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How To Tan Leather … Just Like Your Great-Grandfather

How to tan leather -- just like your great-grandfather

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Learning how to tan a hide offers a multitude of off-grid benefits. Clothing, shelter and storage may be the top three uses for a tanned hide, but are not the only benefits of mastering this pioneering-era skill.

Tanning hide is not a simple skill to master, but one which is worth the effort. Preserving the hides of livestock raised on the homestead or hunted to provide food allows families to make full use of the animal.

There are many different hide-tanning techniques, and the process does vary depending upon the size of the animal hide. Even animals as small as a squirrel or rabbit can provide hide pieces large enough for a small project – or even a large project if the pieces are sewn together.

The classic Foxfire series devoted an entire chapter to hide tanning in the third book, and even many years after its original publication date, still serves as an excellent directional source. The book offers an in-depth look at the alum tanning, brain tanning, bark tanning, and tanning with lard and flour processes.

Time is of the essence in hide tanning. The first step in the process is to remove all excess tissue and meat from the animal skins, and then sprinkle and spread pickling salt onto the material.

Bark Tanning

The bark tanning process has often been described as the most time-consuming animal hide preservation method. Cutting down or ringing trees to garner differing shades of bark is both labor intensive and time consuming. Bark tanning has also been referred to as vegetable tanning. The age-old hide tanning method creates a water repellent and durable leather that remains flexible. Although the process has been used on many animals, the best results reportedly occur when used on thick hides from buffalo, cattle, pigs and horses.

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White Oak turns animal hides a yellowish shade and Chestnut Oak turns hides dark brown; both types of bark are very popular with tanners and customers alike. Bark can be used dry or mixed with water to make an “ooze” or “tea,” but regardless of which process selected, the bark should resemble dark coffee before applying it to the animal hide.

Hides tanned in this manner are routinely used to craft saddles, gun holsters, harnesses, shoes, wallets, belts, canteens, gun cases, storage pouches and even shields. If the hide is thick, it will need to be thinned via dry scraping away the added bulk which does not suit your project.

Barks for tanning hides are at their prime during the spring when sap begins to rise in the trees. During this time it peels away far more easily. Tannin is typically most concentrated at the cambium layer – the inner bark. An older tree is believed by many tanners to contain more tannin than younger trees, and lower parts of the tree reportedly possess a higher concentration of tannin than the upper parts of the tree.

Bark shredding from sawmills that are often sold as flowerbed mulch can also be used in tanning – as long as it has not been left out in the rain for a significant amount of time.


There are two different types of tannin: Pyrogallol and Catechol. Learning how to blend the two types of tannins together will help tanners create the appropriate type of leather for any project, whether the needed material be soft, firm, light or heavy.

Catechols are condensed tannins and possess more astringent qualities and tend to dry the hide more quickly than Pyrogallols. Catechols leave a reddish sediment on the animal hides and are often used to make leather in shades of dark brown, red and pink. When leather comprised of this type of tannin is used, the project tends to develop greenish-black spots when it comes in contact with iron. Oak bark contains both types of tannin. Catechols can be found in birch, mimosa, alder, fir, hemlock and quebracho barks.

Pyrogallols are hydrolysable and leave a pale shade of sediment referred to as a bloom or elegiac acid. When deposited on the leather, the material is known to become water resistant and is thus commonly used in shoes for sole leather, in upholstery, and bookbinding. When pyrogallol tannins come in contact with iron, bluish-black spots often result and a change in pH value develops. Oak wood, oak galls, chestnut, and sumac contain pyrogallols.

Bark Project Amounts and Storage

There is no exact rule about how much bark to use per project, but many experienced tanners typically use the weight of the hide in bark to achieve a quality tanning. Bark should be allowed to dry thoroughly before being used or stored. If the bark is stored in a dry state, it should not lose its effectiveness. Grinding bark into smaller particles to use for tanning is easier to do when the material is dry.

Remove the hair if you want a leather hide, otherwise, do not use a razor to remove the hair.

Following are the steps for tanning with bark from a 1884 US Department of Agriculture publication, Home Tanning of Leather and Small Fur Skins,” as summarized at the Backcountry Chronicles website:

  1. Make bark liquor — 30-40 pounds of finely ground (particles no larger than corn kernel) oak or hemlock bark.
  2. Boil 20 gallons of pure water (rain water is best).
  3. Mix in a 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.
  4. Add 2 quarts vinegar.
  5. Hang sides (of 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.
  6. 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.
  7. After 5 more days remove another 5 gallons of mixture and replace with 5 gallons of the fresh mixture (no more vinegar needed).
  8. Take hide out of the water. Get another 40 pounds of bark and moisten with water, and then add moistened bark directly to the water. Put hide back into water.
  9. After 6 weeks, 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.

For even more details on these steps, read the book on it, which is available for free online here.

Have you ever tanned leather? What tips would you recommend? Leave your reply in the section below:

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