Buckskin is truly amazing material. It’s soft, breathable, strong, durable, and pest repellent in nature. It’s qualities have been tested and proven for millennia. It takes a lot of manual labor to make real brain tanned buckskin. For this reason good buckskin usually costs at least ten, if not fifteen, dollars per square foot from a professional tanner. There are cheaper commercially tanned hides available, but these are not processed the same. They don’t breathe. So commercially tanned is fine for bags and accessories, but it doesn’t wear anywhere near as well home tanned buckskin. If the word brain has caused anxiety, it is not necessary to use brain, a hide can certainly be traditionally tanned using other natural softeners (I often use eggs and olive oil instead of brain). I am by no means particularly accomplished at hide tanning. This is only my ninth hide. I first learned about hide tanning from professional hide tanners at the Winter Count skills gathering. For further instruction/discussion/etc., I would recommend braintan.com, Buckskin Revolution, or fromfarmandforest.com.
First things first, hide acquisition. Hunting and taking the hide is the most obvious course, but time, place, etc. for hunting can be difficult to manage, so alternatives… Road kill (fresh) is a good place to get hides, or finding a hunter who doesn’t use the hide (which is many modern hunters) and offering some money for a cleanly skinned hide is good source for hides. As few holes as possible makes everything easier during the tanning proccess and results in a better final product. When I get a hide (from a roadkill or a friend who hunts), it may not be an opportune time to tan it, so preservation is usually the next step.
A hide can be saved almost indefinitely in a freezer. If at any point in the process I need to stop for a few days or months for whatever reason, the hide can simply be thrown into the freezer. The point of freezing is to prevent the hide from decaying. If a hide starts to rot, it is firstly not going to make good buckskin because bacteria will weaken the internal structure of the hide, and secondly is really gross and can make the tanner ill. If the hide is balled up, perhaps bundled into a trash bag, fresh, at room temperature, and with the hair still on, the hair will insulate the inside of the hide, allowing bacteria to thrive for several days before the hide is frozen through. So to prevent this, de-hairing the hide first makes putting the hide bundled up in a bag in the freezer possible without fear of rot.
After the hide is thawed, the first thing to do is scrape or cut (whichever is easier) any meat that has remained on the hide after skinning. During the fleshing, graining, and rinsing, I make a point of wearing leather gloves over rubber gloves to thoroughly protect my hands. Hiding tanning is dangerous in that even a tiny cut can get blood poisoning if you work with bare hands. A lot of people do it no problem with bare hands (I have), but in the long run it’s just safer to wear a protective layer, particularly over open wounds, even just a paper cut.
Lye is a strong base (opposite of an acid) and is sold at ordinary hardware stores as a drain opener. The only ingredient should be lye (not just any drain opener). Lye makes a hide swell and shrink temporarily. It loosens the hair, allowing it to come off easily, and the grain (the outer layer of skin) to come off more easily as well. To lye a hide, I get a tub of water (a five gallon bucket at the smallest) and add lye until the water is slippery to the touch (although really its not good to touch lye too much for fear of burns and one has to be wary of the fumes). Lye is a dangerous chemical if used without caution, so use common sense and read the label. I generally leave a hide to soak for a day or so. Changing the water at least once a day helps keep the hide fresh.Making a work surface suited to scraping a hide is not too difficult. There are two common methods; an upright beam and a waist beam. The upright beam (the one I use) is a log or half a log (perhaps 4 to eight inches in diameter or a piece of drain pipe of the same size and almost as long a the tanner is tall) leaning up against a tree with the hide draped over the top. The other is a log or pipe of the same dimensions with two legs at one end so that one end rests on the ground and the other is held up to waist height by the legs. Each method uses different muscles when scraping, so it’s really up to whichever one feels best. I like upright because I don’t have to bend over to scrape (for which my back is always thankful for after a long day of de-hairing and graining).
After a hide has been soaked in the lye and has become rather thick and rubbery, it’s time to de-hair. The hair should come right off, even if you just run a hand over it, assuming the hide has been soaked in the lye solution long enough. I find the back of a knife or drawknife will lift the hair right off.
To grain a hide, the best tool (in my opinion) is a dull drawknife. To be more traditional, a piece of wood with one sharp edge, a bone with one sharp edge, or a rock with a moderately sharp edge will also get the job done. The goal is to scrape off the outer layer of skin without damaging the under layers, so the draw knife should be just dull enough that if one runs one’s finger over the blade, it will not create a cut. Use common sense, if you test a blade this way, make sure it really is dull first. The hardest part on the animal to grain is usually the back of the neck and the very edges. Sometimes its better to cut you losses (literally) by cutting off a difficult edge. Deciding whether to put the effort into a difficult part is about weighing the effort you’re putting into the hide and the quality of material you’ll be getting out. If it’s a difficult spot in the center it’s best to power through and scrape it thoroughly, but if it’s the last inch on a thin jagged edge it’s probably better just to trim it off.
After all the grain has been scraped off, its time to rinse. I place the hide in a bath of plain water, changing it several times throughout a day to allow the lye to soak out. When the hide is white and flexible like wet cloth, as apposed to yellowish and rubbery, it’s probably ready to move on.
Wringing out the rinse water helps the hide become dry enough, without drying, to absorb the brain solution more thoroughly. I learned to wring using a very specific technique that has worked very well for me. A good thorough wringing requires a smooth, sturdy, and (mostly) horizontal bar or branch and a small separate bar, branch or dowel. It begins by laying the hide membrane side up on a horizontal bar. Smoother is better for the wringing bar because rough spots can tear the hide. Take the edge that hangs farther down and lay it up on the bar, wrapping the hide around the bar loosely. Beginning at either side, roll the edge of the hide up until the middle is reached and then start again on the other side. The small independent pole threads through the bottom parallel to the main bar. This can now be used to twist the hide, wringing out the water. For a thorough wring, repeat this at least three to four times.
Braining: the word that tends to throw people off. At this point you could take a deer’s head, pull out the brain and rub into the hide. It is a good and traditional method, but if you don’t hunt your own deer, they can be difficult to find. There are a lot recipes for softening hides, many of which do not call for brain. Different tanners will swear by their recipes, but it comes down to permeating the hide with emulsified oils (that is oils that can mix with water). The brain is filled with emulsified oils, so boiled (to kill bacteria), blended (preferably not with the kitchen blender), and then mixed with a little water (to give it enough volume to cover a hide in a bucket) is one of the most well known basic recipes, and probably one of the oldest. Eggs, or rather egg yolks, is a good natural non-brain method. Grated ivory soap with mixed with almost any oil will work as well. Basically, an emulsified oil or an emulsifier mixed with an oil will soften a hide. The tanner I learned from used brain or grated ivory soap mixed with grape seed oil, sometimes both together. I’ve taken to using egg yolks mixed with olive oil because those are things I have at home anyway, and that’s more or less the same solution my dad taught me to use ages ago.
After the hide is wrung, I let it soak in brain until the hide has absorbed as much as possible. Then wring again, soak again, and wring again (not necessary, but it helps). Now to soften…
Softening is not difficult, just time consuming. In essence, softening is continually stretching the hide until it dries. If not stretched, the hide will harden back to rawhide. The two methods of this that I have seen are stretching the hide over a post that has been set vertically in the ground at about waist height, or stretching a hide across a metal cable of between a quarter and an eighth inch diameter hung from head height to the ground. Both of these allow the use of body weight to stretch the hide as opposed to just sitting down and trying to stretch the hide with bare hands alone, which is fine, but only for those with strong hands.
When the hide is dry, the hide should be soft and fluffy. If it’s not, re-braining and softening is a good course of action. To expedite this process, smoking and then re-processing helps. If you start without smoking, all softening progress is lost, where as smoking freezes the hides at its current level of softness on which re-softening will build. If you soften a hide, don’t smoke it, and then get it wet it will return to rawhide. Smoking also makes buckskin repellent to pests that would otherwise want to eat the hide.
The first thing to do when smoking a hide is to sew it into a bag with an opening left at the neck to attach to a sleeve. The sleeve should be at least a six inches, preferably more, long and not narrower than the average pant leg. Usually the sleeve some kind of canvas or denim, but it doesn’t really matter. Old cut off pant legs work well.
For an stove, I use a cinder block sunk into the ground with a hole under it connecting the two chambers (see pictures). On one side I attach the hide sleeve, and on the other I keep a lid with which to access the fire. It’s easier to use a small wood stove with a short stove pipe and attach the sleeve to the stove pipe, but that requires the wood stove that I don’t have. To go really low tech, a hole in the ground will do, but the risk of scorching the hide is much greater this way. The most convenient way I have ever heard of is to use a smoke house (the kind used to smoke meat). This way hides can be simply hung in the smoke house and left with no worries about scorching or sewing them into a bag. Returning to smoking a hide with some kind of stove, the key is to not scorch the hide. This will ruin a hide very easily and quickly (believe me, I know and it’s a dreadful feeling to see all that hard work go to waste).
I learned to smoke hides by making a small bed of hot coals (by burning down some charcoal or small chunks of hardwood) and then adding small pieces of wood, preferably rotten and dried, to keep the fire as smoky as possible. It can be difficult, after a life time of striving for clean burning smokeless fires for heating and cooking, to maintain a smoky fire. When I smoke a hide, I have to attend the fire constantly to maintain it’s smokiness. There should never be flames during hide smoking because this usually means the fire is not producing maximum smoke and flames can burn the hide. Using wood that smells good, or at least not bad, is also something to keep in mind during smoking. The smoke smell fades over time, but it doesn’t really go away. Also, it should be common sense to not use things like poison oak or poison ivy for hide smoking.
It’s time to turn the hides inside out to smoke the outside when the smoky brown color begins to bleed through to the outside. After the color begins to bleed through, leaving a hide to smoke longer is just about getting the desired color. Some people like the pale color and some like the dark, but as long as the smoke has penetrated through the whole hide, it’s essentially all the same.
At this point, a hide should be finished; soft, fluffy, and a rich beautiful golden brown. The doors now stand open for clothes, bags, anything you can think of…