How To Tan (Horn Back)
After many requests, I will now post my method of curing an alligator hide for one's personal use and display. This method has been used on many alligators taken by Team Amos Moses and has worked great for the display of the gator hides. It is not a professional method, but has worked for me. I have constructed this method by reading everything that I could find about curing a gator hide. Please feel free to ask me questions about it, but realize I am simply an outdoorsman like the rest of you, and that I am not a professional taxidermist.
First, you MUST make preparations for curing your gator hide prior to beginning the process. Several have commented on this forum how to preserve a hide after skinning a gator. The hide can be stored in this manner until you are ready to begin the curing process.
I have never stored a hide by rolling in salt and freezing. I have always had everything ready to begin the curing process before the hunt, and I begin immediately after killing the gator.
After checking in our gator, we immediately ice the gator down before going to bed. The next day, we skin the gator using the "horn-back" method. An incision is made down the center of the ventral side of the gator from the chin down through the end of the tail. The gator is then carefully skinned. The feet can be left on the gator hide by making a cut from the center of the foot straight to the center cut on the belly side. Care must be taken to remove all of the bones and meat from the feet. Cut the toes off of the toe bone at the last joint and toe nail will remain on the hide. Care must be taken to remove ALL of the tail bone. Remove as much meat from the hide, especially from the tail and the back under the thick hide and scutes.
After skinning is complete, remove the meat, bag and store.
At this point, I take a pressure washer and GENTLY wash the flesh side of the hide. You CAN tear the hide if not careful! This is a very simple way to completely flesh your hide to remove almost 100% of the remaining flesh.
We take a barrel with us to create a brine solution to place the hide in. We mix 25 gallons of water, 50 pounds of salt, 1 pound of Borax, and 1 pint of bleach. Mix thoroughly using a boat paddle. It is tough to get 50 pounds of salt dissolved into solution but it can be done. Salt the hide with a 1/2 inch of salt and roll tightly. Tie the hide with large rubber bands or pieces of inner tube like you use to tie a gator's mouth with. Place into brine solution. The salt will wick the brine solution up into the hide and help with the preservation process. I leave it in this solution for a week or more.
When you are ready to tan the hide, you must time the remainder of the process to fit your schedule.
Remove the hide from the brine solution, unroll it, and wash it with a hose to remove all of the old salt. Pour out the brine solution and start over with the next solution. Make a solution using Lutan-F and salt. Lutan-F is a powder that can obtained from many taxidermy supply sites. Add 1.5 ounces of Lutan-F per gallon and 10 ounces of salt per gallon. I usually mix up 10 gallons for one hide, but had to mix 15 gallons for a bigger gator hide. Completely immerse the hide in this solution. Make sure the hide is completely covered by the solution. You may need to place a weight on the hide to keep it under the solution. THE HIDE MUST COME OUT BETWEEN 24 AND 48 HOURS!!! When you are ready to remove hide, add a small amount of sodium acetate to the solution, stir, and let sit for 90 minutes. Remove the hide and wash thoroughly with a hose. Allow it to drain for 30 minutes or so. Apply warm (I set it out in the sun) True-Tan Reptile Tanning Oil to the flesh side. Rub it in thoroughly. Lay the hide on a sheet of plywood flesh side down. Bigger gators may take two or three sheets laid together to make it fit. Start at the tail and begin nailing the hide down to the plywood. Stretch it as you go. Use 1 inch galvanized finishing nails that can easily be removed after the hide is dry. Place a nail close to the edge of the hide through every other scale. Stretch the feet and legs out at the angle you want them on the display. I cut the excess hide off to make a perfectly flat mount. I stretch the extra pieces out and nail them down as well. I use these for jewelry and such. Once the hide is completely stretched out and nailed down, rub oil on the scale side of the hide. Place a fan blowing over the hide and let it sit for a month or two. It will take this long to completely dry the hide.
Once dry, pull the nails, and place the hide on a board you want to use for permanent display. Nail the hide to the board using either aluminum or brass nails. DO NOT USE anything with iron in it. It will rust. Stainless steel carpet tacks DO NOT WORK. The hide will rust the nails over time and you will have a mess. I know...I got one right now.
I hope this helps. Like I said, it has worked for me.
Team Amos Moses
Tanning an alligator hide for leather1. After you have skinned the gator lay the skin out flat and cover every inch of it with fine salt. The cheapest way to get a large amount of salt is at a feed store. Mixing salt comes in 50 pound bags. You will need most of that 50 pound bag by the time you are ready to tan the skin.
Once you have the skin well salted fold it over flesh side, the inside, to flesh side. Now roll it up not to tight but tight enough for it to hold its shape. There should be about an inch of salt on the hide. Place it on a board that is propped up so that the fluids will drain out of the opening from the rolled up skin. Make sure that it is a shady spot and keep the sun shine off of it. Leave it over night.
2. Unroll the skin and shake off the excess salt. Now you need to flesh down the hide and get every bit of flesh and fat off the inside of the skin. We use a pressure washer set between 1000 and 1400 PSI. Its best to get a saw horse and tack a 2x8 x5 foot board to it so you can have the skin at an angle so you don’t blow holes thru the skin, keep the nozzle at an angle so that you are not spraying straight down on the inside of the skin. Work slowly and keep using the nozzle to push the tissue off the skin. Make sure you get every bit of it off. The pickle and tanning solution wont penetrate properly if you leave any tissue on the skin and it will not be able to be broken down properly.
3. Once you have the skin clean and it looks pearly white you need to re-salt it. Lay it flat on a table or someplace clean and again rub salt into the hide. Make sure you get all the folds and tucks salted down well also. Fold the skin over flesh side to flesh side and roll it up again. Place it back on you slanted board so it can drain well. Leave it in a shady spot at least over night. The next day you can shake off the excess salt again and re-salt the hide. Mix the following formula; In a 55 gallon plastic drum, big Rubbermaid garbage cans work well,
25 gallons of water, then mix 50 pounds of salt and a pint of bleach into the water.
Now roll the skin up fairly tight and tie it closed with large rubber bands or heavy string and submerge the skin in the brine, make sure to get all the air out of the hide and place the lid on it to keep it clean. You can store hides like this for long periods of time but make sure you check for “Red Heat” often.
4. You can tan with a lot of different formulas but the one that we have found gives the best results is LuTan F. You can buy the kit from any taxidermy supply house, we usually get ours from Vandyke’s.
http://www.vandykestaxidermy.com/K7102-P178.aspx Make sure you order your kit well in advance of the time your going to get started. The kit comes with everything you need except water and salt.
You will need to de-scale the hide. You can get builders lime, calcium hydroxide, at any of the big box hardware places. My mix is 3 pounds of lime to ten gallons of water. Mix it well and place the rinsed skin in the solution, it may take a day, it may take longer but you want the scales and black epidermis on the skin to start falling off just by brushing your hand over the skin. Stir this often as the caustic action of the lime can ruin the skin if you fail to keep a strict eye on it. Once the scales and black skin slough off easily then take it out of the solution, rinse it and scrub it well with a stiff plastic brush until it is clean of any scales and any black skin. Neutralize the skin in 10 gallons of water and a pint of white vinegar, leave the skin in the vinegar solution for at least 8 hours. Remember that since you are making a useable leather to make wallets, belts, etc., out of the scales have to come off or it will finish out as hard as iron. The skin is now ready to pickle.
5. Follow the directions in your kit very closely, it explains how much acid, salt and water to use. For the most part you will use 5 gallons of pickle, and tan, for anything six feet and under. For anything over six feet to eight feet about 10 gallons, for anything larger than 8 you will use 15 gallons. Follow the amounts carefully, deviating from the instructions will cause problems. Once you have your pickle made up take the skin and submerge it in the pickle. It must remain in the pickle for no less than 72 hours so that it penetrates completely thru the hide. During this time you can pull the hide out of the pickle and using a fleshing knife or a carpenters draw knife with a not so sharp edge and shave down the hide. As with all leather, the thinner the hide the easier it is to break down and is softer when finished. Place the hide back into the pickle and be sure to stir it at least three times a day. The hide can remain in the pickle for a longer period of time, I have left them for two weeks with no ill effects however you must maintain a PH of 1.5 to 2.0 at all times.
6. Once the pickle period is over take the hide out of the pickle and rinse it in cool clean water. Now you will neutralize the pickle by mixing the same amount of water you used , say ten gallons with ten ounces of baking soda. Soak the hide in the solution for 20 minutes.
7. Mix your tanning solution according to the directions, usually; for every gallon of water you will use 2 ounces of Lutan F, and ½ pound of salt. Example 10 gallons of water +20 ounces of Lutan F+5 pounds of salt. All measures are by weighed amount, not volume. Very important to remember. For alligators six feet and under leave them in the tan for up to but not longer than 18 hours. For six feet to 9 feet about 24 hrs and anything larger it would be about 36 hrs to allow the tan to penetrate properly. Leaving the skins any longer than the mentioned times will cause the skins to loose any stretch they have. Since you are making leather to use you want it soft and flexible. Once the time has elapsed take the skin out of the tan and rinse it well with cool clean water. Drape it over some type of line in the shade and let it drain well for 30 to 40 minutes.
8. Now here is what I do differently than what the oiling directions tell you. I mix the oil to warm water, not over 120 degrees, 50/50 and mix enough to submerge the hide. You will have to move the hide and adjust it constantly so that it is covered well with the oil mix and it must stay above 87 degrees for the mixture to penetrate. You leave it in there over night or for at least 10 hours. Try to rotate it at least once during that time so that the hide will soak the oil in. The next day take the hide out of the oil, I usually lift with one hand and squish the oil off with the other because you can reuse the oil many times as long as you keep it clean. Now take the hide and fold it flesh side to flesh side and roll it up. Place it in a plastic bag over night.
The next day take the hide out of the bag and slick off any remaining fluid. Now take the hide and hang it over a line in the shade, barn, or garage but remember that the fluid will drip out so place something absorbent to protect whatever flooring is under it.
You will notice that the hide is drying very slowly and slower in the thicker parts of the hide. This may take a day, it may take 4 days or longer, depends on the humidity and temperature. When the thinner parts of the hide start to feel just damp you need to start pulling and stretching the hide and working the inside of the skin as it dries so that the fibers in the hide do not glue themselves back together and the oil coats each one and it remains soft when it is completely dry. Pull, stretch and work the hide while it is drying. If it becomes hard and stiff again you can take a dampened towel with warm water, roll the skin up in it and place it in a plastic bag over night and then start working it again. Once it is dry and flexible to your liking you can sand the inside of the skin to make it even and clean.
This has worked for us and we make some very fine products out of the skins. Remember too that the CITES tag must remain on the skin until it is tanned but keep the tag readily available incase you need to show it or in some places the number has to be on the article depending upon state law.