Tanning Hides The Old Fashioned Way

Brain tanning is one of the oldest known methods of tanning hides or pelt. It’s said that every animal has a brain just the right size for a proper tanning, all animals except for the buffalo, or so I have heard. I have yet to tan a buffalo hide, I have helped skin and process one using a skinning knife but I never did the tanning.

Tanning Hides The Old Fashioned Way

There are several methods of tanning a hide but the brain tanning method is one of my favorites because it’s all natural. No chemicals are used and nothing is wasted when processing the animal. I believe in using all that you can from the animal for the simple fact that its life was taken to provide for you so do right by it. Ok so let’s get down to it.

1. Fleshing

This can be one of the most important parts of the process. “Fleshing” or “Scraping” is the process of cleaning all of the excess meat, fat, and membranes from the hide/skin. If you don’t remove it all there’s a chance that the hide or pelt can mold, mildew, or start rotting. Aside the board and tacks to stretch and hang the hide, you’ll also need a fleshing knife or tool, sandpaper, and a pot for boiling the solution. Fleshing knives vary in shape, size, and there are specialized knives for various types of furs and hides.

Once the hide is removed from the animal you’re going to want to stretch it out and tack it to a flat board or a log. For bigger hides such as the buffalo or an elk, it’s sometimes easier to stake it to the ground. Some people who tan hides on a regular basis actually build a wall large enough for big hides. Using your knife, push and scrape all of the excess meat, membranes, and fat off of the hide. You’ll know it’s clean when you begin seeing the pores.

Sometimes while fleshing a little bit of the fur or hair will come through the skin, if this happens just move away from that section. If you keep scraping in that area you could rip the hide. Give it time and come back to it. The head, also known as, the mast is the hardest area to get clean. So FYI it’s going to take some time and patience!

2. Braining

Now it’s time to make the tanning solution by using the brain and water. Remove the brain from the skull and toss it in a pot with some water. For small brains like that of a coon or squirrel, you’re only going to need about one and a half cups of water. The bigger the brains the more water you’ll need. Cook the brains in the boiling water for around 10 minutes or so and then mash the brains until the solution becomes an oily liquid. You’ll want to separate the solution in half and allow it to cool enough to be able to handle it but not cool.

Before applying the solution take your sandpaper and buff the hide. You can also use a granite rock or sandstone if you don’t have any sandpaper. The buffing will help soften the hide a lot. Now, using your hands rub the solution into the hide and be sure to get every inch of it as evenly as possible. Allow the hide/pelt to dry overnight, anywhere from 8-16 hours depending on the weather conditions and the size of the hide. The thicker the hide the more brain solution and coatings it will require.

Small pelts only need two or three coatings with the solution while a bigger pelt will require 3 – 5, or as many as it takes. Between every application of the solution, the hide must be left alone to dry overnight to avoid too much moisture leading to trouble. Another tip is, when you’ve moved on to the second solution application it’s good to cover the pelt with a warm damp towel after the oil is applied. This helps it from becoming too stiff.

3. Softening

Tanning Hides The Old Fashioned Way
image by henna lion via visualhunt.com

Now that the dirty work is done it’s time to smooth and stretch the hide/pelt. You can use the back of a chair or a towel rod etc. Pull the pelt over the chair or rod with the fur side up, using both hands you want to stretch and rub the hide back and forth side-to-side all the way around. If your hide is too stiff and hard that’s an indication that it needs another coating, soak, and then stretch it that way until it’s dry.

4. Smoking

Once your hide is completely dry, stretched, and smooth it’s time for the smoking. Hang the hide above the fire and use damp or rotting wood to cause the fire to smolder and smoke. It’s the smoke that’s important not so much a big flame. You have to keep a close eye on the fire and hide so it doesn’t get burnt. The smoke is an added protection to keep the oil sealed in, as well as, it keeps it from rotting. The whole process is about preserving the hide. If by chance you have a tipi you can smoke it the traditional Native American way, inside of the tipi which helps to smoke it and keeps it out of the elements.

Watch this video by Survival HT on tanning fur hides:

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The tanning process can take a few days or up to a week. Because of this, it’s crucial to be sure you’ll have the time to tend to the hide or it might end up going to waste, which is horrible in all aspects. As I mentioned above there’s more than one way to tan a hide… this is one of the oldest and most natural ways of doing it, which is just my style.

Do you have any experience with tanning hides, if so we’d love to hear about your method or any stories and skills you can add to the knowledge in the comments below!

Here’s A Homesteading Guide to Tanning Hides!

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