Turning Deer Hides Into Buckskins

 Every year thousands of deer hides are thrown away by hunters and animal processing facilities all over the world but, they don't all have to go to waste.  Humans from all across the globe have been making clothing from animal skins since the beginning of the idea of clothing itself and, so can you.

  Many people , like me, enjoy keeping the old ways alive by making what is known as buckskin.


 Buckskin is different than leather and requires a completely different process to make it. For best results ( best shape of hide) it starts with the skinning process. When skinning, you want to end up with the most useable shaped piece possible.

 You start by cutting around the neck, then around the front and back legs at the knees. Then cut, where the white hair and brown hair meet, forward of the front legs and backward on the back legs from one side to the other and then cut straight down the middle of the belly to the tail. Now you can put away your knife and use your hands and fists to separate the hide from the flesh while leaving the twitch muscles on the carcass and not on the hide. This makes the next step much easier.

 However, if you got your hides from someone else and they used a knife to skin the deer, you may have lots of meat, fat, blood and knife marks in your hide.


 The next step is called "Fleshing the hide". This is done by using a" fleshing knife". You can make your own out of stone, leg bone, flat metal stock or anything you can make work. I like to use a Wiebe fleshing knife, however , they are very sharp when you first get them so, be careful.

 To begin the fleshing process, you will also need a fleshing beam. These can be anything from a log leaning against a tree or some PVC tubing. 

 The idea is to use your fleshing knife to remove any meat, fat or other particles from the flesh side (the part that was inside the deer next to the muscle tissue) making sure to go all the way out to the edges of the hide.

Methods of making Buckskin

  There are two main types of buckskin tanning methods, "Wet Scrape" and "Dry Scrape". 

 Dry Scrape is done by stretching the hide out on a rack and scraping the hair and grain off with a sharp scrapping tool. After which, you would follow through with the methods described below begging with the Rinsing phase.

 Wet Scrape is what we will be describing in detail below.


     To make the process of removing the hair and the grain layer of the hide easier, we need to bring the PH of the hide up. We can do this with soaking the hide in a water solution of wood ash ( enough that an egg floats just a bit out of the water), or adding potassium hydroxide to the water ( just until the water feels slippery between your fingers) or by adding hydrated lime ( 2 lbs. to 10 gallons of water).

 Bucking causes the hide to shrink a bit, swell up and loosens the hair. This works great in warmer weather and takes upwards of 4 days for a thick hide in colder weather to reach optimum hair slippage.

 This process can be done in a more natural way by leaving the hide in a running water stream for a few days as the bacteria will start its work on breaking down the hide. You can also put the hide in a black trash bag and leave it laying in the sun but, check it frequently and be prepared to deal with the smell as the rotting process begins.


 Once the hide has been bucked, it's time to take the hair and grain layer off. This is done again on the fleshing beam with a fleshing knife. The grain will be swollen and a darker color than the layer underneath it. Sometimes, it can be easy to de-grain a hide and other times you will ask yourself " What the heck am I doing this for?


   Now its time to rinse the hide in fresh water. I like to slosh it around in a bucket of fresh water for about 10 min. Change out the water and add a cup of vinegar to the it. Slosh it around in this solution for about 10 min., wring it out by hand & repeat. Continue this process until there are no signs of the swelling left. Rinsing in vinegar causes the PH level to drop and the hide becomes more absorbent, allowing the dressing solution to penetrate the fibers more easily. 


  Now its back to the beam and fleshing knife to re-scrape the flesh side  removing any final bits of membrane ( loose fibrous tissue) before proceeding to the dressing stage.

 Wringing & Dressing

Now that you have finished with all of the scraping and have rinsed the hide, its time to wring all of the liquid out by making a "donut" with the hide. This is done by tying a 2" or 3" diameter pole horizontally between two trees, laying about 1/4 of the hide over the top of the pole and wrapping about 1/4 of the bottom up and over, then rolling from each end towards the center forming a donut shape. You can then take a smaller stick or broom handle and place it inside the bottom of the donut and twist it until all the liquid has come out.

  Once this is done its time to soak in the "dressing". the dressing can be made with deer brains, hog brains, lecithin, or egg yolks. I like to use lecithin and egg yolks. 

  I mix 12 egg yolks in a bucket of warm water adding about three drops of dish soap, stirring until all yolks are mixed well. use the same process if using brains or lecithin.

 Once the hide has been saturated in the dressing, wring it out on the pole in the same manner as before. Rotating the donut and wringing between wrappings so that each section has had the dressing forced through the fibers. You will see bubbles coming out of the hide as it is forced through.

 Repeat the soaking and wringing and rotating the donut and the wrap on the pole as you go about 4 times.




At this stage, it is a good time to sew up any holes that may be in the hide. I use artificial sinew and a strong needle for this. Fold the hole in half evening out the edges to its opposite. You will notice a half moon shape with pointed corners, cut the corners just enough to give the hole a more straight line. Start your stitch about 1/8th of an inch before the hole starts and sew up past the hole on the other end the same. A whip stitch works great for this.



Softening & Drying

Now its time to stretch the hide every which way, opening and moving the fibers as the hide begins to dry. Make sure the hide continues to get stretched each direction as it dries or it will dry hard and stiff. You can use sharp stakes sticking up from the ground , sharp edges of boards and cables tied to a tree to stretch the hard to get to spots. If the hide feels cool when held against your cheek, then it is still too wet.

 Once the hide is soft, dry and warm to your face then you are ready to smoke the hide.




  Smoking the hides is necessary to prevent the hides from drying hard and stiff when they get wet. The creosote from the smoke penetrates the fibers of the hide and prevents the fibers from sticking together again. Smoke also kills off any bacteria that may be in the hide. It makes it smell great too!

 You must sew, staple or clip the edges of the hide or hides together to form a bag and allow an opening on one end to attach an old pants leg or something equivalent to prevent the hides from getting too hot.

 Suspend the bag above the smoker and tie out the sides to hold the bag open. I like to build a fire separate from the smoker so that I can transfer hot coals , when needed, to the smoker. I use punky wood ( soft rotting wood) as a smoking agent. The types of wood used to smoke can determine the color the hides will be when finished.

 Red oak was used in the illustration here for a beautiful red color. These hides were smoked for two hours and then taken down, turned inside out and reassembled onto the smoker for another two hours.


 You now have BUCKSKIN! What will you make? Your imagination is the limit!

 I made these pants out of some hides I did a few years ago:


Special "Thanks" to Karen Zimmerman for allowing me to use photos of her progress from our recent class!

Amazon product affiliate links:

Wiebe 12 Fleshing Knife- https://amzn.to/3vksBsu