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Typical Scenario for Hide Tanning

These steps can be used for any of the tanning chemicals that Van Dyke's sells, with the exception of Krowtann 2000 or Automatic Tanner methods.

Tanning is not all that difficult to master. It is possible to deviate somewhat from the following, such as time frames, etc. but this may cause results to vary. Do Not omit any steps. This will work on nearly any type of hair on hide from muskrats, to moose. These procedures are the same for tanning a cape to be mounted or a hide that you want to be soft to be used as a rug. (For hair off, a lot of the procedures are the same with the exception that a dehairing step must be performed after the initial fleshing.)
These guidelines are not meant to replace any particular product instructions, but are intended to be used in conjunction with those instructions. The main purpose of this is to clarify some of the finer points needed to produce an acceptably tanned product.

  1. Fleshing

    Thoroughly flesh the hide, removing all meat, fat, membrane, etc. Turn the lips, eyes, ears, and nostrils. Do not wash the hide or get it wet at this time. Blood can be absorbed with a towel, but keep the hide dry.

  2. Salting

    Salting is one of the most important steps in tanning. Salting is what sets the hair and keeps the hide from decaying.

    1. Lay the hide out flat, flesh side up. Apply a heavy application of non-iodized salt. (This type of salt is commonly known as canning, pickling, or mixing salt.) DO NOT USE ROCK SALT.

    2. Rub the salt into the hide. Do not just pour it on. Make sure to cover the seam area and also around the ears.

    3. If the cape has been tube skinned, turn it over and salt the other side of the cape. Apply a layer of salt to all areas of the flesh side of the hide.

    4. Applying salt on the hair side is not necessary.

    5. After salting, roll the hide up and place on an incline to allow fluids to drain away from the hide.

    6. Wait approximately 12 hours.

    7. Unroll the hide and shake all of the wet salt off.

    8. Apply a new layer of fresh salt to the skin as explained above.

    9. Wait another 12 hours. If after these 12 hours, the skin still appears excessively wet, repeat the salting procedure again.

    10. If after the 2nd 12 hours, the skin appears to be drying, with no more fluid draining from it, it can be hung up across a rack or a 2 x 4 to finish drying.

    11. DO NOT HANG FROM THE NOSE, EARS, OR EYES. It is best to just drape the skin to allow it to finish drying.

    12. Allow to hang and dry for 24 hours.

    13. By this time, if the above steps were followed and completed carefully, the skin should be in a stable state. A stable state is when the skin can be safely left as it is for a period of time, even months, without fear of hair slippage or spoilage.

    14. One word of caution: If the hide is allowed to completely dry, it may be necessary to use a relaxer, (such as McKenzie Relaxer/Degreaser) to relax the hide before pickling.


  3. Pickling

    The next step will be pickling. There are various chemicals that will work for this. Some are more hazardous than others. Follow the instructions on the one that you decide to use. All pickle agents are acidic in nature, therefore, use of a heavy rubber glove is recommended when using these chemicals.

    Always use a plastic or rubber container with a lid. NEVER use any type of metal container. Good recommendations are a plastic trash can, or a Rubbermaid tub.

    Due to various factors such as the pH of the water in your area, it is virtually impossible to have one recipe that will work in all locations of the country. Use the instructions on your pickle only as a guideline, making sure to always check the pH, which should be between 1 and 2 on the pH scale. Sometimes it helps to use hot water to dissolve the pickle salt, but make sure you allow it to cool completely before adding the hide.

    Make sure you mix enough solution to allow the hide to be completely submerged.

    Assuming the hide has only been salted for a few days, you can now add it to the pickle bath. (If the hide has been completely dried hard after having been salted for a length of time, it should be relaxed first. See step 2 above letter “N”. Follow all of the instructions on the relaxer that you choose.)

    1. Do not allow the hide to float in the mixture. A milk jug, or something similar, filled with water and placed on the hide will remedy this.

    2. Agitate the hide several times over the next 24 hours, making sure the skin is not folded over on itself and that the solution is touching all areas of the hide.

    3. After the first 24 hours, the skin should appear nice and plump. This makes the final shaving much easier.

    4. The term shaving is not meant to be interpreted as shaving the hair. This term is used when describing thinning the actual leather itself.

    5. To be assured of the best results with your tan, the leather of the hide should be shaved to a uniform thickness.

    6. Shaving is also the first step in preventing shrinkage. A thin hide shrinks less than a thick hide.

    7. There are various ways of shaving a hide, but the most effective way is to use a fleshing, or shaving, machine.

    8. After this 24 hour period the hide should be thinned.

    9. When the shaving is complete, verify that the pH is still within the necessary range of 1 to 2 and return the hide to the pickle for a minimum of another 24 hours. 48 hours would be better still.

    10. The hide can potentially be left in the pickle for several more days, or even longer, as long as a pH of 2 or lower is maintained.

    11. To maintain the pH, more crystals or acid can be added, but REMOVE THE HIDE FIRST! Test the pH before returning the hide to the solution.

  4. Neutralizing

    This is another important step. The ideal pH of a hide for the tan to work well is between 4 and 5. This can be accomplished in one of two ways.

    The hide can be removed from the pickle and then sodium bicarbonate can be added to the pickle to raise the pH to the proper level. The hide can then be returned to the solution and allowed to soak for 20 to 30 minutes. Stir a couple of times during this final soak.

    1. The second method can be used if you are planning to reuse the pickle. (Reusing the pickle is done if you have a bigger batch, with multiple hides being done at one time. This is perfectly acceptable as long as the pickle can maintain a pH of 1 to 2. You will need to add more acid as necessary.) You can neutralize in separate container using cold water and sodium bicarbonate to adjust the bath to have a pH of 4 to 5. (If the pH happens to rise above this level, simply add acid, or pickling crystals, to lower it to the right range.)

    2. With either of the above methods, allow the hide to soak for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

    3. After removing the hide from the neutralizing bath, allow it to drain.

    4. For greasy hides, go on to Step 5.

    5. If the hide appears somewhat dirty now, you can use any of the washing agents sold by Van Dykes, such as Van Clean.

    6. Deodorizer Wash is particularly useful for smelly skins such as antelope, bear, coyote, and fox.

    7. Use only COLD water.

    8. Tumble or towel dry before going to the tanning step.

  5. Degreasing

    Since these procedures are meant to be used as guidelines for most tanning, we must include an extra step to cover those particularly greasy skins such as bears, beavers, coyotes, raccoons, otters, muskrats, and other types of animals that have greasy skins such as these. These skins have high oil content and unless this oil is removed, many problems could arise. Continual “greasing out” or odors are examples of these problems.

    Note: If the skin has not been fleshed and shaved properly, no degreaser will work correctly.

    1. Draw a cold water bath.

    2. Add a good quality degreasing agent and follow the instructions on the degreaser. One such degreaser is McKenzie Relaxer/Degreaser.

    3. With this solvent, you will add 2 oz of solvent to each gallon of water.

    4. Use enough water so the skin is not crowded in the solution.

    5. Submerge the skin and agitate occasionally for 30 minutes.

    6. After leaving the skin submerged, refer back to the washing and deodorizing steps in #4, letters G, H, & I.

  6. Tanning

    The following tanning procedure can be used with most of the tans sold by Van Dyke’s. Choosing which tan to use is a matter of personal preference. Two types of tans are; brush on tans (we recommend McKenzie Tan), and soak tans. Both are equally effective but the method of application differs. Follow the instructions on the tan that you have chosen. Regardless of which type of tan you are using, if the skin is to be used as a mount, it can be mounted “fresh” or right after the tan has penetrated.

    Note: Penetration times vary on the type of tan used. For brush on tans, leave overnight. For soak tans, 12-18 hours is sufficient. Refer to the instructions that come with your tanning product.

    Another option is used if the skin can not be mounted right away, is to freeze the skin after tanning. Again, allow the tan to penetrate first before freezing the hide. Towel drying the hair is usually advisable before freezing and helps the tanned skin to thaw more quickly when you are ready to mount.

  7. Softening

    This procedure is not necessary, and not advisable, if the skin is to be used for a mount. Skins being used for rugs and throws are more desirable if the skin is at least somewhat soft.

    Softening is often referred to as breaking. This procedure actually breaks down the fibers in the leather, leaving it soft.

    Thin skinned animals such as deer, fox and bobcats are usually fairly easy to break.

    1. One method that works well is to dry the hair thoroughly and hang the hide in a well ventilated area. Watch the skin closely while it is hanging so as not to let it get completely dry.

    2. When the hide is about 80% dry, which is when the hair is not “wet”, but the skin is still pliable, apply a good quality softening oil, such as McKenzie Leather Oil, to the skin side of the hide.

    3. As the hide begins to dry after the first layer of oil has been applied, stretching the hide should begin.

    4. Stretch the hide in every direction 3-4 times each day.

    5. You should be able to see the hide start to turn white as you stretch it, indicating the fibers in the leather are starting to break.

    6. When the first application of softening oil is about 80% dry, repeat this procedure.

    7. Repeat again, a third and final time.

    8. As the hide dries this final time, stretch and pull it even more frequently.

    9. By this time, the hide should remain soft and pliable.

    Note: Heavier hides require even more breaking. Follow steps below for heavier hides.

    1. These hides still require the 3 applications of softening oil but need additional breaking between drying times.

    2. These hides are often broken by using a “see-saw” motion over the edge of a 2 x 4 to help break it.

    3. Going over the whole skin side of a hide with a belt sander with 60 grit sandpaper will “dress” the hide giving it a suede finished look.

  8. Additional Information on Extremely Heavy Hides

    Extremely heavy hides are hides such as beef and buffalo. These are very hard to work with without the proper equipment.

    Equipment that is essential to this process is a high quality fleshing machine, for shaving the hide, and an 8’ to 10’ heavy duty fur drum, for breaking the hide. A standard tumbler is NOT an acceptable substitute for the above mentioned fur drum. Even with this equipment, achieving an acceptable quality product is questionable at best.

    1. If you still plan on attempting this, first of all, GOOD LUCK! This will be a difficult process.

    2. Secondly, be prepared to spend at least 16 hours or longer on the fleshing machine, and even longer on the breaking process.

    3. If you do not have a fleshing machine, it is highly recommended by Van Dykes staff, that you send the hide to a professional tannery.

  9. Trouble Shooting

    1. Problem: “The hair is falling out of my hide!”

      Probable Causes:

      1. Improper field care.

      2. Hide was not salted or fleshed properly.

      3. Proper pH levels were not maintained.

    2. Problem: “My hide has a smell to it”

      Probable Causes:

      1. Hide was not properly fleshed.

      2. Hide was not properly degreased, washed, or deodorized.

    3. Problem: “My hide does not have any stretch or has excess shrinkage.”

      Probable Causes:

      1. Hide was not thinned properly.

      2. Hide was not neutralized.

      3. Hide was soaked too long in tanning solution
        (This occurs with soak tans more than brush tans)

    4. Problem: “I can’t get the hide soft.”

      Probable Causes:

      1. Hide was not thinned properly.

      2. Hide was left to dry too long without applying softening oil.

      3. Hide was not broken (or, not broken enough).

    5. Problem: “The hide has hard spots in it”

      Probable Causes:

        1. Hide has thick spots that did not get thinned.

        2. Hide got folded over on itself in the pickle or neutralizing bath.

        3. Hide was salt dried hard and not relaxed properly before putting it in the pickle.

        4. Areas were missed in the breaking or oiling application.

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