Many homesteaders see the value of raising rabbits for meat. Rabbits reproduce well, grow fast, eat food you can grow yourself, and produce manure for the garden. Tanning rabbit hides ensures no part of the animal goes to waste.
For thousands of years, people have tanned hides for clothing. Ancient tanneries used urine, feces, and brains. The odor was so repulsive that tanneries were relegated to the poor outskirts of town. In Third World countries, which use the old methods, leathers and rabbit hides are tanned in isolated areas. Another method was vegetal tanning, where hides were stretched on frames and soaked in vats containing solutions made with tannins from trees such as oak, mangrove, and hemlock.
Thankfully, tanning rabbit hides isn’t as foul as it used to be. And it can be accomplished with a few simple products and a plastic tub. This process is best suited for rabbit and is not appropriate for other types of leather.
Why Should You Tan Hides?
The fur market is dismal. Most hides don’t end up as coats because buyers aren’t available. So why should you go through all the work?
First of all, it’s a useful byproduct of an individual’s efforts toward sustainability. The rabbit has already fulfilled its purpose as nourishment. Discarding the hide ignores further opportunities to keep material out of landfills or avoid fake furs made with petroleum products.
Tanning rabbit hides for mass market isn’t realistic, but they can be sold to hobbyists. Historical reenactment groups covet a well-tanned hide for clothing or props. Seamstresses desire them to line coats, hoods, and gloves. Other homesteaders may want to develop crafting talents.
If you raised the rabbits yourself, the best reason for tanning rabbit hides is to create a product which you had a hand in, from breeding to processing and finally to make an article of clothing. Wear your new, toasty warm rabbit fur hat while completing chores in the bitter cold.
Obtaining the Hides
Rabbit meat is inexpensive, relatively easy, clean, and humane compared to other meat animals. A quick search of rabbit facts proves the all-white meat is leaner with more protein than chicken breast. And if it lives in a sheltered rabbit hutch with a balanced diet, it produces a thick and shiny pelt. When rabbits are raised for pelts as well as meat, they are often allowed to grow larger. The best butchering time is in the winter, when the coat is thickest. Some rabbit breeds have short, velvet-like hair while others have long, silky strands well suited for spinning into yarn.
If you know someone who raises rabbits for meat, ask if they use the pelts. Perhaps offer to tan a few for them in trade.
If you butcher, avoid cutting the hide anywhere unnecessary as you remove it from the animal. Most processing methods suggest that you cut along the back legs then shuck the skin off, leaving an intact tube. Immediately dunk the hide in cold water to wash away blood and cool the flesh. Feel free to leave it submerged as you finish all your processing, adding new hides to the same pot and replacing water if it gets too warm.
Gently wash away blood that will stain the skin. Don’t worry about scraping away bits of fat and flesh; it’s easier to do that later, and too much mishandling can poke holes in the pelts. Soap is unnecessary but if you do use it, rinse away every little bit. Gently squeeze water out but never twist or wring the pelt. If you don’t intend to start the tanning process that day, stuff raw pelts into a freezer bag. Squeeze out air to avoid freezer burn and store for up to a year until you are ready to start.
Mixing the Solution
For this recipe, you only need four ingredients for tanning: rabbit hides, water, salt, and alum. To avoid added hard minerals in your brine, buy jugs of purified water. Purchase salt at any grocery store but be sure it is not iodized. Find alum in bulk in hardware stores, chemical supply companies, or online retailers. Either medicinal or commercial-grade alum is fine.
Within a deep, non-reactive container such as a plastic tub with a fitting lid, mix two gallons of lukewarm water, one cup non-iodized salt, and one cup alum. This will tan five large or ten small pelts. Mix thoroughly until granules dissolve.
The First Soak
Thaw frozen rabbit hides or completely cool freshly butchered skins. If the hide is still in a tube, be sure the hair is to the inside and the skin faces out. Add pelts carefully to avoid splashing. Stir around with a stick or gloved hand, ensuring all rabbit skin comes in contact with the brine. Weigh the hides down if necessary to ensure they are fully submerged. Cover the container to keep pets or children out.
Allow the hides to soak, at room temperature, at least two days but less than a week. Stir a couple times a day to swish hides around. This ensures all skin surfaces tan equally.
Fleshing the Hides
The most labor-intensive part of tanning rabbit hides ensures a soft, supple pelt. Before you added the pelts to the brine, you may have noticed chunks of fat or tough, rubbery pieces of skin. Those will now separate from the final hide much easier than they would have if the pelt was still “green.”
Remove the pelts from the brine and squeeze (do not wring!) excess water back into the tub. Cover the tub and reserve the brine for later.
Starting at the bottom of the pelt, closest to where the back legs would have been, use fingernails or a serrated knife to separate the undertissue. Loosen all around the bottom. Now get a good grip and pull slowly toward the neck, inch by inch, until it is all removed. If you are careful you can get it in one piece. If the tissue does not release, soak it a couple more days in the brine. Avoid using the knife further up the pelt because you might puncture it but, if you have to, keep the blade angled flat against the hide.
Throw all this tissue away. It is not safe for animal consumption and cannot be used for any other purpose.
The Second Soak
Keep the hide inside-out. Before you put hide back into the tub, add another cup of salt and another cup of alum. Stir well until dissolved. Carefully drop each hide in, as you did before, stirring to ensure all skin surfaces meet the solution. You will notice the hides are now thinner and much softer.
Now let the hides soak for at least a week, still at room temperature, still stirring at least twice a day. Failing to stir often enough may cause hair slip, where the fur falls off in patches, because that section of skin did not contact enough brine to fully tan it. Weigh the hides down if necessary. Cover to keep children and pets out.
It’s difficult to know if the pelt is fully tanned just by looking at it. Instead, cut a small piece off at an area you’re least likely to use for your crafts. Drop that piece in a pot of boiling water. If it curls up and gets hard, the hides are not yet ready. If it remains soft, you can proceed to the next step.
Hanging Out to Dry
Remove pelts and gently squeeze out excess water. Place the pelts in a sink or bathtub, fully submerged in clean lukewarm water, and swish around to rinse. Now turn the pelts so the fur faces out. Drain water, fill again to rinse pelts, drain and rinse again. Now squeeze a little liquid soap into your hands and work it into the fur. Any cosmetic soap is good for tanning rabbit hides, but a nice shampoo can leave the fur softer, with a sweet fragrance. Rinse again, to ensure all soap is washed away.
Hang rabbit pelts somewhere they can drip-dry, such as on a broomstick placed over a bathtub or hanging in a garage. If you sling them over a line or pole, be sure to turn them over and rotate them so no areas remain wet.
Discard the brine. Be careful where you do this because you don’t want it to enter human or animals’ drinking water. Though the brine is not dangerous to touch, it can be harmful if ingested. What you do with the brine is at your judgment. Some people pour it in driveways and pathways to deter weeds. Others flush it down the toilet.
Breaking the Hide
Don’t allow hides to dry completely. This next part will be very difficult if you do and the skin might tear. If you got busy and let the hides dry too much, rewet them with a sponge or washcloth until they are again slightly damp.
Breaking the hide softens it without the use of chemicals. Indigenous peoples, tanning rabbit hides, sometimes did this by chewing or pounding the tough skin. Rabbit hides “break” much easier than deer or bear hides, but if you fail to complete this step your pelt will be hard and crisp.
If you haven’t yet, slit the hide top to bottom so it is no longer a tube. Now grab with both hands, working with small sections at a time, and pull in both directions. Work horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, softening the skin as it turns from black or olive-oil-colored to a bright white. Do the same on all areas of the pelt. Be careful at the bottom because it tears easiest there.
You may only have to do this once per hide. Sometimes, if the skin is too wet, you’ll have to repeat the process. Keep doing this until it dries soft. At this point, you may place the hides in a dryer, with no heat or you might damage the hides, and tumble for a few minutes to fluff the fur. If you wish, tack the hide to a board so it will dry flat, but this is often unnecessary unless you want to keep every bit of the ragged edges.
Oiling and Storing
Purchase mink oil, in paste or liquid form, from leatherworking, craft, or sporting goods stores. It is also available from online retailers.
Place all furs skin-side-up on a table to make them easier to handle. Pour a little oil or a dollop of paste into the palm of your hand. Rub both hands together. Place palms on the white skin and rub oil thoroughly into the hide. It may not seem like you saturated all surfaces, but a little mink oil goes a long way. Rub the hide between your fingers and skin-against-skin to distribute oils.
To store hides, place two hides oiled side against oiled side. This helps distribute the milk oil even more. Either lay hides flat in a cardboard box or roll two hides together. Never store in an airtight container. Adding a scented product such as an herbal sachet can keep fur smelling fresh.
What Might Go Wrong
Not all hides will tan well. Some will turn rancid and some will have hair slip. Some might be buttery soft while others in the same batch fail to break and turn supple. Often the process takes practice and refinement. Even experienced tanners lose a hide or two in a batch.
You can avoid hair slip by using non-iodized salt and remembering to stir the hides at least twice a day. Also, keep your water at room temperature: never above 80 and never below 55. Be sure all parts of the hide are submerged so they don’t decay. Check the hides often, setting an alarm if necessary. When the hides are drying, keep animals away. If you hang furs outside, bring them in before it rains.
Tanning rabbit hides isn’t as difficult or expensive as it may seem. Now that you’ve turned the pelts into a soft, long-lasting and usable product, you’re ready to sell them or to learn how to sew rabbit hides into hats or toys.
Do you enjoy tanning rabbit hides and using the hides for crafting?