To preserve the skin of an animal requires several preservation steps known collectively as tanning. It involves the curing of the hide in salt, soaking, washing and de-hairing if necessary and the final tanning, usually with Chromium III. This whole process serves the purpose of restructuring the collagen protein particles in the hide, thereby preserving the hide and protecting it from bacterial and fungal decomposition.
The process is thus very important if you want to use the animals hide for decoration, clothing or shelter. The unfortunate drawback of this whole process is that it leaves the hide quite hard and unmanageable, making it difficult to shape and process into finer products.
Luckily, there are ways to soften a tanned hide at home, and if you have the time and patience to work through these steps, you will end up with a soft malleable hide that you can rework to your hearts delight.
Softening a tanned hide is known as breaking the hide. This is usually done with the use of a breaking tool and some neatsfoot or mink oil. A breaking tool can be bought or simply made at home by finding a smooth, non-splintering surface to rub the hide over. Once you are ready, take the dry hide and rub with a damp cloth, then rub with some oil. Now place the hide on the breaking tool and drag back and forth to soften. Repeat until the desired softness is achieved.
Softening a tanned hide is not difficult, and you don’t even have to buy a specialized breaking tool unless you are doing this often. It will however take a lot of time and patience, so let’s see how you can make this task a bit easier.
Softening during the tanning process
No matter what tanning process you or your taxidermist uses, the chemicals will inevitably harden the hide. If you are tanning at home, you can involve a couple of easy steps at the end of the tanning process to help soften the hide (Source: HideTanning).
Apply softening oil, such as neatsfoot oil about 18 hours after the tanning process.
Hides need conditioning to keep it supple and in a good condition. Conditioning is usually done through oil application, and neatsfoot oil or Mink oil are the most frequently used oils. The oils condition the leather by softening the collagen fibers in the hide, making it more malleable. Note that oils should only be applied to the smooth side of a hide, and never to the fur side.
Neatsfoot oil is manufactured from cattle foot and shin bones and gives the hide a wonderful shine. It does however tend to darken the color of the hide. If you wish to retain the color of your hide then consider using mink oil, which is also slightly cheaper.
Mink oil is made from mink pelts and does a great job at softening hides. It also waterproofs leather and preserves it for a bit longer than neatsfoot oil. The drawback of using mink oil is that it removes the natural shine of the hide.
For more information on oils used for hide softening, have a look at this Medium post.
While the hide is drying, periodically stretch the hide by hand.
Stretching the hide while it is still slightly wet offers the advantage in that it elongates the fibers in the hide, making the hide softer. A hide that has been stretched before drying is thus a lot easier to soften after drying.
The easiest way of doing this is by simply grabbing the hide with both hands on opposite ends, and pulling. Reposition your hands and stretch again until you have covered all the angles and allow the hide to continue drying.
If you only have one or two hides to soften, using something you have lying around the house as a breaking tool is probably your best bet. These can be made of metal or wood, as long as the wood does not splinter and is relatively strong. Some of the things you can consider are:
- The back of a chair
- The side of a desk
- A metal pole
Alternatively, you can build your own breaking tool. Paul Thompson, a taxidermist based in Michigan, has some advice on building your own breaking tool here.
There are some great guides and books available if you are interested in learning how to tan a hide at home. These offer advice on all topics from cleaning the hide through to tanning and softening the finished hide. Here are the top five books we recommend if you want to explore home tanning.
1. The Complete Book of Tanning Skins & Furs – James Churchill.
This guide is a valuable addition to your library whether you are a tanning newbie or a seasoned hand. It offers advice on the processing and tanning of a large variety of animal skins ranging from rabbits to reptiles. It also offers advice on the tools necessary for the trade and how to build these tools yourself.
The book is organized by animal type, which makes it an easy to use reference guide in any taxidermy practice. It sells on Amazon for $18 and is available on kindle for $14.
2. Home Tanning and Leathermaking guide – Albert Burton Farnham
This classic was first published in 1922 based on the knowledge of well-known outdoorsman A.R. Harding. It is a comprehensive guide to the skinning, curing and tanning of all kind s of animal hide, including cattle, horse, calf, sheep, goat and deer in particular. It offers advice on tanning methodology and process, on the equipment needed and the classification and marketing of hides.
It is available from Amazon for $10 in paperback and is a valuable addition to any budding taxidermist’s practice.
3. Buckskin, The Ancient Art of braintanning – Steven Edholm & Tamara Wilder
This is one of the most detailed books on home tanning, and covers a variety of natural methods of tanning. It has the advantage that the methods described come from ancient American Indian methodologies used to make washable, soft, non-toxic buckskins. It covers wetscrape braintanning along with ideas like sharpening and dyeing buckskin with natural materials.
Although it is currently out of print, there is talk of re-prints in the future. You can get it from Amazon for $311.
4. Deerskins into Buckskins: How to Tan with Brains, Soap or Eggs – Matt Richards
This book teaches natural tanning methods with a step-by-step guide, illustrations and pictures. The scope of the book is detailed enough to offer the novice background, tips and tricks to get started, while simultaneously providing more advanced knowledge for the experienced taxidermist.
Additionally, it also teaches you how to skin, clean and tan in a wilderness setting. You can find the paperback on Amazon for $14.
5. The Ultimate Guide to Skinning and Tanning: A Complete Guide to Working with Pelts, Fur, and Leather – Monte Burch
This book is written specifically for the hunter who wishes to process his own skins and furs. It covers a wide variety of methods, both old and new. It specializes in the tools need by the trade and offers advice on tanning formulae that can be used for home tanning.
You can get it from Amazon in paperback for $16.
I hope this guide has been useful in getting you started on softening and tanning hides. Let us know what methods has worked for you!