An Introduction to Tanning Animal Hides

Tannins are naturally occurring chemicals found in plants, fruits and nuts which have been used for centuries to tan animal hides. Learning how to tan a hide can be an important skill for anyone interested in working with leather or fur. In this article, we’ll discuss the basics of tanning hides, from materials needed to the different methods you can use.

Introduction to Tanning Hides

Tanning is a chemical process that preserves raw animal skins by changing their structure at a molecular level. This process prevents them from rotting away when exposed to air and water. The end result is a durable material known as leather or fur, both of which can be fashioned into garments, furniture upholstery, footwear, book bindings and more.

Materials Needed for Tanning Animal Hides

Before beginning any tanning project, it’s important to ensure that you have all of the necessary supplies on hand. To begin tanning hides, you will need access to either fresh brains or commercial-grade tannin powders and solutions, depending on the method you choose. You may also need birch bark oil, alkalis and other specialised ingredients, such as natural oils and minerals. Additionally, you’ll want to wear protective gear such as gloves, goggles and a face mask during your tanning projects.

The Brain Tanning Method

Brain tanning is one of the oldest forms of leather tanning. It uses the brain matter from animals (typically bison) as its main ingredient. Brain matter contains enzymes and fatty acids that break down proteins in skin cells, allowing them to become supple and pliable without becoming hard and brittle. The brain tanning process involves coating the hide with the brains of the animal and then massaging the mixture into the skin using circular motions until the hide begins to soften. Once complete, the hide must be allowed to dry before being finished with oil.

how to tan a hide

The Oil Tanning Method

Oil tanning is another traditional way of tanning hides. This method uses fish oils, vegetable oils or tallow as a preservative agent. Before applying the oil, the hide must be soaked in a bath of warm water and salt to remove any excess fat and debris. Then, the oil is worked into the hide using circular motions until the desired softness is achieved. Once complete, the hide needs to be rinsed off and dried thoroughly before being ready for finishing.

Vegetable Tanning Process

The vegetable tanning process uses tannins derived from tree bark, leaves and fruit peels as its primary ingredients. To begin this process, the hides must be treated with an alkaline solution and then left to soak in a vat of tannin-rich liquid for several days or weeks. During this time, the tannins penetrate the fibers of the hide, preserving them while keeping them flexible enough to work with. After soaking, the hides must be neutralized and washed again before they’re ready to use.

Alternative Methods of Tanning Skins

In addition to traditional tanning processes, there are now many alternative methods available for preserving animal skins. These include chrome tanning, wet white tanning and alum tanning. Chrome tanning is a modern approach that relies on synthetic chromium salts to produce leather with exceptional durability; whereas wet white tanning produces softer leathers through the use of calcium salts and organic agents. Alum tanning employs aluminum sulfate salts to create lightweight leathers ideal for making items like shoes or luggage.

Curing and Preparing Tanned Skin

Once a hide has been successfully tanned, it must be cured properly so that it doesn’t rot or mildew over time. This typically involves rubbing fats or waxes into the hide once it has dried out completely. The cured hide can then be prepared for various crafting applications depending on what type of product you intend to make. If you plan to fashion clothing items or other articles made from suede fabric, you should finish by brushing out any remaining hairs using a stiff brush. On the other hand, if you wish to make goods made from full grain leather, you should condition it with a few coats of mink oil or neatsfoot oil before beginning your project.

Final Tips and Tricks for Tanning Hides

There are a few things you should keep in mind when learning how to tan a hide:
1. Always wear protective gear such as gloves and a face mask when working with animal hides.
2. Read up on any particular tanning process before attempting it on your own – some require specialized tools or ingredients that may not be easy to find.
3. Experimenting with small pieces of scrap leather first can help you get familiar with each step involved in successful tanning.
4. Store finished products in dark places where they won’t be exposed to sunlight or damp conditions as these can cause discoloration or spoilage.
5. Make sure that your workspace is well ventilated when working with certain types of chemicals used in certain tanning processes such as chrome or alum tanning.


Tanning animal hides is an ancient craft that takes practice and patience to master but can produce beautiful results if done correctly. By following our tips above and gathering all of the necessary materials beforehand, you can learn how to effectively preserve raw animal skins so they remain soft yet sturdy enough for years of usage and enjoyment!

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