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Use Your Brains: Tan Your Hides

A lot of preppers are into supplementing their food supply through hunting and trapping. Along with meat, each animal you take also provides you with a pelt if you wish to take advantage of it. Brain tanning relies on the fact that every animal has enough brains to tan their own hide. The brain coats the fibers of the hide and prevents deterioration, leaving nice usable fur (with hair left on) or leather (with hair removed).

If you ask ten people who brain tan how they do things, you will probably end up with at least as many ways to arrive at the finished product. Brain tanning is not an exact science, so experience will be your best teacher. These basics should get you started.

Make sure you have enough time allotted to complete some of these steps in one shot. For example, you don’t want to run out of time right in the middle of fleshing and have it dry out on you. If you do run out of time for some unforeseen circumstance, put the hide in the freezer.

Skinning

Animals can be case skinned (like removing a sock), or open skinned by splitting down the belly and ending up with a flat pelt with fur on one side and skin on the other. Most furbearers are case skinned, while beavers and big game are flat or open skinned. I hang an animal by its rear feet to case skin it. Large game is also hung to flat skin, while smaller animals like beaver are laid on a flat surface.

To case skin an animal, start by cutting around both hind feet, then slit the backs of the legs open to the anus. If you are keeping the tail on the hide, you will want to slit it open and remove it from the bone. Start pulling the skin away from the meat using your knife to cut the membrane that holds them together.

You should be able to work your way down to the front shoulders/legs quickly. When you get there, cut around the front legs like you did the back legs. You can cut out near the paw if you want legs on your fur, or cut near the body if you don’t care. Skin down to these cuts and pull the legs out.

When you get to the head, cut the ear cartilage very near the skull. You will want to pull it out and cut it off later. The eyes are tricky: just try to cut close to the skull and keep them as small as possible. When you get to the nose, cut through the cartilage and the hide should come free of the carcass.

If you are leaving the head on, you will want to trim off the lips and much of the cartilage on the back of the nose. The rear of the ear is thick while the inside is very thin; care should be taken in removing the cartilage. It is probably not worth your while to try to save the inside skin; you can remove it with the cartilage.

De-furring

If you decide you want plain leather, you will need to remove the hair from the hide. There are a couple ways to go about this.

You can soak the hide in a lye solution (water and wood ashes), which, after a couple days, will loosen the hair and allow it to be scraped off without too much effort. Always be careful with lye and be sure to rinse the hide in several changes of water to remove any residue.

The other option is to scrape the hair from the hide on your fleshing beam with a fleshing knife.

Fleshing

Fleshing is the process of removing all the meat, fat and membrane that is still adhered to the hide after it is skinned. This needs to be removed in order for the brain solution to effectively saturate the skin.

A fleshing beam is a useful tool to help get all of this junk off of the hide. It is basically a smooth board that the hide is draped over while you scrape everything off with a fleshing knife. A smooth 2×6 that tapers to a point works well for this. One time in a pinch I even used a baseball bat held in a vice.

If you are going to flesh with a beam, make sure and clean the hair side of all burrs and clumps of dirt and hair. These can cause you the tear the hide if you hit one while you are doing your fleshing.

A fleshing knife looks like a drawknife but is very dull. It is used in the same motion of putting pressure on the hide and pulling toward you. A dull knife can be used if held at a right angle to the hide and used to scrape instead of cut. Tradition has it that mountain men used their big belt knives with a block of wood stuck on the point, thus turning them into a two-handed drawknife.

It is best to start at the top/head and work your way down to the tail, removing every scrap of anything not skin. You must be careful to not push too hard and cut the skin.

Stretching

Some people like to stretch the hide before they flesh it. If you have skinned your hide flat, it can be nailed to a sheet of plywood, or a frame can be built and the hide laced to the frame in several places an inch or two apart to hold it flat.

To flesh a hide like this, use a large metal spoon and scrape the hide with the edge to remove the junk. A scraper used to remove paint can also be used if you are careful not to cut your hide. To be a real traditionalist, you can also use a rock flake mounted on a short handle.

Your hide should be dried on a stretcher. It can be left there for some time if it is truly dry. Just before braining, you will want to rough up the hide a little with some sand paper. This will remove any last bits of membrane and allow the brain solution to soak into the hide easier.

Braining

Next comes the actual braining. Brains can be obtained at your local meat department. Most people prefer pig or cow brains.

If you use the animal’s own brain, you should split the skull down the center between the eyes and remove the brains from the resulting halves. Be careful to pick out any bone chips, since they can cut a hole in the leather if they get rubbed into it.

There are three basic methods used to brain hides; all three call for mashed up brains and some water. In all three cases, warm up the solution before using it for best results.

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The first way is to make a thick solution or paste, take your hide off the stretcher, put a coating on the flesh side (which would be both sides if you removed the fur), roll it up, and let it set overnight. The next day, scrape off any dry solution and repeat the process until your experience tells you it is enough.

The second method uses a solution that is the consistency of a thick slurpee. You can make the brain daiquiri-like solution in your blender (just don’t tell your wife). Then take the brain solution and work it into the dried and stretched hide with your hands. You need to make sure you cover every little bit of the hide and get the solution worked in. A second application can be done once the first has almost dried.

The third way to do it is to mix up your brains in the blender (maybe you should just get an old one at a yard sale…) with more water to a cream-of-brains soup consistency. Then you take your dried and stiff hide and dip it in the solution until it is pliable. Then you dip it in swish it around and ring it out several times. Some people will soak it overnight or even a couple days in this solution. You can then put it back on the stretcher or lay it out flat to start drying.

Any left over solution can be saved in your freezer and used on any future hides you may take.

You can also make a “brainless” braining solution by heating up water and adding fels naptha soap (run it over a kitchen grater… again, don’t tell your wife).  Mix until the soap is dissolved, then add a bunch of neat’s foot oil. The hide is soaked in this solution for a few days and then treated the same as a brained hide.

Working

Once the brained hide is almost dry, it is time to start working it. Some call this “breaking” the hide. You can run it back and forth across your fleshing beam, pull it back and forth over your clothesline, or even toss it in the drier with a bunch of shoes and the heat turned down (all together now…don’t tell your wife). Jump on it, pound it, chew it—anything to get it worked up. The point is to get the fibers loosened and softened up to be a comfortable piece of leather or fur.

Smoking

Smoking is the final step in preparing your tanned hide. The resins from the wood smoke coat the fibers in the leather, waterproofing them. If left unsmoked, leather that has gotten wet will stiffen back up when it dries and have to be reworked. Smoke also deters insects from feasting on your hard work.

You will want to avoid using pine or evergreen for your smoking wood. These will coat the leather with tar and pretty much ruin it.

When smoking, you want lots of smoke with very little heat. The easiest way to accomplish this is to allow your fire to burn down to coals and add rotten or punky wood to produce the smoke.

The best way to get the most smoke on your hide is to make it into a cylinder and use it for a chimney. Hang your leather so as much smoke as possible travels through it. If you have tanned a hide that was case skinned, you already have the cylinder: just turn the fur side out and let the smoke go up the inside and come out the mouth and leg holes. Some people will make a “skirt” out of canvas to funnel the smoke into the hide.

If you have made your leather flat, sew your hide into a cylinder with a couple loose stitches along the edge all the way up to the top.

Remember you do not want to cook your leather, only to smoke it. You must keep a close eye on your fire to keep it from scorching or going out.

Another way to smoke your leather is to make a smoking booth or cabinet. This is basically a box or even a canvas teepee where hides are hung and smoke is forced into. This requires a little less attention since the fire is usually farther away, and if it goes out, it can be relit. Another big plus is that you can do several hides at the same time. You will want to check them often and possibly rearrange them so they get smoked evenly.

The length of time to smoke your leather has a lot to do with personal preference. Most brain tanners go by the color of the hide to indicate if it is finished or not. But that color can vary depending on the type of animal and type of wood you are using for smoke. Thirty minutes is a good place to start, but experience will be your best teacher.

Extras

Remember hides should always be worked fresh, if possible. Hides that hold moisture for too long will start to decompose, and the hair will slip out easily. In extreme cases, the hide itself will rot in places and be no good for tanning. Places to especially watch are ears and tails.

Brain-tanned fur is a “green” renewable resource that anyone can take advantage of with only some time, effort, and a little know-how.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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10 comments

  1. great information, thank you

  2. great information! I always wanted to know how to tan my own hides. Thanks for sharing!

  3. The phrase “keep using your brains” was used by Matt Richards when he was talking about his book. His book “Deerskins into Buckskins” is probably one of the best if not the best on braintanning your hides. Your article is a good overview and should leave readers looking for information such as Matt’s book. Thanks.

  4. If you are unfortunate enough to live in an area where “Chronic Wasting Disease” infects deer, do NOT under any circumstance open the spinal fluid or the brain of a dead deer. This is mad cow disease believed to have been introduced into deer herds by well meaning hunters feeding deer. Of course, the same pellets that spread mad caw disease by containing animal by products. A word to the wise!

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