Learning how to tan a deer hide is a rite of passage, cementing blood ties to our hunting forebearers who depended upon skins for warmth and who respected slain animals by never letting any part go to waste. Using an alum solution (you can find ammonia alum at pharmacies) departs from the traditional method of tanning hides—ancestral hunters used brains instead—but it will render your deer hide soft and supple. The reward is a memento that serves a dual purpose as a beautiful wall hanging or a comforter for a winter night.
1. Skin the Deer
Skin the deer and bone out the tail. Scrape every particle of fat and flesh from the hide with a knife. Begin the tanning process or preserve it with a generous layer of non-iodized salt. Salted hides can be air-dried until the onset of warm weather, or frozen.
2. Soften The Dried Deer Hide
Soak the skin in water in a plastic garbage can until it softens, changing the water often. Drain, then pull the skin back and forth across the edge of a board. Scrape it with the back edge of a knife or an old hacksaw blade with dull teeth. Do not expose the hair roots if you want to tan a deer hide with the hair on.
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3. Soak the Hide in Hide-Tanning Solution
Dissolve 2 ½ pounds of salt in 4 gallons of water in the 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 deer hide for four days, occasionally stirring to make sure it’s well coated. Rinse thoroughly with running water.
4. Condition the Deer Hide
Tack the deer 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, then repeat. Cover with plastic overnight.
5. Stretch the Hide to Make it Soft
Remove the tacks, dampen the hide with a wet cloth, stretch it, then rub it back and forth over a sawhorse. Redampen it and repeat, applying additional fat liquor sparingly. When the tanned deer hide is perfectly supple, smooth the surface by chafing it with fine-grit sandpaper.