Sunday, July 2, 2017

Buckskins and brains

And now for something completely different!

I'd like to share my strangest hobby with you. Interestingly, although it used to be a traditional feminine occupation (at least among some peoples), every single practitioner I've met online, in the course of learning it, has been male. I'm referring (of course?) to tanning buckskin.

It all started with the deer in the woods here at Plow Creek. They get hit on the road sometimes. And sometimes (in season) they get hunted. I learned from an experienced guy here how to field-dress and butcher deer that have fallen victim to cars (I have very high standards though--it needs to be still bleeding) and we've gotten some high-quality organic free-range venison out of it. (Mm, deerburgers.) One step in the process was burying the parts we weren't going to use. I always felt a little twinge at burying that big, soft, beautiful pelt in the earth.

So one fall and winter, when I needed what Jane Austen would call "useful occupation" due to some plans not working out, I started a web search about how to tan that beautiful fur.

The first thing I found out: it isn't fur. No matter how nice and soft it feels, it's hair, like a cow's or a goat's, which means it's hollow and will fall out after a few years; there's a reason they don't sell deer coats. Apparently wanting to tan a hair-on deerhide is a mistake all newbies make, in the interesting world of tanning forums, so I duly listened to my teachers. They said: you have the skin of a buck. Why not make buckskin?

So I did.

Buckskin is a fascinating material. It's not leather. It is technically its own, entirely different substance. It's softer than suede, strong as canvas, light as, well, probably denim, and stretchy. It's unbelievably comfortable to wear--as leather definitely isn't. The only thing wrong with it, as a garment, is that it absorbs water like a sponge. But other than that, it's light, strong and beautiful.

And it's made with brains.

What I don't do. Those lacings would be the end of me.
There's a certain oil in brain tissue that's crucial to the tanning process. (It can be found in other things--you can approximate it with egg yolks, for instance.) It's wackily enjoyable to imagine just who discovered this and how (and it must have been dozens of people, because native peoples all over North America and on almost every other continent have done it), but no doubt about it, brains do something special to hides, and it's said every animal except the buffalo has enough brains to tan its own hide.

I searched and searched the web for different methods, mostly for the sake of avoiding that incredibly arduous-looking process where you lace a skin into a homemade frame to scrape or stretch it--and I found what I wanted, and happily learned something called the wet-scrape method. Here are the steps.

1. Soaking (aka bucking)

You put the hide into a barrel with just the right mix of water and wood ashes, or water and lye. (If you're using lye, WEAR GLOVES. Don't ask me how I know.) After a few days, depending on the weather, the skin will swell slightly (in a non-stinky way) and the hair will start to come out. I can also attest that if you accidentally leave it for three years, the hide will literally dissolve. But then Coca-Cola will do that too, or so I hear.

 2. Scraping

What I do instead. That's not me though.
You lay the hide over a log or a PVC pipe, placed on a sawhorse or stump or something so that one end is up near your stomach. With a blunt metal edge of some kind (I used the handle of a long metal spoon), you scrape off, first all of the bits of flesh and fat from the side of the hide that used to contain, y'know, the deer; then you flip it over and scrape off the top layer of epidermis (and hair, but that's just a bonus) from the outside. (You can scrape the flesh earlier, especially worthwhile if it's freshly skinned, but the bucking mixture prevents rot, so you can afford to wait till this step.)

3. Braining

You blender up the brains with some warm water and soak the hide in them. Should I claim it's not as gross as it sounds? It's... well, it doesn't bother me, anyway. And what it does to the hide is fascinating.

What I'm told is: the oil coats the matted fibers that make up the core layer of skin, so that instead of holding tightly to each other, they begin to slip. You have a piece of hide (it's gray-white at this point and fairly thin) that used to be as unstretchy as canvas, and now you can grab its sides in two hands and double its width just by pulling. It doesn't spring back, it just stays that way. Then you can grab it in the other direction and double its height. (It doesn't just keep getting bigger; when it gains height, it loses width, etc.) It's kind of a magical feeling, like being a kid discovering a new material for the first time--mud, or play-dough, or water even...

Till you do it all day!

4. Stretching

You wring the hide out very thoroughly (there's a special technique) and then you start stretching it. You stretch it over and over, in every direction, till it's dry. You can do it solely by hand or stretch it around something--a cable, a post, even a small tree. This can take three hours, or it can take all day, depending on how thick the hide is and how dry the air is. It's kind of grueling. More than "kind of," if you've got a big, thick hide of an older buck. (I still have a hide in the freezer that I know I don't have the muscle strength to stretch, actually. It was, I forget, an 8-point buck? Maybe more. Even scraping it was hard.) I can only imagine how strong Native women used to be as a matter of course, doing this on the regular to clothe their families.

This part is where you hope you scraped all the epidermis off. Any pieces you missed will become little hard patches on your hide, like bits of it have been laminated.

If you've scraped and stretched it properly, on the other hand, when it's all dry it will be soft like cloth, mildly stretchy like a heavy T-shirt, and pale.

Then you smoke it.

5. Smoking

This "fixes" the tanning chemically in some way. If you don't do it, a good washing will undo your tanning and return your hide to rawhide.

Smoking's a bit complicated, and looks ridiculously picturesque--definitely the photo-shoot stage of buckskin tanning. You set up a little tipi or frame of short poles, and hang your hide from it, all sewn up (or, modernly, glued with tacky glue) into a sort of balloon shape that only opens at what used to be the neck. Under the neck you place a coffee can full of hot coals, and onto those coals you crumble dry punky wood, like you find in the woods in fallen logs full of dry-rot. It makes this lovely fragrant smoke, which goes up into the hide and out through its pores, "fixing" it and giving it its final color. The color is subtly different depending what kind of wood you use--from red-brown to dark brown to golden-brown.

(Although to be honest, I don't know what kind of wood I've used, as I'm not great at identifying rotting trees. At a guess it was probably oak, maybe maple, and as a great connaisseur of subtle color shadings I would call the color I got out of it... brown.)

I've never made buckskin clothing yet, having tanned all of three successful hides in my life so far, but maybe someday! I've made only small things, mostly gifts. My two favorite projects so far have been a pair of custom-fitted gloves for my mother and a pair of moccasins that were my kid's first real shoes. I've also made a couple of nice small purses.

If you want to learn more, a good intro page that includes both how-to and some interesting history is And here is the best series of forum posts I have ever seen on how to do wet-scrape brain tanning, with thorough science included.


  1. Fascinating! Not sure that they were so sophisticated in the 6th century, when my book is set. And there it was marten hides. I guess you can call that fur?

    1. They might have been though! says there's some evidence they did it in the Stone Age. Maybe not this exact method--there've been a lot of different methods worldwide with some common elements. (I don't know that much about the history but there's an interesting article on that site.) And yes, marten would be fur. If I understand correctly it's only hoofed animals that have those hollow hairs.

      Hm, so why the 6th century, and what's the book about?

      Glad it was interesting! Thanks for stopping by!