December 22th, 2011
People around the world, and particularly tribes throughout North America, have been utilizing various brain-tanning process for creating buckskin and furs for a long time. Although the process of tanning involves a lot of complex chemistry, the dynamics of brain-tanning as straightforward enough for pretty much anyone to pick-up. With a little hard work and a lot of patience, you can be creating buckskins and furs in as little as a few days.
Below I offer my own variant of this age old process which I've adapted from studying and experimenting with several different approaches. I give credit to all the folks at BrainTan.com for the wonderful knowledge base they have accumulated on traditional and practical modern methods for brain tanning.
The process I have developed is best suited for small ruminants like goats and sheep that have relatively thin hides. Although I have also used a similar process with rabbit skins, but adjusted the amount of force I used in fleshing and wringing the hides in order to keep from tearing holes in the paper thin skin. Remember that every kind of animal, and every individual animal is different, and that the art of preserving hides lies in knowing how to treat each hide as an individual and adjust your methods accordingly.
As I move along with the process, I'll be showing you the tools that I use for the process. Below is the basic process of brain tanning a hide to create buckskin or fur. I have distinguished the parts of the process that are relevant to fur-on tanning versus buckskin tanning, but the basic steps remain more or less the same.
- Skinning: separating the skin from the animal
- Washing: removing the blood, dirt and skin grease from the hide
- Storing (optional): if you don't want to work with the hide immediately
- Fleshing: scraping the flesh and fat from the underside of the hide
- Bucking: soaking in alkaline solution and removing the hair and grain
- Rinsing: returning the hide to a neutral pH
- Membraning: removing the membrane from the underside of the hide
- Dressing: penetrating the hide with oil, usually brains
- Wringing: removing excess dress solution
- Sewing: patching up any holes in the main body of the hide
- Stretching/Softening: stretching the hide while it dries
- Smoking: preserving the hide with wood smoke
Step 1: Skinning
Things you'll need:1. a way to hang up the animal
2. Sharp knife to cut through the skin, preferably with a pointed tip
3. Broad dull knife to separate the skin from the carcass when needed
The tools I use, a filleting and rounded blade knife
It is hard to over-stress the importance of getting off on the right foot. How you take the skin off the hide can dramatically impact the shape and quality of the finished buckskin, and determines the amount of sewing you have to do later on.
Use a knife as little as possible. Particularly with goats and sheep since their skin is much thinner than a deer. It is very easy to nick the hide with a knife, so try to use your hands to pull the hide from the carcass along the weaker connective tissues.There are a couple of common ways to position the animal while you are skinning it. If you are working with goats and sheep, it is usually easy to string the animal up by its hind legs. You can also skin an animal on its back or on its side, or by its forelegs.
I prefer to hang it by the hind-legs, as it easy to use my body weight to pull the hide down off the carcass. Hanging also ensures a relatively clean hide because it is not contacting the ground. We usually use a winch to raise and lower the animal so the hide is always at a comfortable level.
Once the animal is dead and hung by its hind legs, start removing the skin from the hind legs. Cut around the leg at the animals "knee", and then down along the inside of the leg to the anus. If you are working with a goat it is best to follow the natural line of fur as is changes direction in the inside of the leg. This line of hair direction change is also the border between two different thicknesses of skin. Cutting along this line ensures that different areas of the hide are of a uniform thickness with gradual progressions from thicker areas around the rump, spine and outer leg to thinner areas around the belly, groin and inner leg.
If you are working with a sheep with thick wool it can be difficult to tell where the natural skin change is. I tend to cut along the middle inside of the leg where there is often no wool. This seems to work well, particularly if I want to keep the wool-on since the non-wool section is then at the edge of the hide and can be trimmed off as desired.
As you cut down the inside of the leg, begin pulling the skin off all around the leg. You may need to us a knife to start, but it should come off with you hands once you establish a hold. Once you get down to the groin area, continue the line of cut on the underside as close to the anus as you can. Usually I cut where the fur ends and the bare skin around the anus begins. This will ensure a nice transition of hide thickness since the groin area is much thinner than the rump skin on the other side of the anus. If you are working with a sheep skin and want to keep the wool on then it is likely that you will be cutting back the matted poop encrusted wool in this area anyway, so you want to be sure that underlying leather is cut at the transition point of different skin thickness.
Cutting the skin in the groin area.
Once you have opened up the hide from the inside of one leg to the other you can begin to work on the anus. At this point I cut on the underside of the tail around both sides of the anus. I use a long fillet knife for the job, and carefully cut the connecting tissue that holds the anus in the pelvic chamber. This has little to do with the quality of the hide, but as I am usually going to be eviscerating the animal after the skin is removed, I tie off the anus to ensure no poop falls on the hide or meat.
Once you have the anus detached from the hide you can start pulling the hide away from the carcass. At this point, if you choose, you can "open up" the hide by cutting down the center of the belly and chest, from the groin to the neck. I tend not to do this, and take the hide off as a tube. But this is merely what I am used to. I end up opening the hide at a later stage so it lays flat on the fleshing beam. I just tend to put the knife down at this point and use my hands and fists to separate the skin.
A picture with the hide pulled away from the area of the anus
Side note:I recently began cooking the pieces of muscle pulled from the hide with the fresh organ meats. I marinade the meat in a seasoned brine overnight and cook it up with the liver, heart and kidney. In my opinion it helps to dilute to intensity of the liver, which in goats is particularly intense.
The trickiest part I find with skinning is getting around the shoulders and armpit. It seems that older animals have much more connective tissue and muscle in this area, and so it requires more force to pull it apart by hand. If you need the knife use it carefully since the folds and curves of this area can be deceiving. I tend to be very conservative and leave quite a bit of muscle and fat on the hide so I know the skin is safe. After the hide is off the carcass, then I work on pulling the nice pieces of muscle off by hand.
Some people find it easier to work around the shoulders if they open up the hide and can grab a hold of the hide on either side of the chest bone.
Once you get the hide off the carcass, and remove any good pieces of meat, you can proceed to wash it.
Things you'll need:1. a container that fits the hide
2. some kind of detergent
3. lots of fresh water
4. a stick or paddle to stir the hide
5. a tree branch or rack to hang the hide to drip dry
If you want to keep the fur on, then this is a particularly good time to wash the hide out. If you are wanting to make buckskin, you can also wash the hide out now to remove any of the blood that may have leached into the skin. Washing it out now will prevent it from staining the hide. Or, you can wash after bucking during the rinsing process to remove the alkalinity from the hide.
Some hides are dirtier than others. Sheep hides tend to be very greasy, and accumulate more dirt and debris during the process of slaughter than goats.
To wash the hide, you can stick it in a large container with a simple detergent (I use a 55 gallon plastic barrel cut in half). Dish detergent, clothing detergent, or shaved barsoap works fine. The amount of soap needed varies with the amount of dirt and gore. This process is pretty straighforward. The main thing to keep in mind is not to be too vigorous with hides that you want to retain their fur. Especially with sheep hides since soapy water and friction can felt the wool fibers and leave you will a matted fur that won't fluff up.
It may take several washes to get the hide nice and clean. Repeat the wash process until the water comes out pretty clear. Usually I do two soapy washes to get the hides clean of the blood and dirt. Once the hide is washed, you need to rinse out the soapy residues. I usually do two washes to get the water to come out nice and clean. Between each rinse I take the hide to the drying rack and let it drip dry, gently squeezing the dirt and soap laiden water out of the fur.
Allow the rinsed hide to drip dry for 15 minutes to an hour. If you are working with a wooly sheep skin you will want to hand wring out the wool since it has a great capacity to absorb water, making the hide extremely heavy and hard to handle.
You don't want the hide to air dry too much, since removing the flesh is easiest while the skin itself is still wet. If it dries out too much you will find out how difficult it is to remove the finer layers of connective tissue. If the hide dries out put it back in some clean water and let it sit for two hours or so and then let it drip dry again.
It is always better to keep it from drying out in the first place. The hide will likely never be as easy to scrape once it dries out. So it is best to keep an eye on it, particularly on warm sunny days. Or, leave it in the water until you are ready to work with it. You can leave the hide to soak in clean water in a shady spot (temperature not getting over 75F or so) for a few days. After that, it will likely begin to decompose and smell.
If you won't be able to work with the hide in a timely manner then you should preserve it as described in the next step.
Step 3: Storing
If you cannot work with the hide before fleshing, you can opt to store it until a later time. Make sure that the hide is wrung-out dry, but still moist all the way through. There are three ways that I know to store a hide; Salting, Freezing and Smoke-Drying.
To salt a hide for storage, simply lay it out fur/grain side down on a flat shaded surface that is slightly inclined. I have found a piece of OSB big enough to fit the whole hide to work well. The incline should be steep enough that moisture which will be drawn out of the hide by the salt will be drawn off.
You can use either course-ground road salt used to clear ice off of paths and roads, which can be purchased in large bags at hardware stores. Or you can use food grade salt that purchasable at a grocery store. There is no significant difference between the two, except that road salt is cheaper.
You do not have to be exacting with the amount of salt you apply. There is no golden rule, and you cannot over do it so don't skimp. Throw 3 or full double-handfuls on the center of the hide (remember you should be applying the salt to the flesh side of the hide), spread it out to the edges making sure to cover any areas that may have folded or curled inward. What you are looking to do is give every bit of the hide a thin layer of salt.
Leave it to sit for at least two hours. A good policy is to salt it in the evening and let it sit over night. When you come back to the hide, moisture will have been drawn out of the hide and may have pooled on the surface. Lift up the hide (or if you are using a board of some kind, lift up the board) and let all the moisture drain off.
If you were to store it without letting the moisture off, bacteria could colonize the water and decompose that part of the hide and ruin it for the purposes of tanning.
The idea with the salt is not to dry out the hide completely, but to create a dry, salt rich environment which is inhospitable to bacteria, mold and insects.
Once the hide is salted and drained, fold in the edges lengthwise so the meet in the middle along the crest of the back. Fold the hide again along the crest of the back. Then, roll it into a bundle. It is important to get the edges in the center of the hide because they are generally the thinnest places and will dry out much quicker than the rest.
You can then put it into a plastic bag, and then into a relatively airtight container. Or you can forgo the plastic bag. The important thing is that there be as little air flow in the container as possible since air will continue to dry out the hide, making it difficult to re-hydrate and work with later. As I said before, if a hide dries out, it will usually not ever be as soft and supple as it would be if it had never dried out.
Having a well sealed container will also ensure insects, rodents, or whatever can't get to it.
A five gallon bucket with an airtight lid is a great storage container. You can fit 3-5 goat hides with the fur intact into one of these. You may be able to get two wool-on sheep hides into a bucket. If you are storing hides which have been fleshed and bucked, you can probably fit a dozen or more in a single bucket with great surety that pests won't find a way in. Buckets are also easily stackable if you are working with really large volumes of hides.
This past year, Nicole built a "vault" for storing some Buffalo hides purchased from Mary Jean at the Klickitat Bison Company. The vault is simply a whole in the ground lined with rail road ties, underneath a trailer which is nestled in some trees. That location receives very little sunlight and thus is cooler year round than most other places. Piling rocks and rail road ties on top of the lid has been successful at keeping out any large animals, and their appears to been no evidence that the hides are being munched on by insects or rodents. We have some goat hides in there as well. All those hides were salted.
Freezing is perhaps the easiest and best way to store a hide. If you have the extra freezer space, I highly recommend freezing. Primarily because it is so straight forward and fool proof. But also because salted hides are more likely to dry out, decompose slightly, or be eaten by insects or vermin.
To prepare a hide for freezing, fold it in a similar manner as with a salted hide. Get it into a tight package and stick it in a plastic bag. Squeeze the air out and you are good to go. You can keep a hide frozen for an indefinite period of time.
To smoke-dry a hide, as with any of the above methods, it is always better to have the hide fleshed. Because the meat and fat are so likely to spoil. If you dry the hide it is way harder to flesh later. The drying process just makes all the connective tissue way more stiff and shrunken, and thus it is more firmly connected. If you have the time to smoke-dry a hide, you have the time to flesh it before hand. But, you can still store a unfleshed hide in any of these ways if you are careful and thorough.
The idea behind smoke-drying as a preservation technique is to coat the whole hide in acidic tars which deter insects and bacteria. The tars, coupled with a thorough drying and proper storage location will work well to deter anything that might want to consume the hide.
There are many ways to smoke a hide, and many ways to build a smoke house. The idea behind the set up is to separate the heat of the fire from the smoking area. Hot smoke or flames will cook the hide and ruin the protein fibers for the purposes of tanning.
Here are some pictures and descriptions of smoking methods:
The simplest method that requires no building or fancy infrastructure is to make a "smoke sack". Below are some pictures and description but more information about the specifics are available in the "smoking" section of this article.
traditional smoking over a pit fire. Image courtesy of www.braintan.com
Here is a very traditional way to go about smoking. It is easy and straighforward. Not requiring a whole lot of set up. The hide is sewn into a sack with the opening at the bottom. This is what I call a "smoke sack". A skirt of thick fabric is sewn to the bottom. A 2 foot whole is dug in the ground and a fire built in it. The fire is snuffed with punky wood to cool it down and create a lot of smoke. The hide is strung up with a tripod so it hangs over the pit. The edes of the skirt are held down with some stones. The smoking will be done on both sides of the hide, by turning the sack inside out.
for furs this is a good method because it allows the smoke to penetrate through the hide from the flesh side. The pressure built up in the sack as it is filled with smoke pushes the smoke through the pores. That means that you do not need to turn the hide inside out and get the fur all covered in tar.
Smoke-sack on the end of a chimney pipe. Image courtesy of www.braintan.com
A clever tanner put the sack and skirt over a long chimney pipe. Simple and efficient use of wood. If the pipe is long enough, the smoke is sure to be well cooled before it reaches the hide.
Image courtesy of http://www.wedlinydomowe.com/
Here is a simple smoking set-up. The fire pit is in the foreground, connected to the blue metal barrel by a trench which has a makeshift lid. This is for smoking meat, but you could easily hang hide-sacks over the barrel. You could also adapt this basic design and build a hut or shack around the smoke vent, allowing you to hang all sorts of stuff in there to smoke like sausages or large cuts of meat for storage.
After the hide is thoroughly covered with tars (it will take on a yellow/amber appearance) you can then find a place out of the weather for it to dry. A warm, potentially sunny, and well ventilated area is best. You need to be sure the hide will dry before bacteria on the inside begin to break it down. This is particularly important with fur-on tanning since the hair will easily begin to slip as it is consumed by bacteria.
That's about it. Again, more info on smoking will be available in the smoking section. And remember, it is always best to get your hide at least fleshed before storing. I offer the storage step here in case you really need it. But optimally you should not leave unfleshed hides to store for long periods. Since it is so likely something awful will happen to them. It is best to get your hides all the way to the after-bucking rinse before putting them into long-term storage. Better yet, just finish tanning it! Then it will store for centuries. :)
Keep smoke-dried hides in an area where vermine can't get to it. Hanging them from rafters is a good place. Or in a bucket or ba similar to the other methods. Make sure moisture cannot get to them. Humidity is fine, but driping water is a no-no. To begin fleshing simply let the hide soak in some water for a few days until it is fully hydrated. Soaking time depends on the temperature and how thick the hide is.
The next step in the process is fleshing.