Brain Tanning Animal Hides:
Preliminary Thoughts

December 17, 2011


To begin, utilizing all of the gifts of our animals is an important part of Windward's ethical approach to raising livestock. Like many, I have found the process of working with animal hides to be a cathartic act; a process of cleansing which centers to body and mind; and ultimately a way to give highest respect to the animals.

A goat hide

Like most of what we do here at Windward, preserving animal hides is both an art and science. One can have all the facts laid out before them, and still have no clue how to bring those facts into the word in meaningful ways. This pretty accurately explains where I have been at with regards to preserving animal hides. I studied a lot, but had little understanding of how to make it all come to life.

So, to say the least, the knowledge which I have gained through my experiments over the past several months have been hard won. To spare others the trouble and turmoil of figuring these things out, in the forthcoming articles I we detail a complete process of preserving goat and sheep hide.

These articles embody a mature and effective philosophy and process of preserving goat, sheep and other medium to small sized animal hides in a backwoods context; using brains, liver, wood ashes, and smoke as the chemical as prefered inputs, while also explaining how other materials may be used. The forthcoming methodologies are economical, safe and sustainable, and hopefully easy to understand.

There are a few preliminary notes before I begin outlining the process.

Mounting a bucksin on a stretching frame

Tanning vs brain tanning

People have been preserving animal hides for a long time and I'd venture to say that there are more ways to preserve hide than there are ways to use a preserved hide. From what I understand now, tanning is a specific chemical process, and one which in itself has many different forms.

People commonly refer to any process by which an animal's hide is preserved as "tanning". This is a misnomer and initially led me to a great deal of confusion about the physical and chemical processes of "tanning".

The methods I use for preserving the hide is known as "brain tanning" and involves a two step process of dressing the hide with brains (or other emulsified oil) and smoking. Technically the brain is not tanning to hide, nor is there technically "tanning" going on at all. The oil used in the dressing process acts as a physical barrier between the fibers of the skin, preventing them from gluing themselves back together and becoming stiff like rawhide. Once the fibers are opened up and died (a process known as softening), the acid tars in smoke are used to the hide and chemically bind to the collagen fibers, preserving and water proofing them. To clarify the smoke is what does the preserving, and it is not technically the same as tanning.

Brain tanning is in a class of preservation on its own. A class which is larger than just using brain matter, and might be more appropriately called smoke-curing as opposed to tanning at all.

much like the term brain tanning, other terms which I use in my description are highly specific, and sometimes not all that accurate. For clarity I'll sketch out a few preliminary definitions before delving into the process.

Frame-stretching a buckskin

The method I use to remove the flesh, fat, hair and grain in preparation for tanning is called the wet scrape method. Wet scrape does not refer to the method of physically preserving the skin, but only the manner in which the hide is handled, cleaned and prepared to receive dressing and smoking.

The wet scrape method of creating buckskin involves the process of "bucking" or "liming" (depending on what you use), which means soaking the hide in alkaline solution so the hair is easily removed. Bucking can also refer to the whol process of removing the hair and top grain of hide destined to become buckskin.

I use the word hide to refer simply to the skin of an animal. Whether it is still on the animal, or has been removed, whether is has or has not been treated and tanned, whether it has had the fur, epidermis, flesh, membrane, or whatever else removed. Hide is a broad term I use to refer to an animal skin.

Buckskin refers to the finished product of buckskinning, and sometimes the hide after it has undergone the processes of bucking. I tend to use the term "hide" in reference to skins still in the process of becoming buckskin. Buckskin is different than some kinds of leather that people are used to that still have the grain layer intact, so prefer not to call the end product of buckskining leather.

Fur is the term I prefer to use for hides that are being preserved with the fur on. Fur refers to the whole hide that is intentionally being treated to retain the fur. The process I use for preserving a fur-on hide is similar to that of buckskin, but it differs in some key respects that will be explained later on. That is why I prefer to refer to the two end products by different names.

where to begin

The process of tanning begins even before the animal has been killed. Having a look at the shape of the animal, its size, and the quality of its coat all determine what the highest and best use of its hide will be.

If you slaughter a goat in the summer, chances are that its coat is thin and the hair is easily removable. Summer hides generally do not make good fur, and so buckskin is probably a better option.

A finished buckskin!

In the autumn or winter, animals will have a thicker and more firmly planted coat which is better suited to fur on preservation.

If an animal has a particularly interesting patterning on its coat, it may be more highly prized as a fur. Conversely if the animal has a drab coat or is very similar to many other animals, it may be better to turn it into buckskin.

Ultimately your choice will depend on what you want, but if you are raising many animals, you have more leeway to decide what each individual animals hide is best used for, these are some guidelines which I use to determine the highest and best use for a particular animals hide.