Borax Method for Tanning Hides

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Animal hides are preserved by tanning.
Animal hides are preserved by tanning. (Image: animal-hide image by sumos from Fotolia.com)

Long ago, the Native Americans used wood, woodsmoke and animal brain tissue as tanning agents to cure and preserve animal hides. Today, chemicals are used, but the process still involves a deal of time, energy and patience. Tanning is a craft that requires some trial-and-error and some experience to perfect. The Borax method is suitable for smaller, thinner pelts, such as those of rabbits.

Things You'll Need

  • Plywood board
  • Thumbtacks
  • Sharp knife
  • Large, shallow plastic tray
  • Rubber gloves
  • 1 lb. table salt per small pelt
  • 10-gallon plastic garbage can
  • 1 lb. Borax
  • Wooden pole
  • 1 lb. alum
  • Neatsfoot oil

Scraping and Salting

Pin the pelt, fur side down, to a board using thumbtacks. Scrape away as much fat, flesh and muscle from the inside of the pelt as possible with the blade of a sharp knife. Take care not to cut holes in the skin. This process is known as "fleshing" the pelt.

Unpin the pelt and place it, fur side down, in a large, shallow plastic tray. Sprinkle a layer of salt over the pelt. Put on rubber gloves and rub the salt vigorously into the pelt. Leave no part of the animal hide unsalted. Leave the pelt in the salt for two to three days. Pour off any fluid that has collected in the tray and repeat the salting. Leave the pelt for a further two to three days.

Hang up the pelt and leave it until it is dry.

Soaking

Fill a plastic 10-gallon garbage can with water. Soak the pelt until it has softened. This will take 2 hours at a minimum, but is likely to take much longer. Change the water every 30 minutes.

Squeeze as much water out of the pelt as possible. Pin the pelt to the board, fur side down, and scrape the inside of the skin again with the sharp knife. You should aim to remove any shiny film that remains on the skin.

Fill the garbage can with lukewarm water. Add 10 oz. of Borax. Put in the pelt and stir the mixture with a wooden pole. Leave the pelt to soak overnight, then squeeze it out, pin it back on the board and scrape it again, this time with the back of the knife. Rinse the pelt thoroughly in lukewarm water and squeeze it out.

Borax Paste

Make a paste of 4 oz. of Borax and 4 oz. alum, with a little water added. Mix the paste well to remove any lumps.

Pin the pelt to the board, fur side down. Coat the inside of the pelt with the Borax paste, using a knife to spread it to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Put on rubber gloves and work the paste with your fingers, rubbing it firmly into the skin. Leave the paste on the skin until the next day, then scrape it off and apply another coating. Repeat this procedure three more times, leaving the last coating in place for three to four days.

Scrape off the paste and rinse the pelt repeatedly under running water until there is no trace of Borax. Hang the pelt up and leave it until it is nearly dry.

Pin the slightly damp pelt to the board, fur side down. Rub a little neatsfoot oil into the the inside of the pelt. Keep doing this until the pelt is soft and supple. From time to time, remove the pelt from the board and stretch it vigorously in all directions. This helps your finished hide remain flexible and soft.

Tips & Warnings

  • For your first attempt, use a hide of low value. The tanning process can be hard to get right and it is advisable to gain experience before attempting to preserve more expensive hides.
  • Possession of wildlife pelts is governed by game laws. Check with your local game warden before trying to acquire animal hides.
  • Always check the warning labels on any chemicals you use and follow the advice exactly. Some tanning agents can be corrosive. Wear rubber gloves when directly handling these chemicals.

References

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