14 November 2014

Tanning sheepskins: What I’ve learned

Tanning the sheepskins has been a great adventure – I have spent countless hours reading information on the web (one of my favourite links is here) and experimenting with the three pelts I have here, and I’ve come to some conclusions about how I’ll likely do this in the future … because I definitely intend to do this again! I love the process and the finished product.

First, here’s why I bother:

Purebred Icelandic, gorgeous colouring (the ‘shading to red’ like that is not uncommon in Icelandic sheep – it’s called phaeomelanin - and it is even more lovely in real life!) … I’ll be warm under this lovely covering tonight!

So, here’s the process I intend to follow the next time I do this:

1. Get the skins from the butcher (my butchers did a FANTASTIC job fleshing the hides, too, big kudos to them) and bring them home. Use the ulu to remove any large bits of nasty stuff on the skin side, but don’t stress about getting all the little bits of membrane – that can be done later. Cut the tail open and remove the bones. If you aren’t going to wash the fleece right away, salt the skin side and leave it to drain. (The stock trailer is a good place to leave a salted hide!)

2. Drape the hide over a chair in the shower stall and wash it from the fleece side very thoroughly with Sunlight soap (this is what we always used to wash sheep for 4H shows, it is cheap, smells good, and does the job). Use the shower on ‘massage’ setting to help drive out the bits of hay and bugs that are inevitably in the fleece – get it as clean as possible at this stage of the game so that things go more smoothly later on. You are using a whole lot of soap, so this should be inhibiting bacterial action – one of the worries when dealing with a fresh hide.

3. Put the hide into an acid bath. The stuff I used this time worked fine – sulfamic acid, a product meant for cleaning/etching concrete driveways – just dissolve that (or any strong acid, you need a pH of about 2) in water, add a generous amount of salt, stir it all in then immerse the hides and leave them there for a few days.

4. Remove the hides from the acid bath (wear gloves!) and take them back to the shower. Wash again with Sunlight soap: this will help neutralize the acid, and give you a chance to get the rest of the yukkies out of the fleece. Let it drip dry for a bit.

5. Plunk the skin fleece side down on a few towels/sheets laid on the floor and work with the ulu again to really clean the skin side of the hide. Get as much of the membrane off as you can, and work the hide with the knife quite firmly – this helps to stretch it somewhat. Use dental floss to sew up any holes now, while the hide is still pliable. Make sure you insert the needle fairly far from the edge of the hole, or it’ll just tear through the skin.

6. Blow dry the fleece side of the hide to get the drying process underway. This is probably optional: if the weather is good, outside on the line or fence would work well, or just draped over a chair with a fan. Be careful about draping over chair backs for any length of time though, it can stretch the hide in weird ways. Blow drying is a good way to check the fleece over for bits of dirt or remaining bugs – you can get a lot of the nasty stuff out of the fleece while you are working.

7. As the hide is drying, stretch  the skin side to side and up and down with your hands, step on it and tug, pull it across the back of a chair, and periodically put it back on the floor and take the ulu to it some more. The scraping motion of the ulu will help to stretch out the hide as well as getting the guck off the skin side.

8. When the skin side is just damp (and feels chilly) rub some oil into the hide side (mink oil or whatever is handy) and leave to dry some more.

9. Work with the ulu and your hands, stretching the hide, until it is white and smooth and completely dry. It should not feel cold at all – cold spots are still damp.

10. Trim the hide to the shape you want, removing any of the thick spots along the edge (I scrape from the centre out to the edge so a ‘ridge’ of stuff seems to collect along the edges).  Brush the fleece side if you want, or leave the lock structure intact.

Voila! A tanned hide.

I did do one hide (the last one pictured above) with just Murphy’s Oil Soap instead of the acid bath, and it came out fine – though it will need to be smoked still to remain soft. I think the acid bath gave a nicer skin texture, though, so I’ll probably just use that method in the future – it was easy enough.

In hindsight, I probably spent too long fleshing the hides early in the process – they were very clean to start with, but of course I had no idea what “clean” meant, as I’ve never done this before. I dinged the hide in several places, being new to the use of an ulu. I also didn’t wash the fleeces thoroughly until after the acid bath, and the one I did with Murphy’s soap wasn’t washed much at all before I started the process. 

Also, if I have a hide that is really nasty or needs a lot of fleshing or washing, I’ll probably take it to the car wash and use the pressure washer on it. Or, if I ever happen to end up owning a pressure washer, well, then I can just do it here. There are some awesome videos on YouTube of people fleshing deer hides with a pressure washer – it goes *so fast*! I’d use it on the fleece side of a Down breed sheep, too, no problem – not something like Icelandic, which felts if you look at it funny, but something less feltable? You bet. It’d be so clean so fast!

I’ve spent several full days working on these … which was a good thing, given the state of my brain at the time, but the next ones I do I think can be finished in much less time, now that I know what I’m doing.

Overall, I’m really happy with the results. If you try this, or have used other tanning methods, I’d love to hear from you – I really do read the comments!

And if you’d be interested in buying one for yourself … I could probably be talked into doing one or two for sale.

And I think I’m gonna try a cow hide, if I can get a nice one from the butcher. This is just way too cool!


  1. Lonna - you and your skins are fantastic!

  2. Susan Stark5:33 am

    The sheepskins are wonderful! I am curious, so you put the WET fleece into the acid bath? And did you need to wear gloves for processing after the acid bath?

  3. Thanks! Yes, Susan, the skins were fresh from the butcher so I fleshed right away, washed, and put them in the acid bath. If it's been salted, you have to rehydrate before putting it in the pickle. I wore gloves to pull it out of the acid (obviously) but the soapy water (our water has a pH of close to 8, plus soap raises it further) neutralized the acid quite quickly - and i was just hosing it all down in the shower, so not really "handling" it much anyway beyond shifting it slightly to wash the next spot. :)


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