How to Tan Rabbit Hides
This is final part of a 3-part series on raising, butchering and processing rabbit for meat and fur.
This article has been contributed by Anne Marie Duhon. Anne Marie is a wife, mother of six and a full time off-gridder. She and her husband currently live in a totally off grid 200 sq foot “tiny home” and are in search of (again) that elusive perfect spot to call home. Besides being a wife and mother she, and her family, have raised many different animals on their various homesteads and have lived and loved being off the grid and many miles from the nearest paved road. She would like to share her first hand experiences and help others to learn to live and love living off grid and being as self reliant as possible.
How to Tan a Rabbits Hide
Tanning the hides is the final step in totally using the rabbits you have so lovingly cared for by not letting any part of your animal go to waste.
The reward for all your hard work is a beautiful, warm soft hide that could be used for anything! While these “directions” say rabbit it will work on any fur-bearing animal, just adjust according to size of the hide/pelt. There are several tried and true methods that will be discussed here, none of which call for expensive equipment or supplies.
Step One: Skinning and Fleshing the Hide
The first step is to skin the rabbit. This process is best done by peeling (not cutting) the hide off the animal as demonstrated in the following video:
After securing the hide (cutting out the head if necessary) scrape off every bit of meat and fat from the hide with a knife.
If you have the time, you can begin the tanning process immediately or you can store the hide until you have a quantity to do at one time. To store the hide, coat the flesh side liberally with plain non iodized salt, roll up flesh side in and freeze. This first step is the same no matter what solution you use to tan the hide.
Step Two: Prepare the Hide for Tanning
Soak the hide(s) in water in a plastic bag or bucket until it softens, changing the water often. This rinses off the salt also. Once the hide is soft drain and scrape the hide back and forth either over a 2 x 4 on edge or with a DULL knife or other bladed instrument. This is to break down the skin but do not scrape so much as to expose the hair roots or put holes in the hide.
Step Three: Tanning the Hide
Now here is where you have a choice. The most common method of tanning a hide is the alum and water method but there is also the traditional brain tanning method or bark (tannic acid) method. Those three will be covered here…
Option 1: Alum and Water Method
In using alum and water you first have several (5 or so) hides ready to be tanned then dissolve 2 ½ pounds of salt in 4 gallons of water in a garbage can. In a plastic bucket, dissolve 1 pound of ammonia alum in a gallon of water. Slowly pour the alum solution into the garbage can, mixing thoroughly. Soak the skin for four days, occasionally stirring to make sure the hide is well coated. Rinse thoroughly with running water.
Option 2: Brain Tanning Method
Save the brains from whatever animal hide you are tanning. There is a saying amongst tanners that each animal has enough brains to tan its own hide. So if you are doing a batch of rabbits save all their brains in a bucket.
Prepare the tanning solution by combining 1 pound of brain with 2 gallons of warm water. For best results, use rainwater. If you do not have access to rainwater, purchase bottled spring water at your local grocery store. Water treated with chlorine may reduce the effectiveness of tanning solution.
Soak the hide(s) overnight in the brain solution
The next day remove the hide from the brain solution and drain by wringing GENTLY until most of the solution is removed.
Nail the hide(s) to a flat surface, or stretch in a frame. A smooth tool like a wooden spoon or axe handle can be used to work the hide. The hide should be worked by pushing and stretching it in a stroking motion until it dries.
The final step for brain tanning is smoking the hide. Brain tanned hides are most durable if they are smoked for several hours in a smokehouse. However, be careful not to heat the hide too much. Use dry, semi-rotten wood to produce lots of smoke and low heat.
Option 3: Bark (tannic acid) Method
This method is labor intensive and takes a long time but can be done with stuff found in nature!
I found an old U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (1884) publication Home Tanning of Leather and Small Fur Skins and have summarized the basic steps for tanning a cow hide with tannic acid from bark: For rabbits just tan 10 or more hides at one time.
- Make bark liquor – 30-40 lbs. of finely ground (particles no larger than corn kernel) oak or hemlock bark.
- Boil 20 gallons of pure water (rain water is best)
- Mix in barrel (do not use iron container) and let stand for 15-20 days, stir occasionally
- When ready to use, strain off the bark by pouring through a sack
- Add 2 quarts vinegar
- Hang sides (of cow hide) from sticks in the bark, the less folds the better, move around often to insure even coloring
- As soon as sides are soaking in the bark liquor mixture, make another batch of liquor mixture
- After 10-15 days, remove about 5 gallons of mixture from the barrel with the hides, and replace it with fresh bark mixture from second batch, and add 2 quarts of vinegar.
- After 5 more days remove another 5 gallons of mixture and replace with 5 gallons of the fresh mixture (no more vinegar needed)
- Repeat twice more every 5 days – check hide by cutting a sliver from an end piece to see how much the hide has been penetrated.
- Then take another 40 lbs. of bark and moisten with water, add bark directly to the sides and bury them in the bark for 6 weeks.
- After 6 weeks, check of hide should show tanning spread nearly to the center – pour out half of the old bark liquor water and fill the barrel with fresh bark – shake the barrel from time to time, add bark and water as needed to keep hides covered – checking hide should reveal all tanned, no white or raw streak – if not complete, leave in the mixture and add more bark and water to keep covered. At this point leather to be used for harness or belt leather should be done, but leave for 2 months longer if leather is to be used for shoe soles or other uses that require a more pliable skin.
Step Four: Finishing the Hide
For any of the above methods the hide(s) need to be finished. Here is how that final step is done:
- Tack the hide, hair side down, to a piece of plywood.
- Partially dry it in a sunless place, then rub in a coat of fat liquor oil (3 ½ ounces of neat’s-foot oil combined with 3 ½ ounces of warm water and 1 ounce of ammonia). Work in half of this mixture, allow it to stand for an hour, and then repeat.
- Cover with plastic overnight. Remove the tacks, dampen the hide with a wet cloth, stretch it, and then rub it back and forth over a sawhorse or a 2 x 4 placed on edge.
- Redampen it and repeat, applying additional fat liquor sparingly.
- When the hide is perfectly supple, smooth the surface by chafing it with fine grit sandpaper.
- To clean and brighten the fur, tumble it repeatedly in dry, warm (preferably hardwood) sawdust. Bran or cornmeal may also be used.
- Clean the particles out of the fur by gently shaking, beating, combing and brushing the fur.
Now your hide is done and ready to become whatever you wish it to!
- Posted in Homesteading