Brain Tanning Basics, by Jared

The art of making usable material out of the skin of animals has been in practice since the beginning of mankind. Hide tanning is one of the oldest skills known to man that is still in practice today. I’m sure that with the economy the way it is anyone who isn’t rich and in their right mind won’t want to pay the going price for quality leather, much less traditionally tanned leather. 

Not only is the making of leather an old practice but it was used all over the world and to a certain extent, still is today. Leather can be used for anything that needs to be durable under hard conditions such as shoes, saddles, and armor. However, the American Indians tanned a more supple, softer leather than the stiff, rugged tacking leather that we know of and are used to often known as buckskin. While being almost as durable as the shoe leather of the English settlers, it was also just as soft and porous as a cotton T-shirt. It has been told that George Washington actually ordered white buckskin pants made for his soldiers to reduce resources spent on fabric and sewing. However, with the introduction of the industrial revolution, the former art of tanning using bark and brains was replaced with chrome tanning and other chemical tanning agents. Buckskin was then replaced with denim and other strongly woven fabrics. The convenience of this “new” material out sold the small cottage business and the art of brain tanning all but disappeared. Bark tanning on the other hand is still used today and encouraged in the US to protect the environment rather than the use of toxic chemicals.

I became interested in tanning after my dad shot his first deer. While always having been raised under the classic motto of  “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”, I wanted to try to tan the hide. Being only about 14years old at the time I didn’t really have a lot of money to spend on chemicals and professional tanning equipment. Instead started researching the original methods that could be done with nothing more than what was found in the woods or that I could make myself. So I gathered the materials I needed based on what information I had read. Even though I read a book on brain tanning and several online articles, it still took a lot trial and error for me to figure it out. I completely destroyed about 5 or 6 deer hides before I got 1 deer hide decently tanned.

Now, if we look at the practical aspects of tanning in the light of a preparedness lifestyle; we see many more uses to leather than what meets the eye. For example, If the grid was to go down and society as we know it goes back to a hunter gatherer environment, then being able to make and provide your own clothing could be critical to your survival. Needless to say leather would outlast anything that could be woven or spun and in turn also be twice as warm without sacrificing physical comfort or ease of use. Leather can also be a great bartering tool. Even now, the going price for brain, egg, oil ,   buckskin is anywhere from $15 to $25 a sq ft and bark tanned leather for about $10 to 15 a sq ft. In a post apocalyptic scenario, that could equate to canned goods or ammo.  Did I mention that leather tanned using the traditional methods is can even be eaten? If you boil buckskin, the preserved fibers in the hide basically disintegrate into moist, soft, spaghetti like texture. No, I’ve not eaten buckskin so I can’t really say how it tastes, But I know people who were daring enough to try it and they liked it. If you’ve ever eaten brains, tongue, liver, you lunch meat from the local grocery store I think it can be done.

Judging from my personal experience, learning to tan is not something anyone will likely learn in any one article or book. For me it took trial and error, for others it took someone showing them or giving hands on experience in a class or personally. That is why it is important to research and learn this fabulous skill. For me, perseverance was key. Even though I had completely ruined at least 5 different deer hides before I ever got the 1 tanned it made the difference between me knowing how to keep my family clothed; during a sustained collapse or not. I believe tanning is and important skill to learn, and in hopes of inspiring someone to begin learning on their own I will outline the three basic steps in tanning. Since I’ve only tanned deer hides so far, I will explain as though it were with a deer hide. I do plan on tanning different kinds of hides and furs, but for now, I stay busy with deer hides.     

First, you’ll need to gather the tools.  You’ll need the following tools:    a scraper, five gallon bucket or two, some cord (optional), either 1 pound of pork or cattle brains (that is, if your not using the brains that came with the animal.), or about 6 eggs, or one bar of you favorite smelling bars of soap with about 2 cups of any kind of non petroleum based oil, a basic understanding of the tanning process, and a lot of willingness to work. I use an old scythe blade as a scraper because it is just sharp enough to scrape off the hair, flesh, and membrane and not so sharp that it will cut up the hide. Whatever tool usually works fine as long as its not too sharp.

Three basics step are required to successfully tan deer hides, scraping, dressing, and tanning. There are quite a few variables as far as how to complete each step, different tools for each step, and so on. Do remember that even if you were to try and tan really traditionally using one method of a certain American Indian tribe for instance, you would have to pick which tribe because they all had different methods. Every tanner has a special formula or secret ingredient that supposedly makes the hide greater in some way. The best thing for any interested beginner is to just try a few different ways of tanning on some hides for themselves and find out what works best for them.

Scraping- the first thing you need to do is get your hide ready to scrape. If it was in the freezer, thaw it using some hot water just so that it gets back to being flexible and loose just like it did when I came off the animal. If you got it from a friend or a butcher who salted it, than you’ll want to scrape all of the salt off, or just proceed to fleshing.

The first part of the scraping process is to flesh the hide. The goal of this part is to get all of the big chucks of meat, fat, and membrane off of the hide so that all you can see is the white part of the hide. Its up to you if you save the hide junk or not. I don’t because I don’t need it, but I know people who use it as dog treats. I know that the Inuit Indians up north save all of that stuff for tallow and to eat in stews and such. Who knows, if we ever come to TEOTWAWKI, than I might just be eating some hide meat.

Next you de-hair the hide. There are many ways to go about this step; I soak the hide in a wood ash/water solution known as the buck. This is to raise the pH of the hide toward the alkaline side of things so that the emulsified oils can penetrate later when you dress the hide. The other purpose of the buck is to swell the hide so that the hair will slip and kind of fall out on its own. This is a good step, but isn’t necessary. Some people just soak it in water until the hair slips. I’ve done both and always prefer to buck the hide. It make everything much easier!

Now that the hide has been fleshed and de-haired, the flesh side of the hide has to be scraped again to get all of the membrane off. Even though that side has already been scraped, there is still an underlying layer of membrane called the Hypo-Dermis. that should be removed. If the hide was bucked, then it has to be done because the membrane has been stained by the ashes which might cause skin issues if it’s left. If you just soak it in water really good instead of bucking the hide, you don’t have to worry about that as much. In fact, some people leave the membrane because it gives a nice fuzzy feel to it. I don’t like the fuzzy feel, so I don’t keep the membrane.

Now that the hide has been successfully scraped, it should be rinsed thoroughly to get all of the hair and junk off of it. If the hide was bucked than it would be a good idea to either give it a vinegar bath, or soak it in a creek. The reason being that the alkalinity needs to be rinsed out either by balancing the pH levels with acidic vinegar, or by a constant current to whisk the alkalinity out of the hide. I use vinegar because we always have it in our house and it’s easily at my disposal. But if we needed that vinegar for preps because the grocery store is being looted you can bet that I’ll go down by the creek to rinse my hides! Just remember that if you use vinegar to only use about 1/4 cup per 3 gallon. A little goes a long way.

Dressing- This is the easy step. A lot of people really freak out about this step, but since I’m crazy enough to mess with dead animal skin, I guess I’m crazy enough to mess with dead animal brains! In truth, however, I seldom tan a hide with just brains. Since not every one who gives me deer hides also gives me the head and I simply refuse to spend money on tanning, I have to conserve my brains (thus the title). But, since we also try to save soap for washing, oil for cooking, and eggs for eating, I somehow have figured out how to mix them all together into one happy family. I also never mentioned that you can also use the liver and eyes. A little too grotesque? Well then there’s also corn, jojoba berries, yucca root,  and even aloe juice. The goal is to coat the inner fibers of the hide with emulsified oils so that when you soften the hide it doesn’t stiffen up. The hide becomes stiff because of the individual fibers in the hide locking together

There is a couple of things that needs to be done to get the hide ready for the dressing. Once the hide is rinsed, all of the moisture needs to be wrung out really good. And when I say really good, I mean REALLY good! The idea is to have it as dry as possible without getting it too dry. What I usually do is I get a strong stick, like an axe handle, and throw the top of the hide over the clothes line pole. Once the hide is over the pole so that there’s more hide hanging off of one side of the pole than the other. Then put the other end of the hide over the end that’s already on the pole so that there’s a hide loop. Roll the two sides of the hide together and put the stick in the middle of the hide loop. Twist it until you can’t twist any more then hold it until the water leaving the hide becomes just a drip and untwist then twist the other way and repeat. Once the hide is wrung as wrung gets, (trust me, you’ll know) you’ll need to stretch it back open so that the hide is all white again. Remember that the hide will still be wet in some spots and this is fine. Nobody is going to get every last drop of water out of the hide. Besides, you’ll have to wring it after it is dressed and re-dress it a few times before the hide is ready to soften anyway.

Dressing the hides goes as follows: get about 2 cups of whatever emulsified pudding you plan to dress the hide in, mix it with 3 to 5 gallons of hot water, and work the hide into the dressing. A good dressing to start with would be about a half dozen eggs of any kind , or about 1 pound of brains. Once the hide is worked into the dressing thoroughly, leave it for a while and wring it again. I usually wring my hides at least 3 times to make sure that the dressing penetrated all of the pores good enough. Should the dressing not penetrate good enough than stiff spots will occur resulting in a hide that is not uniformly soft.

Tanning – First, the hide needs to be softened.  This is done by working the hide continuously until it is completely dry. If the hide is not dry by the time you quit working it, than it will get stiff.

There are 2 different ways to soften hides, 1) hand softening, 2) frame softening. The first hide I ever tanned was hand softened and I vowed to myself that I would never do it again. There is nothing wrong with the method itself, it’s just that I couldn’t figure it out and when I tried, I failed. I feel lucky that I  eventually tanned 1 hide using that method.

The general idea behind hand softening is simply to keep stretching the hide in multiple directions constantly. Some people use a steel cable pull the hide against the cable using a back and forth motion. On the other hand, some simply stretch the hide between their knees. The benefit of this method is that at any moment that you might need a break, you can put the hide in an airtight bag so that is doesn’t dry out and get back to it when you have time. One way or the other, it is important to keep stretching and working hide until it is dry.

I on the other hand prefer to frame soften. Using this method requires some wood to build a frame with, some cord to lace it into the frame with, and a stick to soften it with. The benefit of this method is that the hide stretches wider and thinner rather than in whatever shape that it happened to be in when it finished drying. Yeah, you can’t put a bag on it when your ready to quit, but the hide also dries faster because more of it is exposed to air at once. However, the key still is to work the hide until it is completely and uniformly dry and soft. If the hide should try to dry up, take it out of the frame and throw it back in the dressing before it dries too much. Otherwise you’ll have a dried up, stiff mess that won’t take the dressing as easily.

Once the hide is softened, jump up and down in celebration, because the hide is tanned! Now, you have the option to either smoke the hide, or leave it white. Wood smoke has a natural chemical in it known as formaldehyde that will create tiny little “bridges” between the fibers that you worked to hard to preserve so that should the hide ever get wet it would retain it’s softness. A lot of people actually machine wash their hides to knock the smoky smell off of them. Also, smoking the hides gives them some color. What color depends on what kind of wood is used, the moisture level of the wood, how old the wood is, etc. I’ve gotten shades everywhere from light tan to dark brown.

There are a few different ways to smoke hides. Some people make a tepee and drape the hide over the fire. I’ve tried this method before and didn’t like it because it took too long to completely smoke the hide. Instead, I glue the hide together lengthwise leaving one end open so that it resembles a case or a pouch. I then tie cord to the two top corners of the “hide case” and hang the hide from a branch, pole, or anything of the appropriate height. Once the hide is hung as described, I get a old coffee can, build a fire in it,  let the fire die so that its only coals, then put my smoking material on the coals so it produces smoke. When I get my smoke, I put the hide over the coffee can and tie it on so that the smoke goes into the hide and create almost a balloon with the smoke in the hide. Using this method requires that the holes be sewn shut so the smoke doesn’t leave the hide. Once the hide is smoked it will last a very long time. I suggest washing it a few times, hanging it on the clothes line overnight, soaking it in water or something to knock the smoke smell off of it.

As I mentioned before, learning to tan from a single article on the internet is not likely. It took me hours and hours of research, talking to people on online discussion forums, experimenting with different methods, and a lot of trial and error. This article is really nothing more than a teaser and a crash course on some tanning basics. I encourage anyone truly interested in preparing or survival skills in general  to educate themselves in this incredibly rewarding and useful art.