Monday, December 19, 2011

Making Rawhide

Raw hide is the dried, untanned hide of an animal. It is light brown in color. It will bend but it is stiff.
Raw hide can be made with the hair still on the hide or with the hair removed from the hide. Rawhide has many uses. It can be used to bind things together. It can be used to make containers, knife sheaths, arrow quivers, bullet pouches, and many other items.

There are many different ways to go through the process of turning an animal hide into rawhide. None of them is any better or worse than the others. Many people say that a hide must be fleshed as soon as you get it to avoid fat burning the hide. Immediate fleshing is the ideal, but modern schedules sometimes make this very difficult to do. For example: the hide that I am using in this article was given to me on a Monday at work. A friend of mine had been deer hunting over the weekend, and he knew that I would want the hide, so he saved it and brought it to work. Now at this time of year it is getting dark by the time I get home, and frankly, after a long day at work I’m not looking all that forward to fleshing a deer hide when I get home. This is work best left for the weekend, but if I don’t want the hide to spoil in the mean time I need to either freeze it, or I can use the method below to go ahead and start the process and still keep the hide from spoiling.

To make raw hide you first need a hide. To make your first rawhide I would recommend that you use a white tail deer hide. A white tail hide is big enough to do things with, but it is small enough that it won’t wear you out to prepare it. When a hide is first removed from an animal and nothing has been done to it, it is referred to as a “green hide.” Pictured below: Green whitetail deer hide.

So take your green deer hide and take a look at it. You will probably see a lot of meat scraps and membrane on the flesh side of the hide. Normally you would flesh the hide immediately, but if you don’t have time to flesh the hide immediately you can use this method.

First take a five gallon plastic bucket and put one or two coffee cans full of ashes in it. It is best to use a combination of hardwood and softwood ashes. Straight hardwood ashes will make your soaking solution too alkaline and may damage the hide. About half-and half, hardwood and softwood will do the job without damaging the hide. Pictured below: Removing ashes from my wood stove and putting them in a plastic bucket.

Now fill the bucket about two-thirds full of water and stir the ashes up. Drop your un-fleshed hide into the bucket, stir it around a little, and set a rock on top of the hide to hold it down under the water. Pictured below: top, Filling bucket with water; middle, Dropping un-fleshed hide into the bucket; bottom, weighting the hide down with a couple of rocks.

Normally if you didn’t flesh the hide right away the fat in the meat would begin to decompose and would produce acids that would begin to dissolve the hide. But the ashes in the soaking solution contain lye which counteracts the acid in the decomposing meat and prevents the hide from becoming fat burned.

Leave the hide in the soaking solution for five days, stirring it around a little each day, and then check to see if the hide is ready by pulling on the hair. If the hair pulls easily out of the hide, you’re ready to go on to the next step. If the hair doesn’t come out, leave the hide in the soaking solution and check it again in a couple of days. The temperature has a lot to do with how long the hide needs to stay in the solution. In cold weather I have left hide in the bucket for two weeks before they were ready. In hot weather it may only take three days.

When the hair slips easily from the hide, you can remove the hide from the solution, rinse it of with a water hose, and put it on your fleshing beam. When I used to do a lot of hides I had a fleshing beam that was made of a log that was leaned up on top of a stump. I don’t do so many hides any more so I just use a six inch wide sawhorse to do my fleshing on.

To flesh the hide you can use a dull knife, or a dull draw knife, but I have found that the best tool for the job is a bone hide flesher of the kind that was invented at least 20,000 years ago. Pictured below: A deer bone hide flesher.

I say that it was invented at least 20,000 years ago because a bone hide flesher is the oldest carbon dated artifact that has ever been found on the North American continent. They were probably used for hundreds of thousands of years in other parts of the world. Whatever you decide to use, you need to remove all of the flesh and as much membrane as possible from the flesh side of the hide. Pictured below: Using the fleshing tool to remove meat and membrane.

When you have the hide fleshed you will need to remove the hair from the outside of the hide, so flip the hide over and start scraping hair. It should come out pretty easily. Pictured below: Hide that has been fleshed and de-haired.

After all the hair has been removed rinse the hide again and place it in a bucket of clean water to soak over night. Adding a little baking soda will help take any bad smells out of the hide and will neutralize any remaining alkali. The next day pour off the dirty water from the bucket, refill the bucket with clean water, and soak the hide for another day. Pictured below: top, Adding soda to a bucket of clean water; middle, Placing hide in the bucket; bottom, weighting the hide down with a rock.

Now all that’s left is to let the hide dry out. Some people cut little holes in the edge of the hide and lace the hide into a frame to dry. I find this to be a total pain. I prefer to nail the hide up on the outside of my shop and let it dry. I use small finish nails, about an inch-and-a-half long and place them about six inches apart all around the outside edge of the hide. Don’t try and stretch the hide too much when you nail (or lace) it up. The hide will shrink quiet a bit as it dries, and if it has been stretched too tight it will tear out at the nails/laces. Also, if it is stretched too tight it will dry very thin. Pictured below: top, Wet hide nailed up on the wall of my shop; bottom, hide after it has dried for a few days.

When the hide is thoroughly dried you can take it down off of the wall, trim the rough edges off, roll it up, and put some tape or a rubber band around it. Store your rawhide where it will be protected from moisture, mice, and the family dog. If the rawhide is placed in water for a couple of hours it will soften again and stretch out. When it dries it will, once again, become hard and stiff. Pictured below: top, Dried and trimmed hide; bottom, hide rolled up and taped for storage.

The pictures below illustrate some of the uses of rawhide. At the top is a bowstring made of rawhide. Picture number two shows how rawhide is used to bind on an axe head. The next picture is of a knife sheath made from elk rawhide. The bottom picture shows a rawhide bullet bottle.


RavenCrest said...

You mention that rawhide can be made with the hair on. I am looking to do this to make a wig for for my horse's tail however I can't find anything on making rawhide with hair on. Basically, I have a local knackerman where I can get mostly fresh horse tails. I want to take the bottom part off the tailbone and cure it so that I can braid it into his existing bob tail. In order to have enough of a wig and so it looks natural I need to have about 2"x4" of skin with hair attached. Can you give me any insight into curing it into rawhide? Thanks in advance! --M

Sensible Survival said...

If the tail is still fresh (called green in the hide business)all you need to do is cut on the flesh side of the hide to secure a piece the size that you want (being careful not to damage the hair of course), make sure that all of the meat and membrane is scraped off of the flesh side, and use some small nails to peg out the edges of the hide to let it dry. Voila, you have raw hide with the hair on. If the tail is already dry, that is a little more complicated. You will have to soak the tail in clean water to re-soften the skin and then remove it as described above. The problem is that if you soak the hide for too long it will cause the hair to slip (come out). So, you need to monitor the hide carefully and remove it from the water before the hair starts to slip. You can test the hair by pulling on it gently. If it slips out of the hide, you've soaked it for too long. Soaking for about 12 hours should soften the hide without causing the hair to slip. Good Luck, Hank.

RavenCrest said...

So once it's dry it won't have any odour? Is there anything I can wash it in? What is the best environment to dry it in? Is there anything I can use to make it a little bit soft without going all out and tanning it? And thank you so much for your help :) I really appreciate the response!

Sensible Survival said...

If the hide is fresh it will not have a bad odor when it dries. I mean, it will smell like rawhide, but it won't stink. If the hide has started to smell a little before you dry it, you can soak it in clean water with some baking soda in it and it will freshen the smell somewhat. I've done this with deer hides and I used maybe 1/2 box of soda in 5 gallons of water. When I dry deer hides I usually nail the to the wall on the outside of my shop. If it is sunny and warm, a deer hide will be completely dry in a day or two. With something as small as you're talking about it would probably dry out over night. While the hide is still damp you can rub some neat's foot oil into it or if you can't find that you can use some lanolin, and that will soften it a little. When you brain-tan leather, it is actually the lanolin in the brains that softens the leather, but you also have to do a lot of pulling and rubbing in the brain-tanning process, and I'm not sure how that would work with a horse tail and trying to keep the hair in place. Best bet is to try some neat's foot oil.

RavenCrest said...

Hank, thank you very much for your help, I really appreciate it :)

Mike said...

I have a deerhide but no ashes. I have lye that i use for making soap. Do you have any thoughts on the quantity of lye i should use.

Sensible Survival said...

I'm not sure about lye. I have used slaked lime before. This is a very powdery type of lime, not to be confused with the crushed limestone that you use in a garden. You can use lime in the same quantity that you would wood ash.

Michael Kitney said...

I am just wondering how to prep a hide if I am using the rawhide to cut up for my dogs? What could the hide be soaked in that wouldn't be lye that would be acceptable for consumption of the hide after it dries but one that would keep if from going bad when in a bucket of water for a few days?
Thank you. Mike

Unknown said...

My husband has never done this,and I think he may have ruined the elkhide he tried to do,it has become dark brown,it smells bad & it has shrunk,is there as anything we can do to redo it right by your directions,hate to lose this hide,he did scrape off all fat & membrane as well as hair.

Dorian Blue Thunder said...

I can be reached at

Dorian Blue Thunder said...

My husband may have ruined his first elkhide,he is trying to do it rawhide style, he scraped all hair & membrane off socked it & then pulled all hair off,but it has now turned dark brown,smells foul & shrunk,is there away of saving it? He was trying to make our daughter a rawhide purse to dance at powwows with,answer my question back at"" thank you.

Dorian Blue Thunder said...

My husband may have ruined his first elkhide,he is trying to do it rawhide style, he scraped all hair & membrane off socked it & then pulled all hair off,but it has now turned dark brown,smells foul & shrunk,is there away of saving it? He was trying to make our daughter a rawhide purse to dance at powwows with,answer my question back at"" thank you.

Dorian Blue Thunder said...

I can be reached at

seth hale said...

what do i need to do to make raw hide if an uncleaned deer skin has been left on my porch for a week?

Sensible Survival said...

Seth, sorry to be slow responding. If a hide is left uncleaned and unfrozen for that long it has probably ruined. The fats decompose into some sort of an acid and thee hiude begins to dissolve. It's called fat burned and I've had it happen before. In warm weather a hide can fat burn in as little as a day or two. If you have a hide you need to scrape the meat, fat and membrane off immediately to avoid fat burning.