The Ancient Art Of Hide Tanning Doug Smith Sebring, Florida

Nov 01, 16 The Ancient Art Of Hide Tanning Doug Smith Sebring, Florida

By: Nancy Dale

Tanning animal hides is an ancient art dating back to 7000 B.C. when the Sumerians pounded hides into leather for use on their giant chariot wheels.  The process of drying an animal’s skin in those days was a labor intensive process, as it is today, that began by removing hair, flesh and fat then soaking it in water, urine and other natural compounds to stretch it, dry it out for months before removing, by hand with a knife, any remaining hair.  After it was dry, the ancients pounded it out, even using their feet to knead the skin.  After the skin was sufficiently stretched, oils were applied to create a finished leather product, using any leftover leather to make glue.

In the natural environment thousands of years ago to the present, animals had a multipurpose usefulness.  When animals were slaughtered for food on the farm or in the 1800’s at a Florida slaughterhouse, every part of the carcass was used for practical purposes.  Fur hides provided warmth; hides were used for rugs, leather for belts, bindings, jewelry, shoes and other utilitarian items.  Doug Smith, Sebring, Florida Hide Tanner says the process “has not changed very much from the past.”



“What I do to process hides is to first salt it heavily about a quarter of an inch over the entire hide, fold it in half and place it on a sheet of plywood at an angle to the ground;  this pulls any natural fluids out and sets the hair.  The next day, I shake off the salt and repeat this step.  Next. I rinse the hide in clear water and add a couple drops of dawn dish soap.  I swish the hide around for a few minutes and rinse it completely to remove all soap.  I then mix up a batch of pickle solution depending on the size of the hide, most skins can be done in a five gallon bucket.  I mix one gallon of water with one gallon of vinegar and add two cups of salt.  I soak the hide in this solution for three days being sure to stir it twice a day.  Next, I give the hide a quick rinse and drape it over something to drain while I make the tan.  If the pickle looks good it can be used, just add two ounces of Alum and, if you have the ability, check the pH of the solution, it should be three or four.  Soak the hide in this solution for one or two days again being sure to stir it twice a day.”

“Next, I take the hide out, rinse it and again drape it over something to drain while I make the furriers oil.  I use hand lotion mixed with an equal amount of water and a small amount of added glycerin.  I lay the hide out flat on a sheet of plywood with the hair down and spread the furriers oil on the flesh side.  Then, I fold the skin in half and let the oil soak in overnight.  The next day, I open the hide and begin the drying process in the shade and check the hide daily by gently stretching it.   When I see it has changed color and can visibly tell it is drying I become more aggressive in the stretching.  Once the hide is completely dry and stretched it may be sanded which will help soften it even more.  It is now ready for use.  If you just want a rug or wall hanging there is no need to manually stretch it, just tack it out flat to a sheet of plywood and let it dry.

Smith became a Hide Tanner through the back door, growing up in a cosmopolitan environment on Merritt Island, where his dad worked for NASA’s space program, designing guidance and control systems. “My dad grew up on a farm but once he left, he only returned to see his mother and vacation; he did not encourage his children to be farmers,” says Smith.

“I wanted to become an artist but my dad steered me towards Veterinarian Medicine which I showed an interest in till my early 30’s.  Although I learned a lot about modern technology and sciences, I was interested most in the Life Sciences and learning the old world methods of doing things.   I pursued this interest at the University of Florida, graduating with a degree in Microbiology and Chemistry.  Many years later, I earned a Master’s Degree in Health Care Administration,” Smith explains.

Presently, Smith works in Histology (the study of tissues) for a gastroenterology group.  Smith says “Scientists first learned about Histology by studying hide tanning.” As part of Smith’s dual interest, he says, “I also make wine, as winemaking involves microbiology. Yeast is a bacterium which ferments sugar into alcohol and determines the sweet taste or dryness of wine.  Winemaking ties in with hide tanning of animals/reptiles as it also involves a natural way to process grapes or fruit,” Smith adds.




“Living natural” is Smith’s philosophy and way of life.  “I have a garden and grow my own food.  I raise chickens and turkeys for eggs and goats for meat and their skins. (Although many people do milk goats, as it is healthier than cows’ milk, I prefer to let the kids have that).  I prefer to slaughter farm animals for food.  Many of the animal or reptile hides I use for tanning come from ‘road kill,’” says Smith.

“I design and customize many types of products from leather but I am not concerned with tanning leather for the car industry or for other commercial applications.  I make alligator wallets, reptile specialty items and bring a number of tanned hides and custom made by-products, including fur skins, to sell at the Conservation Corps Celebration every year in the Fall at Highlands Hammock State Park and other Pioneer festivals.  This also gives me the opportunity to talk to people about the art and practice of hide tanning, as today more people are distanced from the land and a natural lifestyle.  I am the only one of four brothers who chose to live off the native land as each of them chose to live a cosmopolitan lifestyle.”

“Living natural is off the grid,” says Smith “but it also means conserving resources and becoming economically independent.  My dad went through the 1930’s Depression and stressed being prepared for the possibility of another one.  I live off the land that provides me with food and other resources for the animals. I am not dependent on the grocery store to purchase processed food.”

“For people who want to become economically independent,” Smith suggests, “buying land and growing your own food.  For city dwellers, individuals can learn how to grow a hydroponic roof garden, preserving the fruits of their labor through canning.  Other ways to create a stable food production is by making dried beef jerky in your own kitchen which is far tastier than store bought processed jerky,” Smith says.



“For conservation of water on my property, I pump fresh water from an underground well using an old fashioned “pitcher pump,’ “Smith explains.  Living a natural lifestyle requires discipline and responsibility and is a very labor intensive alternative lifestyle for food production unlike the commercial cosmopolitan cooking regimen of ripping open a package and microwaving its contents.  “Living off the land is a healthier discipline and economical.  Living and working the land meets my human needs and my spiritual values,” reiterates Smith.  “I embrace life.”

Nancy Dale is the author of the true stories of the Florida pioneer “Cow Hunters” in 5 published books.  Upcoming book:  PRESERVING NATIVE FLORIDA:  THE TRADITIONS, THE WILDERNESS AND THE WILDLIFE.

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