I usually kill at least two deer per hunting season in Michigan. One of my favorite parts of hunting is butchering the animal and processing the meat. I get my grinder, vacuum sealer, smoker, and dehydrator going and turn the animal into great natural food. While I am very proud of the way I use as much meat as possible, I know there are other parts of the animal I’m wasting.
So, I’m trying to set myself up to start fleshing and tanning my deer hides to use for blankets, leather coats, gloves, wall decoration, anything that isn’t just throwing away the hide. I’m going to cover some of the tools you’ll need to do it and give a brief overview of the process. The great thing about learning to tan is that you can perform this same process with any fur-covered animal with some minor variations.
- Fleshing Knife – Like anything you will get what you pay for here. Amazon is full of $20 fleshing knives which should be avoided like the plague. Stick to a solid brand and plan to spend in the 70-90 range and you will get a great tool that will last a long time. Purchase a Necker, AuSable Superior, or Dakota Wiebe Elite fleshing knife. They will feature 2 plastic handles, a curved double-sided blade, and good steel. One side of the blade is sharp and one is less sharp. Most fleshing knives do not come with a great edge from the factory (even the good ones) so a good sharpening should be planned before use.
- Fleshing Board – I tried last year to flesh against a normal 2×6 piece of wood and it was no good. Fleshing is a fast but delicate process. An actual fleshing board will give you a great curved surface to work from, hold the hide well, and prevent hitting uneven spots where your fleshing knife will tear through the hide. Freedom Brand makes a great system that comes with a hardwood fleshing beam and a wall-mount which will allow you to pull it out on a hinge and set it up with a support leg underneath it. You can pick the set up for about $70 plus shipping.
- Salt – You are going to need 5-10 pounds of fine grain, non-iodized salt for salting the deer hide after it has been fleshed. Morton’s or whatever brand from the store is fine as long as it is NON-IODIZED. Iodized salt can ruin a hide.
All in you’re looking at about $160 give or take for your tools, and then the price of the salt for each hide you tan. If you want to go further and tan the hides yourself there are chemical kits you can pick up or you can take the fleshed and salted hide to a tannery and have it turned into a finished product.
- First, you will need to remove the hide from the deer by skinning it. Meateater has an awesome video of the whole butchering process here. You don’t need to do anything special to the deer while butchering to prepare for fleshing. Just skin it and save the skin.
- The hide should be stored somewhere clean until you are ready to flesh it. If it is cold out (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit) you can keep it in the garage for a couple of days, but generally, you will want to flesh it as soon as possible. If it is warm out you will want to flesh quickly.
- Use a hunting or skinning knife to remove any large chunks of flesh from the back (non-fur) side of the hide. If you’re not sure if you can remove the piece of fat or flesh without tearing the hide hold off and get it with the fleshing knife.
- Set up your fleshing board and drape the hide over it. Use several large spring-loaded steel clamps to secure the hide to the fleshing beam so it is taut. You want a uniform surface with no bumps or dips. Wide Open Spaces has a great article on fleshing, and they recommend starting in a corner of the hide and using pressured strokes with the knife at a perpendicular angle. The idea is to remove all of the fat, flesh, meat, and end up with just the clean white skin underneath. You will want to err on the side of caution as if you press too hard you will rip or cut the hide. The process is done when you only have white clean skin left on the back of the hide.
- The next step is to salt the hide. You will lay the hide fur down on a clean surface (wood table or piece of plywood works great) and apply your non-iodized salt. Using your hands, work the salt into the skin of the hide making sure to cover the whole thing. Leave it overnight. When you return to the hide, the salt will be slimy. Scrape the salt off and work another layer of fresh salt into the hide. Continue this process for 4-5 days or until there appears to be no moisture left in the hide. The hide will be dry and have a paper-like texture when this is done.
- At this point, you can proceed to tan or roll the hide up and freeze it indefinitely until you are ready to tan yourself or take it to a tannery.
Fleshing and salting your deer hides is an awesome process that will allow you to utilize more of the animal. You can use the leftover from the food you hunt to create beautiful throws and pieces of clothing. We owe it to the animals we hunt to not let anything go to waste if we can avoid it. Fleshing and Salting a hide is a simple process that just takes a small investment for the right tools and some time to do it right. If you already flesh and salt your hides let us know in the comments. We would love to hear about your experiences.