Introduction: Urine Tanned Salmon Leather

Picture of Urine Tanned Salmon Leather

Why urine?

Why not?

But seriously, if you're really curious about why we'd use our own urine to tan skin, skip to the last page and I'll tell you all about it.

Follow my set of instructions on how to prepare and tan salmon skin (or any other skin for that matter) to make leather.

Step 1: Assemble Your Kit

To tan a salmon skin, one must make a few preparations in advance. First I'll give you the list and then in the next steps I'll fill in the details about how to gather and prepare your key ingredients.

Salmon skins
1 to 2 gallons clean urine per skin
Equal parts water to urine
Dedicated soaking container with tight fitting lid
metal soup spoon
Latex gloves
Dish soap
Clean Plywood or pine 1x4 large enough to stretch skins
Staples, thumbtacks, or small nails

Step 2: First Prepare the Urine

Picture of First Prepare the Urine

We want only the best, cleanest urine for this project. Drink lots of water. Use a clean container. Make it fun- use a glass milk bottle or a wide mouth mason jar to collect your pee.

Now, I know most of you are making faces right now, but don't act new. How many of you have had to give a urine sample when at the doctor's? Well, go through the same steps you would if doing a urine sample and it will all come back to you.

Make sure to keep the container covered with a lid or a bit of plastic wrap, because you want to trap the ammonia in your solution and keep it from evaporating away.

Repeat this step until you have 1 to 2 gallons of urine for each salmon skin. If you're tanning a larger skin then be sure to have enough urine so the skin can float freely in your container. Later you'll mix this with equal parts water.

It may take a week or two for the ammonia in the urine to begin forming. Yes, it smells, but not as bad as a urinal or a public toilet smells. Your nose will tell you when the ammonia begins to form, but be careful not to sniff too closely, since ammonia gas can cause irritation of the nose and eyes.

The sources I used for my information had all sorts of interesting lore that went with traditional urine tanning of salmon skin. My favorite was a story about how only the urine of young girls was used. There may be something to all that, since there are different types of hormones and natural chemicals in our urine depending on our age, gender, and health. If you're the type to experiment, and something tells me those of you still reading just may be, it might be a good idea to sample different urines. Wild animals use urine to mark their territory and send messages to one another, and I can only guess that those odors are present to some extent in our urine as well.

For this I just used my own urine, since I had plenty of it.

Step 3: Prepare the Skins

Picture of Prepare the Skins

Preparing the salmon skins is easy. The most important thing one must do with any skinning project is to prevent bad bacteria from colonizing the skin. Start with the freshest fish you can get- caught that day or the day before. This salmon was brought to us by Martin Reed from sustainable fish company i love blue sea, and was used in Maria Finn's Instructable called Breaking Down a Whole Salmon.

Cut the skin off as cleanly from the flesh as possible without cutting through it. Put it in a clean container and make sure not to contaminate it with offal or debris. We were rendering the whole fish for this project, so we just froze the skins immediately in freezer storage bags. Whatever you do, don't EVER salt the skins before freezing them, since it prevents them from freezing completely.*

Next, you take a metal soup spoon and use it to scrape the flesh from the skin. Remove all the fats, flesh, etc down to just the skin. Salmon skin is tough tough stuff, so don't be delicate here. Don't worry about the scales, since the urine will take care of those.

*If you're tanning another type of skin, say deer skin, then you'll probably be salting the skin as you remove it from the flesh. You can dry those skins in salt, or you can freeze them for later, but remember to rinse off all the salt before freezing or you could have problems later.

Step 4: Mix the Solution, Leave a Note

Picture of Mix the Solution, Leave a Note

Mix equal parts urine to water into your water tight container*. You should have enough liquid to stir the skin and have it float freely. For this skin I used two gallons urine and two gallons water.

Make sure to leave a nice note so you don't surprise anyone if they come poking around your tanning solution. This solution in the tanning world is also called a pickle, FYI. You'll check the skin every day and give it a stir to keep bacteria from taking hold on any surfaces and get a nice, even finish.

*For this I used a short Rubbermaid roughneck tote, but the lid could be better. I normally use Rubbermaid Brute garbage cans and recommend those instead, but we had to keep this project inside so needed to save space and hide the bin under the utility sink. (Don't tell Facilities or Housecleaning- they'd be so grossed out).

Step 5: Pull Your Skin and Clean With Soap and Water

Picture of Pull Your Skin and Clean With Soap and Water

You'll check the skin every day and give it a stir. It should smell a little like fish, a little like hard boiled eggs, a little like ammonia. It shouldn't smell too awful, and if it stinks up the place for more than an hour or two when you open the lid, you need fresh solution because bacteria has set in. We use the same pickle for a second set of skins and had problems with bacteria, which tuned the skin pink in one place. Don't be lazy, change the urine as needed.

The skin will change from being really soft and gooey feeling in the pickle to more rubbery like a wet dish glove, with a squeeky feeling when you rub it between your gloved fingers. Feel is important, so get in there and touch it. You'll also start to see the scales flaking off, and that's a good sign you're getting close.

Depending on the temperature, your pickle will take anywhere from ten days to a month or more to cure the skin. Once it's finished curing, take it out and soap it up with dish soap several times. Lemon scented soap will help cut the scent, but keep in mind that you may develop a negative association with that brand or fragrance in the future. The skin will stink like old pee and dish soap when wet but as it dries that will go away. So will the funk in the room, I promise.

The soap will get rid of any remaining oils and salts in the skin and get it ready to dry.

Step 6: Dry Your Skin

Picture of Dry Your Skin

Salmon skin is pretty stuff. The scales may or may not be still attached at this point. You want to lay your skin out in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight and where no one will mess with it for a while. It will take a few days to dry. For this project we weren't interested in having the skin completely flat, and if you plan on breaking it for leather then there is no need to stretch it. Just lay it flat on a clean piece of scrap wood while it dries.

If you do want completely flat skin, then simply staple the very edges of the skin to the wood with close spacing and without stretching it too much, and as it dries it will shrink on its own.

Step 7: What to Do With Tanned Salmon Skin

Picture of What to Do With Tanned Salmon Skin

Maria and I really loved the translucency of the salmon skin in its raw form, more as traditional parchment than worked leather. Dried flat like this, light passes through easily and the impression the scales left behind looks lovely. Maria worked with fellow artist Eric Foreman to develop lamps using the salmon to diffuse the light. Skin treated in this way can be rewetted and stretched over a form, and when it dries it will become tight like the skin of a drum.

If you are looking to use the salmon as leather for your project, you'll want to break it. Breaking leather is a process where you tear the fibers to make it soft and supple. Breaking is simple, but it takes a lot of muscle as you pull and stretch the dried skin over a hard edge until it becomes soft. Broken salmon leather will lose some of the evidence of the scales and be more like a rough suede. You may dye it, though I have not done so, and you'd dye it and then break it. Salmon leather has been used traditionally to make boots, gloves, and in other places where a tough leather is needed. Its very strong and durable.

Step 8: Why Urine?

Maria Finn lives for sustainable seafood and has written several books on her adventures on the ocean. We've been friends for a few years and are lucky to be part of the Artist in Residence program together at Autodesk's Pier 9 Workshop.

During salmon season this summer she went out and caught several big beautiful fish that she then used tip-to-tail for recipes she had developed while writing The Whole Fish. As part of her commitment to using all parts, she asked me to help her tan the skins to make salmon leather. I have some experience with using more natural methods and brain tanning for a series called Ghost Highway I showed at SOMarts in early 2014. After some consideration we decided to tan them in the traditional Inuit method using urine, since it's the easiest, least expensive, and is in keeping with her interest in tradition and sustainability.The Inuit people of the north were traditionally very resourceful and developed a method of tanning using a very sustainable and easily acquired tanning solution- their own urine.

Why urine? When our bodies and the bodies of all mammals break down amino acids as a part of normal metabolism, we produce ammonia. Ammonia is an amazing basic solvent that can break down fats and oils, clean surfaces and stop decay from forming. Since ammonia is toxic to us while in our bodies, our livers covert that ammonia into urea and salts, which we excrete in our urine. But that separation is only temporary, and when we contain that urine for any amount of time, the urea and salts bind back together to form ammonia again. Once you understand that the urine is a tanning chemical of mostly ammonia, it takes away the ick factor. Well, almost.

For more information about tanning in traditional methods, check out Lotta Rahme's book Leather: Preparation and Tanning by Traditional Methods.


Eric T (author)2017-08-31

"They are so poor they dont have a pot to piss in" people use to sell urine to leather tanners. People were very poor if they did not have a pot for that use.

Eric T (author)2017-08-31

Could all purpose cleaning ammonia be used insted? Does anyone know howmuch Ammonia per gallon? How can hair be set (fixed) on leather?

BraA1 (author)2016-07-11

May I point to the fact that all tanning and dying of cloth in the Romans time was done with urine. Every Morning early all the urine was collected to be used as sad above.

Have a nice Day

mikes4222 (author)2016-07-05

Try using strong TEA to tan leather or fish hides. It works, and is far less gross and disgusting.

antioch (author)mikes42222016-07-06

Do not use strong tea to tan when you have a steady supply of urine. Tanning with urine is a manly, empowering and emancipating act of superiority that will grant you a seat in Valhalla. Tanning with tea will turn you into a goat. Probably a well-groomed, stiff upper-lip, hairless and hornless goat that could never live without sanitizer.

casecroft (author)antioch2016-07-10

Lol! Love this reply, antioch!

mikes4222 (author)casecroft2016-07-10

Antioch, with your chin pubes and hair lip, (which by the way is described as a GOATEE), YOU more resemble a goat than myself, who I refer to as a MAN. and in my book, fire is best quenched with a healthy dose of urine. By the way, the town of Antioch is located in TURKEY. Also, you should get yourself checked for a UTI, also known as a Urinary Tract Infection, since your behavior seems way off of reality, a symptom of infection. BTW, I hate hand sanitizer.

antioch (author)mikes42222016-07-10

I didn't know there were so many levels that you could fail on. Thanks for your confused yet entertaining non-sense, and please don't forget to flush.

AdrianS24 (author)antioch2016-07-07

Sir, you have just won the internet for a day! Excellent! :-)

RussellS8 (author)2016-07-09

how many growlers of ale will it take to produce enough tanning solution?

yopauly (author)2016-07-06

Thanks for posting. The process is very interesting and you are very informative. peace. Paul S.

0zzy (author)2016-07-06

Hi I have been tanning leather for a very long time and I have tried all different methods of tanning from national to chemical methods.
Although urine does work I find the leather ends up being very week and does not last long but in saying that urine is the best solution to use to remove fur from the skin before the tanning process if you want to keep the fur on the leather DON'T use urine...
The best solution I use for all my leather tanning is the bark from a oak tree and water and that's it.

Dark Solar (author)2016-07-06

Not sure when I'll ever have an opportunity to tan a salmon hide, but definitely filing this away just in case. One question: could you re-create the tanning solution with distilled water, 1-0-0 fertilizer, and clear ammonia?

ysabet (author)2014-11-23

Urine is also a really effective emergency first-aid treatment for jellyfish stings-- any ammonia will work, but unless you're near a lifeguard when you get stung, this will work. I grew up on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and let's just say that personal experience made me a believer...

backstab (author)ysabet2016-07-05

antioch (author)backstab2016-07-06

Some of you with a scientific or journalistic background may have sensed it while reading that article: livescience is a bogus site - they regularly quote bad studies that have not been peer-reviewed and most of the time they don't even link to a study they quote and leave it up to the reader to simply take their click.desperate word for it or spend hours trying to find said study.

skylane (author)ysabet2016-07-05

Fresh pee isn't ammonia... it has to sit for weeks.

jvandeyacht (author)ysabet2015-08-27

I lived through this...urine works, it really does and there are more than enough beach goers that have a full bladder that will be happy to p on it...dont look....but.Vodka is by far the best ever for taking away the pain....on the affected area, not in the stomach, though, vodka in the stomach makes you not care so much that you were stung and actually like the p....;p

dpridge (author)ysabet2014-11-23

Its good for burns also. I was not a believer until I tried it. Burned my index finger on the edge of a heated sheet of metal. Left a deep (white) burn about an inch long. I applied urine and tried to keep it moist for as long as I could. It never blistered or peeled and the pain went away. It seemed to heal from the inside out. How simple.

Mashiach (author)2016-07-05

>bd5 - Fully agree!! Totally DISGUSTING!

DougE16 (author)2016-07-05

Quick question..

Since it will take time to get that much urine, will it spoil while being stored waiting for enough?

skylane (author)DougE162016-07-05

Fresh urine is useless. It needs to sit and turn to ammonia.

gerflash (author)2016-07-05

I remember that from my tour to the Colosseum in Rome: Only male urine because there were no restrooms for women there(!), and only from the upper class patrons, who had separate public toilets with troughs where the urine was collected. They thought that richer men would be eating better, and thus, has "better" urine. I can't imagine that they didn't regularly have plenty bacteria in their mix!

rsfluffy (author)2016-07-05

I can't quote sources at the moment, but the Romans collected urine for laundry and tanning purposes. And it was all male urine for some reason. Easier to collect? Could be.

mr.incredible (author)2014-11-21

I just watched "Alaska the Final Frontier" They tanned their rawhide with about 15 gallons of water and about a gallon and a half of oak wood ashes. It makes lye. They say it is strong enough to dissolve all of the leftover meat and the hair simply scrapes off. I'm sure it still stinks from the rotted flesh in solution but I can guaranty it smells better than the urine tanned fish skin. I can't imagine ever getting the urine smell out. That is really disgusting. Ammonia may work but it is nowhere near as caustic as lye (sodium hydroxide).

Soprych (author)mr.incredible2014-11-23

Wood ash and water does not make sodium hydroxide. Rather it makes potassium hydroxide. I am not sure I would consider that show a source of reliable information.

oky jim (author)Soprych2016-07-05

My mother used to make lye soap with art of the ingredients wood ash and water. I dont remember the rest of the ingredients or the procedure.

mr.incredible (author)Soprych2014-11-23

Wrong chemistry, right process. It's the same method as making lye soap.

Wow, that's really the kind of technique we were looking for. We have lots of oak trees around, and I'd imagine you'd get good results with many types of wood ash. I normally use it to manage the pH in soils, keeping it nice and alkaline around my own Coastal live oak in the garden. I will definitely have to look into it for the next batch of tanning I do.

DaveT2 (author)JenniferBerry2014-11-23

OT: Why do you keep the soil around your oak alkaline? Seems counterproductive, since their leaves and acorns are so acidic. We live in a rather nice oak copse in the Santa Cruz Mountains and so don't have to do anything to keep them healthy (at least two of them convert our sewage into compost over a period of years).

JenniferBerry (author)DaveT22014-11-24

It sounds a little counter-intuitive, but most California oaks prefer alkaline soil, and our gardening practices tend to make the soil too acidic for them. Many scientists have been studying the Sudden Oak Death problem and have concluded that ash, alkalinity, and phosphorous all help prevent the disease.

DaveT2 (author)JenniferBerry2015-01-15

I looked into this, and my research indicates that this is not true. I wish it were; we have invested near $20K worth of trimming in our oak grove over the past 10 years, keeping it healthy and non-threatening, and I'd hate to lose any of them, especially since several recycle our urine into compost over time, as we're on a septic system.

The UC Davis info sheet on sudden oak death management says that coastal oaks do best if you leave them completely alone (which means highly acidic soil as the oak leaf mulch accumulates--it's 100 years deep on our property), and that the only preventative or cure for SOD is the systemic fungicide phosphonate, which, fortunately, is easily available to homeowners. They specifically reference a 2009 Berkeley study, which concluded that "...treatments involving compost tea or mineral amendments (such as lime, Azomite, or crushed shells) were largely ineffective in slowing the growth of stem cankers and preventing infection."

The info sheet also states that coastal oaks thrive in anything from "highly acidic to slightly alkaline" soil.

jo'neil2 (author)mr.incredible2014-12-07

Hum. Oak ash tanned? I've lived in Alaska for over 50 years and have never seen an oak tree here. By the way, I've been around Eskimo urine tanned caribou hide mukluks (really really cold weather winter boots, quite comfortable at minus fifty or so degrees.) and they don't smell at all, unless you set them, when damp, next to a hot stove.

Luiswb (author)2014-11-23

So where exactly do i get 2 gallons of urine?

JenniferBerry (author)Luiswb2014-11-24

You pee too, don't you? ;)

DeeRilee (author)2014-11-23

I've got a small skin (in the freezer) from a sand shark that my father caught a few years ago. Do you think this method would work to "tan" it?

JenniferBerry (author)DeeRilee2014-11-24

I think it would work on the shark skin. It might be hard to skin the shark after too much time in the freezer, since they can get really dried out. But its worth trying!

JenniferBerry (author)2014-11-24

Thanks guys for the comments, get info and good questions. I don't know if you could tan with ammonia, its a good question. Urine was once the main way people all over the world tanned skins, which is one reason we decided to try it. One person commented that wood ash to make lye would work too, and I've heard of that recipe. I tan with brains whenever I can, but that's fur-on and a completely different process and chemistry, the main difference being that you are using an acidic formula, which keeps the fur intact when done right. Urine tan is alkaline, so its good for getting the scales and fur to drop off cleanly.

I'd love to see anyone's pics of urine tan projects should you decide to do it!

steveofthenw (author)2014-11-24 could just go ahead & use ammonia, seeing as how we as yet are not living in a post-apocalyptic doom-scape & the stores are still open...

benitosavage (author)2014-11-24

During the Depression era, poor families used to save up their urine in a pot and sell it to local leather tanneries, hence the term "piss poor" was created. Cool stuff, cant wait to try it.

rmoody3 (author)benitosavage2014-11-24

While it was common during the depression, the practice dates back to the Romans.

RubiChris (author)2014-11-23

Interesting instructable! Since no tannins were used in this process, the instructions are not technically for "tanned salmon skin". In Arctic regions oftentimes hides are not tanned due to the climate. They are simply cleaned, urine is used to remove excess fat from the skin (critical to prevent spoilage and salmon and sea mammals) and manually softened as you described. You can also "Dawn" detergent (Per an Alutiiq friend) or Fels Naptha soap (that's what a Tlingit elder told me her mother used for seal skins) to remove the fat/oil. You can then reintroduce an emulsified oil such as egg, brain, etc. to make softening easier. ( "brain tanning" it, which is also technically no tanning either). How you prepare all depends on how you're going to use it. I'd love to see what you are making from the skins.

jjdebenedictis (author)RubiChris2014-11-24

I remember a story from when I lived in the arctic as a kid. A (white) hunter had tried brain tanning skins using just the brain of that one animal, and he wasn't having much luck getting the skin to come out soft. He asked a local Inuit woman who sold furs what she used, because her furs were always lovely.

"Cheese Whiz," she said, "or mayonnaise."

He tried the Cheese Whiz, and she was right -- it has enough fat to soften the fur! :-D

gtrachel (author)RubiChris2014-11-23

It sounds like you're extremely knowledgeable about these techniques, and I for one would be very interested if you were to write an instructable about arctic hide treatments.

Moose Dr (author)2014-11-20

Yup, lots of "ick factor". Mega-prepper. I do have some fantasy of experimenting with tanning, but I think I'm gonna pass on the pee, thanks. BTW, can you use ammonia as the tanning agent? That sounds palatable to me.

jjdebenedictis (author)Moose Dr2014-11-21

That's exactly what I was wondering. "So...any way to skip the pee?" :-D

rmoody3 (author)jjdebenedictis2014-11-23

Every animal has enough brains to tan it's own hide, but it's no more pleasant a process.

jjdebenedictis (author)rmoody32014-11-24

Oh, no; working with raw meat (even squished up organ meat) is MUCH less icky to me than working with urine! :-D

fixfireleo (author)Moose Dr2014-11-23

seriously dude? urine is great for so many things. if you are stuck in the woods with no water and cut yourself you should wash the cut out with urine as it is sterile. if you step on a sea urchin, urine will neutralize the pain from the poison. if you have problems with animals living under your porch, the smell of your urine can sometimes chase them away. if you are trapped in a mine, or somewhere similar, for a few days, your urine can save your life. dont be so squeemish.

off_the_grid (author)fixfireleo2014-11-24

Dude, make a note, YOUR own urine.

About This Instructable




Bio: My projects combine my background in biology plus the rigor of art practice, to produce works that surprise, elucidate what is hidden in plain sight ... More »
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