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!
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:
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 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.
No matter which fleshing tool you use, make sure the blade is blunt, otherwise you might cut into the skin during fleshing.
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.
This is a simple wooden stick with a sharp edge and rounded corners, which will be very useful when softening your sheepskin rug.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!