Alum Tawed Hides and Skins in Easy Steps
Written by Sally_in_Wales
This is a quick, easy and almost totally smell free way to deal with fresh hides. It leaves the leather side white and the hair side stays unchanged. For the article below, I'm talking about a deerskin but this will work on most animals, just scale up or down accordingly. Small skins like rabbit won't take as much abuse as a large one, so just be gentle with them- big hides may need a little assistance from friends when you come to stretch them.
1 freshly skinned hide- the fresher the better though we've had good results with frozen or salted hides as well.
Large bucket with a lid (plastic dustbin for example)
Very sharp knife that you can handle comfortably
Section of log, or something convenient and rounded
Alum (most chemists either stock this or will order it- they sell it to treat bedsores)
Shampoo, washing up liquid or soap
Something to use as a frame, you can improvise this or even do without in a pinch
Vegetable oil (additions of essential oils optional, but we like to add a bit of cedarwood oil for a nice smell)
Rubber gloves- optional but handy if its your first hide!
First, give that hide a wash. Even if its been skinned perfectly it will still have an animal reek to it, and that will get stronger as the hide ages. If you can't put it in the bath, get it on the lawn and shampoo and rinse both sides thoroughly. Hang it up to drain until you can handle it easily. This stage will make you much happier to get good and close to the hide in the next stage!
Two: The hide may well still have small scraps of flesh, or a whitish membrane with tiny blood vessels in it adhering to the skin. You MUST get as much of this off the hide as possible before curing it. The easiest way seems to be to use a section of log or similar as a support, stretching the hide hair down around it, and working over small sections of the skin side at a time, picking or scraping off the bits to leave a smooth surface underneath. You will find that the membrane will pull away in sections if you work at it patiently. Do your best to clean up the hide properly, but if you really have a small stubborn bit, don't panic, you will have another chance to scrape it once its been in the pickle- but you need almost all the skin clean for the stuff to work properly. If you are lucky, a hide sometimes needs hardly any work at all, but have a good scrape at it anyway just in case you haven't spotted the membrane.
Three: Make up your solution. In the big bucket mix salt, alum and water in a ratio of roughly 1 gallon water, 1 kilo salt and 100g alum until you have enough to just submerge the skin. Tip the skin in, and splunge it around a bit to get the salt into all the areas. Put the lid on and stand the bin somewhere reasonably cool. If the hide is clean, there will be no smell at all from the bin, so don't worry about distressing the neighbours at this stage!
Four: Splunge the hide every day or two , making sure you turn it over and giving the solution a chance to work. It needs at least two weeks, but after a week or so you can pretty much ignore the bucket until you are ready to continue. We once ignored a bucket for 18months, and although it looked horrific when we were finally brave enough to open it up (vomit-like scum on the surface after that amount of time) the hides were perfectly ok. I don't recommend leaving it more than a couple of months though, just to be on the safe side!
Five: Fish out the hide and let it drain over a stick into the bucket. At this stage opinion varies as to whether you should rinse the hide or not- the dilemma is that if you do you wash out some of the pickle, but if you don't the hide can be a bit stiff and salty feeling. Personally, I do give it a quick wash with a spot of detergent, but nothing too drastic, and I don't let the hides get wet again after they are finished. If you need a silky hair side, then I would say wash at this stage, but pay extra attention to the final stages of the process.
Six: if you can string the hide up on a frame to start drying, thats fab. If not, do your best to get the drying started evenly (peg it to the washing line, pin it to the garage wall, lay it out on the grass hair side down on a fine day, whatever it takes). At this stage you need to go back over it and make sure all the membrane is off, if there were bits left you'll probably find they peel off (a bit like the paper on the underside of cakes!). Use your knife (a curved blade is good if you have access to it) and work right over the hide, scraping systematically to clean up any scraps and to give a uniform finish to the leather side. The section of log is handy again here, the curved surface makes it easy to scrape without cutting into the leather.
Seven: The hide should be almost but not quite dry for this stage- if it has been in a frame and gone board-like, lightly spray it with water to allow you to work it. You need to start stretching the hide. If its on a frame use a rounded stick or a wooden spoon and lean into the hide, pushing the leather against the tension provided by the frame to stretch and manipulate the leather. If you are doing this without a frame, get a few friends to help and play tug of war with the hide, try sitting with your feet touching and hold an edge each then stretch and pull. You'll know its working because the stiff, greyish surface will become softer and whiter and often considerably bigger. This can be very strenuous- homebrew helps!
Eight: When the hide is stretched as much as you think it will go, work a few tablespoons of oil evenly into the leather side. In theory almost any oil should do, I think we used olive oil last time and it was fine. We also like to add a little essential oil to the mix, partly we think it gives a nice smell, partly we suspect it helps to use an antibacterial oil like thyme or cedarwood- but this is optional.
Nine: Stretch it again- the oil will allow you to supple up the hide even more. Apply a little more oil if you think it needs it, but just keep working away until you feel its done. The more you stretch and tug at the hide, the better it will be.
Ten: Its done! If you started with a clean hide you should have a properly cured (alum tawed in this case) hide that will be perfectly useable for any purpose where it won't be repeatedly wetted. You can usually reuse the solution, just add a bit more salt and alum- the amounts are not an exact science- you just need a nice strong mixture.
There is a discussion thread about this recipe here.