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How to Skin
Deer, Elk, Antelope, Goat, or Sheep
Skinning is a straight forward endeavor if you follow the body's built in guidelines. This is because the skin and muscle tissue are naturally separated from one another by protective membranes. Simply make the initial cuts, and then pull the skin off, as if you are removing the deer's coat. When you peel the skin, it easily separates from the meat along these membranes. After getting a clean start, there is little risk of tearing the skin or the meat. So all you need to do is use your hands and body weight to pull and pry the skin from the deer. It is generally a ten to fifteen minute process. The biggest mistake you can make is trying to cut the hide off with your knife. When you use a knife to slice the hide from the deer you inevitably violate these layers, making the whole job harder. Once the meat is cut into, you are no longer working with the natural division between meat and hide. You usually end up removing large chunks of meat, as well as putting cuts and holes in the hide. These cuts (also called scores) and holes open up and enlarge easily, increasing the amount of work at every stage of the tanning process. The membranes that encase the meat also protect it from flies and deer hair. When you cut into the meat you create moist and protected habitats for flies to lay their eggs in. If you peel the skin, the muscle layers remain intact, the outer membranes dry out, and flies will not lay their eggs. For some reason, most modern hunters do not know this and that makes finding well skinned hides a real challenge. There are absolutely no advantages to knifing a skin off. It is not faster!

How To Skin
Hanging the deer makes it easy to use your body weight to pull the skin off. It also assures that the meat will stay clean. You can either hang it from the neck or from the legs. Most people prefer one way or the other. I like them both. Deer should be hung using strong ropes (I had one fall on me once when the rope broke. The antler tines hit my forehead. Those things hurt!). Do it within a few hours of the deer's death and it will peel off especially easily. Make sure your knife is sharp, and proceed as follows: If you want to get better hides, tell your friends who hunt about good skinning techniques, or post a flyer around town. To hang a deer by its back legs, find the large tendon that connects the lowest leg segment with the rest of the leg. Poke a hole in between that tendon and the leg bone. Use your fingers to feel the lump that is created by the double jointed bone. Then sever the lower leg at the lower of the two joints as illustrated.

Cut skin and tendons around the joint, then snap it over your leg.

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Make the incisions as shown in the illustration. Once you've made the initial incisions, put that knife down. Then use your hands and body to pull, yank, and pry the skin from the deer.

Getting a clean start: use finger tips and thumbs to separate the hide from the meat. Notice how clean and encased both the meat and hide are.

Once you've gotten a good start, grab the hide with your hands and pull. You can also push your thumbs, fist and elbows in-between the skin and meat to release areas that are sticking.

Use your body weight to help pull.

There will be a very thin layer of meat that wants to come off with the hide. This is the muscle that the deer uses to twitch flys off of its back. Nobody that I know of eats this meat because it is so thin and membraney. It is easily fleshed off later, so most folks let it come off with the hide.

Removing The Brains

Deer conveniently come with just enough brains to tan their own skin. If you are planning to tan the hide right

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away, the simplest place to store the brains is in the intact skull. To remove the brains from the skull you first need to cut away the skin that covers the area between the eyes and the back of the antlers (on Does just go to where the antlers would be). Then use a hacksaw to make a V shaped cut into the skull. The antlers can be used as a lever to remove the cut bone. A messier but equally effective alternative is to smash this section of skull with a stone. Be careful not to cut yourself on bone shards. Once the skull is open use a spoon, fingers or straw to remove all of the brains. Protect the brains from flies.
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Obtaining Hides
Where to Get Them Cheap or Free
There are lots of free and cheap hides available every hunting season and frequently in-between. With a little effort you should be able to find all that you could ever want. However it is a bit trickier finding hides that haven't been knifed up in the skinning. Tanning hides that have been skinned well is a joy. Tanning knifed up skins takes longer in nearly every stage, and the finished product is not nearly as good. Go to extra lengths to get good skins. If you are buying deerskins, it is always worth a few extra bucks for really good ones. While this chapter is geared particularly toward the obtaining of deer hides, you can also find elk, antelope, moose, goat, and buffalo. Deer are by far the most common, and most commonly wasted hides in North America. They are also a good one to start your tanning adventures with. Elk are much more work to tan and because of their fiber structure, they are weaker and wear out faster than deer. This is just a relative comparison. Elk leather is beautiful, large, thick and perfectly fine for many applications. Moose on the other hand has the fiber quality of deer but the thickness of moose. They are particularly great for moccasins. Antelope and big-horn sheep are renowned for being uniformly thin. They will make light-weight, comfortable dresses and summer clothing.

Where to get good skins

Deer you hunt yourself. What could be more satisfying than pulling on a deerskin jacket from deer that fed you
and your family? Obviously do not hunt deer just to get more skins. There are a zillion out there going to waste.

Friends who hunt. If you know lots of folks who hunt, just tell them you want the skin, and most would love to give

it to you. Have a handout to give them on good skinning techniques or offer to skin for them. (feel free to print out the pages on skinning).

Roadkills. More than 300,000 deer are hit annually in the United States. You can get lots of free, perfectly skinned
hides, with no bullet holes. It may be illegal in your area, so check it out. Skin the deer, remove any meat you will use, and return the carcass to somewhere that the critters can get to it safely, away from the road.

Skinning stations. Set up a free skinning station along a road that many hunters will use. This is especially effective during peak hunting weekends, and in regions where a large number of tags have been issued for an area with only a few main access roads. You can also offer to do it at your home, and advertise. Roadside barrels. My friend Jim Riggs puts out two or three barrels every year with a sign that reads "hides and
heads". Luckily most people interpret this to mean deer and elk. He gets all of the free hides and brains that he can use. If you try this be prepared to deal with some gross hides, yellow jackets and trash. You will also get alot of real crappy hides, but you will find some gems. Jim always wishes that the good skinners would autograph their hides so that he could meet them. Rotting, smelly hides can give you an infection or blood poisoning real fast. If you handle any questionable hides, wash up really well afterwards with disinfectant soap and keep an eye on any cuts or sores. If you notice an unusual amount of swelling, or red streaks going from your cuts toward the chest, see a physician immediately.

Local butchers who do game processing. Look in the yellow pages under meat. There you will find a list of all local butchers who do game processing. Call them and ask them how much they charge, how many skins they get a season, etc.
They will all tell you that they do a really great skinning job. Most of them don't. It's really hard to see knife marks in frozen or wet salted hides, so check out a sample of their work before you make any big purchases. Either buy one frozen or salted hide or check out a freshly skinned hide if that is possible. Rinse the salt out of the


salted hide. On the flesh side look for knife marks. These will appear as cuts in the skin or the meat. It is preferable to have none, but this is sadly rare. As long as only one person is doing the skinning, the quality or lack of, will be consistent. If there are only a few knife marks on the edges and none in the middle, this is good. If their are knife marks in the middle of the hide, this is the sign of a hide slasher. Avoid these. I shop around for the best skinners, and make a deal to get everything they skin that deer season. Tell them that you only want their hides, and not ones that hunters bring in. Sometimes you can get a butcher to change his skinning practices so that he pulls the skin off (see skinning). This is rare, but worth the effort and paying a little more for it. A typical price for a deerskin from the butchers in 1997, is from four to eight dollars. Even better is to get a job skinning for a butcher during the opening week end of deer season, and get the hides for free.

Hide dealers and tanneries. Most big towns have someone who buys hides from hunters. If yours does, ask that

person to put aside the very best. Offer to pay a dollar or two more than they are currently getting, for their best ones. Ask them to put aside twice as many as you actually want. Then go through the pile and pick out the best. This is a bit of a russian roulette since it is hard to see knife marks through the salt. If you explain to the dealer that you want the hides with the least knife marks, and then you go through them yourself, you will mostly get good ones.

Become a deer hide buyer and dealer. If your area doesn't have a hide buyer, you could become that person. Find

out where the closest tannery is, and how much they will pay you per hide. Then buy hides at prices that will make it worth your while. A common deal is to offer free leather gloves in exchange for hides. These gloves are available wholesale for two to three bucks from Sullivan's Gloves, 1315 S.E. Armour Rd, Bend Oregon 97702. (541) 3823092. You need to order 60 to get the wholesale price. Hunters like this. Advertise at hunting shops, etc. You will be surprised how many you get, especially if you do it year after year. Most hunters would like to see their hides get used, just out of ethics. This way you can pick out the very best hides when they are fresh, plus make money reselling the others to the tannery. Have a flier to give hunters that illustrates proper skinning techniques. Offer more mula for peeled hides. By buying hides directly from hunters, you will not be encouraging folks to go out and kill deer to sell you the skin. The going rate for deerskins is so low it would never be worth it. Rather, you are just giving them a little incentive to get their skin to someone who will use it, instead of leaving it in the woods or the trash.
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Storing Hides
So They are in Optimum Condition for Tanning

You want to store hides so that they are in optimum condition for tanning: uniformly moist, and protected from rot, dogs, ring-tails, bears and bugs.

This hide wasn't stored so good.

How to store hides

Freeze. Roll hide up in tight bundle, tie, put in plastic bag, and freeze indefinitely. You can flesh first to reduce volume. If you have the freezer space, this is the easiest way to go. Wet-salt. Lay hide out flat with the flesh side facing up. Spread fine salt over the entire surface, all the way out
to the edges. Don't skimp, salt is cheap. To salt the next hide, lay it directly on top of the first, and so on. Allow the salt to soak in overnight. Store in cool place with no air flow, so they won't dry out. Use air-tight plastic and wooden containers. Salt will rust metal, which will then stain the hide. One or two hides will fit in a five gallon plastic bucket, while a big pile can be put into a garbage can. After one week drain any water that has accumulated at the bottom of the container. Will store at least one year. This is the most practical method for people who tan alot of hides. Storing salted hides in tarps or other permeable containers causes them to dry slowly over time. The more they dry the harder they will be to scrape later. Even if they feel damp and pliable they may still have dried enough to affect scraping. Wet-salted hides should feel as loose as when they first came off of the deer. The only way to really screw this up is by storing salted hides directly on the ground. Some-how the ground causes the hides to rot over time.

Scrape fresh and then dry. To do this, you must flesh, buck, grain and rinse. Then you can dry the hide out and

store it indefinitely. Drying unscraped hides makes them considerably harder to scrape later. So, if you take them through the grain scraping stage and then dry them, you are not creating any unnecessary work for yourself. It takes an experienced tanner about an hour's work to get their hide to this point (not including soaking time). It might take a beginner four or five hours. Use The Basic Method.

Drying Hides For Storage Can Make Tanning Harder

For four years, I fleshed and dried my hides for storage. Many brain-tanners do this. This is fine for dry-scraping. For wet-scraping this can make it much harder to remove the grain. Drying shrinks the grain and causes it to adhere tightly to the fiber core. When re-soaked, it doesn't reconstitute fully. Think of a dried apple...When reconstituted, no matter how long it soaks or is manipulated, is it ever as soft, full and luscious as a fresh apple?


No...and the same is true of hide grain. The grain will never swell and loosen to be as easy to remove as on fresh hides. There are however a couple of exceptions to this rule. Hides that have been stored dry for more than a year will grain fairly easily. Hides that have been stored dry for a few years are exceptionally easy to grain and soften. In fact there is no need to do the bucking or rinsing steps. The aging process has an effect similar to the alkali, causing the mucus in the grain layer to break down. This allows the dressing to easily enter and prepare the hide for softening. So if you have some old hides out in the shed, soak them up in plain water for a day or two and go at it. Using the bucking process as illustrated in Deerskins into Buckskins makes dried hides scrape considerably easier than they otherwise do, so I don't discourage it as much as I did in the past. If you do not have an environmentally responsible way to dispose of salt, no freezer, and you're tanning a lot of hides, this may be your only option. Give the hide a very thorough fleshing job because any fat left on the hide will rot and weaken it. Dry in a fairly warm place so that the hide dries before it rots. Check the edges periodically as they have a tendency to curl up and hold moisture in. Hides dried hair-on need to be protected from bugs, especially once spring rolls around. The omnipresent nasty hide beetles will infest and chew holes in any skins stored dry with the hair on; unless stored where the bugs can't get them, or in a smokey spot. The hide beetles don't like the flavor of smokey hides. These cruel bugs also don't like to munch hairless hides. This is another good reason to scrape the grain off of your hides before drying them. Getting a hide to this point only takes about one hour or two of work for an experienced tanner. This won't be too much work at once unless you are tanning 30+ hides. In that case you have to deal with the realities of mass production, however you see fit.

Another Option
You can soak your hides in the buck and rinse them before storing. Then store them using any of these methods. The advantage of this is that you can make just one batch of solution and put all of your hides through the bucking process at once. Then your hides will be immediately ready to scrape whenever you are, rather than having to wait for them to go through the bucking process. The disadvantage is that you don't get the easier scraping that swollen hides provide. It also takes considerably longer for the hide to rinse; about 48 hrs. in moving water. I encourage you to leave them in the buck and in the rinse a little longer than necessary, to make sure that the whole batch is fully treated and ready. You might as well since you are not in a hurry to scrape them, and it doesn't create any more work for you.
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*Tanning Leather*
By Dragoona If you hunt, raise your own animals or plan to do either in the future, you can make your own leather. There are a number of ways to tan leather and furs. Some are easier than others, like buying a tanning kit from Tandy or the Leather Factory. These contain pre-measured chemicals and instructions for using them. I am not going to cover the use of kits, but the old ways of tanning your hides. Basics Making leather is a time consuming and smelly process. The first thing you need to do is to prepare your hides for tanning. The hides can be from cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and deer, elk or antelope. Actually if it can be skinned it can be tanned. After the animal has been killed and the skin is carefully removed, the first job is to remove any bits and pieces of meat and fat. To do this the skin is soaked and pounded, then placed over a wooden beam and scraped with a dull knife. Take care not to tear the skins. The hair and outer part of the skin is then removed by rubbing urine, quicklime or wood ash into the wet surface. This will loosen the hair and allow it to be scraped off. After the hair has been scraped off, you need to prevent the hide from stiffening or rotting. There are several methods that can be used. You could rub it with an oily substance like tallow (animal fat,) egg yolk or dubbin (a mixture of fish oil and tallow. It can also be treated by rubbing salt, brain or potash alum into the surface to produce a very pale leather. Saving urine to use at this time will make an almost white hide. Any of these methods are quick and easy but if the leather gets wet, the oils or minerals would be washed out and the leather would rot. So it is time to tan the leather. Tannin Tanning The best way to tan the leather is by using a chemical called tannin. (Gross time) To do this the hide is rubbed with dung (which allows the tannin to penetrate the leather.) This is called bating. The bating process is remarkable one from the properties it imparts to the hide. The dung of carnivores, especially dogs is used as it contains an enzyme that digests collagen, which is an elastic component of the hide. Prior to bating the hide is springy and lively, rather like having a mind of its own. After bating it is quite relaxed and will lay flat. Its difficult to describe but easy to recognize when the hide is compared before and after bating. The dung is washed from the hide after bating, it has done its job and there is no reason to keep such a smelly component of the leather making process. Now you need a clay-lined pit with a log or pole in it. The hide is hung over the pole and soaked in a mixture of water and crushed oak bark. This is what produces the tannin. Soak the hide for a couple of days, then remove it and spread it out to dry. This leather can be carved, tooled or left plain. It can be used to make shoes, knife sheaths, holsters or bags. Brain Tanning This is a very primitive method of tanning leather. Oddly enough each animal has just enough brains to tan its own hide. Brain tanning produces a beautiful buckskin and it does require a bit of work to produce it. After removing the hide from the beastie, stretch the hide out by laying it on the ground flesh-side up. Punch wooden stakes at intervals around the edges and drive them into the ground. You want the stakes close to the edge but not so close that the skin tears. It will all depend on the animal and the thickness of the hide. Dont stretch the hide beyond its original size. You dont want to stretch the hide, just keep it from shrinking. Now you need to flesh it. This will be easier if you are careful while skinning the animal and not let a lot of meat or fat on the hide. You can use a stone, a bone flesher or the dull knife from above. Once again, be careful to not cut or tear the skin. Scrap the skin to get every bit of meat or fat off, this includes the tiny veins that cling to the surface of the skin. Any fat or meat left on the hide will cause you misery later. Now that the fleshing is done its time to decide if you are going to make buckskin or a fur. Leather Flip the hide over so that the hair side is up. The idea at this stage is to remove the hair as completely and easily as you can. You can mix up a slurry of wood ashes and water and rub it into the hide well. Cover every square inch then let it set until the hair starts coming loose when you pull on it. It can take a couple of days for heavier hides. If you dont want to wait that long you can use a sharp knife and scrape/shave the hair off. You may have to scrape the hide even if you used the water/ash method. Scrape the entire hide, when you do this it will also scrape off the epidermis layer. This is important as it allows you to soften the hide later. Furs Simply omit the dehairing process and move to the next step. Its stinky time


The tanning process breaks down the glycerin and loosens the fibers of the skin. The agent used in this method id found in the brain of the animal that provided the hide/fur. Take the brains and cook them in a little water. Squish and squeeze them with your hands (wear gloves) to mash it well. When the brain soup is almost to hot for you to touch, rub it into the hide using your hands and smooth round stones that have been heated. Start by rubbing the mixture into the skin side of the hide and then into the hair side (skip this side if you are making a fur.) Use all of the mixture including any broth left in the pot. Leave the hide alone and out of the sun for 6 to 8 hours before continuing. After the brains have soaked into the hide for 6 to 8 hours, submerge the hide in water overnight. You want it to be completely saturated and pliable. While it is soaking, you can prepare your graining tools. There are two types needed. The first is a wooden wedge shaped tool, with or without a handle. The other is simply a sick about two inches in diameter. The end of the stick is carved into a smooth, blunt, rounded point. Restake the hide after it has soaked and use the wedge shaped grainer to ooze the water out of the hide. Do this until you cant get any more water out of the skin. Now take the blunt stick grainer and work every inch of the hide. The object is to stretch and loosen every inch of the hide while it is drying. If you stop before it is completely dry it will become stiff! When the hide seems dry, unstake it. You can now cut away the edges with the stake holes, since there may be areas you couldnt scrape well. Loop the hide through a rope loop or over a branch tied between two trees and pull it back and forth. This will stretch the hide and the heat/friction will dry the hide some more while breaking up the grain farther. When you are done, use a smooth stone to rub any imperfect areas. Note: If you are making a fur be careful and do not run the fur side over the branch or through the rope loop, if you do you will ruin it! The hide is now complete. However it will become stiff again if it gets wet. To prevent this, make a tripod of sticks and drape the hide over a small smudge fire. You want to smoke the hide until it becomes a nice buckskin color. Turn it over as necessary for the smoke to penetrate all parts. Have fun, folks... its a brave new skill to learn.

"This article is especially for Sierra, an Office Sir, to whom I lost a bet. And if he ever asks me to bet against him again... It will be used!" Dragoona, the *fair-minded*
All materials at this site not otherwise credited are Copyright 1996-2003 Trip Williams. All rights reserved. May be reproduced for personal use only. Use of any material contained herein is subject to stated terms or written permission.

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The Pre-Smoking Method

Revised and Expanded December 9, 1998 1998 SUNDOG TRADERS: Joseph Dinsmore & Victoria Longtrail D. ezra@midrivers.com

A draw knife that is fairly dull, a utility knife, PVC pipe of 6" in diameter, a plastic garbage can, a 10 gallon plastic garbage pail, a pair of insulated rubber gloves for cold weather scraping (ones with long cuffs). Some sort of anti-bacterial soap for washing. Parachute cord, about 60' of it cut into 6' foot lengths. Glovers needles and artificial sinew or other strong thread. I have recently discovered a neat little tool I use during the softening process, it is used by trappers and is called a Yoho. It is a narrow little spade used for digging holes. I like the way it pulls on the hide more than any other tool I have tried. It makes it easy to work on the edges because it is narrow. Frames made of 2x4's in various sizes. We put nails about every five inches around the outside of the frames to keep the cord from slipping out of place. Also make sure the ends of the boards extend about four inches beyond where they are connected, so when the frame is turned different ways, the outer nails are not flattened out.

Picking Hides to Tan

This article is best used in conjunction with The Dinsmore's video guide to the Pre-Smoke Method now available at the Braintan.com Store

If you are new at tanning, we always recommend you begin with a doe hide or small buck that is not very thick. It is surprising how many inquiries we get about tanning elk for a first project. Choose hides that have been shot as few times as possible. The less holes the better. Also the way it was skinned is important. A pulled hide is ideal but most hides we get have been skinned with a knife. (see the Braintan.com Skinning tutorial for details). Avoid hides that have a lot of score marks. Avoid hides that already stink or have maggots on them. Fresh hides also often times still have ticks on them so watch out for that too.

Fleshing the Hide

A hide is always easiest to do when it is fresh or has been frozen. We use a PVC pipe to scrape on. It provides a smooth surface unlike a peeled log that will get nicks in it after a while and cause nicks in the hide as you dehair (ed. note: this is only a problem with certain types of wood). When fleshing, get the majority of the flesh and fat off. Cut off any long hanging down legs or pieces of skin to make the whole process easier. Often times we get special orders for hides that have the skin of the legs left on. As we're fleshing along the belly and find holes close to the edge, we always just go ahead and trim the hide back so that the holes are eliminated.


Storing the Hide

Freezing If you are not going to go ahead with the tanning process then you will want to store the hide. Ideally, freezing it is the best way to go. If you are only doing one or two then you can fold the hide, flesh side to flesh side, roll it up tightly, tie it and stick it in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer until you can get to it. In fact any time during the tanning process, if you are interupted and can not work on the hide for a few hours or days you can freeze it without damage to the hide or the tanning process. Salting You can salt the hide and it will keep for quite a while like that. Keep in mind that if you have many salted hides and have them stacked up on top of one another, there will be heat generated within the pile that could cause the hides to rot (ed. note: while this is possible it is not typically a problem, storing salted hides stacked is common practice). Drying You can also hang the hides to dry AFTER they have been fleshed. If you leave meat and especially fat on the hide and dry the hide, it can get what we call grease burned and when you go through the process of tanning the hide will fall apart. If the hide has been fleshed well, then it can be hung and dried and will keep for years as long as bugs don't get at it. Joe lost over a hundred hides a few years back due to little burrowing bugs. Bulk Strategy We usually buy hides twenty or more at a time, some are salted but most are fresh. We try to get as many fleshed and dehaired as possible then they can be rolled up small and frozen or pre-brained as we most often do to them. We'll discuss this later.
(For more on hide storage, see the braintan.com tutorial Storing Hides)

De-hairing the Hide

Soaking After the hide has been fleshed and you decide to continue the process, place the hide in a plastic garbage can half filled with water. Stir it once or twice to make sure all surfaces are in contact with water. Weigh the hide down with a cinder block or stump to keep the hide totally underwater. Even in cold weather the hide is most often ready to be de-haired the next day. The idea here is not to slip the hair but to thicken the grain enough so that when it is removed, the hair comes off with it. Scraping Place the hide on the PVC pipe so that the neck is closest to you as you will want to scrape the hair off in the direction it lays naturally. You should use old clothing and water proof gloves. Joe takes a large garbage bag and cuts the end out, than slips it on like a skirt. This way it can be thrown away after a few uses instead of hosing rain-gear off. The hair on the neck is always more difficult to remove than the rest of the hide. Once you get past the neck the rest of the hide will be relatively easier. You can recognise the grain as a brown/pinkish layer at the roots of the hair. It is important to remove as much as possible but not necessary to get 100 percent of it. Different sections The neck, down the back and the hips are the thickest part of the hide. As you get toward the sides of the hide, the hide gets thinner and you won't want to press as hard as it is easier to put a hole in the hide. Membraning Once the hide has been de-haired, we flip it over and pass over the flesh side again, more of the membrane will come off because the hide is not padded by the hair still being on like it was in the fleshing step.


When we have finished de-hairing we pre-brain the hide. We use cow brains. We buy the brains in bulk, by the pound through our local meat market. We have used pig brains but find them greasy and result in a more dense hide, we prefer our hides to be soft and lofty. Preparing the Solution Take about a pound of cow brains and either blend them in a blender, or squish them through a screen to get it as mashed as possible when mixed with about four to five gallons of water. We always heat the brain solution. Do not boil it as it seems to have an adverse effect on the solution. Also if possible, do not use chlorinated water. We use well water for this step. If you don't have well water then any ground water or rain water would do. The chlorine has an adverse effect on the function on the brains. Putting the Hide In At this point your hide should be somewhat damp and not real wet as you have just scraped it and most of the moisture from soaking it has been removed. The hide will be discolored, yellowish with bloody spots on it perhaps. Put the hide into the warmed brain solution and swish it around a bit. Take the edge of the hide and sort of work your way around the entire edge making sure it is not folded and stuck to itself. As you are swishing the hide and working your way around the edge you will notice that the hide is getting lighter in color and is becoming soft and slimey. Thats good. Drying the brained hide for storage Submerge the hide in the brain solution and let it soak over night. The next day hang it out on a line, making sure it is not sticking to itself and the air can circulate over all of it. At this point the hide should be so soft and slimey that it is difficult to hang on to. We usually hang it over the line, clothes pin it in a couple of places and prop it open with sticks we find laying around. If it is hot and windy, chances are the hides will dry enough in one day to take them down for soaking in cold water, or for storage. It is possible to let them dry out too much. You want them to be slightly flexible. They can be stacked and stored indefinately at this point as long as they are in a dry place. At this point the hide will be a yellowish color again. Resoaking It If you plan on continuing the tanning process then do the following in preparation for pre-stretching. Fill a ten gallon plastic container to about 3/4 of the way full with cold water. Fold the hide and stick it in the water, usually you will not get the whole thing submerged as it is stiff but as the hide softens in the water, the rest can be pushed down and submerged also. Leave it in the water overnight.


Trimming When you take the hide out of the water after soaking overnight, it should be rubbery feeling. It will again be a yellowish color. This is the point where I trim the hide and cut the lacing holes with the utility knife. I like for the hide to be the shape of a hide but not have all sorts of hanging down pieces on it. If the neck is exceptionally long I cut it down so it is nearly straight across at the shoulders. I cut the legs off rather short so they are not extending much beyond the shape of the body. Preparing the Hide for the Rack Now I cut the lacing holes. I make them about five inches apart and about 3/4 of an inch in, away from the edge of the hide. If they are too close to the edge they tend to break during the prestretching or softening process. I like the holes to be about an inch long so it is easy to lace them. Be sure to hit key points of the hide, or parts that stick out further than others. Sewing Holes It is during this time that I sew up any holes. I use a glovers needle and artificial sinew and a blanket stitch. I sew the holes up now so that there is no pucker in the hide at the end of the process. I also sew any scores that look to me will break through. Lacing it in the Frame Lace the hide onto the frame. It doesn't matter which end or which side is up, it is all personal preference and doesn't matter since the frame is reversed and turned all different ways. The idea behind this step is to stretch the fibers apart as much as possible and let the hide dry that way in preparation for the pre-smoking step which is next. I have found that the fibers pull apart best when stretched from side to side as opposed to lengthwise. I start lacing the hide onto the frame from the top end and then lace from one side and then the other, working my way down both sides of the hide so it does not get pulled towards one side or another. At this time I usually end up with a hide that is stretched very wide, and not very long. Stretching I use a tool we have made, with an axe head welded onto a pipe. But you can improvise by using a canoe paddle or something else. As you work the hide when it is wet, it will keep stretching, as it does so, keep taking up the slack by shortening the laces. Keep the hide tight and the fibers pulled apart and not allowed to shrink back together. When the hide has dried, it should be fuzzy on both sides, all the way to the edges. And white with no areas yellowish as when in the rawhide state.


Intro This step is not done by most tanners. From what we have read and from some Native Americans we have talked to it seems it is an old method. Our smoker is built of four pieces of plywood with a top and a hinged door at the bottom of the front. We use a pot with a metal cover that has holes poked in it to allow air inside. It is quicker to sew the hide into a sort of sleeve and do them individually but we do so many hides, that it is not time effective for us. How to do it We found that the darker the hide is smoked, the easier it is to soften in the last step. Therefore we smoke several hides for two days to get them a nice yellow color. Joe says the best wood to smoke with is cedar. We use old juniper fence posts, cut into wafers with a bit of sawdust around them. If you can't get either of these, then any punky wood would work. Keep the fire smothered so it is cool and not a hot fire. It is possible to cook the hide in the smoker especially if it is hot outside. There are many ways to build a smoker and most of them work just fine. We suspend the hides in a horizontal fashion, from ties at opposite corners of the smoker. The first hide is about three feet from the smoke pot and then about every foot and a half to the top. How Pre-smoking Works The best way we can figure to explain why the pre-smoking works, is to reason it with the fact that the tops of worn out hide tipis were used to make clothing, and were known to soften up readily when wet. The same thing occurs when the hide is pre-smoked and the smoke goes into the fibers of the pre-stretched hide, thus the necessity to pre-stretch well. The better the pre-stretching, the deeper the smoke is absorbed into the hide and coats the fibers, the easier the hide softens up. Also, by using the pre-smoke method, you are required to work the hide less during the softening process, a hide can be overworked resulting in a stiffer feeling hide.


Braining the Hide Before Softening it

Soaking We found it is best to go right from the smoker, to an already prepared, warm brain solution. The hide when coming out of the smoker will be slightly stiff but as you put the hide into the warm solution it will readily soften up and absorb the brain solution. Slosh it around to make sure all the hide is wet. Working it Open Leave the hide in the solution for about an hour then take it out and work it over a band. You might find that the hide feels a bit rubbery or dense at this point, some hides do and some don't. The ones that do, you will want to make sure you work on the band well, as it will soften as you do. Some hides at this point just stretch like crazy and feel very soft, work them a bit anyway. We have a metal band connected to a post in a vertical manner with enough room between the post and band to easily put a hide behind and pull it side to side. Just work it back and forth to make sure the fibers open up a bit. You don't have to really pull hard, just enough to feel the hide stretch. I like to pay special attention to the hair side of the hide, at the neck, back and hip area. When you have done this to the whole hide then put it back into the warm solution to soak over night. We use a piece of screen to lay over the hide in the solution, just in case it floats to the top. A towel would do also. Just something to keep the hide moist in case it floats to the top of the solution.

Some Thoughts On Brain Solutions

If we are starting out on a whole new batch of hides and need to pre-brain some hides, we will make up a brain solution and pre-brain up to a dozen hides doing as many as four or five at a time. Usually we then discard that solution. When it is time to brain hides that have been presmoked, we make another brain solution and brain however many hides we will be softening up the next day, usually two. This solution is used many times as the smoke seems to preserve it. Even after a dozen hides or more the solution still smells like wet smokey wood and does not have a spoiled smell. After that many hides we use then use the same solution for the prebraining step and make a new solution for additional presmoked hides. Thus it is cost effective and also shoots down the theory of one cow brain per hide (ed. note: I'm not sure what theory they are referring too).


Softening the Hide

Wringing We use a wringer like the kind on an old wringer washer. Our's clamps onto one of our frames we have leaning against the smoker. As you run the hide through the wringer, the liquid that comes out should be a milky white color. The hide should have a smokey wet wood smell and be soft. We run it through a couple of times until most of the moisture is out. Again, there are different ways to wring out a hide, this is the way we prefer to do it. We usually double the hide and run it through. It seems when the hide is wrung by twisting, it tightens up the fibers. To us it seems that way. Also if it is real hot, it is better to leave more moisture in the hide, as at times, before you even finish lacing it onto the frame, it has begun to dry. Hand vs. Frame Softening Up until recently Joe softened the hides by hand using a square post, cable and band. It wore out my arms and shoulders to do it that way and I opted to do it on a frame. Recently Joe has began to do all of his on a frame too. So this is how we do it on a frame... Lacing it onto the Frame Lace the hide onto the frame leaving a sufficient amount of space at the top. Lace across the top first then tie a lace at the bottom. Do not pull the hide tight. You lace it at the bottom so it does not come out shaped wide and short like it does when prestretching. Go back up to the top and begin down the sides, alternating from one side to the other to keep the hide straight in the frame. The hide should be slightly baggy in the frame. Softening the Hide Work the hide in a side to side motion all over, then reverse it and do the same thing to the other side. The edges are thinnest and will dry faster than the neck, back and hips. Work the hide from side to side, as the fibers seperate and soften easier that way as opposed to lengthwise. You will also work the hide lengthwise, but focus more on the side to side motion. As the hide stretches, you will want to take up some slack, but don't tighten it like in the pre-stretching phase. The hide should always be slightly baggy in the softening step. As in the pre-stretching, the weather dictates how often the hide must be worked. On a hot day - more often, and on a cool day - less often. Just keep working the hide until it is dry all the way through. The neck, back and hip areas will dry last. Sometimes they feel dry on the surface but are still damp in the middle. If you quit working the hide then, it will harden up inside. We do hides that are equally soft all over and all the way through. If we get a hard spot, we either cut it out, (if it is near the edge like sometimes happens at the neck), or we rebrain the hide again. Some tanners use a sander to sand smooth the outter layers of a hard spot but then the inside is still dense and not suitable for beading. Finishing Up When the hide is softened and dry, you can either go back to the smoker for additional color or use it the way it is.

About The Authors

Joe has been tanning for nearly 12 years. He has tried many different ways and as many different tools, we feel that through trial and error we are doing hides the quickest and easiest way we have found. I (Victoria Longtrail) have been around tanning for nearly as long but have only been a tanner for about a year. Together we have a production line going with hides in all stages of completion. Brain tanning is our only source of income. We tan year round. When we treat our tanning like a regular every day job we can produce six to seven hides per week. We sell our hides at $12 per square foot and most of the hides we do are above nine square feet in size, so you can see how we can live on our business of tanning and you could too or use it as a supplement to your regular source of income. Brain tanning is a never ending learning process. We often come up with ideas that make the job easier and faster. Sometime it is by accident and other times well thought about. Classes with the Dinsmores

This article is best used in conjunction with The Dinsmore's video guide to the Pre-Smoke Method now available at the Braintan.com Store

We offer seminars nearly year round. Price is $75 per day per person and it usually takes about three days to go through all of the


steps. We are always willing to answer questions by phone or e-mail. SUNDOG TRADERS: Joseph Dinsmore & Victoria Longtrail D. POB 182 Winnett, Montana 59087 406-429-7828 ezra@midrivers.com

http://www.braintan.com/articles/presmoke7.html 2

Tan Your Pelts With Nature's Tools

Adapted for the web from a chapter in Brain Tan Buffalo Robes, Skins and Pelts

by Jim Miller

ur ancestors lived very close to the circle of life. Thankful always for the food, tools and clothing that came from a successful hunt. Warmth, color, protection and camouflage are shared with us by our four-legged brothers through the giving of their pelts. Today, one need only walk the roadside to find animals whose lives were taken. Thoughtlessly and sometimes without knowing, left there to become crow food. Whether you are seven or seventy, for the beginning tanner a road kill could become a rewarding first project. Many of these pelts are in perfect condition. Nonetheless, a pair of rubber gloves are recommended when handling these critters from the wild. My hat is made from the first pelt I ever tanned. It was a large, fluffy road kill raccoon I named Ricky. But whether from the trap or the road, each animal comes with a complete tanning package -- no chemicals are needed. The process is an easy one and will start you on the way to using all of the animal when you take it's life. So let's get started.


Jim Miller and friends

To remove the pelt from the body or carcass, tie both back legs to a tree limb about head high. With knife or sharp stone in hand make an incision from the hock to the vent (see diagram 1). Next cut the tail on the underside from the vent to it's tip. Using the knife gently, begin pulling the pelt up away from the leg and cut the film or membrane that holds the skin to the meat. As much as possible pull the pelt off the carcass. Only use your knife if absolutely necessary. If the raccoon is a fairly fresh kill and still warm, the membrane and pelt will pull away easily. However, if the carcass is cold, this stuff acts like rubber cement and must be cut carefully, particularly at the head, neck and tail. Always leave as much of the fat and meat on the carcass as possible. It will sometimes want to pull off with the pelt. Cut through the cartilage beneath the nose and ears. Pelts taken off in this manner are referred to as cased. They're great for bags and pouches to flip over a belt. Also very warm as socks though usually the fur is short lived.


To simplify your first project, slice the hide open all the way up the belly to the hair of the chinny-chin-chin. (Sorry, it's an old butchers saying.) Now, throw it over a very smooth log or tack it out flat on a piece of plywood (see photo). Buffaloes I stake out right on the ground. Definitely not a good beginners project! You can use a fairly crescent shaped knife held at a 90 degree angle to the pelt. I also use the same scraper used on buffalo. Now push and scrape. Remove all the fat, meat and membrane until you begin to see the pores of the skin. Sometimes hair will pull back through the underside of the skin. This is usually from animals killed during the summer or early fall. Just move on to the next area and keep scraping. The membrane on the head or mask is the toughest to get off, so take your time.

Fleshing a pelt, tacked out on a plywood board

Of course if the animal was struck by a car and has Good Year stamped in the facial fur, you may want to cut the mask off entirely. The tails generally have a lot of fat on them. Clean them well (soap and water?) but go gently, they can break fairly easily. Fortunately they're so fluffy they can be sewn back together without a sign of the disaster.


You've finished the first step referred to as fleshing. Pelts and skins used for brain tanning require a thorough fleshing job. The fine oil that is used is the reason for this. No harsh or toxic chemicals are used. This is the only way for me. The way it was created to be used. This leaves you with a pelt that is soft, light, fluffy and very natural feeling. When the animals life is taken it gives you a complete tanning package as a bonus. Every critter has enough brains to tan it's own hide, except buffaloes (and some people I know). Remove the brain from the raccoon's skull and mix with about 1-1/2 cups of water. Cook this mixture for about 10 minutes. Then mash, mix or blend into an oily liquid. This will be divided into two equal amounts. Buff up the pelts surface with some sandpaper, sandstone, or granite rock. Apply the lukewarm mixture and rub it in by hand. Go ahead ladies, it'll make your skin soft. Allow to dry overnight. Thicker pelts require more brain and more applications but most raccoons can be done in just two coatings. Buff the surface again and apply the second coat. Now cover with a very warm and wet towel and let it set overnight.


The following morning uncover and begin to stretch your hide (see photo). Pull side to side and head to tail. The back of an old wooden chair works well for this. Pull the pelt down over it, stretching and buffing over the full length of the pelt. Take breaks whenever needed, but continue to stretch until dry.

If for some reason the pelt dries tough in some spots, mix another solution of brains and re-apply, let it soak in and stretch until dry. If you do enough Working the hide over a straight edge tanning you will get some tough ones. Take it as a lesson from mother nature and keep trying. The fibers in the skin are a lot like a baby diaper, crossing and overlapping each other. Applying oil to these fibers and rubbing them together fluffs them up making them soft and airy.

A Note From the Editor

While some pelts do come out soft with the first braining, you should expect your pelt not to do this. If it does consider yourself lucky. If you are softening and you notice that the pelt is getting unacceptably stiff (anywhere besides the edges)and you can't work that stiffness out...its time to re-apply the brains. If you wait until the hide is totally dry before rebraining, it won't absorb the brains as well and won't soften up as soft. You can continue this re-braining, resoftening cycle until the hide is as soft as you want it to be.

When the pelt is dry and no longer cool to the touch, it's ready to be smoked in the teepee. The skin can be hung at the top and rotten wood placed on the fire to smolder and smoke. At the campfire the pelt can be suspended on sticks downwind but out of reach from a possible wild flame. Remember you want smoke not fire. Moths like tanned pelts of any kind. but smoking deters them allowing you to enjoy them year round. So clear out a corner of the garage and brain-tan those pelts. A beautiful and respectful momento from the hunt or a well earned reward for salvaging a road kill.

Hey, honey, stop the car. I think I saw something back there.


Tips for Tanning Heavier Furs

A couple additional bits of information for you when working with beaver pelts. Average to large blanket size beaver are very thick at the neck, tail and jaws. I call them baby buffalo. And as with buff's I use my hand held scraper (wahintke) to thin them out a bit before braining. This will require them to be stretched and tacked on a board after fleshing over the beam, or laced onto a hoop or small rack. Feel the thickness of the pelt in the rib area and use that as your gauge for the rest of the back, neck and tail. This scrape/thinning is most easily accomplished when the pelt is still damp. It works well in winter to hoop and freeze scrape them too. Temperatures of 20 degrees or less work best. Also, with many of the heavier pelts such as beaver, I brain them twice and work them dry as described earlier in this chapter. Then I dunk them right into the warm brain slurry. After soaking for an hour or more I stretch and pull it in the solution until it is completely saturated and then wring it out just as a deer skin! The hair will look shiny and does not slip. (I got this tip several years ago while working with another tanner from Montana.) Just be sure to work the pelts completely dry and give them a thorough smoking of a couple hours or more.

This Article is excerpted from Jim's forty page book Brain Tan Buffalo Robes, Skins and Pelts. You can read our online review and ordering information to get a copy directly from Jim. You can find contact information and more details about what Jim does in braintan.com's Resource Directory or at his 'Willow Winds' website.

1997 by Willow Winds Drawings by: Joe Schnur Photos: Greg Lashbrook


Brain Tanning Furs

by George Michaud Editors Note: This article is adapted for the web from an article George originally wrote for Fur-Fish-Game Magazine. There is an assumption that the reader already has a basic knowledge of certain steps of fur-handling. I recommend using this article in conjunction with Jim Miller's article Tan Your Pelts With Nature's Tools, as a source of more information and alternative ways of doing things.

Over the last several years I have been brain tanning many of my furs. This is the way the Indians did it. It is a safe, easy and
inexpensive way to tan your furs. The skins that you do this way are even edible. The furs that I have tanned with varying degrees of success are marten, muskrat, fox, coon, bobcat, coyote, and beaver. Beaver and muskrat are the two hardest that I have tried. When tanning coyote and coon you must thin the skin on the shoulders to get the softest tanning job. To thin the fur I place the dried skin on a fleshing beam and using a sharp large knife I scrape the skin. I hold the knife at a 90 degree angle to the skin and I scrape it very carefully.

Getting Started
I will describe how to tan a fox. Most any fur will work the same way. The process begins as soon as we get the animal, the less knife cuts you make in the hide when skinning the easier it will be to tan and the nicer it will come out. (If you are worried about fleas you can place the dead fox in a trash bag and spray it full of Raid or some other flea killer).

After skinning the fox you want to scrape it thoroughly making sure to get rid of all the fat and any membrane. Be very careful that you don't damage the hide. If you do put a hole in it, sew it up, and take extra care when you begin to soften the skin in this area. I use two different types of fleshing beams. One is a 5 foot maple beam that has a rounded and tapered point that is mounted to a 2X6 base board and it has a supporting leg. It is set at an angle that hits me just above my belt. In this way I can place the fur on the beam and hold it in place by pressing my body against the beam. I use this method for deer. beaver, coyote, and coon. I use a two handled fleshing knife that I bought through a trapping supply catalog. I also have a small beam that I can mount on a bench and use a hose scraper for muskrat, mink, and pine marten.


Washing Your Fur

Now that the skin is scraped you want to wash it. I use Suave shampoo for this and the bath tub when my wife isn't looking. Next I borrow her hair dryer to blow dry the fur. This is usually best done when she isn't home. The next step is to turn the fur in and dry the skin a stretched out like you would if you were taking it to the buyer.

For tanning you will need one brain, a blender, a microwave, a bath towel (not one of the good ones) and some punky wood, here in the Rockies I use aspen. For the brain I go to the local market and get either a pig brain or a beef brain. It really doesn't matter which one as either one will work. At times I have been forced to buy a whole case of brains as it is a special order but they are not very expensive, and they will last in the freezer forever. Remove the skin from the stretcher when it is completely dry and you are ready to begin. It is best to start this project in the morning as it will take a few hours to finish. Get all of the above mentioned items together and now the real fun begins. First thaw the brain in the micro wave. They come in a nice little container that is real handy. After the brain is thawed (about 1 minute 30 seconds on high) you drop it in the blender with a 1/2 container of hot water (out of the tap is fine). Hit liquefy until it looks like a strawberry shake. Next pour the contents of the blender into a plastic bowl and put it back in the micro wave for another 3 minutes. Just to heat it but not cook it.

Place the fox skin on a table and pour some of the brain on the skin and start to work it in with your hands. Continue doing this until you have covered the entire skin. The skin should be already starting to soften up some. Now take the towel and soak it in hot water then wring most of the water out, all you want is a hot moist towel.

Place the fox skin on the towel and pour more of the brain mix onto the skin. You want to have the skin covered with it. Turn the skin over and do the same on the other side. Next roll the skin up in the towel and let it set for a couple of hours. Remember to put the bowl with the brain in it in the refrigerator until you need it again.

Unroll the towel and check the skin to see if it is thoroughly soaked and pliable. If not, work some more brain into it and roll it back up in the towel for another hour or two. The more of the brain that gets worked into the skin the softer and easier it will tan.


After the skin has been treated I wipe as much of the brain solution off as I can with the towel, and just hang the skin up to dry on the clothes line (don't stretch it). Just as it starts to feel dry in some places I begin to work the skin. You don't want to wait til the skin is completely dry as this makes softening it harder or impossible. To soften the skin I use a new beaver snare, or you can use a piece of steel cable (available at hardware stores or through the Braintan.com Store). I attach one end of the snare to a door knob and the other end to a solid object. This way I can increase or decrease the tension on the cable by leaning on the door. I begin pulling the skin back and forth across the cable (fur side in). This action causes friction which causes heat and helps dry the skin. I pull the skin different directions to work the fibers, I also stretch it with my hands.

It is easier to split the skin down the belly to work it, but it makes it a lot harder to smoke it (You smoke the skin to water proof it). If you do split the skin you will have to sew it back together to smoke it. Be careful not to over work the skin to where the fur starts to come through the inner side of the skin.


After the skin is softened you will want to smoke it. The smoking doesn't make the fur water proof, what it does do is make it so that if it gets wet all you have to do is rub it between your hands when it is dry and it will be as soft as the day you tanned it. It also prevents decay and bugs from devouring it.

The easiest way to smoke the skin is to turn it fur side out and sew an 18 to 24 inch canvas skirt on it. This is sewed to the bottom of the skin so that it is slightly funnel shaped sloping up to the skin. One other thing: sew the leg holes closed as the smoke will discolor the fur anywhere it escapes.

Next dig a hole about 12 inches in diameter and 18 inches deep (a post hole digger works great for this). Build a fire in the hole and let it burn down to coals, now put the punky wood on the coals and have some water handy to put out any flames that break out. All you want is smoke and not heat because high heat will damage the fur.

Build a simple tri-pod over the hole to hang the skin from by a cord through the nose. Spread the skirt that you sewed on the skin over the hole and place rocks on it to hold it down. Stay right with the skin checking frequently to make sure the wood doesn't catch fire. I smoke my furs for about 30 minutes.

Parting Thoughts
With this method you can tan several skins with one brain and for under two bucks. This is a safe way to tan furs around children and pets. The tanned furs will be as soft as the finest fur dress if you put a little work into them. If the wife catches you using the kitchen appliances just tell her that you were doing it for her new fur coat.

George Michaud traps, runs his own dog sleds, and teaches trapping and the brain tanning of furs. He guides trips through the Tetons on his dog sleds. To learn more his dog-sled tours, check out his website at www.angelfire.com/biz/4pawpower/


Intro & History Tannins & Tannin Sources Hide Preparation Making the Bark Solution Soaking Currying Softening & Finishing


Bark tanning (aka vegetable tanning) is an ancient method of creating durable, water repellent leather with a lot of body. It can be
done to virtually any skin, but it is generally reserved for tanning grain-on leathers from large thick hides such as cattle, horse, buffalo and pig. It has been commonly used for saddles, canteens, stiff shoes, belts, wallets, holsters, harnesses, helmets, pouches, trunks, shields and gun cases. It is used as an integral part of many useful items from bellows, to hinges of trunks, to holding wagon wheels together. You know those beautifully carved holsters and saddles? That's all done on bark tanned hides. There seem to be two major schools of bark tanning, historically. There is the style developed by civilized man in ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece....which is what we typically think of as "bark tan". There is also a style of bark tanning done on thinner, softer hides such as deer and caribou employed by northern tribal peoples such as the Saami (Laplanders), Inuit and Eskimo, and the Chukchee of eastern Russia. This type of bark tanning tends to involve much less soaking time (and thus less 'tanning') and a softer finished product. Many people believe that this type of softer bark tan was once common throughout Europe. In general it is considered a bad idea to bark tan furs as the tannins can stain the fur, but these northern peoples did (and still do) tan this way, generally by just applying the tannin to the flesh side and doing it on relatively thin hides. We've set up a separate section on the bark tanning techniques of native peoples. In this article we'll focus on the bark tanning tradition of 'civilized' peoples.

"Through-tanned vegetable leathers of appreciable firmness are extant from 1500 BC in Egypt, for example, but even so by modern standards they are lightly-tanned and contain only small amounts of fixed tannin." R. Reed, Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers Highly developed bark 'tanneries' were common in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. The earliest known example of vegetable tanning comes from Gebelein Egypt, a tannery thought to be over 5000 years old. Bark tanned leathers were an important tool in the development of civilization, providing an immensely strong and durable material that was pliable; a very unique and useful combination. Bark tanning continued to be an important and basic trade throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and India until the late 1800's when cheap modern chemical tanning methods came into widespread use. Unlike brain tanning, which wasn't efficient to mechanize, bark tanning was mechanized from a very early date. The need for large quantities of bark to be crushed, and dozens of vats for the long soaks encouraged this. When the colonists came to North America they brought their leather working skills with them. Bark tanneries were set up in nearly every settlement of the new world because this type of leather was considered a necessity. In 1633, Peter Minuit had the first bark mill in North America built in New Netherland (later New York). It was a stone mill powered by a horse and its creation caused a number of tanneries to begin operation in the area. Bark from the clearing of forests for agriculture was in great supply. The census of 1840 estimated some 8,229 tanneries in operation in the US. Bark tanning continues to be done on a large scale and used throughout the world, though on a much more limited basis than in the past. Modern uses include saddles, harnesses, belts, dog collars, holsters and shoe soles.


Tannin and Tannin Sources

"Tannins, generally yellow-white to brown, deepen in color when exposed to light....Because they transform proteins into insoluble products that are resistant to decomposition, tannins are used as tanning agents for leather." Encarta Encyclopedia annin is a large, astringent (meaning it tightens pores and draws liquids out), molecule found in plants that bonds readily with proteins. When you apply tannins to your skin you can instantly see the skin contract. Put them in your mouth and your cheeks pucker. Medicinally, tannins are used to draw irritants out of your skin such as the venom from bee stings or poison oak. Next time you get stung, pull some fresh bark off the twig of a nearby tree, chew it up and apply it to the sting. The irritation will go away within seconds. Tannins are also applied to burns to help the healing and to cuts to reduce bleeding.

Intro & History Tannins & Tannin Sources Hide Preparation Making the Bark Solution Soaking Currying Softening & Finishing

Another every day interaction with tannin is in tea (from the tea plant....not herb teas). The tradition of adding milk to tea has the added benefit of causing the tannins to bind to the proteins in the milk rather than to the proteins in your liver and kidneys. When you drink tea without milk, you are literally tanning your insides. Tannins occur in nearly every plant from all over the world, in all climates. It is found in almost any part of the plant, from root to leaves, bark to unripe fruit (ever bitten into an unripe persimmon?). Algae, fungi and mosses do not contain much tannin. Many plants don't contain a useful amount of tannin. Most trees contain plenty of tannin. It is concentrated in the bark layer where it forms a barrier against microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria (when hides are stuck into tannin baths the bacteria are also killed).

The Two Types

There are two types of tannin: Catechol and Pyrogallol.. By understanding when to blend these together, the expert tanner could reputedly create the appropriate leather for any need: hard and firm, mellow and soft, light or heavy. Until you are an expert and can even notice the differences, I wouldn't worry about it, but it is interesting to pay attention to as you tan. Catechols (aka condensed) are more astringent and tan more quickly than the pyrogallols. They deposit a reddish sediment known as 'reds' or phlobaphenes. They make leathers of pink, red or dark brown hues, that are more 'solid'. They also create greenish-black spots on contact with iron. Mimosa, birch, hemlock, quebracho, alder and fir bark contain catechols. Oak bark contains both types. Pyrogallols (aka hydrolysable) deposit a pale-colored sediment called 'bloom' (elegiac acid} which, if deposited in the leather, improves its solidarity, wearing properties and resistance to water. Hence they are favored for sole leather. They are also preferable for leathers intended for bookbinding, upholstery and other purposes where longevity is essential. The resultant leather is of pale color varying from creamy or yellowish to light brown. Pyrogallols make bluish-black spots on contact with iron and resist changes in pH value. Sumac, chestnut, oak galls and oak-wood contain pyrogallols.

Common Sources:
Typical materials used for bark tanning include any of the oaks, fir, certain willows, chestnut, sumac leaves, oak galls, canaigre root, birch, alder, hemlock. Bearberry (leaves), heather, bloodroot, alfalfa, tea, sweet gale, pomegranate rinds, certain fern's rhizomes and wood-hops have also been used. In fact, when you peruse the literature, you realize that an enormous amount of plants were at one time or another, in one country or another, important sources of tannin. In modern times 80% of all commercial bark tanning is done with highly concentrated extracts of Quebracho, Chestnut or Mimosa. These extracts are typically 30% tannin or more, whereas naturally occurring tannin is closer to 10% to 12% of the material. Using these concentrated extracts speeds up the tanning times considerably, although many sources say the resultant leather is of a lower quality. Collecting: All barks are best collected in the spring when the sap starts to rise in the trees, the leaves are just coming out and the bark will peel easily (a fortunate coincidence). This is when they are most concentrated and the easiest to peel, but you can use bark from any time of year. Tannin is usually concentrated in the inner bark (cambium layer). Supposedly, an older tree has more tannin than a younger one, and the lower parts of the tree contain a higher concentration than the top parts. One source says that fir trees should reach 30 years old before debarking and the best oak trees are between 15 and 30 years. Another source said oaks are best between 30 and 35 years...so I wouldn't get to caught up in it. Shredded bark from sawmills sold as garden mulch is excellent for bark tanning (assuming it hasn't been left out in the rain a bunch). How Much: It really depends on the quality of your source. Mark Odle suggests that in general it takes about twice the weight of the hide in bark to effect a good tan.
Stats on various tannin sources Oak bark averages 10% tannin. Oak wood = 6%. Oak leather is considered mellow and tight, with a yellow-brown color. There are so many varieties that this surely varies. Fir bark has as much as 11% tannin and yields a yellow/brown leather. Certain willows are considered excellent, yielding a soft and supple leather. It can have 10% tannin. Lotta Rahme says that "birch bark yields a somewhat fragile leather, probably because it dissolves out the hide's natural greases." Average tannin equals 12%. It is usually used in combo with other materials and is sought for its high sugar content. Gives a light red-brown color. Alder makes a hard and fragile leather and is often used just to color finished leather. It gives a rust orange to red/brown. The brightest color comes from the bark collected just after the first hard freeze.


Storing: Bark should be dried out and stored dry. Tannin is water soluble and will be leached out of wood or bark that has been left out in the rain. If kept dry, it can be stored indefinitely without losing its effectiveness. Bark is easier to grind if its dry too.

Hemlock bark contains about 10% tannin. The liquors are bright red and full of acid-forming sugars. Good for both heavy sole as well as lighter fancy leather. Chestnut oak also called rock oak is classified as a white oak and is high in tannin (10%), as well as acid-forming sugars. It is among the most desirable of barks for tanning.

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Fleshing & De-hairing

Please Note: These instructions assume that you understand basic tanning processes. If you don't, you should get one of the Recommended Books, or take a class.

s in any type of tanning, it is preferable to use hides that have been stored frozen or wet-salted, or are fresh. Dried out hides are harder to re-hydrate and get good penetration by the buck and the bark liquor. For more, see the Storing Hides Tutorial. Fleshing: Flesh as you would for brain tanning. Be careful not to damage the grain. You do not need to get every last bit of membrane off at first. Some people find it easier to membrane the hide after it has been soaked in the tannin for a few days.

Intro & History Tannins & Tannin Sources Hide Preparation Making the Bark Solution Soaking Currying Softening & Finishing

Bucking/Liming: After fleshing, soak the skin in an alkaline solution of hydrated lime, wood-ash lye or commercial lye (see the book Deerskins into Buckskins for thorough directions) until the hair slips super easily. Limed hides, especially if they are limed for extended period of times, tend to come out somewhat less stretchy than bucked hides. This phenomenon has historically been exploited to create firmer leathers. If you don't want a firmer leather, you are better off bucking. See more below under 'Rinsing'. Bucking or liming takes longer than it does to simply prepare a hide for brain tanning. Early on, the hair will pull out of the hide fairly easily, but you want it to be so easy that you can just push the hair out rubbing your hand over the hide. Deer hair slips more easily than many other types of hides. You do not have to do this step though it is a classic part of the bark tanning process. The alternative, which some native people's do, is to let the hide "sweat" by letting it decay enough that the hair slips, but that the grain and hide are not marred. If you don't soak the hides in one of these alkaline solutions, it will take longer for the tannins to penetrate the hide and you will need to use more of them. This is because the alkali clean out a mucus that controls the movement of molecules through the hide. De-hairing: To remove the hair it is best to use a wooden bar with a dull edge, or something similar. It should be more rounded than what you would use to scrape a brain tan, as you do not want to cut or mar the grain. You do want to remove the epidermis though, which is the dark pigmented layer just below the hair. Sometimes it'll just brush off with the hair, other times you'll need to make a conscious effort to remove it. The epidermis contains the pigment and is a darkish gray/black, especially in the summer. If patches of hair will not slip easily, return the hide to the alkaline solution. Rinsing: When all of the hair and epidermis has been removed, rinse the alkali out of the hide by soaking it in running water for 12 to 72 hours (until all signs of swollen-ness are gone). Lime will leave some calcium in the hide, that to fully remove involves further processes that I prefer to gloss over here. These processes were employed when a limed hide was intended to come out more pliable and historically involved soaking the hide in fermenting materials such as hen or dog dung (known as bating), beer dregs, or fermenting grains (known as drenching). In brain tanning, one does notice that limed hides tend to come out less stretchy than bucked hides, particularly if the hide soaked in the lime for an extended period of time (more than three weeks) See Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers, for more on bating and drenching.


Making the Bark Solution

Preparing the Bark

The finer the bark is ground up the faster and easier it is to extract the tannin (its a surface area thing). In the
old days bark was crushed using a large stone wheel, much like a millstone, powered by an ox or horse. It was ground until it was the consistency of cracked corn, wheat berries, or a coarse powder. Modern folks use grain mills on a coarse setting, chipper/shredders used for making garden mulch, or they use their hatchet as best they can to pulverize the bark into small pieces. It should be emphasized though that the smaller you can get it, the more tannin you'll get from a given quantity of material. And as mentioned before, buying shredded bark (sold as garden mulch) is an easy and cheap way to go.

Intro & History Tannins & Tannin Sources Hide Preparation Making the Bark Solution Soaking Currying Softening & Finishing

Leaching the Tannin

It is ideal to use rain or other soft water. Tanneries were traditionally located on rivers and streams because they used so much water. I don't know if they treated their water to remove minerals. The main reason soft water is preferred is because the minerals will react with the tannic acid and create spots or blemishes on the skin. So will blood, if any has been left in the hide (the iron in blood can react with the tannin to make a black stain). I don't know of any other functional reason to use soft water... the hide will tan without it.

Dark spots on surface of hide caused by using 'hard water' (water containing minerals).

Tannin is water soluble. The warmer the water you soak the bark in the faster the tannin is extracted. Hot water darkens tannin resulting in a darker colored product. Boiling tannins especially darkens and dulls the color (like adding grays to it). Many sources recommend simmering the bark for several hours. Some traditions have you soak the bark in cold water for a few days to extract the tannin. This gives the lightest color. Your choice. Here are two recipes: Lotta Rahme: "Fill kettle halfway with bark and totally full with water. Bring it to a boil and let it boil for at least an hour. Taste it. The more bitter and astringent the more tannin...like tea or coffee. Take half the liquor and mix with equal amounts of water for the first bath. Use a plastic or wooden tub." Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder: "Steven and Tamara use 1 to 3 gallons of shredded bark and soft water (rain or snow) to cover, in a 2-5 gallon stainless steel pot for several hours. Iron or aluminum pots will react with the tannic acid and cause stains etc., so don't use them. Plastic, wood, fiberglass, and masonry tubs are all suitable. Use wooden stirring paddles."

The First Bath

It is very important to use a very weak solution for your first bath. If the hide is put into a strong tannin bath, the outside gets tanned and shrinks. This inhibits the tannins from penetrating to the center of the hide, leaving the inner parts raw. This is called "dead tanning" or "case hardening". The first pouring is too strong so put this aside. Add more water, simmer again and pour off. Many tanners will put this aside too, and use the third extraction and then add up to three parts water to the one part liquor for the first solution. The ideal bath to start with is one that has already been used for another hide. That way all the large tannin particles have already been used up. This is known as a "spent liquor". There is another advantage to spent liquors. In an old bark liquor, the bark sugars have fermented, forming lactic and acetic acid, which help remove any traces of lime as well as help preserve the hide.

Hides are start in a weak bath, and then moved to progressively stronger solutions.


Soaking As previously mentioned, you want to use wooden, plastic or masonry containers to do the soaking in. The
bigger the container and the more solution that you have in it, the easier it is to evenly tan the hide. It is best to hang the hide(s) over sticks (crossbars) in the solution with as few folds and wrinkles as possible. If you don't, you should stir and re-adjust the hide more often.
Intro & History Tannins & Tannin Sources Hide Preparation Making the Bark Solution Soaking Currying Softening & Finishing

Put the moist but drained skin in. Stir for the first 10 minutes and then once every 10 minutes for the first hour. Skin should be turned and agitated frequently in the first few days to assure even absorption. Epidermis will block the entry of tannin. If there are white patches it is from epidermis that was left. It must be scraped off, but be careful not to remove the grain. Lotta says that sheepskin epidermis is particularly difficult to get off.

Strengthening the Solution

You should use progressively stronger solutions. Different tanners recommend different timings for strengthening the bark solution. In general, you strengthen the liquor as you notice it looking weaker. Lotta recommends strengthening it after the first several hours, removing the skin and membraning it again at this juncture. Mark Odle moves hides to the second run of liquor in a week or ten days. He then strengthens it weekly until the hide has been soaking for five or six weeks when the liquor can be used at full strength. One rule of thumb seems to be that you can push things faster if you are tanning thinner hides like deer and goat (which Lotta is), and that you need to be extra careful of case hardening with thick skins like cow, buffalo or bull elk. After you start using full strength solutions, you can use the old bath to boil the new bark in, for added strength. However, bark liquor used as a first bath for skin that was de-haired with lime can contain residual lime and shouldn't be re-used. It should be thrown out. Once the whole skin has an even brown color, the bark can be left in with the skin, and you can leave it for longer times without stirring. If the hides stay in too weak a bath they begin to rot from the inside. Mark Odle adds vinegar to further acidify and strengthen the solution. Mark adds three or four gallons to 80 or 100 gallons of liquor. Steven and Tamara used to this, but don't bother any more.

Smells, Molds & Textures

The solution should develop a somewhat pleasant fermented or vinegar like smell from the fermentation of the bark sugars. Smell can be strong but should never be putrid. A sulpherous smell indicates spoilage. At no time should the hide become slick, slippery or slimy. The texture will change from somewhat slippery to a firmer, textured grain. The pores and grain will become quite distinct. Mold may grow on the surface of the liquor, skim it off or stir it in. It is supposed to be (we haven't tried this) ok to freeze the skin in between baths.

Knowing When it is Tanned "Through"

Generally, to be considered 'through' tanned, the color should strike through to the center of the thickest part of the hide. To check this, snip a small piece off the neck. Lotta will also put a little saliva on the section that has been cut. Un-tanned skin will not absorb saliva easily and will appear wet, matted and glistening.

Another test is to fold the skin double two times and press the folded area between your fingers. When unfolded the fold should appear as light dry lines. Some tanners say that the color should be even from the outer edge to the center. Doug Crist says he only has some color reach the center while the outer edges are much darker (much like the hide pictured above). However, he also says that softening the hide is a fair amount of work like brain tanning, whereas other folks say it should be much easier. This may be a factor of how much tannin you get into the center of the hide.

How Long


How long you soak your hide depends on the finished product that you desire. The longer you soak it the more it is "filled" with tannins. Once the color has penetrated to the center, you can either remove it from the solution and proceed to currying, or you can leave it in there longer to produce a 'fuller' leather. Getting color to the center of the hide means that some tanning has occurred throughout the hide. But you can always get more tannin to attach itself to the fibers and fill the spaces between the collagen chains. The amount of tannin can reach 50% of the weight of the finished leather. The fuller the hide becomes, the thicker and less stretchy it gets. These are good qualities for saddles, belts and shoe soles, but may not be as desirable for other uses. Full-tanned hides are also easier to carve designs into the surface of. Contrary to this, one source says that thick hides used for sole-leather are sometimes left with an un-tanned stripe in the center which makes it more water tight and harder. This is also sometimes done for knife-sheaths. Here are some ballpark figures of how long you should expect to soak your hides: Mark Odle says deerskin sized hides should remain in a full strength ooze for three or four months in moderate temperatures. Cattle and buffalo will take five or six months. The warmer the temperature the faster the process. Once they are tanned through, there is no problem letting them sit in the bath as they will not rot. Looser fibered skins will take the tan more quickly than the tighter skins. Lotta Rahme recommends as little as 7-10 days to tan a goatskin through, using around 1 3/4 to 2 1/4 lbs of dried bark. Goatskins are very thin. Cattle and elk, can take half a year or more. A.B. Farnham: Harness and belting leather takes four 1/2 months (for cow), and 6 1/2 months for sole leather.

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"Currying is defined as "the preparation of tanned skins for the purpose of imparting to them the necessary smoothness, color, luster and suppleness".
Mark Odle, The Book of Buckskinning VII

Traditionally in Europe, currying was carried out by specialized tradesmen in an entirely different shop as it is
an art unto itself. How exactly this is done, again depends on what you are looking for in the final product. First we'll give you the general rundown, and then cite specific methods for specific types of leather.

Intro & History Tannins & Tannin Sources Hide Preparation Making the Bark Solution Soaking Currying Softening & Finishing

Once the hide is tanned as thoroughly as you want it, rinse it in fresh water for a couple hours. Between each rinse use a slicker and a beam to squeegee out the liquid. (We've done this using our wetscraping tool on the flesh side of the hide, putting a towel between the hide and beam to help protect the grain layer from tearing). Your are trying to remove as much unfixed tannin as possible. A slicker can be a round, smooth rod or a hand-sized, rounded edged slab of glass. Slickers can also have slate, brass, copper or heavy glass blades. You want to be real careful not to tear the grain off. Next the hide is dried a bit, then greased and softened. Any dyeing should be done before oiling the skin.

At this point your bark tanned hide will be whatever color was imparted by the tannins, usually a tan or reddish brown. Once the hide is oiled, this color will darken somewhat. If you want to change the color of the skin, you can soak the hide in any tannin based dye. There is a good chapter on dyeing in Steve & Tamara's Wetscrape Braintanned Buckskin. A Couple of Dye Recipes Black, from A.B. Farnham: "A good black
may be made by putting clear iron filings in 1/2 gallon of vinegar and letting it stand a few days. Add enough filings from time to time so there will always be some un-dissolved. Sumac solution is made by crumbling ten or fifteen pounds of dried sumac leaves into a barrel containing thirty-five or forty gallons of warm water." "Stir it well and when cool hang the sides or strips in it for about two days. Plunge and stir frequently and on taking out rinse off any particles of leaves, drain a few minutes and brush over with the iron liquor. Rinse off any excess and put back in the sumac over night. If not black enough the next morning, repeat the brushing with iron liquor and return to the sumac for twelve hours more. On completion, rinse well, scrub with warm water and then wash for some hours with several changes of water."

Oiling the bark tanned hide makes it dry softer, darkens it and prevents it from cracking...much like oiling a pair of leather boots. Neatsfoot oil, olive oil, tallow, brains, bear fat and fish oil have been used to finish bark tanned leather. Using tallow (a waxy body fat from deer, elk, cows and other ungulates) imparts a heavier feel and more water resistance to the leather. Using a light oil such as neatsfoot, fish, bear or brains results in a lighter, stretchier leather. The hide should be damp with all excess water expelled by working it on both sides with the slicker. Stretch the hide in all directions. Oil is then spread evenly on the hide and it is either worked soft as it dries or not depending on the type of leather desired. When the hide is dry, it can be lightly dampened or "damped back" by rolling it up in a damp towel. This process of oiling, working and drying can be repeated until you get the softness you desire. When the hide has dried, any surplus oil or tallow can be removed with a rag. To smooth the flesh side, it can be "sleeked" with a slicker.

Red, from Edna Wilder: "To prepare alder bark, the Eskimos scraped the bark in fine pieces, mixed it with a little water and let the mixture stand for a day or so. If they wanted it darker they would boil it for just a few minutes first. They applied the tanning solution generously to the skin in the evening and let is soak overnight, turning it once. The brightest alder color, came from bark collected just before snow, after the first hard freeze (ed. note: I've read this in other sources too). They scraped it off in very fine pieces and rubbed it directly on the skin to be dyed. The dryer the skin the quicker it took the dye. Some skins required two or three applications."

Various activities in a currying shop. Note the men at the table using 'slickers'.


A.B. Farnham, describes different finishing methods

To finish sole leather, lay the sides or strips down and press out most of the water by covering with some old dry cloths and treading over the whole surface to compress the fibers, then hang up until they are only damp. While still damp give them a good coat of oil on the grain side only, and hang up again until fully dry. Sole leather can be waterproofed by greasing heavily. Recipe: 3 parts tallow to 1 part fish or neatsfoot oil. Harness and belting are finished by taking the still quite damp hide, pressing out the rinse water, slick over the grain side thoroughly and give it a liberal coat of neatsfoot or fish oil. Hang up or better, take out, spread smooth and let dry slowly. When dry, damp back by wetting or rolling up in wet burlap until damp and limber all over. Prepare a stuffing of equal parts tallow and neatsfoot oil (or fish). Heat them together, and allow to cool until soft and pasty but not liquid. Apply a thin coating to the grain side while it is warm and hang them up to dry. When dry remove the surplus stuffing by working over the grain side with the slicker. If there isn't enough grease in the leather yet, dampen back again and repeat the process of greasing, drying and slicking. Finally rub over with sawdust to remove a surplus of the grease. Softer leathers are finished by oiling the damp leather, stretching out and drying, damping back, slicking, staking and drying. Repeat if necessary. Do not apply tallow or heavy grease to light skins and spend plenty of time slicking and staking it.

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"All softening processes begin when the tanned skins are partly dry and are continued until they are fully dry and sufficiently flexible."
A.B. Farnham

Mildly Soft: Hides that you want mildly flexible can be rolled on a table with the hands using considerable pressure. How you do this rolling will affect the grain's texture. According to Steven & Tamara, "If the hide is rolled up each way with the grain inside, an "orange-peel" texture results. If the hide is maintained flat or rolled with the grain out, the surface remains flatter." The grain side can also be rubbed with a weak soap solution and then scrubbed with a piece of glass to produce a tight and shiny grain. In the old days, grain patterns were made with specialized tools called "grain-rollers".

Intro & History Tannins & Tannin Sources Hide Preparation Making the Bark Solution Soaking Currying Softening & Finishing

Softer: Only hides for which you want a soft and stretchy texture are 'softened' anything like brain tan is. This is usually limited to thinner skins that haven't been tanned very 'full'. They may be softened by drawing them across a dull edge (like a staker) or wire, as well as pulled and stretched by hand. You probably wouldn't want to use a cable as that will rough up the surface. Up to a point, the more you work it, the softer the finished skin will be. If you have just barely tanned it through, you may need to soften it as rigorously, or nearly so, as you would for brain tanning. That is Doug & Lynx's experience at least.

The End


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