It all started on the mountaintop in Colorado 2016. I bought an OTC bull tag and was able to take a gorgeous public land 4 point bull. There was no way I was going to leave any part of him behind.
I decided to take the hide and learn how to tan it myself. Below are the steps I followed to tan my elk hide, along with several tips.
When you get your hide back to camp make sure you get as much meat and fat off as possible, salt it down and let cool down before you roll it up.
TIP: If you don’t have salt in the field you need to make sure to clean ALL the meat and fat off. If you don’t, you can end up with grease burns.
If you don’t have time to clean with your hide right away, you can put it in the freezer to keep it from going bad. If you freeze it, you will need to let it thaw fully prior to working with it. Once it’s thawed, you will need to scrape any excess meat and fat off and thin the hide down. Try not to put rips in the hide, but if you do you can sew up any holes. Salt the hide with non-Iodized salt, being sure to reach every inch of the exposed skin. Leave on the hide over night. Remove the salt and rehydrate skin in cool water.
TIP: Make sure you don’t make the hide to thin, you don’t want to cut the hair roots because the hair will fall out.
If your hide is extremely dirty or blood stained, you will need to wash it thoroughly. You can wash the hide with a mild soap in cool water. Do not leave it in the soap for a long period; you could possibly make the hair slip (fall out).
It's now time to make the pickle solution using an acid bath. Make sure to check the pH daily; it should be kept at 1½-2. This step is going to cure the hide. The skin should be submerged for at least 24-48 hours, until the hide turns white in color. Before you remove it from the solution, you have to neutralize it in a soda bath (this neutralizes the acid).
Next, it's ready for the tanning solution. Keep the hide in the tanning solution for 24-48 hours. Remove and rinse with cool water. Let it dry 60-70%. You're now ready to oil your hide with warm oil.
You are getting close to being done. Let your hide dry to 90%. Its ready to go in the tumbler with saw dust.
TIP: Use Hardwood Ferrier sawdust. If you use Pine sawdust, most of the time it sticks to the hide and hair.
This next step can be strenuous, but it is a very important step. Pulling the hide from the tumbler, it's time to work the hide over a pointed dull edge. It helps when there is someone to assist you, especially when you have a big hide to work. You need to pull the hide back and forth on a breaking tool. This helps to soften the hide. After doing this to the whole hide, put it back in the tumbler till it's 100% dry.
To make your hide look the best, you'll want to stretch it. To do this, lightly dampen just the leather side and attach it to a large flat surface. I found that the best way to keep it down is with staples.
You may find that you have a build up of skin in the armpit and flank area. Scrunch the build up together and staple down the edges of it, so you know where to cut the build up out and sew it back up.
Now let the hide dry slowly in a mild temperature; if it dries to fast in a warm temperature, it will stiffen. At this point, you're done and should have a finished hide!
Tanning is all about trial and error. Although it's a lot of work and time, it’s a great feeling of accomplishment when you’re finally done. Good luck to anyone who gives it a go.
Follow Kelly Cohen on Instagram at @kellycohen4202.