Friday, 18 January 2013

Tanning the Rabbit Hide

Every fall, I lose my husband. On his rare days off work Nate goes hunting.

This Alfred Munnings painting, Fox hunting Fox Hunt, closely resembles how I imagine Nate's  trips.
Each year, he brings me home at least one rabbit pelt as part of my birthday present. I always intend to tan them, but never get around to it. The hides harden and crack and start to shed, eventually turning to dust and I have to toss them.

This year is different. My friend Janet is a fellow enthusiast of all things natural. She kindly sent me the instructions on how to tan a rabbit hide using fairly basic materials. She has even gone so far as to drop off the required type of pickling salt.

This process takes 1.5-2.5 weeks, so I'll have to update this post as it goes. I could wait until it is complete before posting, but I'd hate to leave my one reader, Anne, to wonder what I am up to.

Part One: Pickling
These instructions assume that you're tanning a fresh-off-the-animal hide, when the skin is still soft and pliable. That's not the case with this rabbit. The bloody mess has been hanging in the basement stairwell for months, and has stiffened into the shape of the hook it was on.

Bloody rabbit pelt. A fearsome thing to behold. 
I soaked it in a bucket of water for a few hours to soften it up a bit first. When I drained it, it was nicely softened and didn't even smell that bad.

Spoon of Rabbit pelt
As per the instructions, I mixed 1/2 cup of Alum pickling salt with 1/2 cup of non-iodized sea salt into 1 gallon of water. I halved the recipe in the instructions, as they were for tanning more than one hide at a time.

It doesn't need to be sea salt, and it certainly doesn't need to be this expensive brand of sea salt, but its what I had on hand. It just has to be non-iodized. The Alum salt came from the Bulk Barn. The solution had to be mixed in a plastic bucket rather than metal, to avoid a chemical reaction. Sarah (who mops my floors) will have to be warned before she goes after that bucket.

Once dissolved, the fur goes in, and soaks for about two days. There is no real risk to letting it pickle longer, so its better to leave in longer than take it out too early. It should be stirred twice a day (I forgot to do this).

To be continued...

Part Two: Fleshing (what an awful word)
The rabbit has been pickling for three days now. I saved the pickling solution, because it is reused later in these instructions.

I squeezed the excess solution out and rinsed it with my cloth diaper sprayer. I realize not everyone who tans hides will have a diaper sprayer.

Rinsing with Bum Genius diaper sprayer

Fur looks better than when I started!
The next step is fleshing. This is trickier on rabbits than with other animals because they don't have a thick skin or much fat on them. There is a clearish membrane that needs to be removed for a soft hide, but it seems nearly impossible to remove it all without ripping through the skin. I Googled this issue, and came across a taxidermy forum where someone suggested that wild rabbits can't really be fleshed  as well as domestic rabbits (my niece is going to disown me). I tried my best to peel it up using my fingers. The instructions suggested a dull knife, but I was too afraid to rip it.

Note the flap of membrane that is peeled up - the entire hide gets peeled
It worked out ok, and would be even better if it weren't full of shotgun holes (I suppose I wouldn't have it at all then), but Nate says he was far away and his shot "pattern" was wide. I peeled very slowly and carefully. I couldn't give an accurate estimate on how long it took me, but it was about 1.5 hours with at least half that time spent trying to get Angus to nap. If I missed a few spots, and it ends up hard in some places after drying, I will just use it to make accessories with knit or felt backings.

After "fleshing"
Using the same bucket from the first pickling, I added another half cup of both Alum and sea salt, which doubles the concentration of the solution. I mixed it until everything was dissolved and put the fur back in.

This time, the rabbit stays in for 1-2 weeks, getting stirred twice daily.

When looking for videos of fleshing hides I came across this guy. He uses a dry salt rub instead of pickling and I just couldn't get enough of his fantastic accent.

To be continued...

Part Three: Washing and Drying

Our little friend has been pickling for one week. Now the solution is dumped and the excess squeezed from the pelt.

I noticed loose fur floating in the water, and am hoping its just from the few patches that I fleshed too far.

The next step is to wash the pelt with a gentle detergent. The image of oil covered ducks popped into my mind, and so blue Dawn it is. I am surprised at how greasy my hands got from squeezing the water out, but the fleshing and pickling is done to remove fat from the pelt, so it makes sense.

The pelt is rinsed several times, the water squeezed out, and it is hung to dry for a day, before it is softened and conditioned.

To be continued...

Part Four: Stretching and Conditioning 

The pelt has dried out for 2 days, and has once again shrivelled into a hard, ugly mess. On closer inspection of the instructions, I was supposed to stretch and condition the pelt while it was still damp.

 No need for alarm - the pelt can be "dampened back" with a wet cloth. Once damp, I began gently tugging and stretching the skin. You can see the white areas are where I tugged. The goal is for the whole pelt to achieve the white colour.

There were still some hard, dark areas, so I laid a damp cloth on again to soften it up more.

Once the pelt was all stretched, it softened up quite a bit. There was still a peppery feel to the hide - hopefully that will go away after being conditioned with leather oil.

Well, this feels like an anti-climactic ending to a two-week long posting, but the tanning is complete!  Once the greasiness of the leather conditioner fades, I'll be chopping this fellow up and sewing him into fashionable accessories that I will be sure to share with you. I feel like the villainous woman from the 1988 hit series The Smoggies, in declaring such - but rest assured Suntots, Mr. Rabbit died an instantaneous death, and was gobbled up over a wholesome family dinner.


  1. Dearest Ashleigh,

    Currently, I am sitting in my living room listening to the Sleeping Sheep humming away, lulling seashore laps, and hoping that the wee one stays asleep. But the whole point of this letter is to not talk about babies; I talk and think about them enough as it is, so I digress to my original interest, tanning.

    Your posts are quite intriguing, especially this last one regarding the development of your rabbit pelt. I really enjoy the progress shots and detailed step-by-step instructions and experience. This really makes me feel as if I am right there with you, maybe even taking turns stirring. The other thing about this post is the memory it conjured up.

    The memory is of a pelt in my grandmothers’ house, which she had been stretching, perhaps a fox or something, not quite sure. Let me also explain that my grandmother is no ordinary woman, she is an extraordinary woman, as she raised 7 children by herself, probably knitted all their socks, was once a trapper, avid gardener (still has a huge garden), never remarried, still lives alone and is turning 90 this year.

    Back then my grandmother was a fur trapper and she was able to feed her family of 7 with this income. If I think back I might even be able to smell that hide hanging in the basement, and now I wish that I had taken on that skill. That tanning a hide could have been seen as being something important to learn and that she could have handed down to me. But then again I also wish she could have taught me how to knit, quilt, garden and pickle. But alas, my grandmother probably didn’t see the importance or didn’t have the patience for a young child and really I didn’t have the interest then.

    It is funny how our interests can change our perspectives.

    Many thanks,

    1. Katina - thank you for sharing your lovely story. Your grandmother sounds like a very accomplished woman - raising 7 children on a trappers income could not have been without struggle!

      Do not despair about not having taken up tanning yet. There is still time. The next time you visit your grandmother, bring a recorder to record her stories of trapping and tanning. Anne and I were just discussing the importance of recording stories from the elderly as a legacy.

      I will save a beaver pelt for us to work on together the next time you visit. Just swing by Iron Bridge first to get the instructions first!

  2. Hi, so glad to find this. I raise meet rabbits and I even though my husband insists my pelts are worthless I feel it is a terrible waste not to use them for something!! I also enjoyed Katina's story about her grandmother and would like to read more.Antway thank you for posting. I have three to work with now. I do have to ask why you would have a beaver pelt ? You don't eat the meat do you ? Thank you , Kathy

  3. I would like to know if the pelt smelled at all while you were drying/stretching it?

    1. Hi Leia! It didn't smell very much at all! I was expecting it to, and fearfully braced myself for it, but it just smelled like mild vinegar.

    2. Thanks for the reply! I'm currently pickling a rabbit hide in my dorm's closet haha and I don't want it to smell because I'm pretty sure my university (and roommate) would look down on that!

  4. The pickling doesn't smell at all if 1) you stir it frequently (once or twice a day), and 2) you don't let it sit in the first pickle for weeks. When I put in a batch and then ignored them for 2-3 weeks, they began to rot in spots. That smells bad, and it causes the hair to slip off. The other 2 batches I've done have been great!
    This method is described in detail in a Mother Earth News article posted online.
    Thanks for writing this!

  5. Wow ! What a great piece of valuable info. I have been looking for. Maybe I will devote the rest of my life to Tanning hides since there is such an abundance of Road Kill here in Minnesota. What a waste of valuable resource if not eaten by wildlife.

  6. Thank you for posting this online!! My daughter raises rabbits for 4H and she made auction with her rabbits. We had to prepare them for the buyer and I saved the hides because of your posting. She is so proud to be able to use them instead of wasting them. She is going to make a craft out of one to enter next year at the county fair. Thanks so much!!

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  10. The comment by Katina made me realise that whilst reading your story about wrestling with the rabbit, I had been drawn into visualising the ephemeral details only mentioned by you in passing.
    You have a talent for painting word-pictures, ma'am.
    And your advice on recording the life-stories of the elderly is priceless.
    Thank you for sharing your home with me for a little while.
    Best wishes from England.


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