore the rest of this paragraph. If you want smooth leather, allow the skin to sit, fully submerged in water, for several days in a warm area (a sunny spot, in a bucket, with a board or lid to keep the bugs out works admirably). What you are doing is basically letting the skin rot slightly so the hair loosens and pulls out easily. Tug on it every day and when it starts shedding like a white cat on black velvet start plucking and scraping.
For each skin you’re tanning (because you can do more than one at a time, depending on bucket size and amount of chemicals), take a half ounce of the borax, saltpeter, and sodium sulfate (if you have the sulfate. I didn’t and it came out just fine.) (If you have a large skin, like, say, a goat instead of a rabbit, you may have to increase the amount of chemicals to get a decent coat on the skin. Just keep the ratio of 1:1:1 and you’re golden.) Take your distilled water and add just enough to make a spreadable but not runny paste. You want this crap to stay in place, not ooze out the sides.
Now, spread your goop on the FLESH SIDE ONLY of your hide (even if you scraped off the hairs. This is very very important.) Make sure you get a decent smear on there; it doesn’t need to be caked on, though (think a glaze instead of buttercream frosting, if culinary metaphors get you going). Fold the skin in half, flesh side inwards, trying to be as even as the skin itself allows. (If space is an issue you can fold it up further, just as long as the goop stays on the flesh side.)
Set it somewhere cool, but with no chance of freezing, for 24 hours. Yes, that’s right, 24 hours. (I recommend starting it at a time when you know you’ll have time to work on it each day. This recipe doesn’t involve much intensive labor but it does involve daily poking.) I started mine in the evening because that’s when I had spare time. You can start it whenever is best for you, though I do recommend having your 24 hour sitting place be a) outside and b) as fly-proof as you can manage. (a because it smells, b because actual preservation does not occur until day three so the threat of maggots is a real one.) I also recommend having a hose or water source available to rinse the skin(s) during the tanning process. Be careful of runoff, because some of the crap is not good for living green things.
Near as I can tell, this is a three stage process. Day one (this one) seems to pull the fat and rancid-causing crap out of the skin (I base this idea on the yellow greasy shit that appeared overnight while my goat skin was undergoing Day One.) Day Two cleans all the icky crap off of the skin, while Day Three+ actually preserves it. (For all you pagan types and/or spiritual peoples, this translates awful well into a ritual of release for the spirit of the animal, should that be desired. Or a ritual of transformation. Just a simple thought…)
Once it has sat for 24 hours, take your skin and hose the worst of the fatslime off. (By now it should be smelling a leeeeettle ripe. Fear not, it’ll get better.
You got two ways to mix up your goop for today- with powdered soap (like I did), or unperfumed castile soap (Kirk’s Coco Castile is just about perfect, if you can find it). If using powdered soap, take 1 ounce sodium carbonate, 1/2 ounce borax, and 2 ounces powdered soap, and mix together in distilled water. (Cool chemistry fact- the concoction will heat up even if you’re using cold water. Not enough to burn, just enough to be warm.) If using castile soap, mix up the 1 ounce of sodium carbonate, 1/2 ounce of borax, and 2 ounces of castile soap in a pan on the stove. Melt the soap slowly- DO NOT ALLOW TO BOIL– and mix thoroughly.
Either way, once you’ve prepared your goop, spread it over the flesh side and fold in half again. Put it in a fly-proof container and set in somewhere warm for another 24 hours. (Or, put it somewhere where it can catch the sun for half that time.) This stage gets the rancid-causing stuff off and cleans the skin very very well.
Hose off the worst off the goop, and get some hot water (you can boil distilled water, or use hot tap water if you have soft water) sufficient to dip your skin into wholesale. Add 2 ounces of Sodium Bicarbonate, dissolve completely in the hot water, and then soak your skin in that.
While the skin is soaking, prepare another batch of hot water. Take 4 ounces of alum and 8 ounces of salt, and dissolve that to the fresh batch of hot water. Take the skin out of the bicarbonate water and wring most of the water out; then put the skin in the alum/salt water.
Let sit for twelve hours. Remove from water; wring excess water out then set it up somewhere to dry (either hang it up or put it on an incline). Allow to dry for another 12 hours.
Once the skin is dry you can move on to the next step, which is repeating the alum/salt bath and the 12 hour soak/dry cycle up to 4 times, depending on preference and how soft you want the hide. I did mine twice and it remained pretty flexible, so feel free to experiment with how many repetitions you do here. By now it should smell like leather instead of wet dead thing (the repeated alum/salt baths really helped with that stank, I found).
So, once you’re done with the final drying, you’re all set right?
Wrong. Now comes the most pain in the ass part of the whole process- working the leather to suppleness. You bend it. You fold it. You beat it with sticks. If you have no hair on it, you chew the motherfucker into submission. You roll it over pipes and play tug-o-war with it until the fibers in the skin are loosened and it behaves. Neat’s foot oil can help (though not if you’re chewing it, because bleh), though not too much at a time because then it turns into a greasy mess. When it’s finished your leather will be supple and easy to bend and fold. (Improvement comes with practice. Lots of practice.)
For those interested, I got the recipe pretty much verbatim (though translated into modern vernacular) from Dr. Chase’s Recipes, which you may purchase in a paperback edition or read for free on Google Books. (Yon link should direct to the recipe itself. If not, search for “fifty dollar leather recipe”.) I do recommend it, because it’s stuffed full of how to do the things that most cell-phone-toting peoples have forgotten how to do. Take it with a grain of salt though, because some of the medicines and preparations and things have since been found ineffective or just plain toxic (like the white lead in the patent leather recipe).