1. Welcome to Taxidermy.net, Guest!
    We have put together a brief tutorial to help you with the site, click here to access it.

How to tan step by step! Beginners, this is what you need!

Discussion in 'Tutorials' started by Amy, Dec 9, 2007.

  1. Amy

    Amy Mammal artist

    I have had several requests for this lately. This is a write-up I did on tanning that I had on my website for quite a while, until I took it off (on my business website I really don't need to be telling <i>customers</i> how to tan!). Since then I have had many ask for it and while everyone has their opinions on tanning and what I have written is not the only way to "skin a cat", this is what works for me. Although it may look like I'm a spokesperson for Bruce Rittel, I'm not (unfortunately I get no free products! LOL :p), the Rittels products are just what I have been using for the past 8 years and I am extremely happy with them. I feel this is a good article for beginning tanners who have no idea what's what, and may help to give a better understanding of the steps. Enjoy...


    Are you a taxidermist who has been using dry preserve for your mounts and are interested in what's involved in the tanning process? Maybe you've been sending your hides off to a tannery, and are tired of waiting months for your hides. Or perhaps you are just looking for a way to tan a special pelt. Tanning in-shop is a lot of work but the results can be very rewarding. I am going to go over the steps I use in my shop for tanning all my hides, from squirrel to elk. The process is exactly the same.

    You may already have some of these products in your shop. If you are a beginner and have no products, this is what you need to order:

    2. RITTELS EASY TAN (EZ100), 1 lb.
    3. TANNING OIL ("PRO PLUS OIL") 1 qt.
    4. 25 lb. bag of salt
    5. Sodium Bicarbonate (Baking Soda)
    6. Ph testing strips

    You're also going to need water, a large bucket, measuring spoons and cups, and a fleshing/shaving tool.

    Let's begin with the first step. This comes right after you finish skinning the animal...

    1. SALTING

    Salting is very important because it makes the skin dry fast, leaches out unwanted liquids, and sets the hair tight. Some swear by placing a hide straight into the pickle, but wait til you see the amount of liquid the salt will draw out!

    Salting is the very first thing you should do after the animal has been skinned. Do not waste time trying to remove small pieces of flesh; you can do that during the pickling stage, when the hide is easier to shave. As long as the skin is in it's raw state, unsalted, it is collecting bacteria. And bacteria is the main cause of hair slippage.

    Remove all large pieces of meat. Turn the ears, lips, and eyes. Thin down any areas that feel thick with meat (such as the area around the nose of a deer).

    Apply a heavy layer of salt to the flesh side. Rub the salt into the flesh, making sure that it reaches into tight areas such as the ears. Then, fold it flesh-to-flesh, roll it up and place it on an inclined surface for several hours.

    When drained, open the hide up and shake out the excess salt. Re-apply another layer of clean salt and hang the hide up to dry. If you desire a very hard-dried hide, or the humidity is high, a fan placed in front of the hide will turn it rock-hard in no time.


    When you are ready to pickle your skins, you'll need to relax them in a brine solution, as they will be stiff from salting. One good product for this is Rittel's Ultra-soft relaxing agent. Or, you can just mix 2 lbs. of salt to every 1 gallon of cool water. Salt-dried skins usually relax easy (all my deer capes I simply relax in a salt and water solution) but other types such as air-dried and African flint dried skins may not relax easy. The Rittel's Ultra-Soft is definitely recommended for these kinds of skins. Add 4 tablespoons of it to each gallon of water needed to submerge the skins (8 tablespoons per gallon of water for greasy skins). Watch your hides to see how well they are relaxing. A deer cape usually relaxes in 8-10 hours, with thinner skinned animals taking less time and thicker ones could take 24 hours or more.

    The salt content in the water keeps your hide safe "for now", but the sooner it can relax and get to the pickling bath, the better.


    A pickle is a low pH acidic solution that is used to stabilize skins in the tanning process and stop deterioration. Pickling plumps the skin, which makes shaving easier, and helps to sets the hair.
    Salt alone simply creates a poor environment for bacteria to live; but it doesn't always kill it. The acidity of a pickle does, however.
    A pickle also helps remove the non-tannable proteins in the skin. Skin is made up of two types of protein - globular and fibrous. Globular protein is the unwanted protein in the skin, and that is what the pickling solution will remove. It will wash the protein away, leaving open sites for the tanning chemicals to attach to.

    So, once your skins have been salted and relaxed, they are ready to go into a pickle bath! Make sure you have removed any blood stains before you put the skins into the pickle. This will not only keep your pickle clean, but you will have less problems controlling the pH of the mixture.

    Pickling acids…

    There are many acids used to create pickle solutions. These include Formic, Citric, and "Safetee" acid. Formic is a very stable chemical used by many but is dangerous, with harmful fumes and will burn skin on contact. Citric is common as well, but tends to be weak. I use Safetee acid. While it is still an acid and care must be taken, I have put my bare hands into the solution with no ill effects other than a slight reddening of the skin (I do recommend gloves though). My dog even drank some once, and was alright. In the world of pickling acids, it is very safe.

    For every ONE GALLON of water, mix:

    1/2 oz. Safetee acid
    1 lb. Salt

    A 3-gallon mix will fully cover an average whitetail cape. A two or three gallon mix works well for a fox-sized animal or smaller. Just make sure the capes or skins are completely submerged in the pickle, no sense in overcrowding things or you could get folds in the skin and the pickle won't penetrate.

    No matter what acid you use, after mixing the pickle up, you should check the pH level using quality pH papers or pH meter. It should read below a 2.0. Best is to have it around 1. You should not let the pH go about 2.5 during pickling, and definitely not about 3.0, because then bacteria will continue to grow.

    If the pH is too high, add more acid. If it is too low, add more water and salt or a little baking soda diluted in water.

    The time it takes to thoroughly pickle the skin will vary depending on the thickness of the skin. You can tell it is completely pickled when the skin is a milky white color all the way through, with no pink color.

    The minimum time to pickle is at least 48 hours for small game, bobcats, fox, etc. and a minimum of 3 days for whitetail capes.

    Be sure to check the pH levels on a regular basis during the period the skin is in the pickle.

    Do not let the temperature of the pickle go any lower than 55F. Low temperatures cause the salt level to drop, thus lowering the protection of the pickle. For best results, keep the mixture at room temperature.

    4. SHAVING

    After at least three days in the pickle, you should take the skins out of the mixture and shave them using a fleshing/shaving machine. The thinner the skins are shaved, the softer they will be in the end. Light furs, such as fox or coyote, can be tanned soft without shaving. However, heavier thick skins like deer, buffalo, moose, or elk should definitely been shaven. This will allow you to get maximum stretch out of your skins, and let the pickle penetrate thoroughly.

    If your skins do not need to be degreased, you can now return them to the pickle. Always return the skins to the pickle after shaving. This will allow it to penetrate to areas that have now been exposed.


    If you skin is a greasy type, such a bear or raccoon, it will need to be degreased after shaving. Use Rittel's Super Solvent (1 capful to every 1 gal. Of water), or you can use 1/2 oz. of Dawn dish soap per gallon of water (if only light degreasing is necessary). Leave the skins in the solution for 30 minutes.

    Then rinse the skins and return them to the pickle for at least another 24 hours. Using Safetee Acid, they can safely be left in the pickle for a very long time as long as pH and salt levels are maintained.


    When you are ready to tan, remove the skins from the pickle and let them drain for 30 minutes or so. While they drain, mix up a neutralizing bath.

    The purpose of a neutralizing bath is to bring the pH level of a skin up. EZ-tan will bond best to the skin at a pH of 4 to 5, which is approximately the pH that your neutralizing bath should be.

    For every gallon of water needed to submerge the skins, add 1 tablespoon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Put the skins into the mixture and stir them in the mixture for 20 minutes -NO LONGER. The idea is to "partially" neutralize the skin, that is - the outside of the skin will be at a pH of 4, while the inside is still slightly acidic. The tan will go for the most acidic areas first (the inside) and work it's way out. This assures a fully penetrated tan. After neutralizing, rinse the skins well.

    7. TANNING

    EZ-Tan, in my opinion, is one of the best tanning agents you can buy (although it's not the only great tan out there! It is just waht works for me!). The skins are white-leathered, durable, soft, and stretchy, and there is little shrinkage! It is great to use for pelts, garments, taxidermy use, and rug work.
    Tanning agents are very sensitive, and you should always check the pH before putting the skins into the tanning solution. EZ-Tan tans at a level of 4.0 pH. If properly mixed, it should read a pH of 4. However, If the pH is too low, add small amounts of baking soda. If higher, add small amounts of the pickle. Check the pH before putting the skins into the mixture.

    There are two different formulas for mixing EZ-Tan:
    Tanning Formula based on wet drained weight:

    After neutralizing the skins and letting them drain, weigh them. This is their wet drained weight. For every 1 lb. of wet drained weight, mix:
    2 quarts water
    1/2 oz. EZ-tan (4.5 level teaspoonfuls = 1/2 oz.)
    4 oz. salt
    Tanning Formula based on water volume:

    You may prefer to make things simple (like me) and simply mix enough solution to completely submerge the skins. This formula is based on the amount of water used. For every 1-gallon of water wanted, mix:

    1-gallon water
    1 oz. EZ-Tan (3 level tablespoonfuls = 1 oz.)
    8 oz. salt

    You should be careful not to overcrowd the skins when using this method.
    When mixing, you should first add the EZ-Tan to a cup of warm water and let it dissolve. I find it very hard to dissolve in cold water. Then mix it, along with your salt, into your bucket of water.

    Keep the tanning solution at a comfortable room temperature (between 65-75F). Leave the skins in the mixture for 16-24 hours. 16 hours will work well for a small fox-sized animal. Almost all skins will thoroughly tan in 24 hours. After the required amount of time, remove the skins from the solution. Overtanning can cause a rubbery hide. Rinse them and allow them to drain for a while (30 minutes is what I do). Any longer and they may start to get dry.

    7. OILING

    Oiling is a very important factor in producing a soft, supple hide with minimal shrinkage. That's why it is so important that you invest in good quality tanning oil. There are several kinds of great tanning oils available. I use Rittel's "Pro Plus oil" now. I have also used Van Dyke's "Protal" in the past which is a great oil, I just don't order from that company as much.

    Once the skins have drained for 20 minutes, they are ready to be oiled. Mix the oil using 1 part oil to 2 parts warm water. It is important that the mixture be warm, because the oil will bond to the skin best when warm. Make sure that the pelt you are oiling is at room temperature, too. Apply the oil to flesh side of the pelt using a paintbrush. You may also want to rub it in with your hands (I would advise wearing plastic gloves). Apply it carefully around the edges and around holes. Keep applying the oil until the skin will take up no more. Then fold the skin up tightly, flesh to flesh and hair to hair. Put it in a warm spot to "sweat" for 4-6 hours. Maximum take-up of oil will occur in this period.

    8. DRYING - or MOUNTING!

    If the skin is to be mounted, after sweating it can be toweled dry and then mounted, or frozen for thawing and mounting later.

    If you want to dry and finish the skin (for a rug or wallhanger)… after it has sweated in the oil, open it up and hang it to dry. The time it takes to dry depends on the thickness of the flesh. It will usually take several days, but some of my very thin pelts have only taken a few hours to dry!
    When the skin is starting to dry, begin to work and stretch the fibers of the skin with your hands. This is where the work comes in, but it must be done to produce a soft pelt. If you stretch the skin carefully and the place you stretched turns white, then that area is ready to be worked and stretched. If it doesn't turn white, then it is not quite dry enough. Continue carefully stretching and pulling on the skin until the whole thing is white and it feels very soft. Working it over the edge of a table or similar object will help.

    When the skin is completely dry, you can use sandpaper to clean up the flesh side, and trim away any ragged edges. If the skin feels too stiff, you can try sanding down the flesh to produce a softer skin.

    If everything goes well, you should be rewarded with a soft, stretchy pelt with a nice white leather, that will last for a long, long time!! Or, if you're mounting it, you will have a quality mount with minimal shrinkage!

    While I certainly can't claim to be an expert on tanning, if you have any questions about what you have read here, feel free to ask me.
  2. WAY TO GO AMY!!! I think everything is here. It is nice to have this kind of information this time of year when everybody is thinking that they can do it all by themself.

    Happy Holidays

  3. oldterryr

    oldterryr Terry's in Heaven with no worries at all.

    good job amoid
  4. RiflePines

    RiflePines New Member

    Amy, it was very kind of you to go to the trouble of writing this all up.  I'm sure it will be referred to whenever a new member says "I'm trying to tan my _____ hide."

    We'll just say "Click here- http://www.taxidermy.net/forum/index.php/topic,56668.0/topicseen.html "  and they'll be off working on it for a few days.  ;)  Good job. 
  5. furhound

    furhound New Member

    Excellent work! Thorough but in plain English. Thanks.

    One thing I'd like to note. Both your instructions and Bruce Rittel's seem to be saying that it's better to salt a pelt than not. What I'm getting at is that perhaps it's more than just a way of "holding over" and really has some beneficial action on the pelt that makes it easier to process in the long run. Given that I may stop trying to rush hides into processing. The timing of the deer season in Massachusetts makes it a generally inconvenient time to try and do home tanning. Some years it works, this year is SUUUUCKS. If the salted and dried hides will keep the 4-5 months till spring a lot of things would be easier. Rinsing pickle in the dark with a garden hose at 25º is an unpleasant proposition. It's also complicated when "room temperature" in your basement is 55º. Water always runs a bit cooler than the ambient air temp. so holding PH and Salinity just gets that much trickier.

    BTW; I think you could publish how-to's on every street post and the trade would be safe. There's precious few in the world with the determination to see a process like this through. Less and less every year I think.
  6. midwestville

    midwestville New Member

    Hi. I'm trying to dye some pieces of vintage mink to cut and use in knitted garments.

    Some of the mink has dried out and hardened or become brittle over time, and has become weak.

    Is there some way to restore the moisture to the skin of the mink?

    I'm also trying to find out how to dye the mink.I have some silver/gray colored mink pieces and a couple of brown coats that I'm going to take apart to use.

    Any help you could give would be greatly appreciated. It's so hard to find info that is so specific. I've read that fly tyeing dye is good, but very expensive.

    I hope to be able to turn this into a business....my son is a freshman this year at college and I need to help pay for it. If I can do this process, I'll be a long ways to making a go of it.

    Thanks kindly,
    Jane ......user name: midwestville
  7. bruce r

    bruce r New Member

    Hey Amy

    I am going to give this taxidermy thing a try and have a WT cape to start on. I have already skinned in then I just folded it skin to skin and put it back in the freezer. Is this going to be ok or should I have put the salt on it first. Thank you for the step by step. that was awsome. I am still really nervous about fleshing the cape but i guess I just have to dive in and give it a try. I might be picking your brain quite a bit so I hope you don't mind. Anyway happy New year and thanks again Bruce
  8. dshauger

    dshauger New Member

    what kind of salt do i use?
  9. George

    George The older I get, the better I was.

    This ain't rocket science now. Salt. Regular salt, table salt, sodium chloride. No "mineral salts", rock salt, or any other chemical compositions. Just regular salt.
  10. Lisa M

    Lisa M Swing like no one is watching...lol

    Ds, I get the 50 pound bags of salt from my farm supply/feed store. The kind with no Iodine or minerals in it. A 50 pound bag costs about 5 dollars.
  11. way2blessed4this

    way2blessed4this New Member

    So new at this I dont know how to use this **** site..LOL HOwever here goes! I have 6 little squirrel in pickle and has been there for 1week and a half!!!!!!!!!!!! WAITING ON WASCO TO SEND MY STUFF! Are these little things going to be ok? Is there any way of preserving them safely in case they don't get my material to me soon? Ordered 3 weeks AGO GRRRR
  12. George

    George The older I get, the better I was.

    Squirrels will be fine.

    Rule# 1 NEVER order supplies as you need them. A "priority" on your part is still a "routine order" for the supplier.

    Rule# 2 NEVER start work on anything unless you either have the supplies on hand OR you're willing to do what you can and then wait patiently until you DO get the supplies.

    Rule# 3 NEVER order over the holiday period. If the suppliers aren't down for their own employees, you can bet the shipping and postal lanes are slowed by the volume.

    I placed an order to McKenzie on December 27 (late). I got what usually is a 3 day wait on Thursday Jan 3.
  13. crittercraft

    crittercraft A venti caffe' mocha vodka valium latte to go plz


    Wow, That's what I call a fast turn around! Must be some sort of time warp technology. :eek: LOL I wish all my orders could make it that quickly.

    Seriously though, thanks for the detailed info Amy, Very well done.
  14. George

    George The older I get, the better I was.

    OK Dave, now you can explain your post. LMAO.
  15. skullclnr

    skullclnr Active Member

    Thanks Amy!!! This is great, I got a coon this weekend that I am going to try. Question, when do you shave the meat off the hide, and how long can it sit after salting and drying before starting to pickle and relax?
  16. Mayruthie

    Mayruthie New Member

    Thank you for the complete instructions on tanning. I am about to tan my first hide. I used to skin animals for my ex (a part time trapper) and stretch them. One thing I didn't notice in your article is stretching. I have none of the mentioned products as of this time. Should I freeze the hide while I wait to receive all the ingredients from a supplier? Or start the salting process. My hide became available today and he is on ice until morning when I can skin him. Thank you for all the help. If anyone can answer my questions I would appreciate it. I am a brand new member. Thank you,
  17. Amy

    Amy Mammal artist

    To "The Dog" - You need to flesh the meat off the hide after skinning, and before salting. "Shaving" - that is, actual thinning of the hide - occurs after you have pickled for several days. As for how long a skin can sit, you can keep a skin in a dried, salted state for quite a long time. Make sure all moisture is out of the hide. Sometimes I put a fan on mine for a few days. They will turn very dry and white. I keep them like this until I'm ready to tan. Usually I'll stack hides up for 2-3 months and then start tanning them all. I tanned a cape that had been salted for two years. It turned out just fine. Salting is a great way to store a hide without taking up freezer space. Just keep them in a environment with relatively low humidity or they can start to turn flexible again and I've never thought anything good could come of that. Salted hides are also susceptible to insects (I used to think dermestids wouldn't eat a salted hide - then I found out I was completely wrong). So you don't want to toss them up in your barn roof for storage. Keep them in a stable environment, like the shop.

    maryruthie, as far as stretching, I've never stretched trapper-style hides so I can't give any insight on that. If you are tanning for a mount, no need to put them on a stretcher. You can go ahead and salt because, as I stated above, your hide will be fine in a salted state until your tanning supplies arrive.
  18. skullclnr

    skullclnr Active Member

    thanks Amy- I unfortunately salted the hide last night. I started to shave the flesh off the best I could, but the scraping just seemed to do nothing so I got my knife out. I have read a little about using preasure washers and wire wheels on the grinder do you reccomend either of these methods? Can I just let it dry and then use sand paper to get all the meat off? I got the belly fairly well done but its the eyes and nose and mouth that I am having alot of trouble with. Thanks.
  19. way2blessed4this

    way2blessed4this New Member

    OK new question!! REMEMBER IM NEW!!!!! Hubby used to do taxidermy I paid him no mind let him stay BUSY alone in his little shop. NOW I WISHED I HAD WATCHED AND LEARNED! Well hes out of town on work for a while and I got bored and dug in his stuff.. hehe WELLL started out pretty simple it seemed.. So i ordered some deer hide off the internet that had been salted and stored.. (refuse to get into his critters in the freezer) Thinkin I should have though ;D ANyhow these hides are salted But dont appear to be fleshed real well. They smell and neeed a bath before I can stomach messing with them! Smell like my saint barnard after few trips to the pond in a hot summer heat.. Wet odor.. I pulled them out they seem to be in really good shape I can get hair to pull out and ive tried!! And are beautiful! What is the safest way to give them a bath and what do i bathe them in.. I am going to tan them if this makes a difference not mounting SHould i try to flesh them better before or after the bath? Some have a hefty amount on them it seems.. HELP ME!!
    O and i dont know how to post a question on here. Only see the reply to a question..lol I am from Texas (the south) But not retarded! lol! It my seeem so! AND THANKS GEORGE FOR LETTING ME KNOW MY LITTLE SQUIRRELS WERE SAFE WERE WORRYINGGGGGGGGGGG BADDDD ABOUT THEM! MY STUFF CAME YESTERDAY!
  20. skullclnr

    skullclnr Active Member

    Amy- I have ordered all the chemicals you listed, fleshed the hide the best I could, and salted for about a 5 days. I have it in front of a fan right now and only the head adn a little of the back are getting hard and white, is this just a factor of time or do you think I need to flesh more cause the grease is keeping the hide pliable? Also when should I degrease the hide....I ordered kemsol degreaser form knochbloc. Thanks sorry to bug, just want to get it right my first time.