Fish skins such as Cod and Salmon are in many cases unfortunately a waste product and binned. This is a shame as it makes a beautiful leather that is stronger then regular leather and offers better wear resistance. Here is how you can make beautiful fish leather using only natural products.
Materials & Tools Needed
- A source of tannins. I usually use inner Birch bark, willow bark, hemlock, oak, are some other sources. Should be dried and never exposed to rain or water as the tannins are water soluble. To tan 6 average size Salmon skins I go through roughly 16-18 gallons of chunked bark, each 2 gallons of chunked bark gives just under 2 liters of tanning liquor (no it’s not booze!).
- Fish skins, I normally use Salmon or Cod. Wild are better then farmed, their skin is a bit thicker. I source these from local stores and plants.
- Chunk of wood for fleshing and descaling 8-10 inch wide is good.
- Butter knife or spoon.
- Oil for restoring lost oils from tanning. I use a mix of Birch tar oil and coconut oil that I stabilize with a natural mix of antioxidants and tocopherols. This mix has many benefits and is my spin on how Russia leather was made. You can read about the benefits and characteristics here. Should you want to buy some of the stabilized Birch tar oil you can do so here.
- Three 5 gallon buckets.
- Stainless steel pot.
- Water that is not high in Iron, water from a softening system works ok.
- Rubber gloves.
- Dish soap.
Preparing The Salmon Skins For Tanning
It is fine if the skins have been frozen, just be sure that they are not left too long, and or are airtight to prevent freezer burn. Lay the skin flesh side up and begin scraping flesh, fat, and membrane off. Take your time and get it clean, you will notice as you scrape there is a greyish membrane, remove as much of this as you can. I use a butter knife for this with serrations that are worn and not too sharp.
Here is a video I made to help with this part of the process (fleshing & descaling):
If you notice it starting to get dry dip it in some cool water. Once happy with the fleshing job flip it over and start removing the scales. Take your time and be gentle here, this is the “show side” and you want to keep the pattern nice.
Give it a quick was in a slightly warm, weak soapy water mix and rinse in clean cool water.
The Fish Skin Tanning Process
After adding the skin to the tanning liquor it is a good idea to move things around constantly for the first 15 minutes, this gives the skins a good start. After that try and make a point of wringing them out a few times a day. By wringing I don’t mean twisting them, form a ball and slightly squeeze out the tanning liquor (wear rubber gloves), this speeds the absorption of tannins. Almost immediately after putting the skins in the tanning liquor you can feel them start to firm up. This continues and close to the end of the first week they will start to feel thicker and a bit leathery. By the end at day 14 they should feel very leathery.
The first 7 days you want to maintain that 5 to 1 ratio and make sure that it does not get too weak. The skins will constantly absorb tannins and you will usually need to replace them periodically. The tanning liquor should not smell like fish, if it does your liquor is probably too weak. I do not have a absolute way to tell or show you when it is time to add more tanning liquor. If you can see the skins sitting on the bottom it is probably to weak.
You may notice some bubbling or effervescence, I have not seen this to do anything negative and to me is just part of the process. On day 8 put the skins in a full strength tanning liquor, no additional water added, keep an eye on it and make sure it stays strong until it is finished on day 14. Here’s a video on day 7 where I show what they are looking like, color, and color of a near full strength tanning liquor (birch).
The Fat Liquoring Process Russia Leather Style
In the fat liquoring process we are drying, oiling, and manipulating (working) the skins to replace the oils that were lost during tanning as well as make the leather soft and flexible. To start remove the skins from the liquor and rinse them until the water runs clear from them, rinsing away as much loose tannins as possible.
Hang the skins or place them flat on a clean surface, let them dry until they are just damp, no longer wet. Apply a liberal coating of the birch tar oil and coconut mix to both sides, rub it in well.
Work It! With your hands stretch the skins side to side and length ways. Side to side stretch and move a few inches, stretch and move a few inches until you have done it top to bottom. Place over a cable or smooth piece of round wood and apply pressure, pull the skin back and forth over it. Take a few minute break and repeat the process until the skins are dry. Once dry apply another very light layer of the oil mix.
I am slacking this video will not be up until spring 20201 as I am done for this year.
Let the skins sit and absorb the oil and fully dry. This process can take a week and even up to two weeks. I use a frame made of window screen and 2×4 to lay them flat on during the entire liquoring and drying process. They dry quicker and in a better way with less wrinkles then if hanged.
When done your fish leather should be soft, flexible, and strong. If your fish leather rips easily once fully dry something has gone wrong in your tanning process. Damage from a weak tan or a dead tan can cause this. A dead tan is where your tanning liquor is too strong at the start and the outer layer of skin tans quickly and blocks the tannins from getting into the middle of the skin.