Rawhide and Brain Tanning, by J.M.

In today’s world, you might wonder why working rawhide and brain tanning buckskin skill would be a benefit to anybody, when you can run to the hardware store and buy an unlimited supply of plastic, nylon, fiberglass, and what not to do your jobs. And why would anybody in their right mind want to wear anything made out of buckskin? When you have designer jeans, and all kinds of clothing to buy, in most stores like Wal-mart, K-mart, or even the used clothing stores? One question you might ask is how much of these things will be available when the fiat dollar bites the dust, or if a number of natural disasters happen? And what about a total SHTF situation, where there are no open stores selling anything? Might be worth consideration?
 
Working rawhide will give you a good substitute in most cases for a lot of plastics, and if you learn to brain tan buckskin, you can make clothing as soft and comfortable as velvet, but let me tell you, it isn’t easy work! And right off, I’d hate to arm wrestle an Indian squaw from the 1800’s that did hide scraping on a daily basis, those had to be very strong women!   And let me tell you, after scraping both sides of a bull hide, you realize that your arms aren’t nearly as strong as you thought they were. Lets start with buckskin first.
 
The tools you’ll need is a very sharp knife, a scraper, (I’ll get into that a little down the line) a 2×4 stud hide rack, which is made up of  4- stud 8′ long nailed or bolted into a square, bolting is better with holes so you can adjust the size of the rack to fit the hide your working on,  and it’s best to mount the hide as high as possible on the rack, to save your back. 4- 25′ lengths of heavy cordage, bailing twine, or parachute chord, which I find works the best, to lace the hide on the rack. a 1/8″ to 1/4″ leather punch, or a knife will work in a pinch to poke holes about 2″ apart around the edge of the hide, A large needle made from a coat hanger, to feed the cordage through the holes, and lace on the rack.
 
Now for the scraper, I took a large file, heated it up on the forge, pounded out one end, and ground it out like a chisel edge, put a 90 degree bend back about 3″ from the edge, when you get it done, it should look like an old well used hoe with rounded edges, no sharp edges like a new hoe would have, as this will damage your hide when scraping. When you get that done, re-temper it. This can be done by heating it up to an orange heat, then quench it in a bucket of salt water. The harder you can get the edge, the less you have to sharpen it. Now mount this in a 2′ handle, an old shovel handle, or any smooth round piece of wood. You can use pine pitch to mount it in a cut out and wrap it with rawhide. Or if you have a welder, it can be welded on a piece of 1-1/2″ black iron pipe, are you starting to get the picture?
 
Now getting back to the hide, a fresh hide is best to work with while it’s still wet, and the cleaner you can skin, leaving all meat and fat on the animal, the less work you have later. Now don’t get the idea that deer hide are the only thing that make good buckskin, Elk, young beef calves, dogs, coyotes, wolves, antelope, sheep, goats, most any medium sized animal hides can make good buckskin. I use to have a local dairyman save me the calves that died, and instead of taking them to the local dump, they would dump them in my front yard, and I’d skin them out, then I’d haul the calf to the dump minus the hide and brain, and sinews, leg bones and hoofs. (good knife handles and making glue)
 
Most of the books I’ve read on tanning suggest salting down the hides, but I have found it’s a lot stronger buckskin if you work with a fresh hide unsalted, salted hides I’ve found tear easy and don’t have the strength you need in long term buckskin clothing. I’ve got a pair of pants I made about 40 years ago that are still as good and strong as the day they were made. but I also don’t wear them daily like jeans.
 
Okay, you now have your hide laced to the rack and ready to start scraping. Start on the flesh side (the other side from the hair) and scrape in down strokes, it’s just like shaving, you slip side ways and you get cut, same with a hide. And you’ll find the more careful you can skin, with no knife strokes on the hide the easier it will scrape. you have to remove all fat and membrane from the skin, get as close as possible to your lacing without cutting them. And by now you will have pains in the back of your arms. A little side note here, when you get into rawhide and Buckskinning, you take great care to get a head or neck shot on the animal your hunting, I’ve found that a shot right behind the ear is an instant kill with most rifles, including a .22 Long Rifle.
 
 Once you get that side as clean as possible, turn the rack over and start on the hair. You’ll find if you can mount your rack against a tree or against anything to work in an upright position, it works better than flat on the ground. You’ll notice that the hair comes off with a layer of skin (the scarf skin) under the hair, this has to be removed, to get the brain penetration. And if you let the hide dry out for an hour after you do the flesh side, your scraper will make a tearing sound as you scrape. There again scrape as close as possible to your cordage and holes, without cutting them! I suggest working in a shaded area if possible, so the hide doesn’t dry out before you get it scraped.
 
When all hair and scarf skin is removed, cut the hide out of the rack with a knife about an inch out from the holes and lacing, take the skin and wash it in a clean bucket of water, then let it soak. Meanwhile take the brains and boil them in a kettle of water, then mash them into the water, to where it looks like a white liquid, some people take a piece of cotton cloth and put in the pan of boiling water, then put the brains in the water over the cloth, and as it cools, mash the brains by pulling the cloth up and squeezing it with your hands and keep dipping it in the kettle until all the brain is mashed into a liquid, I never tried this, as I mash them pretty good with a potatoes masher. Then take the liquid brain and water mixture, pore it into a half full, (2 to 2 1/2 gallons) 5 gallon bucket of cool water, dip the hide in the bucket, and squeeze it until it’s saturated with the brain water.
 
I have found that a 6′ rope tied loose around a tree on both ends, works good to work the hide, put the bucket under the rope, take the hide and work it back and forth over the rope to where the water drains back into the bucket. When the hide is wrung out good dip it back in the bucket, and soak it up again. by dipping and wringing it out you are forcing the solution through the hide, and removing the hide glue between the fibers, keep this process up for about a half an hour then the last wringing out and working of the hide, let it hang over the rope for a couple hours, but just before it’s dried, still damp, work it over the rope stretching it from one direction then the other, until it’s completely dry. Now you should have a soft stark white buckskin hide. But this isn’t really tanned like chrome tanning, if you get the hide wet in this state, it will get hard when it dries out again.
 
To prevent this from happening, it has to be smoked. By doing this you saturate the hide fibers with wood smoke pitch. I dig a hole about 30″ deep 12″ diameter, and take the coals from a fire drop into the hole, and drop in damp chainsaw sawdust in over the coals, then make a small teepee framework and clamp the hide with clothes pins or clamps, but make sure there is only smoke coming up out of the hole and not much heat! Keep turning the hide so all parts on both sides are exposed to the smoke coming up out of the hole. I like the hide to come out about the color of a buckskin horse, but the longer you smoke it the darker it gets and more water resistant. Just roll it up and store in a cool dry place until you have enough hides to make something out of them!
 
It takes me five hides to make a shirt, with fringe, four hides to make pants, and I did make my pants out of two large elk hides. Now getting back to the circle of hide you left on the rack, unlace it, so you have a big circle of hide, and now you can cut several feet of lacing from the left over piece. Good for lacing, or buckstitching your clothes, and dozens of uses for this lacing.
 
Now for the rawhide-
Use the basic same process as you did for buckskin, but after both sides are scraped clean, cut it out of the rack then and not go through the braining process. Some of the old timers use to not use a rack and just stretch the hide out and put ashes on the hair side, and keeping the hide damp for several days and changing the ashes, the hair will brush off with little effort leaving the scarfskin on the hide for more strength. But really has to be rinsed good before using! Using lime does the same thing and works faster than the ashes. Depending on what you have available.
 
My wife’s grandmother had some chairs made back about 1900 by a Navajo carpenter made with 1″ and 2″ willow saplings, the bark was cleaned off the wood, and his joints were made with slots cut through the wood and laces into place with rawhide, and the seat was made with woven rawhide, and the chair was just as solid as the day it was made. So much for screws, glue, and nails in the white man’s furniture!

I’ve also seen some adobe homes built by the Spanish back in the early 1700s in southern California, where log rafters were laced into place with rawhide, then willow saplings laced on to the log rafters, and I’m not sure what was over the willow saplings, this couldn’t be seen from inside the house, but it supported the half round clay tile for hundreds of years.
 
One trick I learned using rawhide was making foot forms. Take a 2×8 about 18 inches long, draw around your foot on two of these, left and right, then drill a hole on the line, cut around the foot pattern, take a rasp and widen the cut so the foot form drops back into the form with about 1/4″ clearance around the form, shave the foot form to where its rounded. Take the rawhide from around the neck of the animal, where it’s the thickest, cut two pieces out about 2″ wider than your foot. soak the rawhide for a day, then put it over the hole in the form, and using a mallet, tap the foot form into the hole, over the rawhide to where it’s level with the form, then trim the excess sticking up out of the form  with a knife, let it set in the form for a day or two until it dried out good, then tap it out of the form, and you should have a rawhide soul that your foot fits into. I took an old warn out pair of boots, cut around the soul, threw away the old warn out soul, punched holes about a half inch apart around the boot and the rawhide soul and sewed them together with wet rawhide lacing. The lacing when it dried swells and seals off the punched holes, and made a good pair of moccasin boots. and in the winter if you spread out a fresh rabbit or cat hide inside the boot, it’s nice and warm.
 
I know the animal lovers will be appalled by suggesting using dog and cat hides, but just keep in mind that WTSHTF, there is going to be a big problem with feral dogs and cats, as people not having the heart to kill them when they can no longer feed them, will just turn them loose to forage for themselves, causing problems for other people trying to survive in a changed world.
 
A trick about rawhide lacing, when you use it, soak it, and when it’s wet and flexible, run it through a rag with tallow in it, but without stretching it as you pull it through, this gives it a protective coating, and makes it water resistant. Oh yeah, the tallow is the fat you saved from the animal you skinned and rendered it out in a frying pan, and pored it into a can for later use! About every five years or so, I wipe down my buckskin pants and shirt with tallow, and let it hang in the sun for a couple hours until the tallow souls into the skins, then smoke them again, this preserves the buckskin for a very long time. I’ve read that some of the old Mountain men wore the same buckskins for several years in the mountains hunting and trapping. The re-smoking reduces smells, and if you hunt in buckskins, wrap them up at night with pine needles, or cedar bark, to give you that sent the next day.
 
Once you get into rawhiding, you’ll find hundreds of used for this long forgotten material! Many of the big ranches in the west during the 1800’s had a hired Mexican or Indian rawhider, that worked full time on rawhide, ropes, bridles, reigns, chaps, and saddle repairs. This might be something worthwhile to learn for an uncertain future, especially if it can make you life more comfortable in the hard times ahead.

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