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How to Easily Flesh a Hide for Tanning

Rachel started tanning fur hides the old way in 2010. She soap and smoke tans sheep and other hides on her homestead in MN.


Preserving animal skins for use is an ancient, ancestral practice. Tanning a skin is one way to preserve it. The tanning process—whether with emulsified fat and smoke, or plant tannins—transforms raw animal hide into leather that can be used for garments, tools, drums, and many more essential items as well as more artistic goods like jewelry.

A good tanning result starts with properly removing the remaining fat, muscle, and membrane from the skin. This is essential whether you plan to tan hair-on, hair-off, grain-on, or buckskin.

There are two types of fleshing that I use: dry fleshing and wet fleshing. Both achieve the same result; it's up to the individual tanner to decide which they like best, and this may differ from animal to animal.

Dry Fleshing vs. Wet Fleshing

The only difference is in whether or not the hide has been dried, or "cured," first. You can cure a hide before fleshing and remove the flesh later.

When I cure hides I choose to use salt. Some tanners just lay them out in the sun to dry out, but in my climate in Minnesota this isn't what's best.

I usually prefer wet fleshing, which is fleshing before curing, but I often dry flesh my sheepskins because I get so many at once I don't have time to flesh them all. Curing a skin under salt preserves it until you're ready for it, so if you don't have time to flesh it, it won't rot.

Sheepskin that was salt-cured before fleshing was completed.

Sheepskin that was salt-cured before fleshing was completed.

Use a Fleshing Beam

When dealing with larger hides like deer and sheep, your best friend will be a fleshing beam. It gives you a place to drape the skin while you work on it and frees up both your hands to use your tool to push the flesh off. You can also hold the skin against the beam with your torso and exert force away from you rather than trying to pull off the fat and tissues.

How to Make a Fleshing Beam

You can make a fleshing beam from a plank of wood and an upright, with another piece of wood along the bottom to stabilize it.

Some people choose to cover the wood in hard plastic such as CPVC to protect the hair side of their hides. I just rounded mine out with a draw knife; use has done the rest to wear down any edges.

It can be as advanced or primitive as you want. The photo below shows my beam.

My DIY fleshing beam.

My DIY fleshing beam.

Use a Flat Board for Smaller Skins

For small skins like raccoon and fox, you can tack the hide to a flat board, fur-side down. Small skins are easy to manage this way, and can be left on the board for salting and dressing with your fat liquor as well.

Tools for Fleshing a Hide

As you've probably guessed, you need something to separate the flesh from the skin. Every hide tanner I know seems to have their favorite tools for this.

You can buy two-handled fleshing knives designed for this task, but I prefer a dull Ulu knife or an equally dull draw knife. The Ulu is all-purpose for me because it works for both large and small hides. The exception is domestic rabbit, which I usually flesh by pulling the fat away with just my fingers (the skin is too delicate for me to use tools).

Whatever you pick, your main fleshing tool shouldn't be sharp. It literally shouldn't have a cutting edge or you risk putting holes and gouges in the skin.

There are times that you need to cut things while fleshing, so I use a sharp little knife for that.

How to Hold the Hide for Fleshing

How you hold the hide matters, especially when using a fleshing beam. In my experience, hides always flesh more easily from the neck down, and the midline (line down the back) out.

If your hide was removed from the animal correctly, the neck (top) and hind (bottom) should be obvious. The edges on either side should be the two halves of the belly/underside of the animal.

You should hold the hide so that you can start at the neck and push the flesh towards the hide quarters. Then turn it so you're fleshing from the back out to the belly.

Getting started is usually the hardest cut. Once you have a small area fleshed, always work from an area where the flesh is already removed.

A deer hide the right way on the beam.

A deer hide the right way on the beam.

A sheepskin the wrong way (upside-down) on the beam.

A sheepskin the wrong way (upside-down) on the beam.

How Will You Know If You're Doing It Right?

You'll know you're fleshing correctly because the fat and meat will push easily off the skin. Oftentimes you can use your hands to pull off large and longer bits after your tool starts the job.

When wet fleshing the difference between skin and flesh is especially clear.


How to Hold Your Blade

How you hold your blade/tool also can make the process of fleshing easier. A 45-degree angle or less usually works well. Sometimes people try to hold their tool at 90 degrees, but that doesn't work as well at getting between the flesh and skin.

Holding your blade at too sheer an angle makes it easier to accidentally gouge or slice the hide, so be careful.

You should also make sure if using a fleshing beam that you don't push down with your tool on the parts of the flesh on the edges of the beam; this can result in the hide getting holes in it.


What If I Can't Get All the Flesh Off?

If you have a bit so stubborn that you just can't remove it while the hide is not dried yet, you can leave it and salt or otherwise dry the hide. It may be easier to remove after curing.

For removing stubborn dry bits, a sharp blade can be used carefully.

Dry bits can also usually be convinced to detach themselves with use of a pumice stone.

When done correctly, you should end up with a nice clean hide like this one.

When done correctly, you should end up with a nice clean hide like this one.

© 2021 Rachel Koski Nielsen