There’s something fishy going on

Fish Leather Pouch

In this blog we are going to take a look at the history and process of tanning fish skin into leather. I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with the concept and possibly even the process of tanning mammal skin into leather but fish leather seems to be less well known.

I’ll be honest, when I first took an interest in tanning, I thought it was a bit outside my reach living in a small inner city flat, where would I get skins? Where would I find tree barks to boil into tanning solution? And where would I find the space to work the skins? I’ve now found ways around all these issues and you can too with a little bit of perseverance but whether you’re an accomplished tanner or a complete beginner I’m going to show you how you can make craftable leather at home using only items and materials that you either have at home or can find in any decent supermarket.

The history of fish leather
Fish leather was a commonly used material in cultures around the boreal and circumpolar regions of the world where it was commonly used to make shoes, bags, and parkas due to its strength and water-resistant quality’s. Traditionally shoes made from tanned wolffish skins were so common in Iceland that distance was often measured in the number of pairs of fish leather shoes it would take to complete the journey. Shoes were still being made from fish leather in Scandinavian countries as recently as world war 2 and fish leather is making a bit of a comeback recently with high fashion brands now using it for shoes clothing and handbags. Some of the other uses throughout the world include drum skins for Darbouka drums in north Africa and Ray skin handle wraps on Japanese cutting tools and katanas.

So to produce fish leather we need to start with sourcing fish skins. One of the best and most cost effective ways I’ve found for obtaining fish skins is going along to your local fishmonger and asking if they would mind giving you some of their waste skins. The fishmonger I use makes there own smoked salmon so they have no shortage of skins that otherwise would be going in the bin. If that’s not an option for you then head into your local supermarket and buy a side of salmon and remove the skin before you cook it.

Skins from the fishmonger
Skins from the fishmonger.

The next stage is fleshing and scaling your skin, to do this lay the skin scale side down on a flat surface and scrape the flesh and fat from the flesh side I’ve found that the shoulder blade from a deer works really well for this but you can use a blunt butterknife held at 90 degrees to the skin or the edge of a tablespoon. Once the flesh and fat are removed flip the skin over and repeat the process on the scale side working from tail to head until you’ve removed the scales.


Once its fleshed and scaled it is time to give the skin a wash in some lukewarm soapy water this removes surface oils and allows better penetration of your tanning solutions. It is important to use water that isn’t too hot – around 20 degrees centigrade is about as hot as you can go without risking damage to the raw skin.

Next you need to decide whether you want to go down the route of oil tanning or veg tanning your skin. Oil tanning gives you a thinner leather that retains the original colour and translucency of the fish skins and veg tanning gives a thicker more substantial leather that takes on the colour of your tanning tea.

Oil tanning
For oil tanning you will need

  • Two egg yolks
  • 100ml of veg based oil (olive sunflower or rapeseed all work well)
  • Roughly a teaspoon of dish soap

Mix your egg yolks, oil, and dish soap in a container that you don’t mind getting a bit fishy. I’ve used freezer bags and Tupperware tubs. Add your skin to the mixture then squeeze and scrunch the skin in the mix for ten or fifteen minutes to ensure your skin is saturated, it can also help to leave it in the fridge overnight at this stage.

Next remove the skin from the mixture and squeeze out as much of the excess liquid as possible then allow the skin to dry either hanging on a line or on a flat surface. While the skin is drying manipulate it as often as possible by stretching it along its length and width until its fully dry. The more you work the skin at this stage the softer your finished skin is likely to be.

Drying out
Drying out.

Veg tanning
For veg tanning you will need

  • Teabags (you’ll be using a lot so I would recommend going with cheap own brand ones)
  • A large cooking pot (ideally 2ltr or larger)
  • A large watertight container (large enough to allow plenty of space for your skin to move)

For your veg tanning tea boil up a large pot of water and add your teabags, to start I use a ratio of ten teabags per 1.5ltrs of water and simmer for at least an hour but the longer the better. Let the tea cool and dilute it to 50:50 tea and water. Its important to use a weak tanning tea to start with to prevent case tanning, this is where the largest tannin particles in a concentrated solution bond with the proteins in the outer layers of the skin preventing full penetration and leaves you with a skin that is tanned on the outside but still raw on the inside. Add your skin to the diluted tea stirring it regularly for the first fifteen minutes to help ensure an even uptake of the tannins.

Tanning tea solution
Tanning tea solution.

After the first 24 hours in the diluted tea its time to start increasing the strength by pouring out roughly a mug of the old tea and replace it with a mug of the full-strength tea keep doing this day after day until you have built up to full strength tea.

During and after the build up to full strength tea work the skin as often as possible by squeezing and wringing the skin out. I like to think of the skins as a sponge, once a sponge or your fish skin is saturated it wont absorb any more liquid but by wringing and squeezing it out you can make it absorb fresh liquid. This is particularly helpful when you replace the weak tea with stronger tea because it helps the skin absorb all the fresh tannins you’ve just added. As your skin absorbs the tannins the tea will become lighter in colour so if your tea is getting considerably lighter its time to add more full-strength tea.

After roughly two weeks your skin should be tanned all the way through, you can check its progress by cutting a strip a few millimetres wide from the tail end checking for a uniform colour all the way through. If you can see a white line running through the centre of your skin then back into the tea it goes. This is where impatience starts to set in for me but stick with it and you will have a far better material to work with as an end result.

Checking tanning tea penetration
Checking tanning tea penetration.

The re-oiling process that I use is the same for both the veg tanning and oil tanning methods. I have read that some people skip this all together but you get a far better end result for just a little extra time and effort.

For re-oiling you will need

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 500ml water
  • 1 teaspoon of dish soap

Mix your egg yolks, water and dish soap in a clean container and add your oil or veg tanned skin to the mixture and wring, scrunch and mix for around fifteen minutes. Squeeze out the excess liquid and smooth the skin out scale side down on a flat surface and leave it to dry off until its just damp rather than soaked.

Next comes one of the most important stages in making any traditional leather and fish leather is no exception, the softening process.

Softening is what separates hard unworkable leather from beautiful buttery soft leathers that can be used for clothing and other items where flexibility is desirable. During the softening process the fibres in the skin are separated which allows the oiling mixture to penetrate and lubricate the fibres leaving them soft and supple.

Softening can be done in a huge range of ways but they are all aiming to do more or less the same thing. You’re looking to keep the fibres in the skin moving as they dry by stretching the skin along its length and width. I’ve found one of the best ways to do this is to rub the flesh side of the skin over an object with a hard edge such as the edge of a table or the back of a chair, the friction created by the rubbing can also heat the skin slightly helping to speed up the drying process. Keep at the softening until your skin is dry, soft, and supple you can also add a bit of neat’s-foot or mink oil to the flesh side during the softening process to give an even softer leather.


And now you should be left with a beautifully soft piece of fish leather that is ready for crafting. You can take the process a step further by smoking your skins which really helps to stabilise the skin and helps prevent water damage but this is covered particularly well in the Woodland Ways squirrel buckskin blog.

So I hope you have enjoyed reading about the fish tanning process and I hope to see your fish leather and craft items in the future.

Fish Leather Pouch
Fish Leather Pouch.

Happy tanning, ’til next time.

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