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Old January 19th, 2004 #1
Aryan Goddess
Posts: n/a
Default Using brains to tan your hide

An old saying is that every animal has "enough brains" to tan it's own hide, and generally that is true, but it is not always easy to get your mits on enough brains to tan the hides you have on hand. Two pig brains will tan a buck hide nicely.

Brain tanned hides don't have the chemical smell or off color (or expense) of commercially available tanning solutions. Brain tanned hides are also generally more pliant, and the hair stays on better, even with rabbit skins!
Brain tanning has the added bonus of no nasty odor! If the hide is stinking, you've let it spoil. It can still be tanned if it is not too far gone, but the product may be inferior.

Assuming that you are already proficient at shooting and skinning your buck, I won't go in depth into those steps here. I believe that just as running game taints the meat, running an animal too much before killing makes for an inferior hide.

If you are wanting to make buckskin, and the hide is fresh, you can either bury it, hair down, in the ground, about 6 inches, away from pets and pests for 2 to 6 days, or weight it down in a vat of water (which gets pretty slimy with the bacterial breakdown) change the water every day and night and turn the hide each time. After the hair is slicked off, you would then continue creating the buckskin, which if you need directions for, ask me.

You can save the hair for felting and making hats, but deer hair is hollow and not as well suited as beaver, other rodent, or rabbit fur. If you are the creative type, you can make fishing flies from tufts of these hairs tied to fishing hooks with colored thread. You can make those Tyrolian style decorations for the side of your hat, or paintbrushes, or any number of things!

Back to your brain tanning session:

Steps are: soaking, stretching, scraping, braining, soaking/dying, stretching again, graining, softening fibres or "roping", and dressing.

If the hide is dry, soak to soften but remove before slippage (that 3 day slimy mark) Over soaked hides are not as high a quality as those carefully tended. If you absolutely can not get around to tanning, salt the hide thickly and let it dry, only soaking it when you are ready to start working with it. Any flesh and lumps of flesh must be removed before salting or you will regret it when you finally get around to tanning. The fat can go rancid and the flesh can putrefy before the salt can desiccate it.Removing these deposits is also a lot harder after drying.

Stretch the "green" hide tightly and scrape the non-hair side to remove all bits of fat and flesh. You want to remove the sebaceous covering while the hide is still wet to minimize damage. De-fleshing knives are ideal (obviously) but steel pastry blades shaped like my graphic here: o--- can be used to great advantage. (My amall ASCII graphic shows it on its side.)

If you want the hair off and did not remove it during soaking, you'll need to scrape it off next. If you are creating fancy caribou chaps or a buffalo robe (you'll need 2 beef cow brains to tan one bison bull robe) you want the hair left on.

Now the fun part! You can sometimes buy calf or pig brains in grocery stores, you can also ask the butcher to secure you some. They can be dried and reconstituted for use later. If you butcher your own animals, be sure to save the brains, or tell the man at the locker plant that you want the brains saved. You can't just spring it on them as they now use killing rods shot into the steer's head, and your steer must be killed by another method to preserve the brains. (Don't let them charge you extra either! If it is your steer, you are entitled to every bit of it you want, unless you made a deal selling them the hide, of course!)

I suggest also getting the hoofed bones, tallow and suet. If the animal has a nice skull and horns, you can tote that home too. (You'll be wanting to soak it in a barrel of lye water to de-flesh it for you. The horns can be used to make nice "Viking Drinking Horns" depending on their shape. They may look cruddy, but that gets removed in boiling.) Some lockers give you the more standard bits as matter of course, but better to ask first. Don't worry they're used to these requests! (Some will even render your hog lard if you want. I prefer they don't because I like to save all the cracklings to add to cornbread.)

Back to the brains: Cook them in a cup of water for 15 minutes or so. They'll turn white. Allow it to cool but not become cold. SAVE THE LIQUOR!

Now, apply the brains to both sides of the hide, like you are waxing your car. Best to just grab a handful and have at it. A white paste will remain so you should be able to tell where to apply it next. Next, using a big soft brush, "paint" the liquor (brain water) over the drying brain paste on the hide. Let the hide frame stand out of direct sunlight to age for 6 to 8 hours.

Next, dampen the dried hide to soften it for removing from the frame, or if you left the hair on, you will leave it framed to keep the hair from slipping. Either soak the hide in bloodwarm water over night, or cover the leather side of the framed hide with soaking wet towels. If you want your leather to be black, place rusty iron pieces in water for perhaps weeks before, until the water turns black. If you want to add a nice smell to the leather, you can throw in a bit of conditioner in the water, or traditionally, fresh split and pounded yucca roots. If you are using the wet towel method be sure to keep them wet.

Stretch the hide again after the overnight soaking.

Graining is when you "squeegee" out excess water from the leather side of the hide. Use overlapping strokes like you were cleaning your windshield. (If the hide lacks hair, both sides are the "leather" or skin side.) Stretching and softening the hard fibres are the most important steps in tanning, so take your time and do it right. You can speed up drying with a fan or by moving it into the sunshine, if it isn't too daunting a task to move frame & all. Removing from the frame at just the right moment is an art! Too soon and you have to rope it for a longer time... too late it is harder to rope. The hide should feel just damp to the back of your hand.

Next you want to rub the leather side over something defined to stretch and soften the fibres. A rope tied between two trees and the hide slung over it like a drying sheet, is then pulled up and down so every bit gets stretched over the rope. If you don't have rope but you have a log, you can pull the hide back and forth over it. You will see the hide stretch, sometimes up to 8 inches! If it isn't stretching, it won't be a soft and supple product. Be sure to do it in all directions! Working it back and forth rapidly heats up the skin and drys it further. If you don't have the time to devote to this step, roll the hide in DRY towels or a blanket then put it all in a big trash bag and keep in a cool place. Take it out twice a day and rope it for 10 minutes or so each time.
You should now have some fine leather to work with!

This step is optional depending on your intended use of the leather.
You can rub a thin layer of neatsfoot oil over the leather, it will darken it. DO NOT USE ON WHITE BUCKSKIN! After the oil has dried, buff the leather as you do your oiled boots.

Brown Buckskin:
If you are making regular buckskins, you will want to smoke your leather over a smudge fire to give it the brown color and help protect it from hardening if it gets wet. Different woods produce different colors and odors: Green, wet or rotted Hickory makes a medium brown with a hickory smell. Sage imparts a grayer color. Check it every 10 minutes. The former hair side is traditionally allowed to smoke longer to get a deeper color. After you have smoked both sides, roll the buckskin up and wrap in brown paper for a day and a half to set. (or if it will fit in a paper bag, fine)

Added 20 January 2004:

One of the reasons for toting home the lower legs and hooves is the fact that bone marrow oil can also be used in tanning hides, preserving leather, and makes a good addition to homemade saddle soap. The hard hoof "toe nail" can be polished up just like the horns can and buttons or other things can be cut from them. Even if you have no desire to become creative with the hoof shells, your dogs may appreciate having them to chew on. Gelatin is extracted by boiling the hooves, legs, and cartilage. This "jello" can be used in aspics, or sweetened and flavored for making jelled candy or desert use. If the gelatin is boiled down even more, a mucilage is produced which can be stored in a tightly closed bottle (it is good to add a little benzoin gum as a preservative) or it can be painted on the flaps of homemade envelopes, or other paper items, and allowed to dry. Moisten with water to reactivate the the dried mucilage.

This article is copyrighted material, and is not to be used elsewhere without my express permission. Contact me for information. All Rights Reserved Copyright 1-19-2004 Aislinn Morgan

Last edited by Aryan Goddess; January 20th, 2004 at 10:26 PM.


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