About rachel koski nielsen

fur- and hide-tanning. old skills. zone 3b planting.

3:30 pm

Progress on sheepskins today! I scraped the shearling that I’d recently pickled. It was mostly done already, but I got some membrane off.

I also stretched it a bit over my beam because it’s stretched unevenly, which I’ve noticed seems to happen easily with lamb skin. Then I got a tanning dressing on it. I used my trusty soap, water, and neatsfoot oil solution.

When I apply the tanning dressing, I spoon it on first to try to control it. I don’t like it running off the edges and sinking into the hair/wool if I can avoid it. (If you’re a real stickler for that, then make the dressing with less water so that it’ll have a more gel-like consistency when it cools.) Then I rub it in with my hands.

I scraped the large hide that I had pickled as well. It’s still soaking wet and not likely to get any drier until I get it on a frame, so I applied the tanning dressing to it.

It’s a bit oddly shaped. The edges of it were actually nibbled on by rodents; this happened because I hadn’t fleshed it fully before curing and storing it in my garage for, oh, years. Rodents will apparently eat salt-cured sheep fat, and happily. I don’t usually trim hides until I’m done stretching them, but I made an exception here and cut off a couple parts that were just silly.

These two hides will sit with their dressing for at least 24 hours.

I’ll hand-stretch the shearling, but the full-fleeced hide will have to go on a frame; it’s the only way I can imagine the wool will dry. It’s just so wet still, and not going to dry easily in this freezing, snowy weather we’ve been gifted.

I need to get the woodstove set up in my shop, but I also need to buy a couple pieces of chimney pipe and I’m quite broke at the moment (life, etc.) so it’ll have to wait!

I’m very grateful to have sold two sheepskins recently, and to have the potential for some paid custom tanning in my near future.

My “micro tannery”

9:04pm

Since last writing I got the chance to do some hide work after a couple days without it. I set up some very junky lighting in my little micro tannery – a requirement now that the sun goes down at 4:45. Soon it will be dark at 4pm (yeah… I’m that far north) and I’ll celebrate the Solstice.

The two deer hides were cured under salt. Once I know a hide is cured (dry), I fold it in half lengthwise, and then sometimes in half again if it’s a big one. They take up way less room this way, and can wait until I’m ready to start tanning them.

Don’t worry about the blood. I’ll get it all out.

I also put one of the shearlings and one of the full-fleece hides into a strong salt water pickle. I debated with myself about doing this – if I had tawed these skins years ago then it will wash out and I could then lose wool if I hadn’t also cured them well.

On the other hand, both need to be scraped more before tanning and I was feeling very sick of dry fleshing when I made the decision. Not to mention the full-fleece hide’s wool is filthy. So into the pickle they went.

I used about two cups of loose livestock salt in a large plastic bin about half full of water. I used a broom handle to push the larger hide with the full fleece down into it, then added the shearling on top and also pushed to submerge it. I planned to let these rehydrate over night.

I should mention that salt water probably isn’t a true pickle. Usually when I use the term in hidetanning, I mean water, salt, and alum.

And here’s how they looked the next day.

I ended up leaving the hides in their salt bath for about 24 hours, because I have a baby and that’s just how time management goes right now.

I pulled them out and hung them outside on various objects hoping they’d dry a bit, even though it was about 40 degrees. The full-fleece hide was so heavy I almost couldn’t move it. It was really on the edge of what I can lift. But I did get it up on a dog crate to drip dry.

The next day (which was today) both hides were still soaked and it was even colder and damp out, so I brought them back into my workshop. I started scraping the shearling on my beam, but honestly my hands got too cold to work. It was 34 degrees. This means it’s time to get my woodstove in there or progress will really be stalled. I’m hoping to finish all 5 sheepskins so I can list them for sale no later than Thanksgiving.

The fleece on this hide is just so nice. I can’t wait to finish her.

Next steps kind of depend on the weather, if I can get some heat in the workshop, and if the wooly hide will dry anymore.

If it’s too cold to touch wet wool, I’ll just start tanning the deerskins tomorrow. I’m hoping to try eggs from my chickens in place of soap and oil on one of them. I figure if I don’t like the result I can still tan it my usual way.

Salt reprisal

7:32 am

I was so exhausted while writing my last post I’m not sure I explained the purpose and process of salting raw skins.

Salt is a preservative, so firstly it prevents decay of the skin tissue. It does so by drawing out water and inhibiting bacterial growth. This is essential to a good tanning result.

Salt also helps to “stick” the hair in the skin. This is partly because of the dehydrating effect. But don’t be fooled – salt cured hides aren’t tanned, and if they get wet they can lose hair and decay.

I added a single layer of salt to my deer skins the other day. Yesterday when I checked on them I found what I expected.

Liquid is pooling and collecting on the hides. This just means the salt is doing its job.

I picked up each skin to let the liquid run off and shook off some of the wet salt. I’ll sweep it up after it dries and reuse it. Then I added more salt. Quite simple!

I can’t stress enough that it’s important to get those crevices and edges! The edges will try to trick you by rolling in. One of these hides came to me with the tail still on, bone and all, and I managed to save it – that’s an area I’ll have to pay particular attention to.

And now we wait. The next steps for these deer hides don’t start until they’re salt-cured. Meanwhile, I’ll see what I can do with a sheepskin.

Flesh, skin, & salt alchemy

It’s so important to listen to your body. Yesterday I rested from hides; today I worked. I got a text that made me happy. “I have deer hides, you want?”

So, let’s talk about fleshing.

I actually did two types of fleshing today: what I call dry fleshing and wet fleshing. The difference is in whether or not the hide has been salt cured (or dried another way) or not. Often I flesh hides before I salt them, and other times I salt them first and flesh them later when I have more time.

I used to think dry fleshing was easier, but after today I’m not so sure. Here’s a sheep hide i was dry fleshing.

When dry fleshing it’s harder to mar the skin with gouges, but easier to cut cleanly through it because it’s less elastic and more brittle. I use a dull Ulu or dull draw knife. It’s important to hold the blade at an angle to the skin, between 45 degrees and perpendicular.

I find with wet fleshing I can usually remove larger pieces of flesh (fat, muscle, and sometimes skin membrane) at a time. Look at the way I’m holding my tool to flesh this deer skin.

I fleshed two large deer hides in about 3 hours, which included a break to nurse my baby (plus wash up first, duh) and have a quick lunch. That’s pretty good time for me, especially since I haven’t done it in a couple years. But my hands remember even if they’re softer than they were once.

When fleshing a hide before the actual tanning step you want to remove all the flesh and fat. Sometimes, depending on the animal, the difference isn’t clear. On deer, sheep, goats, & groundhogs it’s pretty obvious.

The actual skin is so white it’s almost blue. And there’s usually an obvious, clear, stringy substance between the actual skin and flesh.

Some people say that you have to remove every scrap of flesh and fat before you salt, but you don’t. Trust me. I’ve left entire hides under salt without fleshing at all and they’ve been fine. If there are stubborn bits, get them off when you membrane before tanning.

Ideally the skin looks like this after fleshing.

Don’t worry about the bloody spots – the salt will draw out the blood.

After I got this skin fleshed, I covered it with agricultural salt, sometimes called mixing salt. I like it because it’s loose and coarse and a 50 pound bag is cheap. Now, I know some tanners swear you have to cover a hide 4 inches deep in salt, but I never do that. I throw several handfuls on the skin and run the salt in. I do pay extra attention to bloody areas, but ultimately I use a fairly thin layer of salt. It’s really important to get it everywhere, don’t miss the edges. Anywhere that isn’t salt cured is susceptible to hair loss and skin rot.

Depending on how the animal was skinned you can end up with a bucket of stuff you cut and pulled off. If you’re interested in cooking the meat for your pets and rendering the fat, they’re pretty easy to tell apart. The fat that’s worth rendering, in my opinion anyway, is these big chunks.

I plan to render them for soap. We’ll see if I have time.

Both of these deer hides have good fur but some butcher cuts and other imperfections on the skin-side, so I’m going to tan them both hair on. The hunters I got them from say they could end up with 3 or 4 more, so I’m hoping to make some buckskin.

Next up for these hides: I’ll fold them in half tomorrow if they’re dry. If not, I might add more salt if it seems needed. Then they’ll wait to be membraned and tanned – I want to finish at least one more sheepskin first.

micro tannery

I made progress with this yesterday:

Half of my garage is now my “tanning workshop”. There’s no power, so I’ll need to address that for lighting. I need to move the old woodstove in there, hook up chimney pipe and buy a couple more pieces to get it clear of the roofline. But those are just details – the space exists & the next 5 skins are in there, ready when I am.

I have word in with my butcher that I’ll take sheep and goat hides again. And no promises, but some local hunters have offered me their deer hides.

Today I could have worked on skins, but I listened to my body and rested. I spent time with my family, and my other interests.

Three Skins Done

Yesterday I gave the two wooly skins a final brush out and pick through, and called them finished.

The sheepskin that started out this process “brittle” just isn’t quite up to my standards – towards the bottom of the hide, the hind leg area, the leather is still too brittle for my liking. It’s a fine hide for a seat cover or small rug, but I’m not going to offer it for sale because it just doesn’t represent my best and desired result.

It’s not as dramatic to the eye as these pictures show, but you can tell by the color shift where the lower quality leather starts.

The other skin, which I’ve taken to calling big and creamy, turned out quite nice. I would wear it close to my skin, which is how I want to feel about my tanned hides. It’s listed for sale through my Etsy shop.

The shearling hide is also basically done; I’m doing some extra nit-picky softening and removing what’s left of the membrane because I think I want to make some mittens out of it.

Results of finishing the 2018 skins, round 1

I’ve relearned and learned some things. Like don’t leave your dressed leather in the sun for long periods without working on it. Like that alum really is my best friend when I’m doing big batches of skins and need to borrow time. Like how important getting the membrane off really is.

I feel I have a much better plan moving forward. Speaking of which – what’s next?

I have 3 wooly sheepskins still sitting dried from salt and alum. One at a time, I plan to dry scrape and membrane them really well, then rehydrate in a salt water bath. I’m not going to make decisions based on where I think I left off tanning this time – I’m just going to go through all the steps of my process as though I had just fleshed and salted them. So after rehydration, they’ll get a tanning dressing, softened, and smoked.

I also have 2 dried shearlings left that will get the same treatment.

Additionally I want to experiment with vegetable tanning, AKA bark tanning. I have scraps from the skins I just processed that I can play with. More on that later.

And finally, I just can’t give up on the brittle one. I mean, look at the wool!

I want to try rehydration again, and dress it again. And soften it again. Yeah, it’s a bit masochistic perhaps, but I just can’t help myself. I mean, what if it works and it comes out garment-quality? Either way, I’ll learn more.

Happy fall ya’ll- and happy beginning of the season when I can take and tan roadkill.

Soap and Oil Tanning Solution Instructions

This will be another “resource” post. I’ve mentioned my tanning dressing in several posts now, and more or less explained it once, but I want to give clear instructions for the recipe here – for reference!

Ingredients:

  1. Handmade natural, plain soap. No essential oils or other additives. I make my own from rendered lard or tallow, sometimes from pure olive oil.
  2. Purified water. If you have hard well water like me, don’t use it.
  3. Neatsfoot oil. Alternatively you could experiment with using other oils, like vegetable or olive, but I like to keep all my tanning fats animal-based in the spirit of using byproducts of meat production.

You’ll also need a large pot for boiling water, a large wooden or nonstick spoon, and a sturdy bucket.

Steps

  1. Put about a gallon of water on to boil.
  2. Meanwhile, grate a bar of soap as finely as you can. My bars are 4-5 ounces.
  3. When the water reaches a boil, add the soap and remove the pot from the heat right away
  4. Stir gently; try not to create much lather
  5. After all the soap has dissolved and the solution is cooled but still hot, pour it into the bucket
  6. Add about a cup of neatsfoot oil and stir
  7. You’ll need to stir until you have a homogenous solution
  8. Let cool, and you’re ready to tan with it

Water and oil don’t usually mix, but the soap acts as an emollient, allowing them to form a solution.

This tanning mixture is similar to a brain tanning mix – it has water, fats, proteins, and emollient.

Blessed Samhain, and smoking skins

My muscles ache, I have new cuts on my hands, and my hair smells of woodsmoke.

I smoked the white and creamy skins, and the shearling hide today. I had forgotten how challenging it can be to get the right type of fire going for a good smoke. You want material that will give off lots of smoke and smolder rather than flame – like wet leaves, green branches, tree bark, or rotten hardwood. I used wet leaves and some old, punky silver maple from a stump that I gave up trying to split about 5 years ago because it was so twisty and knotted. Once I remembered not to add too much dry, very flammable material at once, things went pretty smoothly.

Smoking sheepskins

You’ll notice that my smoking set-up is very primitive. I haven’t mastered using a jacket and sewing the hide into a tube. I’m still doing this, years in to this craft.

I exposed them to smoke for about an hour.

Then I got to work on cleaning the fleeces up the rest of the way. Both bigger hides still had dingleberries. All three had wool tips that were just plain dirty, and the shearling had old blood around the nape.

I didn’t want to unnecessarily wet the leather, so I decided to use a spray bottle with water and a bit of free and clear detergent. I sprayed this liberally into all the problem areas and then used my hands and a pet slicker brush to get out as much debris as I could. The blood stain, long ago turned purple, on the shearling was the worst of it, and I’m not convinced I’ll ever get it out. To finish up the washing I used a watering can to rinse the fleeces with plain water.

What’s left of dirt clods and dingleberries I believe I can liberate with my wool hand cards that are arriving this week.

I hung the skins to dry in what’s becoming my new workshop (half my garage). Not much left to do but either list them for sale or decide to keep them.

I also did this today.

Sun tanning is not hide tanning

A few things have happened with my skins since last writing. Remember when I said the weather was giving me a respite? I woke up the next morning to the sound of rain; the skins were drenched! I lugged them inside to the front room of my house (slowly becoming a makeshift tannery?), covered the floor under them in newspapers, and crossed my fingers that they’d start to dry.

The real problem was that I was starting to notice that the large hide i had rehydrated and jokingly called “crispy” was just not looking right. The leather was very brown in places, and continued to look dry and brittle despite the fact i had reapplied the tanning dressing. I started to try to hand stretch the leather, and as i got towards the edges of the pelt, the leather just ripped. It was still weak and brittle.

I decided to get both the skins on some kind of frame for stretching. I pieced together a couple things from an old pallet and scraps of plywood from a flooring project.

The big creamy one

This morning I rubbed neatsfoot oil into the hide with the brittle bits and tried again to work it. Starting from the middle, I used the blunt wooden handle of my scraping tool to press in and drag across the leather. The center of the hide looks great and acted just as i expect my leather to. But again, the closer to the edges I got, the weaker the leather became, and it tore in a couple more places.

Here’s what I’ve figured out went wrong here:

Back in ’19 when I started this hide, i dressed it and put it on my stretching frame. I then got taken away from my projects by other things in my life, and this hide hung on the frame for a while without being broken or worked on. I also remember that it was in the sun for a good portion of the afternoons.

I’m pretty certain that the sun damaged and weakened the leather in its infant stages. I determined that those portions of the hide can’t reach the quality I strive for and needed to be cut away.

You can see all the little holes in the above photos. And look at the beautiful, long, crimpy wool! What a shame!

I will never, ever leave the leather side of a hide directly exposed to sun for an extended period of time again.

The good in this (besides all I’ve learned and additional experience) is that a significant portion of the pelt is just fine. It makes a cute little thing!

Here’s the good leather that’s left.

Here’s the before and after trimming.

The other hide, big and creamy, is coming along just fine. I still have her drying in the house, and would like her a bit drier before smoking.

The first shearling is done and will be smoked with the other two before I move on to the next skin.

things go right sometimes

My little daughter is asleep at my breast as I write this and I. Am. Tired. My body is remembering what it takes to do this work of tanning skins the traditional way. I’ve got a couple blisters forming on my hands where old calluses had softened. My muscles are sore and my back is stiff. It’s good though; I’m rebuilding my strength. The muscle memory is still there.

This morning I gently washed the skin in my tub (smelly). I got the whole sopping thing back outside to dry, and by this evening it didn’t look too bad.

I’m surprised at how much lanolin washed out of the wool. I’m not sure I like that, and think I’ll forego the laundry soap with the next one I wash.

I applied my tanning dressing (soap, water, and neatsfoot oil) to the big creamy wooly one; I don’t think I had done so in ’19, and I don’t think another coat will hurt anyway. Here’s that guy:

I’d like to give it just one final scrape with my blunt tool tomorrow and then smoke it. We’ll see. If the other big one actually dries I’ll feel more confident washing this one.

The weather – that I was so stressed about – has given me a bit of a reprieve. Looks like I’ve got 5 days before freezing nighttime temps.

In other news, the shearling is looking and feeling great, and I’m dreaming of sheepskin mittens. I found a pattern that I think even i can follow to success.