A recipe for rabbit skin glue

Ten years ago, when I made my first website, I created a post with a recipe for rabbit skin glue. To date, it has been the most viewed page of my site — the recipe gets at least 50 visitors every day — so when I re-made my entire site, I opted to keep the recipe posted. Maybe mixing and using rabbit skin glue isn’t taught in art programs anymore? It’s always been the material I get asked about the most. If you’re here looking for the glue recipe, I hope this post gives you the information you need. Leave me a comment with any questions. (It would make me feel warm and fuzzy if you took a moment to browse the site and check out my work, too!)

What is it?

Rabbit skin glue is refined collagen, and as its name indicates, it comes from the hides of rabbits. It is inexpensive, but you can also opt for a still less expensive “hide glue.” I’ve never been able to find out what hides are used in making those glues, but in my own experimentation, I haven’t noticed any significant differences.

What do you use it for?

Rabbit skin glue is traditionally used as “sizing,” which prevents oil paint from coming into direct contact with the surface that’s being painted. In particular, with canvas, when the oil paint soaks into the surface of the fabric, decay is hastened and the surface becomes more brittle. The glue is also a decent archival adhesive — it can be used for bookbinding, for example. I’ve used it in nearly all my animal drawings (Beastly Bodies) to treat the paper. A former coworker used it when he was fletching arrows.

What does it look like, and where do you get it?

When you purchase the glue, it comes in smelly little granules that require some processing.

In the US, I get it at any decent art supply store, like Utrecht, or Dick Blick. (You can order online from both of them if you don’t have one in your area.)

The recipe!

You will need:

  • the glue granules
  • water
  • a double burner system — choose a container you can reserve for the rabbit skin/hide glue, and the glue only
  • a good heat source — an electric hot plate or your stove or cooktop
  • time and patience

Making it:

Soak 12 parts water to 1 part glue overnight.

Heat the mixture in the double boiler, stirring constantly, until the mixture is warm and all the glue granules are fully dissolved. The double boiler helps protect the glue from boiling, and you should keep an eye on it, as boiling the glue destroys it and you’ll have to start the process over again. If you have a kitchen thermometer, try to keep the temperature of the glue around 100-145F (60-63C). I’ve seen some fancy bain marie set-ups for cooking hide glue, but an electric hot plate, a saucepan from the thrift store, and a recycled peanut butter jar have always served me well. I know one person that uses an electric crockpot sort of thing as well.

The heated glue will be viscous and it becomes increasingly gelatinous as it cools to room temperature. You need to work with it warm. It doesn’t need to be on the heat source the whole time you’re working with it, but once it becomes too much like jelly, you won’t be able to brush it on to whatever surface you’re using.

RSG that is about halfway to its ideal consistency.

Storing and re-using it:

I store remaining, unused glue in the refrigerator, tightly lidded and LABELED. You definitely do not want to mistake this stuff for a condiment! (Or let any of your house guests mistake it for a condiment…) Without refrigeration, it gets moldy, rancid, disgusting and smelly. It doesn’t smell all that great to begin with, but processed glue that’s sat around for a bit is truly  nauseating. To date, I’ve never had any trouble using gently reheated glue that’s spent time in the refrigerator. Perhaps in 200 years a conservator will discover that recycled glue doesn’t hold up as well as the freshly cooked stuff, but I’ll be long past worrying about it then.

If you use this recipe, let me know your experience with it, and if you use it for an application that’s not drawing or painting, let me know what you did and how you did it!

7 Comments

  1. I help co-ordinate the Hastings and St.Leonards Manshed,East Sussex, England. A complete woodworking set up has been donated to us…In one of the many storage draws are 2/3 packs of rabbit skin Glue that I found . The guy has deceased, the equpments donated by his son.

  2. Hi, I help co-ordinate the Hastings and St.Leonards Manshed here in East Sussex EnglandWe Have been donated a fully equipped workshop regarding equipment. In one of the storage draws are one or two bags of rabbit skin glue which was used by the deceased. all the equipment was the property of a wood carver who made the most intricate products from wood, his son donated the equipment over a year ago. I have not seen this product before .I googled it , hence my arrival here. Kid Regards Reg Hollands …

    • That workshop sounds fascinating!

      • Many years ago I refurbished the bellows part of a player piano I used rabbit skin glue to hold the material on the bellows and also the bellows on their mounting board. It creates a very firm hold that last for many years.

  3. Hi, first of all thank you for your rabbit skin glue post, I did come across the material at art school but it has been a little while since I’ve made a gesso from it and couldn’t remember the ratios. I’m really glad to have read that you’ve used rabbit skin glue on paper. At the moment I’m trying to make a gesso for watercolor paper and I’d like your thoughts on how successful this might be, considering the flexible nature of paper and doing my best to avoid cracking. I used to routinely make rabbit skin glue gesso for MDF and plywood panels but I think the ratio I used was 1part glue to 16 parts water, another gesso recipe online offered a 1:10 solution. I was wondering if a higher concentration of glue to water would make the gesso more flexible or less flexible. The reason I’m trying this with gesso and not just applying it as a size directly to the paper is because I would like to be able to sand down the gesso to a very smooth end product. The typical gesso recipe I use is 1part whiting, 1part Titanium pigment to 1part rabbit skin glue but in your opinion should I alter it to make the gesso (for lack of better words) more gluey and less chalky, and to what extent so that I can keep a very smooth and fine surface. Thanks again for taking the time and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Enough speculating, I’ll let you know if the first trial works.

    • Hi Maxime, thanks for visiting!

      I think the problem with cracking has to do with the expansion and contraction of the substrate over time, due to the nature of the pigments, more so than the glue. Panels expand and contract over time with changes in the atmosphere, but not as much as paper and canvas do, since paper and canvas flex more. What I have been doing is mounting paper on panel once the piece is finished, using archival adhesive. I’m not gessoing the paper, but I do apply oil-based medium to it on top of the RSG, and worried about the paper flexing too much and the oil paint cracking.

      It makes sense to try a more gluey gesso for what you’re doing. Titanium white is a more flexible white than zinc white, but I think a higher ratio of the glue might allow for more flexing, less cracking. Happy to share my panel-mounting tips with you if you want to explore that route.

      Please let me know how your first (and later) trials work out!

      • Hello Jenna and thanks so much for this thread. I would be interested in learning your panel mounting tips if you could post them.
        I plan to try making a very burnished surface on heavy watercolor paper with RSG. I learned long ago from an Indian painter, who would sand the first and subsequent coats of RSG she applied, then on the final coat, would burnish the whole layer with the bottom of a Coke bottle.
        Doing that leaves a thick and very smooth surface. I’ll aim for a glassy quality, then experiment with using dry pigment and sand on that, then reactivating the RSG layer with warm water to make the image stick. No idea whether that will work…

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