Brain Tanning a Deer Skin by Xander Green

Throughout history indigenous people around the world have had to rely on animal skins for
clothing, footwear, bedding, bags, cordage, and a host of other needs. For these needs to be met,
these skins needed to be softened or “Tanned”. Because of my personal interest in American First
Nation culture, it is brain-tanning that interests me the most.
Softening Deer hides with the animals own brain is something I’ve experimented with for a
number of years, usually ending up with rawhide which, while being a very useful material in its
own right, was not the intended end product. With the help of a friend who has many years of
tanning experience, I finally started getting good results about two years ago. I wouldn’t go so far
as to say that I’ve mastered the process, but I’ve now produced quite a few buckskins which have
been used in the construction of various projects ranging from simple bags, to moccasins, to highly
complicated reproductions of First Nations items decorated with porcupine quill embroidery.
Brain-tanning is a very physically demanding activity, but when successful you are left with
a beautifully soft yet strong material perfect for infinite craft projects. There is also great
satisfaction in taking parts of an animal usually destined to be thrown away and making them into
something useful. No harmful chemicals are used in the process, just some water and a lot of
elbow grease.
This post is not intended as a comprehensive instructional manual, as there is far too much
information to fit into a blog post such as this. I will barely be scratching the surface of what goes
into producing usable buckskin, but hopefully it will inspire others to delve deeper into the subject
of natural tanning methods. I don’t claim to be an expert tanner, and there are many ways to do it.
This is just a quick run through of what’s worked for me.

Skinning.

If removing the hide from the deer yourself, every effort should be made to keep it in a good
condition. Overuse of a blade will often result in the hide being damaged and meat being wasted,
so most of the skinning should be done with the hands to prevent this. Use a sharp knife to cut
straight up the belly from the neck to the anus, Then down the inside of each leg. Cut all the way
round the legs just above the knee joints. Now use your fingers and thumbs to press the skin away
from the meat. Some areas will be tougher than others, but try to resist reaching for the knife.
Carry on somewhere else and these areas can often be easier approached from a different angle.
Continue in this fashion until the skin comes free.


Soaking.

Before work can begin on the skin, it must be soaked in water. This is to bring it to the
required state of decomposition needed for the hair to slip out relatively easily. The length of time
needed will depend on the time of year. In the height of Summer, three or four days should be
enough. In the colder months longer is needed, a week should be enough. When hair pulls out
easily in your fingers it is ready. Make sure the skin is well submerged and that you change the
water daily, if not the hide will rot rapidly and the smell will be unbearable. In summer I change the
water twice a day.

hide tanning

 

Fleshing.

You will need a fleshing tool and beam for this part. The best tool for the job is probably a
dull draw knife (if too sharp you risk cutting into the hide). The beam can be a log that’s been
smoothed off, or many people now use a 4 inch round drainage pipe cut at an angle on one end so it
can be leant against a wall, trapping the hide in place. Any meat and fat left on the skin must be
removed at this point. If you did a good job of skinning there shouldn’t be too much. There is also
a thin membrane which must also be removed, or at least broken up so that your brain mixture can
penetrate fully. You will have to scrape quite hard, finishing one area at a time and moving the hide
round in a circle until the entire flesh side has been scraped.

Hair removal.

Once the flesh side has been sufficiently scraped, its time to remove the hair. Flip the hide
over and repeat the fleshing process on the hair side. As you start to scrape away the hair you will
see a distinctive white layer of material coming off in patches. This is the grain layer and must also
be removed. Repeat across the whole skin. Once done the hide can be cleaned off in water before
moving onto the next stage.
You will need a fleshing tool and beam for this part. The best tool for the job is probably a
dull draw knife (if too sharp you risk cutting into the hide). The beam can be a log that’s been
smoothed off, or many people now use a 4 inch round drainage pipe cut at an angle on one end so it
can be leant against a wall, trapping the hide in place. Any meat and fat left on the skin must be
removed at this point. If you did a good job of skinning there shouldn’t be too much. There is also
a thin membrane which must also be removed, or at least broken up so that your brain mixture can
penetrate fully. You will have to scrape quite hard, finishing one area at a time and moving the hide
round in a circle until the entire flesh side has been scraped.

Wringing.

Before applying the brains, you must remove as much moisture from the hide as possible.
The dryer it is the easier it will absorb the brains. To do this, hang the hide over a horizontal beam
and fold it back over itself forming a tube. Roll this in from the edges towards the middle quite
tightly.
Next insert a strong stick and twist the hide until it stops dripping. You’ll have to put your
your weight into it. Untwist, rotate hide round beam and repeat. The hide should turn from white
to yellow and feel quite stiff.

Braining.

If you are lucky enough to acquire a deer with the head still attached then you’re ready to go.
If not, most butchers can order pork brains for you upon request, which work just as well. I have
found the easiest way to remove brains from a deer head is to freeze it, then saw the top off and
scoop them out with a spoon. As gory as this sounds, it’s much messier if not frozen. It is advisable
to wear rubber gloves when handling brains, as they often contain some nasty forms of bacteria.

Put the brains into a cooking pot and add enough water to cover them. You can add chopped
liver or unsalted butter to bulk up the “tanning dope” if you’re worried about the quantity, these both
contain the same kind of oils as the brains. Bring to the boil then blend well. Bring it back to the
boil, then allow to cool, it needs to be lukewarm when you add the hide to it.
Add your hide to the mixture and massage it in. The hide should turn pliant and white again.
This means the brains are penetrating well. At this stage I usually leave it to soak for an hour or
two, well submerged. Some people leave it overnight, but I’ve found this can leave the hide with a
sour smell. Next repeat the wringing process from above.

Breaking.

Softening or “breaking” the hide is where the hard work starts. The hide must be stretched
and manipulated constantly until completely dry. If not, the fibres will lock shut and the hide will
dry stiff. There are two ways this can be done, by hand or in a frame.

Hand softening.

To hand soften your hide you’ll need a couple of bits of equipment. An upright wooden
stake carved to a smooth point on the end is used for stretching the hide over. A piece of rope of
4mm cable attached to a wall at two points (high and low) is used to break up the fibres by putting
the hide behind it and pulling hard on each end. Switch between the two and periodically stretch
the hide back into shape either with help from a friend or by standing on one edge and pulling the
other. Work your way around the whole hide in this manner.


Frame softening.

I personally find this method the easier of the two, especially for bigger hides. After the
final wringing stage, use a knife to make a series of holes around the edge of the hide. These should
be 2-3 inches apart and parallel with the edge. Through these holes use strong cordage to lace the
hide into a timber frame, stretching it out in the process. If your holes have been cut towards the
edge rather than parallel, they are liable to rip at this point.

To stretch the hide once framed, I use a canoe paddle, but any piece of wooden with a blunt
point on the end will work. Press into the hide with your full weight, making sure not to miss any
spots. Occasionally you’ll need to rough up the fibres with something abrasive, I use an old stone
grinder wheel, to help keep the fibres open. When the hide is dry, cut the hide from the frame
leaving the holes behind. This strip around the edge will not have softened anyway.

Whichever method you choose, you must keep going until the hide is completely dry. It will
start to look and feel like buckskin quite early, but don’t stop until you can touch it to your face and
it feels warm. Any dark spots at this point are still wet and will need more work or you’ll have a
stiff bit in the middle of the hide. On a hot summers day you can break a small hide in just a few
hours, but in the winter you should expect it to take a lot longer.

 

Smoking.

Once you’ve managed to get your hide nice and soft, you’ll undoubtedly want to keep it that
way. Brain tanned buckskin once gotten wet, is likely to dry stiff. Smoking helps it cope better
with becoming wet, and it also keeps moths and other insects from eating holes in your hard work.
The best way to smoke your hide is to sew it into a tube closed at one end and attach a wide
skirt to the bottom. I use an old piece of canvas for this. Light a small fire and let this burn down to
coals, then add punk wood (dry rotten wood). I do this in a metal bucket to limit oxygen as you
only want smoke, no flame. Too much heat will damage your hide. Suspend your hide over the fire
so that smoke is forced into and trapped in the hide. Then turn it inside out and repeat. I find 30-45
minutes per side does the job nicely.

Afterword.

Well that’s about all I can fit into this post. If successful you should end up with a wonderful
material, perfect for a multitude of craft projects. If not, keep at it! Hide tanning is something only
perfected by experience. I would also recommend investing in a book or two on the subject, which
will explain the process in a lot more detail than I am able to here. Or if you can afford to, find a
course to attend. Nothing beats having an experienced pair of eyes looking over your shoulder. I
wish you the best of luck in your hide tanning endeavours, and hope this has been of some use to you.


Xander Green.

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