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.
You will need:
- the glue granules
- 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
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.
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!