Tanning a Sheepskin in 7 Easy Steps (A Step-by-Step Guide)

Published on Feb 16, 2023 | Last updated on Feb 26, 2024

Tanning a sheepskin naturally by yourself might sound like a daunting task.

  • Which tanning tools do I need?
  • How do I make my own homemade tanning solution?
  • How do I preserve a skin and how do I make it soft?

In this guide, I will answer these questions and more, so you can easily start tanning your own sheepskins at home.

Let’s get started!

Tanning a Sheepskin in 7 Easy Steps

Hide tanning tools you will need

To tan your own sheepskin, you won’t need a lot of tools. Nevertheless, a good fleshing tool and a fleshing beam are super helpful and will make your work flow so much better. Here is a list of the main tools you will need:

Fleshing Knife

There are many different tools you can use to flesh a skin. My favourite one is definitely a metal fleshing knife that is straight and has a distinct but blunt edge.

You can purchase your fleshing knife from good artisans, such as Hammarede or Dave Budd Handmade Tools.

You can also make your own DIY fleshing knife by purchasing an used planer blade and then adding a piece of hose on both sides to make the handles.

Fleshing knife used to tan hides
Fleshing Knife by Dave Budd Handmade Tools

No matter which fleshing tool you use, make sure the blade is blunt, otherwise you might cut into the skin during fleshing.

Fleshing beam

Different tanners prefer different beam set-ups. My favourite one is a log on top of a wooden tripod.

Make sure the top of the log is at your waist height, so it’s comfortable and easy to use.

Wooden fleshing beam used to flesh sheepskins and other hides

Softening stick

This is a simple wooden stick with a sharp edge and rounded corners, which will be very useful when softening your sheepskin rug.

Softening stick that can be used to soften sheepskins

If you can’t get your hands on a stick like this, or make your own, you can also use the top of a chair or the edge of a table to soften your hide.

Other important tools:

  • Sharp knife
  • Sewing kit
  • Mason jar
  • Soap
  • Pumice stone
  • Clothes pegs
  • Metal bucket
  • Dry punky wood
  • Denim pantleg
  • Dog brush

Get your raw sheepskin to tan

One of the questions people often ask me is “where do I get hides to tan?”.

Personally, I usually get my sheepskins (and goatskins) from local shepherds I know.

When they kill one of their animals, most often they don’t have any use for the skin and are happy to have them go to tanning instead of waste.

Make sure to ask your local shepherds what they would like in return and strive to cultivate a relationship of reciprocity and trust with them.

Flock of sheep eating ash leaves

Another source of sheepskins are usually slaughterhouses. For instance, many people in the USA are able to source their skins from local slaughterhouses, and therefore avoid these skins to end up in landfills or in the chem-tanning industry.

So check your local area and see which ways of getting sheepskins for tanning can work best for you.

Easily preserve your sheepskin

When you get your hands on a sheepskin and can’t tan it right away, you can either salt, freeze or dry it in order to preserve it.

Freezing the hide is definitely the easiest way if you have some free space in your freezer.

If not, wet salting is a great way to go. I simply add an uniform layer of salt on the flesh side of the sheepskin, roll it in a bundle and put it in a plastic container with a lid and some twigs on the bottom.

When you’re ready to tan, simply defreeze, rehydrate or remove the salt of your sheepskin before starting.

Sheepskin preserved with salt
Salted sheepskin rolled in a bundle

Fleshing your sheepskin

Use your sharp knife to open your skin (if case skinned). Cut out the face skin, the legs and any big chunks of meat and fat.

Place your sheepskin on the fleshing beam, the membrane side facing up. Use your fleshing knife to remove all meat and fat on the skin, and as much membrane as possible.

Close up of flesh side of sheepskin during fleshing

Scrape all of the flesh side methodically, and make sure you go all the way to the edges. You know you will be finished when all meat and fat has been thoroughly removed from the hide.

Sew up any big holes with your sewing kit.

Making your homemade tanning formula

There is a wide diversity of tanning recipes out there. Each tanner creates their own tanning formula depending on what works best for them, taking in consideration the hides they tan, the climate they live in and other factors.

To make your own tanning solution, you need unsaturated and emulsified fats. Examples of such fats are egg yolks, lecithin and animal brains (yup).

Homemade hide tanning formula with egg yolks and water
Egg and water tanning solution

A simple recipe that works really well is to mix 1 egg yolk in about 14 mL of warm water in a mason jar. Adjust the number of eggs and water according to the size of the skin.

Massage the solution into the flesh side of the skin, fold it in half and leave it somewhere warm for at least one night.

Softening your sheepskin

Wash the sheepskin with some soap to clean the wool and remove any excess oils from the flesh side. If your sheepskin came from a breed whose wool tends to felt, make sure to not agitate the fibres while washing the skin.

Allow the sheepskin to dry just enough before starting to soften it. You will know it is time to begin softening when you stretch the hide and it becomes white on the flesh side.

Sheepskin during softening
Flesh side starts to turn white as we stretch the hide during softening

Stretch the hide in all directions by hand or with the help of your knees (or feet). A softening stick (or anything with an edge) will also be super helpful to open up the fibres of the skin.

Use a pumice stone to abrade the flesh side. This will help with both the softening process and the removing of any remaining membrane.

Using a pumice stone to abrade the flesh side of the sheepskin
Using a pumice stone to soften the skin and remove the membrane

Your aim is to keep the fibres moving until the whole flesh side is white and the sheepskin is completely dry.

Stopping the softening process too early may mean a stiffer, crackling skin.

Smoking your sheepskin

Smoking is the last step of the fat tanning process. It is needed to not only preserve the softness state achieved in the previous step but also to protect the sheepskin from insects, rodents and bacteria.

Smoking will also forever transform your sheepskin into a piece of textile!

To smoke your sheepskin, start by making a fire to create a coal bed.

Transfer the coals to a metal bucket and cover them with punky wood, which will create a lot of smoke.

Fold your sheepskin lengthwise or widthwise and clip all the edges with clothes pegs, except for a small hole on the bottom to which you clip your denim pantleg.

Smoking two sheepskins
Two sheepskins being smoked. The coals and punky wood are inside the metal bucket.

Hang your sheepskin over the metal bucket, and cover the bucket with the denim tunnel, so that the smoke starts to go into the sheepskin bag you created.

Smoke your sheepskin for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour. Once the flesh side has a nice golden colour, your sheepskin is smoked!

Remove the clothes pegs and air the skin outside. You can also use a dog’s brush to comb the wool and make it cleaner and extra fluffy.

Enjoy your new sheepskin!

Congratulations, you have tanned your very own sheepskin! Yeah!

You now have your very own beautiful pelt that you can use as a rug, on a sofa or armchair, as a baby’s or pet’s blanket or in a leathercraft project.

What are your plans for your new sheepskin? Let me know in the comments!

Beautiful sheepskins over a rock in a forest

Would you like to dive deeper? My Sheepskin Tanning Guidebook might be for you!

If you would like to dive deeper, I’ve published a book called “Sheepskin Tanning Guidebook: The Fat Tanning Method” which covers all the steps mentioned in this article in more depth as well as other topics such as skin structure, frame softening, dry membraning, re-dressing & re-softening, and more!

If you’re interested, check the book out and get your own copy here.

Wrapping up

In this online guide, I shared with you the main steps I use when tanning a sheepskin.

Keep in mind that this is how I usually do things and, even though many tanners follow a very similar process, everyone has their own approach to tanning that is shaped by climate, local culture, experience and more.

Therefore, if you’re really into sheepskin tanning, my advice is that you learn from many different sources!

I plan to write a post that compiles a bunch of super cool hide tanning resources that are available out there, so stay tuned if you think this might be helpful for you.

Last but not least, I truly hope you have enjoyed this article! Have you found it helpful in your sheepskin tanning journey? Let me know in the comment section below 😊

In the meantime, happy tanning and take care!

Sheepskin on stone wall

Hello there! My name is Ana Filipa Piedade and I am a portuguese hide tanner and ancestral skills student, practioner and teacher who finds a lot of joy in sharing about traditional living skills with others. I hope you enjoy this space!

Read more here »

» Sheepskin Tanning Guidebook «

In this guidebook, you will learn how to naturally fat tan your own hair-on sheepskin.

You will learn how to use natural fats, smoke, a few hand tools and a lot of elbow grease to transform a raw skin into a beautiful pelt that can be used in various leathercraft projects.

» Get your copy here «

Front cover of the Sheepskin Tanning Guidebook

» Living in Reciprocity with the Land «

Online Class

In this online class, we explore some of civilization’s myths and the importance of seeing our ancient ancestors with new eyes. We also tap into what it means to live a life in service to the land and ecological community, delving into topics such as getting to know our other-than-human family, reciprocal conservation, ancestral skills, animism and rewilding.

» Learn more here «

living in reciprocity with the land online class

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  1. sara

    Enjoyed watching your video. Have tanned a couple of hides now with some success. I was looking for ideas on how to better flesh a hide. I’m wondering if a fresh hide can be fleshed and tanned, or does it need to be dried with salt first? The hide you are working on in the video, was that a fresh hide, or had it been salted and re-hydrated?

    • wildanacrow

      Hi Sara! You can definitely tan a fresh hide! I usually don’t have the time to tan my hides right after I get them, and that’s why I preserve them either by salting or freezing them. But if you receive a hide and have the time to start the process right away, then you can definitely do that. In the video, those two sheepskins had been frozen until I thawed them to start the process. I hope this helps!

    • Tom

      Hi Ana. I w9uld love to tan my goats hyde after slaughter. Can i follow the same process from this post?
      Many thanks

      • wildanacrow

        Hi Tom! Yes, this method works with goatskins as well, but (!) hair-on goatskins are waay harder to tan with this method compared to sheepskins. They are very hard to make soft with only one round of dressing + softening.

  2. Austin Pethan

    Hi Anna,

    I followed this method last year with great success. This year, I’m having problems the the wool slipping off the skin. I brought four freshly skinned lamb hides back from my butcher, folded them so no skin was exposed, and then let them sit stacked in a dark shed. They sat there for five days. The temperature was 40F or lower, getting to only 45F one afternoon. Am I seeing wool slip because they sat unsalted for too long before I got to them? I figured this was like letting them sit in a fridge, but feel like I went wrong here.

    Thank you!

    • wildanacrow

      Hi Austin, thank you so much for your message! From what you share, it seems like the hides started to decompose. Hair slippage is usually the first sign that bacteria has started to work, which is what is happening to your hides. The best course of action is to either salt, freeze or dry the hide right after skinning. You can also flesh them first and then preserve them, but it’s important to do it as soon as possible to avoid any bacterial growth. Having said that, you can still work with those skins, even if they are losing hair. You can remove all the hair, and then fat tan them with the grain-on, or try to make buckskin (although lambskins tend to be way too thin to remove the grain without making holes), or even better, tan them with bark or other tannin sources to make leather. You can freeze them for now, and think of a good use for them later too. I hope this helps, and have fun!

  3. Austin Pethan

    I should add, I noticed wool slipping during fleshing. Some of the hides are okay while one I had to discard completely because so much wool had slipped.

    And PS, looks like I added an extra “n” to your name!


  4. Charlotte

    Hi, thank you very much for sharing this information. If I want to wash the fleece when would be the best time to do it? After the egg yolk step? I’d want to put it in the tub to degrease but worry about it interfering with the tanning process.

    • wildanacrow

      Hi Charlotte! If the skin got very greasy after the egg yolk step, you can wash it before the softening step without interfering with the tanning process.


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