NOTE: What follows is a general outline of what is involved in brain tanning hides. There are many different "formula's" or directions for tanning out there. Some are simpler and some more involved. I heartily recommend following the links at the end of this article for those who want to try brain tanning. -WRK-
Technically speaking, the primitive method of preparing leather for clothing which we will be discussing here isn't really tanning. What one is doing is stretching and working the hide into a usable, stable state. Preservation is asssisted by a smoking process which colors the hide as well.
The hide should be fresh when you begin this process. Old hides or hides that have begun to decompose are not desirable. Don't use them. The first thing you need to do is to soak the hide in clean water for a couple of days. Change the water daily and make sure the hide remains completely submerged during the entire soaking process. Rocks are often used to keep the hide weighted down under the water. After a couple days, check the hide and see if the hair is ready to "slip." If you can remove the hair you are ready for the fleshing step. If it doesn't slip you may have to sprinkle wood ashes onto the hide, rub them in, and roll it up with the fur side in. After a day or so test the hide to see if the ashes have done their work and then rinse the hide in cool, clean water. The ashes make a lye which loosen the hair. If you are doing a hide from a deer you shouldn't have to worry about using ashes-two or three days of soaking in the water should do it. The only thing that would make you wait more than three days is if it's real cold outside. Then it could take a few days longer.
Fleshing The Hide
The water is wrung out of the hide and it is put on a fleshing beam. This is a debarked log that is buried into the ground so that it sticks out at an angle that puts the end of it about waist high. Then you scrape every bit of fat, flesh, and hair of the hide. It takes a lot of elbow grease. You are not only removing stuff, but also evening out the thickness of it. You're trying to make things as uniform as you can. Rinse the hide thoroughly in cold water and wring it out. Now lace the hide to a large frame and stretch it tight.
And Now..The Brain In "Brain Tanning"
Mix the brains from the animal into warm water and mash them up into a paste. If you don't have enough brains to make enough paste for your hide you can add liver paste or get some cow brains. Rub the brain mixture into the stretched hide until it is thoroughly saturated and soaked in. Remove the skin from the frame and soak it in water again and then wring it out. Stretch it on the frame again and now the real work begins.
"Breaking The Hide"
There are a couple of ways to "break' the hide. The first is while it is in the frame or stretched between two trees or something, you take a tool that looks like a canoe paddle and use it to push on the hide. You apply pressure inward and push and pull the paddle across every part of the hide. When you do this it breaks down part of the cell structure and leaves the hide soft and supple. Rinse the hide and repeat this step several times before going to the final step of smoking the hide.
Another way that I read in The Indian How Book, is to soak the hide in water and loop it around a tree. Then you take a stick and shove it into the loop and twist and twist the hide until its tight. Then you let it dry, soak it again in water, and repeat the stretching process until its soft and even.
Smoke Coloring and Preservation
Let me say that there are several variations on this method. This is only one. I would strongly suggest that you visit the Native Tech Tanning page. There you will find a great deal of information on how to pursue this ancient craft. Good Luck!!
This page was last updated on 26 March 2012.
Copyright © 1998 & 2012 by Wyatt R. Knapp