How to: Elk Hide Tanning with Hair-on

How to: Elk Hide Tanning with Hair-on

Just before Thanksgiving 2022, I bagged a ~400lb cow elk on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, WY. More context in the full trip report.

At my Dad's suggestion, I asked my butcher for the hide, so I could get it tanned. After a few days calling taxidermists, I realized they're very expensive and generally hard to pin down. All the shops I called within a few hundred miles didn't tan hides; they only handled mounts.

So, I started Googling and YouTubing. I was frustrated by the number of conflicting how-to articles. Each seemed to have a somewhat unique series of tanning steps, each purportedly critcal to the process.

Below, I'll break down the steps that worked pretty well for me with links to resources I found helpful. I'll also break down my best understanding of the purpose behind each step. (Most how-to guides lacked satisfying explanations.)

Note: I wanted to keep fur on my hide. Some steps below will change if you're looking to remove the hair. I'll link to other articles for hair-off tanning.

Summary of steps

Summary of my steps, plus my best guesses at the why's:

  • Flesh the hide: Remove remaining flesh and fat
  • Salt: Cover the hide with non-iodized salt to draw out moisture; Why? Inhibits bacteria growth; some sources say salt can damage the hide; others claim it's a mandatory step to set the hair; once salted, hides can be stored for months or even years; it seems a hide can also be frozen for some time before salting
  • Rehydrate / clean: Quickly soak the hide in a salt and detergent solution, gently rinsing out blood and dirt from the hair; Why? Once salted, the hide stiffens and can be tricky to work with; and generally, fur is dirty and bloody
  • Drain: Allow the hide to partially dry; Why? To absorb the pickle solution
  • Pickle: Soak the hide in a mildly acidic (pH 2) solution; Why? Helps set the hair by contracting hair follicles; remove non-structural proteins in the skin to allow the tanning solution to adhere to structural proteins; kills bacteria
  • Neutralize: Quick soak in a slightly less acidic solution (pH 4-5); Why? If the hide's too acidic, tanning solution can't penetrate
  • Rinse and drain: Quick rinse in cool water, then drain
  • Tan: Apply a brush-on solution or bathe the hide in solution (I used the "orange bottle" brush-on tanning solution); Why? To permanently alter the hide's protein structure to increase durability and prevent decay
  • Break: While drying, stretch the hide until fibers turn white; Why? Prevents the hide from becoming rigid once dry
  • Thin: I used a hand sander to produce a velvety texture after the hide was dry; can also thin the hide with a knife before tanning
  • Condition / waterproof: I applied mink oil to waterproof the hide, which produced a leathery feel (optional)
  • Store: The hide should be hung somewhere not too hot or moist; breathable to inhibit mold; and inaccessible to mice / insects

A few helpful YouTube tutorials:

I didn't have all the tools / materials in these tutorials, so I improvised a bit, also drawing from other how-to articles.

Flesh and salt

On the way home from my butcher (Matt's Meats on Berger Ln, Jackson, WY), I stopped by Smith's for some non-iodized salt. The fresh hide was folded up in a carboard box in the bed of my truck.

At this stage, I planned to send the hide to a taxidermist. From some quick Googling, realized I still needed to flesh and salt the hide immediately.

I read a few guides that cautioned against salting, claiming it was unneccessary for fresh hides or only required for dry storage. They seemed to be in the minority. For hair-off hides, several guides recommend you skip salting and instead immerse the hide in a plain water bath to loosen the fur before shaving. (E.g., the "orange bottle" tanning solution instructions.)

In general, the best tanning results seem to come from fresh hides. If time pressed, a hide can be stored in a freezer or salted. Caution: some tanneries don't accept frozen hides and claim freezer burn can alter the hide's chemistry and thus tanning steps. (E.g., The Tannery.)

For storage, the safest bet seems to be "wet salting." Lay the hide flat, cover with salt, let sit overnight, then roll and store in a bucket. The hide will keep draining fluids, so place a brick at the bottom to prevent it from soaking. Periodically drain the bucket during the first few days. Store up to a year. This was my initial plan.


  • Sharp knife and pliers (optional) for fleshing
  • Fine-grain, non-iodized salt (I used ~6lbs for a medium cow elk)
  • Tarp (6x8' was large enough for my hide)
  • A clean, dry work area between 40-70F and free from critters / pets; high temperatures / humidity accelerate bacteria growth, while temperatures too low inhibit drying (not to mention are miserable for working); a heated garage in the winter was perfect

My process:

Fleshing (5 hours). Using my hunting knife, I slowly cut away as much flesh and fat as possible. The butchers gave me a pretty clean hide, but it's almost impossible to remove everything while skinning. The fleshing technique that worked best was pulling flesh / fat up with one hand for tension and cutting it with the other.

My pulling hand started cramping after a few hours, at which point I experimented with pliers. I also tried a hatchet and butter knife, but the sharp knife worked best.

Regardless of approach, fleshing is a slow process. Despite warnings, I never cut through the hide using the sharp knife. For a thinner hide, like deer, it would make sense to be more cautious.

I removed the tail because I was getting tired, but there's a technique to remove the tailbone and leave the tail fur. (See in this clip.)

Once fleshed, I laid the hide hair-down on a tarp for salting.

Salting (2 days). I sprinkled about 6lbs of fine grain, non-iodized salt from the grocery store on the hide. I uncurled the edges and packed in the salt. Leave no surface unsalted.

Tip: During the pickling and neutralizing process, I found cheaper pickling salt at the grocery store. Next time.

The consensus seems to be "the more salt the better."

Periodically I mopped up puddles on / around the tarp I laid the hide on. Be sure to salt in an area free from anything you don't want tainted by blood. (And secure from pets.) I added more salt after 24 hours.

In retrospect, I would've scraped off more wet salt and replaced it with dry.

According to most guides, iodized salt can distort the hide's color, and rock salt crystals are too large to draw out all the moisture. There were some dissenting opinions, but fine non-iodized salt seemed like consensus.

A few resources: Brain Tan on hide storage; Van Dyke's guide to tanning (see steps 1 and 2); Steel Horse Leather tanning guide; Amy's Taxidermy.

After two days, fluid stopped pooling / draining, so I scraped off the salt using a dustpin and shook off the remainder onto the tarp. The hide looked pretty consistent. Blood and natural fluids largely drained out.

Rehydrate / clean and drain

Most guides suggested rehydrating in a brine solution after salting. There was some inconsistency this step, especially for a fresh hide that didn't fully dry out.

At a minimum, I wanted to remove blood / dirt from the fur, so I opted for a rehydration / cleansing bath.


  • 20-gallon tote or bucket; 10-gallon baths seemed to be the consensus for a medium elk hide
  • Another box of non-iodized salt (only 2 pounds for this quick bath)
  • A cup of natural laundry detergent to help draw out blood / dirt
  • A tab of bleach to help kill any remaining bacteria; caution: if using bleach, don't allow the hide to soak for a long time (probably safest to skip)

My process:

Rehydration bath (15 minutes). I prepared a 5-gallon bath in a 10-gallon tote with non-iodized salt, some natural laundry detergent and a bleach tablet. I started with hot water to dissolve the salt, then set the bin outside to cool. It was early December and below freezing in Jackson, so 30 minutes did the trick.

Most articles caution against soaking the hide in any warm solution—risk of accelerating bacteria growth and loosening hair follicles.

I used the shower in my garage for any baths—easy to drain and no concern about the concrete floor. I soaked the hide, gently working the detergent into the hair, careful not to pull out more strands than necessary.

Draining (24 hours). After ~15 minutes, I removed the hide and draped it over a plastic folding table that laid sideways on a tarp. I didn't feel like buying additional drying racks, so I made due with what I had.

I used the same tarp for salting. Before using it for draining, I rinsed off the salt, blood and other fluids that had pooled up and dried. After 24 hours, the hide was still damp, but no longer dripping.

Pickle, neutralize, rinse and drain

I spent hours researching pickling. Some guides claimed it was absolutely necessary. Others, including the "orange bottle" instructions, skipped it.

From what I could tell, soaking the hide in a mildly acidic solution tightened hair follicles and helped kill off any remaining bacteria. There didn't seem to be much of a downside, assuming a pH near 2.0 was maintained.

Despite the inconvenience of a potentially unnecessary step, I opted to pickle.

Here's a more detailed article from Van Dyke on the pickling process. According to Amy's Taxidermy, pickling breaks down unwanted proteins in the skin. I suspect chemicals in the "orange bottle" tanning solution (and other tanners) accomplish the same ends, making pickling a bit redundant at worst.


  • 20-gallon tote for a 10-gallon bath
  • 10lbs of salt (one lb per gallow); non-iodized or pickling (cheaper); easy to find in your local grocery store
  • 3oz of citric acid per gallon; I picked up 2lbs to be safe; I found citric acid in Hobby Lobby's soap making section
  • One box of baking soda; also grocery store
  • pH test strips that extend below 2 and up to at least 5/6; you'll add citric acid until close to 2 pH for pickling, then baking soda to 4-5 pH for neutralizing; I borrowed strips from a friend (couldn't find in any retail stores)

My process:

After the rehydration bath, I started the clock on the process, or so I was told. Salt inhibits bacteria. Pickling / tanning kills it. Out of the salt, bacteria can multiple.

Unable (I think) to wait for shipping, I drove two hours to Idaho Falls for supplies. On my list: citric acid (found in Hobby Lobby), "orange bottle" tanning solution (Cabela's), pH test strips (Home Depot water testing) and baking soda / pickling salt (grocery stores).

When I got home at midnight, I realized the pH test strips didn't extend to a pH of 2. Luckily, my friends own Highpoint Cider in Victor and had full-range test strips. So I drove back over Teton Pass, narrowly missing a cow / calf moose and returning with proper test strips by 1am.

Pickling (72 hours). I filled the 20-gallon tote with 10 gallons of warm water, then added the salt and stirred until fully dissolved. I moved the tote outside to cool for 30 minutes.

Back inside, I added citric acid, periodically testing the pH. It took all 5 pounds of the crystals from Hobby Lobby, which I imagine weren't as potent as some of the tanning-specific solutions sold by outfitters. The pH was slightly above 2, but I wasn't driving back to Idaho Falls—close enough.

I submerged the hide in the pickle bath, using thick dish-washing gloves. I weighted the hide with a water-filled bear keg on a smaller tote lid. Any weighted object will do. The goal is to submerge the hide, which otherwise can float.

I let the hide soak for 72 hours, periodically stirring and re-folding the hide to ensure all surfaces were exposed to the pickle solution.

Neutralizing (20 minutes). After 72 hours, I removed the hide, laying it on the concrete floor of my shower. (For those of you wondering, I showered at the gym during this fiasco.)

Then, I added baking soda, periodically testing the pH. One box from the grocery store did the trick in a 10-gallon bath. I stopped once the pH rose above 4.

I soaked the hide for ~20 minutes, then gave it very quick dunk in a fresh bath of plain, cold water. (The pickling solution was a bit cloudy after a few days.)

I draped the hide over the folding table to drain.


The number of tanning methods are mind boggling:

  • Brain tanning used by nomads; each animal's brain has enough oil (when boiled) to tan its hide
  • Bark tanning using natural tannins, hence "tanning"
  • Other natural recipes like mayonaisse and eggs, lemon juice, etc.
  • Commercially popular synthetic options, ranging from the more hazardous (alum / chrome) to the more benign (hunter's "orange bottle" solution); also, soaking solutions versus brush-on solutions

Check out Wikipedia and Steel Horse Leather for more context.

Based on a friend's recommendation, and to keep things simple, I opted for the brush-on "orange bottle" solution available in Cabela's.


  • 3-5 bottles of "orange bottle" tanning solution for a medium elk
  • Thick, dish-washing gloves
  • Tarp (again, 6x8' did the trick)

My process:

Tanning (48 hours). I left the elk hide to drain for about 48 hours. It was still damp and maleable, but drained enough to absorb the solution.

Mostly drained hide; can you spot the exit wound?

Per "orange bottle" instructions, I soaked the sealed bottle in warm water for about 30 minutes to soften the solution. Then I drained two bottles onto the hide, skin-side up, and worked the solution in using my gloves.

Once I spread the solution evenly, I flipped the hide skin down on a clean tarp. The instructions suggested folding the skin together. I think the spirit of the step is to prevent too much air drying before the solution can be absorbed by the skin. Laying the hide skin down gave the hair an opportunity to dry. I turned up the garage heater to accelerate its drying.

After 24 hours, I flipped the hide and applied another bottle of tanning solution (three bottles total). I flipped the hide skin-side down again, allowing the hair to finish drying. After 12 hours, I flipped the hide skin up.

Note: don't let the hide completely dry before breaking (see next step).

Break, thin, moisturize and fluff

After tanning, the hide is preserved. Any further steps come down to your planned use. I hoped for a soft enough leather to serve as a throw blanket. I also wanted to protect the leather with some waterproofing.


  • Gloves and a firm surface for breaking
  • Hand sander for optional thinning
  • Neatsfoot, lanolin, almond or mink oil (I used mink, mostly due to availability) for optional conditioning / waterproofing

My process:

Breaking (at least a few hours). When the tanning solution was absorbed, but the hide hadn't fully dried, I started stretched (aka breaking) the hide. Unless you're aiming for plywood-level stiffness, it's a necessary step.

I tried a few approaches. First, standing on the hide, I pulled at the edges until portions of skin in between turned white. Second, and more effective, I stretched sections of hide, fur down, over the rounded edges of the plastic folding table. I was able to turn more skin white (aka break fibers).

But my forearm muscles became strained. A couple nights in a row, I spent an hour or so stretching the hide, until more and more fiber broke down. I worked stubborn spots, like the hind legs and elbow joints, with folding and rubbing.

In the end, I the hide was still stiff in spots, but all the skin was a similar shade of white (surface a bit yellowed by the tanning solution).

Thin / soften (at least a few hours). Once the hide was fully dry, I bought up a hand sander from ACE to try for a velvety texture. I slowly worked my way across the hide, section by section. The skin became more supple to the touch and and whiter as I moved past a surface stains from excess tanning solution.

In retrospect, maybe I needed more neutralizating for better penetration or less tanning solution. But, I was afraid of losing fur by over-neutralizing.

I spent a couple nights sanding down the hide. Occasionally, I cut through, but only minor tears—none visible from the fur side. Once I was comfortable with the texture and thickness, I spent a bit more time breaking stiffer portions of the hide.

Condition (30 minutes). Based on guidance in articles, and my experience caring for leather shoes, I wanted to moisturize the hide. I also thought oil might help soften the fabric for additional breaking.

I read some articles comparing oils for leather care, and after checking stock in a local hardware store, opted for Mink oil.

Much like the "orange bottle" solution, I soaked the sealed jar in warm water to soften up its contents. Using my gloves, I scooped out oil and rubbed it evenly over the hide. After applying an even coat, I let the hide sit to absorb the oil.

After a few hours, I wiped off excess oil and tried more breaking. The oil changed the texture from velvety to smooth, like finished leather versus nubuck.

Fluff (30 minutes). Finally, I used a vacuum and brush to fluff the hair. During sanding, skin flakes lodged in fur at the hide's edges. A handheld vacuum scooped most up. I brushed mostly in the direction of the fur, still a bit concerned about dislodging strands of hair.

After I was happy with the result, I hung the hide on some paracord in our garage. I picked a suspended spot off the ground, dry and not directly exposed to any nearby heat source.

I didn't quite get the blanket I was aiming for, but the hide was generally flexible and stable. Hair hasn't fallen out since the hide dried, so mission accomplished.

I'll have to experiment a bit with the next hide and compare results.