Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tanning a cow hide with an Inuit friend

This post may not be the best post to read if you are at all squeamish about animal parts and pieces.

We are now one cow friend short on our little farm. We butchered Monkey a couple of weeks back so have been eating Monkey Meat for a few days now and let me tell you there is nothing like eating grass fed and finished beef that we raised and butchered ourselves. The meat is great and we had a fairly good experience in the whole process.

I had a hard time shooting Monkey. (Milly cried for days) I suppose it was rather hard because he was our pet in most regards. When I pulled up in the truck he came over to the fence and I gave him a good scratching. I’ve never shot anything besides a gopher so this was a really new experience. I didn’t like it all that much but if someone was going to shoot him it might as well be me. He was my cow (Old Yeller reference).

We decided that we would use as much of the cow as possible. We’ve used his bones to feed to the chickens. I think they are lacking in protein a bit and they flock to the bones as they are distributed.

We also have attempted to tan the hide so we can use them for boots or a boat or something. That is what our Inuit friend tells us we can use the hide for. We enlisted her help to show us how to do the tanning. The pictures that follow don’t do the process justice. It’s quite an endeavour.

We put the hide along with some blood we collected from the cow in a plastic bag for a few days. We then moved it into this plastic container and left it in the sun for a week or so. That was supposed to waterproof the skin in a fermentation type process.

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We then filled the container up with water and rinsed off the slimy grime.

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It’s amazing how small the hide is of a 600 lbs cow.

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I think the picture below says it all. At least this is what Ringo thinks of the smell.

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Side story: I actually can’t smell bad things all that much. When we lived in Samoa we used to collect sea shells. To clean them we’d throw them in some sand and leave them for a month or so. We’d (me) would clean them out and if they were still smelly we’d throw them back in the sand. Most of the time they’d still stink and my sniffer was wrecked in the process of trying to tell if the shells still stunk. Milly would gasp as I brought in shells that I thought were perfectly fine smelling and she’d send me out to bury my treasure for another month or so.

I suppose that it’s a blessing and a curse that I can’t smell stinky things. This time it was a blessing.

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Our friend Ice Burg (new addition to who’s who) brought her skinning tools. These tools are called and Ulu. It’s a tool used to scrape the fat and stuff off a hide.

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They are made out of saw blades mostly she says. They attach a bone as a handle and they are actually quite sharp. I cut myself almost to the bone while I was working the hide. OK, I’ll tell the truth. I didn’t get a knife wound. I got a little nick on my forefinger. I was bleeding like a stuck pig though.

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Ice Burg confirmed that I was doing women’s work. She also confirmed I was terrible at it. I made so many holes in the hide I think the women folk were glad when I graciously “had a meeting” I had to go to.

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You take the Ulu and scrape the hide in an outward motion. It’s more like cutting the excess off by holding the knife fairly horizontal to the hide.

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Kind of like this. I say kind of because that’s me and I’m not all that sure I was doing it correctly.

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We then staked the hide out on the grass and let it dry after piling baking soda all over it. The baking soda is supposed to take the smell out.

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Ice Burg then made a couple of these tools. We are now supposed to rub the skin over it back and forth to soften the skin. In the olden days the women would use their teeth/gums to soften the hides. I’m not sure I’d be a good woman.

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The hide was too wet so we are letting it dry in the sun a bit more. The hide has hardened up so I’m hoping we didn’t wreck it by waiting to long to gum the hide. Ice Burg thinks it’s just fine.

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There you have it. We are making full use out of our yearling we butchered.

You don’t see people tanning their own cow hide everyday do you?


  1. Wow, I mean really wow. No words.

  2. Never thought I see you so into farming. It's great. Don't know if I could do it. My stomach says ooooh gross.

  3. I came over from the Homestead Barn Hop. This is great. We've been wanting to tan our own sheep hides for a while now, but have yet to find good info. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great post! I remember Grandpaw doing this! I stopped in of the Hop and now follow! Please come follow as well:

  5. VERY impressive! Well done - even with a few holes!

  6. If you had saved the brains of the cow you could have tanned it with the brains and had a softer leather.

  7. i have done a couple of deer hides an i am in the process of making a bag from some of the hides. but i cant leave the hide sitting or hanging where the dogs can get it.
    because they surly will

  8. This is so interesting! We have tanned a couple of hides. We were told to salt the hide immediately or keep it cold, but it looks like you left yours in the sun! We scraped it using a similar tool, it helped to drape it over a smooth log. Then we chrome tanned it, I'd like to try baking soda though. Breaking the hide (stretching it) was a real challenge as we didn't know what tool to use, we ended up stretching it over an old gate, that we put on axel stands, and then jumped on the hide to stretch it. It came out quite nice and we keep it as a rug in the house. I am looking forward to seeing how your hide turns out. And maybe you can write more about your method if you've had some more practice since then :)