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Survival Skills: Brain Tanning Hides

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November 30, 2011
Survival Skills: Brain Tanning Hides - 10

Before the advent of chemical tanning of hides to make leather, animal skins were subjected to all kinds of strange concoctions to degrease and soften them. Urine, wood ashes, tree bark acid, and even toxic substances like mercury have been employed over the centuries to tan skins into useful leather.

But few natural substances have had such a long and successful track record as animal brains. How does it work? Brain tissue is full of very fine oils that condition and soften the animal skin, if the skin is moving while it dries. If the skin just lies there and dries out, brains or no brains, the glues in the skin naturally set up and you have “raw hide” as the result—great to let the dogs chew on, but not so great for making clothes.

I use the “dry scrape” method of brain tanning, which involves stretching a clean hide in a wooden rack to dry, scraping the hair off after the hide dries, soaking the brain tissue into the hide, and then using a lot of elbow grease to stretch the hide while the brain solution is drying. If this all sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. But stretching the hide as the brain dries creates leather that is soft and stretchy like chamois cloth. And if you don’t have access to modern tanning chemicals, this is the next best thing. Here are the steps you’ll need to take.

Step 1: Flesh the hide

Estimated time: One hour

Fleshing the hide involves scraping off all of the meat and fat. This is necessary to prevent the hide from rotting, and to allow a hide to be tanned properly. Bloody, dirty hides can be washed in water, with or without soap, before and/or after fleshing.

Step 2: Dry the hide

Estimated time: Hours to days, depending on the weather

Drying the hide involves stretching out a hide flat and allowing it to dry, so that it may be properly scraped. I poke holes around the hide’s perimeter and lace some rope through the holes to tie the hide into the wooden frame. Once the hide is tied up in the rack, leave it to dry out.

Step 3: Scrape and sand the hide

Estimated time: Roughly two hours

Scraping and then sanding are done to remove the hair and outer layers of the skin so that the brains will soak all the way through the skin. The tool of choice is a rounded steel blade on a handle, resembling an adz.

Step 4: Wash the hide

Estimated time: 20 to 30 minutes

Washing the hide is important for removing any remaining grease, which will interfere with the tanning process. This is an optional step that can be skipped if the hide doesn't seem too greasy.

Step 5: Wringing the hide (if the hide was washed)

Estimated time: 10 min

Wringing out the hide removes the water from the hide so that the brain solution may soak into the hide.

Step 6: Brain the hide

Estimated time: Two to eight hours

Braining the hide introduces fine, emulsified brain oils into the hide so that it can be soft tanned. For tanning one deer hide, mix one deer brain into a gallon of hot water and mash the brain until it looks like a soup. Soak the hide in the brain soup for 2 to 8 hours. The longer you soak it, the better.

In an area where CWD is prevalent in the deer herd, deer brains should not be used. However, a dozen egg yolks (no whites) added to a gallon of warm water makes a substitute solution for brain tanning.

Step 7: Stretch the hide

Estimated time: Three to nine hours, depending on the weather

Stretching the hide is necessary to soften it. The hide must be stretched until it is completely dry in order for it to remain soft. You can stretch it tied up in the rack, poking it with a stick, or you can pull it by hand. Don't let the hide get wet after stretching and before smoking (the next step). An un-smoked hide will dry with hard spots and patches if it gets wet before smoking.

Step 8: Smoke the hide

Estimated time: One hour

moking the hide coats the hide fibers with "tar" to keep the brain oils on these fibers. This allows the hide to get wet and then remain soft after drying without stretching it again.

The end result is a highly coveted brain-tanned buckskin. Small deer skins tanned this way go for $100 a pop at frontier reenactments and similar events.

Let us know in the comments if you’ve tried this method, or have any questions about it. Good luck tanning!

 

Comments (10)

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from SandyHull 12/29/2013 at 01:40pm

Can you soft brain tan with the fur on?

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from Ronnie Jay 7/17/2013 at 12:37am

Chook Hunter> The only way I have seen hides brain tanned is by placing the DRY rawhide into the solution. I am presuming this is so the hide soaks in as much of the oils as possible.

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from chook hunter 7/13/2013 at 06:07am

Hi there,
this sounds great, I live in australia, i have a wallaby skin that i have scraped and dried, it's been dry for nearly a year, and i just scored some pig brains to tan with, but none of the sites i have read info on seem to answer one question i have, but as yours seems the best instructions, i thought i would ask you. the question is, do i apply the brain mixture to the dry rawhide? or do i have to soak it in hot water to make it more supple and then wring it dry before applying the brain slurry?
I will freeze the brains so they don't go off before i hear back from you, which i hope will be soon, as i can't wait to finish this skin off.
cheers.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Martens80 12/5/2012 at 05:46pm

After step 2 when you let it dry and then you go to sand and scrap it on step 3, wont the hide be to stiff to still be able to scrap or after only a day will the hide still be able to be scraped?

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from clinton gray 10/15/2012 at 02:06pm

can you brain tan a hide with the fur still on it or do you have to remove the fur

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from T-Mac 12/9/2011 at 09:37pm

Thanks for your question Trapper Vic,

Walnut husks turned black will give the finished buckskin a deep chocolate brown color. Boil a half gallon of husks in a gallon of water for a few minutes, then let the hulls soak for an hour. When the brew is cool, soak your buckskin in it for a few minutes, then pull the skin out to dry. Use multiple dippings to get your desired color. Good luck.

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from trapper vic 12/7/2011 at 05:08pm

Good post. have heard people use rotten walnut hulls to tan have you ever tried it? does this give the hide more color?

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from T-Mac 12/2/2011 at 03:04pm

Thanks for the compliment JM, and thanks for your question Smiley...
There's a great book called Blue Mountain Buckskin by Jim Riggs. It's the best one of it's kind to share all the details of dry scraoe tanning with you. But in the meantime, smoking the hides requires that you fold the hide in half along the spine, then staple or stitch it up leaving the bottom open, like a huge sock. Then you suspend this sock over a small bed of coals with chunks of rotten wood to make smoke. The smoke goes up in the hide and soaks in the hide on the inside of the sock. Go about 30 minutes and then turn it inside out, so you can smoke the other side. You can go longer for more color, but don't let it get too hot, or let the coals flame up - all your hard work will get burned up.

Best of luck to all you new tanners.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from smiley303 12/2/2011 at 06:24am

Can you give a little instruction on how to smoke the hide? This is great and I'm going to try it on the next deer I get. Thanks!

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from JM1993 11/30/2011 at 04:32pm

Im going to try this if I get another doe this year....sounds like an interesting thing to do =], thanks for the post(im printing it out for later). I've seen things online about brain tanning but they are never as thorough as this was.

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from JM1993 11/30/2011 at 04:32pm

Im going to try this if I get another doe this year....sounds like an interesting thing to do =], thanks for the post(im printing it out for later). I've seen things online about brain tanning but they are never as thorough as this was.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from smiley303 12/2/2011 at 06:24am

Can you give a little instruction on how to smoke the hide? This is great and I'm going to try it on the next deer I get. Thanks!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from T-Mac 12/2/2011 at 03:04pm

Thanks for the compliment JM, and thanks for your question Smiley...
There's a great book called Blue Mountain Buckskin by Jim Riggs. It's the best one of it's kind to share all the details of dry scraoe tanning with you. But in the meantime, smoking the hides requires that you fold the hide in half along the spine, then staple or stitch it up leaving the bottom open, like a huge sock. Then you suspend this sock over a small bed of coals with chunks of rotten wood to make smoke. The smoke goes up in the hide and soaks in the hide on the inside of the sock. Go about 30 minutes and then turn it inside out, so you can smoke the other side. You can go longer for more color, but don't let it get too hot, or let the coals flame up - all your hard work will get burned up.

Best of luck to all you new tanners.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from chook hunter 7/13/2013 at 06:07am

Hi there,
this sounds great, I live in australia, i have a wallaby skin that i have scraped and dried, it's been dry for nearly a year, and i just scored some pig brains to tan with, but none of the sites i have read info on seem to answer one question i have, but as yours seems the best instructions, i thought i would ask you. the question is, do i apply the brain mixture to the dry rawhide? or do i have to soak it in hot water to make it more supple and then wring it dry before applying the brain slurry?
I will freeze the brains so they don't go off before i hear back from you, which i hope will be soon, as i can't wait to finish this skin off.
cheers.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from trapper vic 12/7/2011 at 05:08pm

Good post. have heard people use rotten walnut hulls to tan have you ever tried it? does this give the hide more color?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from T-Mac 12/9/2011 at 09:37pm

Thanks for your question Trapper Vic,

Walnut husks turned black will give the finished buckskin a deep chocolate brown color. Boil a half gallon of husks in a gallon of water for a few minutes, then let the hulls soak for an hour. When the brew is cool, soak your buckskin in it for a few minutes, then pull the skin out to dry. Use multiple dippings to get your desired color. Good luck.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from clinton gray 10/15/2012 at 02:06pm

can you brain tan a hide with the fur still on it or do you have to remove the fur

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Martens80 12/5/2012 at 05:46pm

After step 2 when you let it dry and then you go to sand and scrap it on step 3, wont the hide be to stiff to still be able to scrap or after only a day will the hide still be able to be scraped?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ronnie Jay 7/17/2013 at 12:37am

Chook Hunter> The only way I have seen hides brain tanned is by placing the DRY rawhide into the solution. I am presuming this is so the hide soaks in as much of the oils as possible.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from SandyHull 12/29/2013 at 01:40pm

Can you soft brain tan with the fur on?

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Write a Comment Your comment (200 characters or less):