Tanning Sheep Hides The Easy Way

Samantha BiggersSamantha Biggers | Updated Jul 3, 2019 (Orig - Oct 15, 2018)

 

 

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Over the years Matt and I have raised a lot of meat for the table. My second or third attempt at hide tanning was a small smooth haired sheepskin. Before that, I had attempted to tan a cattle hide, but at the time I just didn’t have the best set up for stretching out or working a hide that large. The result was some stiff cowhide rugs that we eventually discarded after using for a while in our house.

My first really nice hide! This one encouraged me to keep at it. The hide is from a Corsican Sheep. When Leroy Brown was a puppy, he would hoard all the things he could find around the house and then sleep on it!

A few years ago we started raising Shetland Sheep. They are a small breed. The full sized adult male is about 24 inches at the shoulder. For us, this is a good-sized animal that meets our needs for keeping things eaten down. The females are naturally hornless too which is a great advantage compared to some old breed livestock.

While we shear and have the wool spun, we also have an excess of sheep that we sell or butcher. When we butcher, we are left with a hide that is a shame to waste. Tanning sheep hides are some work but it is not as bad as you might think and the results are beautiful, and the rugs last a very long time. Our cats are in love with their sheepskin rugs, and a few of our dogs will come in and lay on them sometimes. Leroy Brown has seasonal affective disorder meaning that he starts acting cold when the morning temps hit the low 60s!

My cowhide rug back in 2014 when we were about finished building our small house. We were determined to make or build as many of the furnishings as possible.  This hide is from a Dexter steer, which is a very small breed of cow. A full-grown Hereford or Holstein hide would be twice this size. Cowhides are very heavy, especially when wet and draining. I had Matt around to help, but if this cowhide had been from a full-sized standard breed of cow, it would have been quite difficult.

Skinning

Skinning is the first step after letting a sheep bleed out. Care must be taken to use a sharp knife and avoid cutting yourself. Other common things to happen are putting holes in the hide. Sometimes due to skin imperfections or thinness in certain areas, it may be unavoidable to have a few small holes. We will get into how to fix that a bit later on. When skinning you want to make sure that you stay away from cutting into muscle. The more muscle tissue and fatty parts you leave on the hide the more work you will have later on. Taking the time to skin well and accurately is worth it, but it takes practice so if you have a little bit more fat or muscle on there you can get it off later.

At this point, you have to switch your attention to gutting and the rest of the butchering process, but luckily the next step for hide tanning is salting so you have time to do all the other things.

Matt and I getting ready to skin and butcher out the sheep in August.

We had some help this time from our friend Tagir. Matt had to stop and take the pics for us at times, so he was doing multiple jobs.

To Tan With The Hair On:

Trim away flesh and fat that is in excess,

Once a hide is off the carcass, you can trim off a few bits here and there if you have time and help. As long as there are not a ton of big chunks you are fine.

Salt your hide very well. Salt is cheap so don’t skimp on this step.

Use salt and cover the flesh side well making sure to rub it in a bit and get all the edges of the hide. The edges are easy to miss so take some care. Fold the hide up, so the flesh parts are touching.

Protect your hide from pets and pests.

Put the hide in a plastic tote or something that will protect it from other animals. Leroy Brown got two of my hides once by squirming through two fences when I stepped away for a moment. The smell of something like a hide is just too much temptation for a lot of dogs even if they are normally well behaved. I about cried when this happened because it was the most beautiful one I had the privilege of tanning up to that point. He is very confined now when hide tanning is going on. Any varmints around will be drawn in by any butchering or hide tanning too!

Scrape and salt the hide again. This is another opportunity to get off any little bits of fat and muscle you missed.

Me scraping and trimming a few goat hides back in 2014 or so.

After 24 hours scrape all the salt off you can and resalt. Wait another 24 hours and scrape off the salt again. If you forget for a day, it is usually okay as long as there is some salt on the hide. A hide spoils a lot slower at lower temperatures, and you don’t have to deal with flies, bees, and hornets while you are tanning.

Soak hide in a salt water bath

To make the salt bath simply dissolve 1/2 lb of table salt per gallon of hot water.  For a sheep hide I usually only need a few gallons. Soak your hide in a salt and water solution for 6-8 hours and rinse very well.  You can use a rock or something similar to weigh it down, so it doesn’t float on top of the bath.

The better you rinse, the more effective the next step will be. I use a garden hose to increase the effectiveness of rinsing.

Wash the hides in strong dish detergent to degrease and cut the dirt.

Now you get to wash your hides. A strong soap is needed. I use name brand Dawn and soak and wash twice. Greasy skins require that second wash and sheepskins and fleece quality. Bear is another hide that you have to wash well twice before proceeding.

At this point, your hide will still be smelly.  You need to allow it to be sundry until it is still a little moist and pliable. If the hides get too dry, you can moisten them slightly with warm water but please be careful and don’t add too much.

Warm Hunters and Trappers Hide Tanning Formula in the sun or a tub of hot water.

Lay down your hides on something you don’t mind getting a little oily or stained. I use an old folding table or even the porch. Use thick waterproof disposable gloves or nitrile medical gloves and rub the tanning solution into the skin making sure to get the edges well. You just need to make sure there is a coating of tanning formula on the whole flesh side. The larger the hide, the more bottles you will need. I can do 2-3 Shetland hides with a single bottle. Very large hides require 2-5 bottles. A single deer skin can be done with one bottle.

I like the Hunters Formula because it is inexpensive, easy to keep on hand, and it works well to produce a softer than. A lot of people mix up their tanning formulas or buy an assortment of products. For me just doing a few sheep hides a year, there has not been a lot of incentive for me to use anything but the all in one bottle! It is good for those that are just thinking about tanning a hide because you don’t have to invest a lot. A few bucks for a single bottle versus buying a lot of different things and learning how to use them in combination, can make it overly complicated to those just getting started learning a new skill. You can purchase it in bulk at a lower cost per bottle.

Brain Tanning

It is true that animals have exactly enough brains to tan their hide. I have been asked if I do this or ever have and the answer is no. The process costs less money than using the oils I do but it takes more time, and it requires that you have the head. I have heard of people using pork brains to tan hides when they don’t have access to the head of the animal.

Basically to use the animal’s brain you have to saw into the skull, extract the brain, cut it up, cook it with some water, emulsify it with an immersion blender or tater masher, allow to cook a little and then smear it on your hide. That is a little much for most people. I considered doing it with these last sheep, but I had a lot going on in my life and house guests to spend time with so I did not. The oil does a good job producing a good tan on my hides so I am going to leave the brain tanning for some other time or if SHTF and I run our of tanning oil for sheep hides. That reminds me that I need to put back a few bottles!

I am going to share this video for those of you that want to try brain tanning since I have no experience with this method and can just gloss over the process.

After the hides are folded flesh side to flesh side with the tanning oil on them, you leave them for 24-36 hours.

Drying the hide, stretching, and breaking

Next, you are going to dry your hide. This is a neat part of the process because the hide goes from wet and sticky to that leather texture that you expect. Hang the hides flesh side out in the sun making sure to bring them in if it starts to rain of course. Around here we get a lot of afternoon thunderstorms in the warm months, so it is a bit of an issue.

After the hides have dried for a day, you can stretch them out on a frame if you want a perfectly flat hide of maximum size. For small sheepskins, I just tack them to a pallet at times and turn occasionally. These last hides I just ran across a board to soften and did not botter with stretching. While breaking them by a lot more stretching an pulling may have improved them a little, it is a lot more work, and again I was short on time. Three hides at once were the most I had done, and I was supposed to be going a few places for family gatherings during this time. Tanning hides have a lot of stopping points, but there are times when you have to do what you have to do and not dally.

The smell factor

Hide tanning is smelly, and one of the bigger challenges I have faced at the end of the process is getting the hides to smell less like the animal they came from. Baking soda and vacuuming and combing seem to help with sheep hides. I used some of the Arm and Hammer Carpet Fresh this time since we were sending a rug home with our friends that were traveling internationally and needed the rugs to smell good a little faster than usual.

The Carpet Fresh worked pretty well but it was hard to get out of the wool, and I am sure some stayed. This has led me to believe I should just use good old fashioned baking soda and add scent as needed. I never use the artificial fragrance style of cleaners usually because, to be honest, it burns my nose. The Carpet Fresh made me sneeze. In the future, I, am going to try using just Baking Soda and maybe some natural fragrance.

Hide from sheep butchered in August 2018. These turned out really well considering I was a bit rushed for time when we butchering. It was really hot outside too which can be challenging when dealing with flies, gnats, and yellow jackets.

Hair Off Tanning

Tanning with the hair off takes longer than leaving the hair on. A lot of the steps are the same as hair on. I will briefly outline this process. It is useful if you want some nice leather for various crafts.

  1. Clean excess fat and muscle off your hide as much as you can.
  2. Soak your hide in plain water with no additions for as long as it takes for hair to loosen. You need to make sure to dump the old water and use clean water each day you soak otherwise you will not be successful, and it will get gross.  It can take up to 6 days for a deerskin, so this is something to keep in mind before you get started.
  3. After hair loosens, you need to scrape the hide clean and rinse it very well.
  4. Prepare a bath of salt and bleach. You need 1/2 lb of salt per gallon of hot water. Be careful how much bleach you add! You only need a 1/2 capful per 5 gallons of water. Let hide soak for 6-8 hours. I have read that red, and grey fox hides only need to be soaked for a mere 15 minutes.
  5. Rinse hide and allow excess water to drain off well.
  6. Thin down the hide using a sharp knife. There is a tool called a wire wheel that Hide Tanning Formula recommends using if you allow the hide to an almost dry state. I have not tried using a wheel on any of the hides I have done.
  7. Wash the hides in dish detergent 2-3 times depending on how greasy or dirty they are.
  8. Hang hides up and allow to drain and dry until just moist.
  9. Warm Hide Tanning Formula in a bucket of hot water.
  10. Massage tanning formula onto the flesh side of the hide.
  11. Hang to dry or put on a stretching frame. You can pull or stretch it as desired.

Breaking A Hide On a Board

Sometimes to break a hide and soften it up, Matt and I will each grab a side and pull it back and forth over a board. The porch railing works pretty well for this. You can use a smooth wood fence post or anything else that will rub but not tear. If you are going to do a lot of hides, you may want to make something specific.

Have you tanned hides? Any tips for those beginning to learn? One of my biggest challenges has been having something on hand to stretch it and keeping the dogs out of the hides throughout the process. I would be interested in hearing what you have done to make them smell good too!

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected]

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Updated Jul 3, 2019
Published Oct 15, 2018

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3 Responses to “Tanning Sheep Hides The Easy Way”

  1. Some of the steps in this post are a bit hard to follow… specifically the salting part.
    It would be helpful to have a straight forward, step by step instruction without the added storyline.

    Reply
  2. Great info and story, I’m off to tan two sheep hides :). Thanks for putting the time into this.

    Reply
  3. Have been tanning sheep hides with the Rit Kit (RIP) for decades and am just now going at 3 long wool sheep skins, for the first time with the Orange Bottle.
    Your directions-instructions-experience are excellent. Thank-you!

    I leave my hides stiff because they are for pet beds and I find the critters don’t chew on them as much if they can’t wrangle the stiff ol things very well.
    But, oh my, pets do LOVE them, don’t they?! Haven’t seen a geriatric pet bypass one yet.

    Reply

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