Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.
Tanning Rabbit Hides
Preserving the skins and pelts of animals is an ancient tradition for humans, dating back as far as archaeology knows. I have enjoyed tanning pelts for years as a hobby and a way to honor the animal that's been butchered.
Domestic meat rabbits typically yield excellent pelts that are easy to tan and cure—in fact, rabbit skins are a great place to start learning the tanning process!
I raise Rex and Rex-Mix rabbits for meat, and since Rex rabbits happen to be renowned for their beautiful pelts, it only makes sense that I would preserve them.
Preserving and tanning rabbit skins can be tackled in different ways, but definitely involves some of the following:
- Remove as much flesh as possible from the pelt with a sharp knife and wash with a gentle dye-free soap
- Coat pelt on the skin side with a thick layer of non-iodized salt OR soak the pelt in a solution of saltwater OR a solution of salt and alum water
- Use a solution of plant tannins such as bark or very strong black tea, OR use brains
- Suspend the skin over a smoky fire, or not!
- Stretch and "break" the pelt until it is soft and supple
I'll explain the methods that I have personally used to turn raw rabbit pelts into beautiful, soft rabbit skins.
As you will see, there are lots of ways to tan skins and no small amount of friendly discussion about which methods are best!
Fleshing the Uncured Pelt
"Fleshing" is the term used to describe the process of removing any flesh or fat that has clung to the skin-side of the pelt during the process of dressing the rabbit. Removing the flesh from the skin is important no matter what the type of skin to be preserved, be it mammal or reptile, but the process can be tackled a little differently depending on preference and the type of skin.
One important thing to note about rabbit skin is that it is rather thin and delicate when compared to other types of mammal skin. This means that during fleshing, it can be easy to accidentally cut or tear the actual skin of the pelt. Tears and rips in the skin will likely show through from the fur-side of the pelt after tanning, and certainly will show from the skin-side, so it's ideal to not make any tears (or as few as possible).
A person can use a knife to flesh a skin. There are knives specifically designed for this, called fleshing knives, which are two-handled tools. You can also use any other sharp knife, or blunt-edged metal of your preference. For general fleshing purposes, I have enjoyed using an Ulu knife, especially on larger hides like sheep and deer.
I personally prefer to flesh rabbit skins after I have done an initial "drying" of the skin with salt. This involves leaving the residual meat and fat on the skin and coating it in noniodinated salt, then leaving it for a day or two, or until dehydrated. For me, I find that I create less damage to the skin of the rabbit pelt when fleshing with this method. With the flesh and fatty bits dried and desiccated, I have been able to simply peel away the unwanted parts with my fingers in most cases. Not having to take a knife or other metal tool to the skin greatly reduces the risk of damage.
It's important to fully flesh the skin, meaning that every last bit of fat and meat has been removed. If you don't do this, the fat and meat have a high chance of festering during the tanning process and ruining part if not all of your pelt.
Ulu Knife That I Use for Fleshing
Initial Salt Cure of the Rabbit Pelt
Whether or not you choose to follow my method of salting the pelt before fleshing, you will need to salt cure the pelt after fleshing is completed. This helps start the initial preservation process of the skin and hair, which is organic material that would otherwise be subject to decomposition, rot, and general smelliness otherwise.
Cover Skin in Salt
There are different ways to salt cure a rabbit pelt. Some people might choose to spread the pelt out flat with the hair-side down and skin-side facing up, and simply cover the skin in a thick layer of non-iodized regular table salt or agricultural salt.
This salt curing process will take days to weeks to finish depending on factors like the pelt itself and the level of humidity in the environment. When using this method, it's important to check the salt to make sure it hasn't become so moist that it can no longer draw moisture out of the rabbit skin. This usually requires removing the first application of salt and applying another. This is my preferred method of salt-curing large animal hides like sheep, goat, or deer.
Soak Pelt in Saltwater
Using a salt solution to soak the rabbit pelts is another option. This involves simply dissolving non-iodized salt in water, in a non-reactive container such as a plastic bucket, and submerging the pelts in the solution. This is one of my preferred methods of salt-curing small pelts like rabbit or small game. Again, this process will take days to weeks.
Soak Pelt in Salt and Alum Water
Another soaking solution that I almost always go to when preserving rabbit pelts is a mixture of non-iodized table salt (or agricultural salt) and alum dissolved in water. Alum is a salt of aluminum and is naturally occurring, though it is often manufactured now for purchase.
Alum tanning is also called tawing, and it is one of the oldest, most ancient ways to preserve hides and make leather. If left in the solution too long, a pelt in alum can become brittle. I like to use the alum in my salt solution because it reduces "hair slip", which is when the hair or fur just falls out of the follicles due to decay of the epidermis. I don't have any problems with slippage when I use the alum and salt solution.
Important Note for Soaking Pelt
If using a soaking method to cure your rabbit pelt, it's important to know when to remove it. Due to lots of environmental variables, it's not possible to say exactly when it's the right time to take it out. I have learned what the skin "should look like" when it's done curing, and roughly how it should feel. In my experience, this usually takes around a week, more or less. I believe a pelt is done curing when:
- The skin is all one color, usually white depending on the animal
- The skin feels consistently sort of rubbery - when I touch it, it no longer feels like the slimy, fragile skin of a rabbit but rather a swollen bit of rubber
- If I rub my fingers just right over the skin, it makes a squeaking sound or at least feels like it could
- Pulling very gently on a strand of hair does not remove the hair
I realize these descriptions are highly subjective! But I learned this through reading other tanners' accounts and through my own trial and error. You can too!
Once the salt cure is over, remove the pelt from the salt. If wet from the solution, allow it to dry laying flat in a cool location out of direct sunlight. If you used alum in your solution, you can safely, but gently, wring water out of the skin without damaging it.
My Preferred Alum
Options for Tanning the Rabbit Pelt
There are different substances that can be used to tan hides. As discussed above, alum is one of them, but it won't produce a very soft piece of leather on its own.
"Tannin" or Vegetable Tanning
This is a traditional way of tanning and involves the use of different types of tree bark or leaves that are high in tannic acid. It's possibly the oldest form of tanning, used by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Brain tanning involves using the actual brains of the animal to make a tanning solution which is then rubbed into the skin. Let me say right away that at the time of writing this article, I have no personal experience with brain tanning, but would like to recommend braintan.com as a source of information (with which I have no affiliation).
Fat Tanning or Soap Tanning
In a method that works similarly to brain tanning because of the fats and oils involved, soap can also be used to tan hides. I personally prefer soap tanning. To tan with soap, I take a bar of homemade soap and grate it into small pieces, which I then mix with boiling water to create a play on liquid soap. It's important to use actual soap - do not use dish detergent, laundry detergent, or detergent bars. If you don't have homemade soap and don't want to make any, a store-bought bar like Fels-Naptha could do.
After the liquid soap completely cools, I spread a layer over the skin of the pelt, and rub it into the skin thoroughly. I try to avoid getting the soap mixture into the hair, as I'll just have to wash it out later, and it's not needed there. I then leave the soap mixture on the skin for days. I often will leave it out in the sun if the weather is fair and not too hot, as this seems to speed up the process a bit. Again, knowing when it's fully "done" relies a bit on experience, but for me, I usually observe that the majority of the soft mixture has sunk into the skin, and when tanning is complete there may only be a thin residue on top.
I have found that soap tanning produces a true-to-color, soft-tanned skin that is easy to further soften in the "breaking" process.
FYI: There are commercially produced tanning chemicals for purchase, but I strongly discourage the use of these, for many reasons including environmental toxicity and potential harm to the user.
Breaking the Rabbit Pelt
Breaking a hide looks different depending on the type of hide. For instance, when I break a deer hide, I'm much rougher on it than I would be with a rabbit skin. Rabbit skin is still thinner than deer and other larger animals, even after tanning, so I don't personally use any tools to break rabbit skins but my own hands.
To break my rabbit pelts, I start by gently stretching the skin between my fingers. I start pulling it apart in small sections, perhaps a couple inches wide. You will actually see the skin fibers pull apart, and the skin will be a lighter color in those areas. I like to use a leather oil, specifically neatsfoot oil, to rub into the skin as I go. This moistures and further softens the leather, making it less likely to tear. I do this process to the entire skin.
You really do still need to be careful with thin rabbit skins, as you can pull too hard on them and cause little tears, especially on the edges. Be gentle and patient.
For larger, thicker, tougher hides, I have done everything from breaking the leather by thinning it with a scraper, beating it against a tree trunk (not great), using a homemade "breaking beam", working it over a fence post, to tying hides in a frame that stretches the leather as it dries.
Once fully lightened, and soft and supple to the touch, your pelt is broken.
Smoking the Rabbit Pelt
"Smoking" a pelt refers to exposing the skin side of the hide to wood smoke for a period of time. It's technically an optional step in the tanning process (unless you're tanning rabbits for garment work), but it's one that I've come to really enjoy, both for the process itself and the results. The purpose or theory of smoking is especially relevant to soap, brain, and other "oil tanning" methods—the smoke itself helps to drive the oil and fat molecules into the skin and really set them in place.
It's likely more common to smoke larger hides, like deer or large game, but it's certainly possible and worth your time to smoke rabbit pelts as well.
When I smoke pelts, I use a variety of homemade and "found" materials to construct a sort-of rack to spread the skin on, which is suspended over the fire. It's important to keep the pelt far away from the flames that the skin does not scorch and the hair does not burn off. Use rotten (punk) wood on a bed of coals to reduce flames. I often use two metal chairs and a piece of a stiff metal fence panel to hold up the skin or skins over the fire.
The fire itself needs to be a bit particular for good smoking as well. It's not the type of fire you build for a bonfire or cooking. The purpose of this fire is just to create smoke. I've found that it helps to dig a shallow pit or hole for the fire, as this helps channel the smoke upward. You need to use wood that creates a lot of smoke and little to no flames.
I then use an old metal bucket with the bottom knocked out of it, placed over the burning wood to further direct the smoke upward toward the skin that I'm smoking. If you don't have a broken metal bucket, you could probably use an unneeded section of metal chimney pipe or other metal tubular object that won't go molten when exposed to a campfire. I only build a small fire, less than 2 feet by 2 feet, with hardwood or pine.
Once the fire is burning, I then suspend the pelt over the fire using my metal grate held up by two metal chairs. I continuously feed organic "smokey" material into the fire to create more smoke. The smoke should travel up through the metal bucket (or other metal funneling device you've chosen) to the skin and then billow out from there.
I enjoy feeding and watching the fire, so I'll usually smoke a pelt for hours. Depending on the breeze blowing, I often find I need to make adjustments to how the pelt is suspended to make sure the smoke is really getting to it. Enjoy this relaxing part of preserving hides, because the rest of it is harder work!
When your pelt is preserved the way you want it, you'll want to remove any residual solution from it by giving it a wash. You can do this by hand with simple soap. You can machine-wash hides if you want to. If you've cured and tanned the rabbit skin correctly, washing it by hand now shouldn't cause any damage or hair loss. Allow the pelt to hang dry. I don't recommend laying it flat, especially not on the hair-side, when it's wet, as one side will take too long to dry.
I often wash skins right after fleshing as well, to rinse away blood and tissue. I often soap up the wool and fur on my hides to get them nice and clean, but be careful washing green (uncured or untanned) pelts, as you can cause the hair to slip out if moisture and warmth are present promote bacterial growth.
General Safety Note
Handling dead animals requires hand-washing to reduce the potential for microbe transmission—in other words, wash your hands so you don't get sick! Handling chemicals like saltwater and alum can irritate and/or dry out your skin, so wear rubber gloves or wash your hands frequently. Practice knife safety—don't cut towards yourself, and wear leather gloves to protect your skin if you want.
Happy hide work!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rachel Koski Nielsen