The Alchemy of hide tanning

“Curing a hide, the tanner rubs in acid and all manners of filth. This makes a beautiful soft leather. What does the half finished hide know? Every hard thing that happens works on you like that”
— Rumi

When I was in grad school I had the strongest urge to learn how to tan animal hides. I couldn’t really explain why, I just really wanted to learn.

Although at that stage in life, I was not hunting, nor was I even outside much, but I had grown up hunting and remembered seeing the deer hides end up in the trash or thrown into the woods to rot. I remember being so drawn to the fur of the deer and thinking, “why aren’t we doing something with that?” In my home-state of Michigan, hundreds of thousands of deer skins end up being thrown away annually. Even then as a kid, I knew it was a waste.

Despite my complete lack of knowledge of the tanning process, I was determined to learn how to tan a deer hide. It was some strange (or at least I thought it strange at the time) urge that was coming from deep inside of me.


I was determined to learn. I remember stuffing a roadkill deer into the trunk of my tiny Saturn sedan after one of my graduate level Biology classes. With my freshly bloodstained trunk and hands, I started asking around for anyone who might have an idea how to tan it. No takers. No knowledge. Hundreds of hunters, yet not one of them knew how to do anything with the skin of their kill.

I googled some tanning basics and gave it a shot. It didn’t end well. I wanted to transform the hide into something soft and magical but I didn’t know how to cast the spell. The hide was stiff and hard, and it was basically rawhide, which was better than nothing. Overall thought it felt like a failure at the time.

And graduate school didn’t go well for me either. What had seemed like a good idea at the time, investing in my education, getting another degree in Biology, actualized as me sitting inside a lab most days underneath florescent lights, neglecting my body, and my true heart’s desires.

After collecting a species of jumping spiders across the country, I kept them alive for months, fed them, named them, and eventually had to kill them, crush them up, and add acids and chemicals to extract their DNA. It killed me. I was forced to kill and sterilize and tame the wild things I loved so much.

After one semester of Graduate school, I quit (read how I transformed in this post). I made the choice to move toward what I had always wanted to do but was too afraid to do: live a wild life. Quitting terrified me, and at times I doubted it was the right choice. It was the first thing I had ever quit in my life. Grad. school was not for me, and yet I am so grateful that it provided the push for me to go after what I truly wanted.

Fast forward a year, I had found a job as a wilderness therapy field guide in Utah, and was loving my life. Finally I had found a life in the wild and mentoring young adults in wilderness skills. I had finally found space in my life to pursue the skills that interested me. I felt alive!

One of the first skills I really invested in was my long lost desire to learn how to tan deer skins. At a primitive skills gathering I had met a master hide tanner, Red Louvish. I signed up to live and learn from Red for two weeks down in his house outside of Austin Texas. There I would learn how to cast the spells of hide tanning.

One of my first successful pieces of buckskin that I tanned with, my teacher, Red.

One of my first successful pieces of buckskin that I tanned with, my teacher, Red.

Red was an interesting fellow. Red was an Israeli born, jewish, hide tanning, anarchist that lived in a half constructed house with his big, fluffy, regal cat, Prima. There he would tan hundreds of hides and sell them to other primitive skills folk.

For two weeks, we tanned hides together, dumpster dove for food, talked philosophy of anarchy, primitivism, and chased raccoons out of the un-finished kitchen at night. But most importantly Red taught me how to cast spells.

I remember Red telling me on the first day while we were driving from the Austin airport to his home. He spoke with such passion when describing the art of hide tanning. With a slight accent he said, “Luke, hide tanning is PURE MAGIC. IT’S ALCHEMY! Once you put that hide into the brains, it will transform and you will feel it!”

I remember feeling the hide soften for the first time. It was magic! The deer hide that was stiff and hard and stinky magically turned soft supple and slippery!

I will always remember that first feeling of magic, the feeling of transforming crap into gold. I try to tell every student the same thing Red told me, to be aware of the magic we are capable of making. Hide tanning is truly alchemy, we take something that is unwanted, stinky and gross and turn it into something that is so soft you want to rub it all over your face!

One quote about the magic of tanning that has always resonated with me a lot is this poem from Rumi:

“Curing a hide, the tanner rubs in acid and all manners of filth. This makes a beautiful soft leather. What does the half finished hide know? Every hard thing that happens works on you like that”

It’s true for my life outside of tanning too. My failed attempts at tanning, my short stint in graduate school; those were the things that made my leather soft and supple. Those were the pieces of stink that helped me transform my life into soft buckskin.

buckskin class happy students

Without them, the magic of finally living the life I wanted and successfully tanning a hide wouldn’t have happened.

So I am grateful for the “filth” that allowed to move toward the life I wanted. What about you? What things are difficult and stinky in your life that may help you transform? What are you transforming into?

Check out our annual hide tanning class and learn how to turn your “filth” into soft, supple, magical hides.