It is best to use as much of the deer as you possibly can, so knowing how to tan a deer hide is a great skill. Once you have tanned your animal hide, you can use it for many different things, like making clothes, shoes, belts, gloves, and wallets.

While the steps to tanning a hide are fairly simple, you still need to have some muscle strength and brains. There are different ways you can tan a hide, but we are going to show you how to tan hide with brains (not your brains), which is a natural tanning process.

Recommend supplies for hide tanning:

  • Deer hide (dried, frozen, salted, or fresh)
  • Scraping beam and scraper
  • Pressure washer
  • Trash bags
  • Five gallon bucket
  • Brains
  • Cable and stake
  • Cable clamps (2)
  • Sandpaper
  • Salt (3lbs.)
  • Rubber gloves
  • Safety goggles

Once you have all of the tools, you can move on to Step 1 of the tanning process.

You are first going to inspect your hide for damage, and trim off any edges. Then, you will remove the flesh and wash the hide in water.

Next, you will remove the hair and scrape off the grain, remove any moisture, and then apply the braining solution. You will then wring the hide and repeat as necessary. Finally, you will soften your hide and smoke it to preserve its softness.

Before you read through these steps, here is an excellent video by Rambooutfitters you should watch on how to tan your hide using brains. The short 5 minute video starts out by briefly explaining the importance of tanning the animal's hide.

Then it goes through the steps, beginning with the scraping process, going through the salting and soaking process, and finally ending with the softening and smoking process to preserve the hide.

Step 1: Inspect your Hide

This step is very important. The first thing you want to do is inspect your hide to be sure that your hide is actually good for tanning. It should not have any holes or abrasions.

After you have inspected the hide, go ahead and trim off any edges, especially the thick parts that are around the neck.

Tanning a hide is already a difficult, time consuming, and laborious task, so removing these challenging areas will only make your hide turn out better.

Step 2: Remove the flesh from your Hide (Fleshing)

There are two ways you can remove the flesh from your hide: with a scraper and with a pressure washer. Both are natural ways, but the pressure washer will be easier.

Fleshing with a Scraper

If you do not have a scraper that is meant for tanning hides, you could use something like a dull planer blade. You do not want the blade to be so sharp that it will destroy the hide.

You will drape the hide on a scraping beam, or fasten it to a tarp on the ground, and then use quick, strong strokes to remove the flesh. Scrape small parts of the flesh off at a time.

Fleshing with a Pressure Washer

Secure your hide, and then pressure wash the flesh off the hide. It's recommended you use a standard pressure washer that has 1800 PSI, which most home pressure washers can do.

Test the pressure washer on a corner of the hide first in case it is too strong and the hide rips. Then, move the stream along the hide fairly quickly, as keeping it in one place can put a hole in the hide.

Step 3: Salt and Soak your Hide

Salting your hide removes any moisture and impurities. Simply lay your hide on the ground, and completely cover the flesh side of the hide with salt. Fold the flesh side onto itself, roll it up, and put it in the five gallon bucket. Let it rest for 24 hours, then shake out the hide, reapply fresh salt, and repeat.

Once you have salted your hide, it is time to soak it. Soaking makes it easier to remove the hair and the membrane. You can soak your hide the old-fashioned way in a creek or bucket where your hide should soak for a minimum of two days, but the soaking can take up to several weeks. You will know that your hide is done soaking when you can easily tug the hair out of the hide.

There are many different solutions you can use for soaking your hide a little more quickly, like in lye and water, or in vinegar and salt. You can also soak your hide in just a salt water solution.

For the salt water solution, dissolve 1/2 pound of salt for every gallon of very hot water with alum solution(alum tanning) and let the hide soak until the hair starts to come off. This can be anywhere from 6-24 hours.

Step 4: De-Hair and Remove the Membrane

Remove the hair, which is on one side of the hide, and the membrane, which is on the flesh side of the hide. You can tug the hair out with your hand, and then use the scraper to remove the grain.

The grain is what holds the hair to the hide, and can be difficult to remove. It is best to start in the middle, use force, and follow a methodical approach.

Once you have removed the hair, you need to re-hydrate the hide. You can do this by soaking the hide, then flip the hide over so that the flesh side is up.

Remove the membrane in much the same way as you removed the grain. This will be easier than removing the grain.

Step 5: Clean your Hide

Up through this point, you have essentially been cleaning your hide to prepare it for tanning, which is a form of lubricating the hide for practical use.

It is important to clean your hide one last time, and you can do so with some natural soap.

This will remove any remaining grease, dirt, or blood that might still be present on the hide. You can use a gentle scrub brush with a bucket of soap and water.

Step 6: Dry and Stretch your Hide

This is the final step before you tan the hide. You want your hide to be just barely damp. It should not be dripping wet, but it does not have to be bone dry either.

It is best if you stretch out your hide on the drying rack with cables. You can poke holes in the hide and string the hide to the drying rack.

Let the hide dry out for a couple of days or up to a week. The hide needs to dry in a place where there is ample air circulation.

Once your hide is damp, you are ready to start tanning.

Step 7: Brain your Hide

If you are not using your brains, you are using a tanning formula. So, let's just stick to the brains.

The composition of the brains, particularly the fat and lecithin, work very well on hide. You need a pound of brains (or one deer brain) that is blended up into small pieces, 1.5 gallons of hot water, and 1/4 cup of oil. It should be the consistency of a milkshake.

Completely submerge the hide in the brain solution and let it sit. It needs to soak for at least 15 minutes, but you can let it soak for as long as 24 hours.

Once the hide has finished the soak, remove the hide from the brain solution and wring it out. You can do this by looping the hide around the wringing pole and twisting it. Then, you need to repeat this brain tan process 2 to 4 more times.

The brain solution must penetrate the entire hide.

Step 8: Soften and Dry the Hide

After you have sufficiently brained the hide, you need to dry it. Unless you keep the fibers moving, the hide will dry and become very hard like rawhide.

There are different ways to soften the hide. You can hit it with a stick, stretch it out with a partner, or work it back and forth across a rope or railing. Do anything you can do to keep it moving, and continue softening the hide until you are tired.

It will take several days for the hide to dry. Jim Miller from Brain Tan explains that, during these several days, you need to be softening the hide as much as you possibly can.

You can always dampen a small portion of the hide to soften it again, but be careful that you do not wet the entire hide, as you will be back where you started.

Step 9: Smoke the Hide

Once your hide is soft and dry, you need to smoke your hide. When you smoke your hide, you are making buckskin, and buckskin stays soft no matter the weather.

You need to make the hide into a pouch using stitches, glue, or staples. The neck end should be the open end, and the side that had the hair should be the outside of the pouch. The open end should face down towards the fire.

Now, you need to make yourself a fire. Your fire needs to create a lot of smoke for one to six hours (30 minutes to three hours for each side of the bag). You can build a good smoke fire, as Jeff Phillips with Smokey-Meat suggests, by following these steps:

1. Gather your kindling, create a teepee, and stuff the teepee with paper.
2. Light the paper and gently blow on the flames.
3. Add hard dry wood, which will turn into coals and sustain the fire.
4. Let the fire burn until a coal bed forms.
5. Move the coals to a hole in the ground.
6. Add the half-rotten wood to the coals in the ground.

Once you have your smoke fire going, you need to fashion the hide bag over the smoke so that the smoke is captured by the bag. The easiest way to arrange your hide is on sticks that hold the hide open over the fire.

The hide should be flush with the ground, but you can create a little opening so that you can continue to feed the fire. The smoke needs to fully penetrate the hide before you can turn the hide pouch inside out to smoke the membrane side.

After you have smoked your hide, you have officially tanned your hide using brains.

Bottom Line

It can take some time (even weeks) to tan hide with brains, but tanning your own deer hide is an extremely rewarding process.

Not only will you have honored and expressed gratitude for the animal, but you will have produced a material that is durable, long-lasting, valuable, and practical.

The next step is to figure out how you are going to use the hide, so get creative.