Manataka American Indian Council


 

 

DEER HIDE TANNING

 

A BIT OF OPINION BEFORE WE GET STARTED

Today, hunting is called a Ďsportí, we suppose because participants find amusement in the activity. The Ďsport of huntingí is an oxymoron because there is nothing sporting in the way animals are killed today. High-tech scopes, heat and motion detectors, high-powered rifles and other equipment in a modern hunterís arsenal provide little sporting chance to the animal.  People who use such things are not hunters.  They are game players in a shooting gallery.    

Some high-powered equipped people think nothing about leaving stripped carcasses where they are killed.  Many take only choice cuts of meat, leaving the rest to rot, and boast of the meat they provide their families.  Most do not need the food.  Some take only the head and antlers/horns for a wall mounting.  Some argue the merits of modern hunting in terms of population control and preservation efforts, but if they listened to the animals, they would hear a much different viewpoint.

Most hunters today are respectful of the animals they harvest and ethical in their practice of harvesting game, but a few are giving hunting a bad name.  Most hunters understand and work hard to preserve and protect our animal brothers and sisters.  

The message above is intended only for those who are insensitive to the gifts given by the Creator.  There are many respectful hunters who work hard to instill  the 'gifting way' in their children and others.   

A BETTER WAY

There are three cardinal rules in hunting wild life. Violate them and you risk becoming nothing more than a bloodthirsty butcher of life.

Preservation:  Never take the first animal you see.  Let it go.  The chances are you will see more.  If you do not see another all day, chances are your decision to allow the first to go free was a wise one.  It is obvious the population in the area is small and killing the first animal may be among the last you will see in that area for many years.  Do not be greedy in thinking "If I do not kill this one, someone else will."  Do not be lazy by thinking, "Oh gosh, should I continue to tromp around these woods all day?  This may be my last chance."   Do not rely on government bureaucrat so-called scientific population counts.  Do your part to keep a strong population by never killing the first in-season animal you see.     

Respect:  Kneel where the animal fell and give thanks to the animal spirits and the Creator for providing food for your family. Show respect for the animal and its family. Apologize to the animal for taking its life. Leave in the place where the animal fell something useful to its cousins. Corn or a small piece of salt lick is good for deer.

This last piece of advise about leaving a gift can cause a problem because it may be at first thought by a game warden that the gift is "baiting", an illegal act in most jurisdictions.  We do not have any suggestions for avoiding this conflict of thought, however, we believe that an act of kindness, even if temporarily misunderstood, will be sorted out by a discerning game official in a good way -- especially if you live in the area, they know you and you have informed them of your philosophy before hunting.  

Responsible Use:  Use every bit of the animal. Leave as little as possible. Again, the key word is respect. Wasting precious life is a violation of the Creatorís laws of nature. There are many good uses for the less desirable parts of the animal.

There are many other rules to responsible hunting. In order to get a hunting license, most states require applicants to attend a safety class. Some classes offer instruction in handling a weapon, sanitation, usage, safety and population control, but none instruct in the important rules discussed above.

The government does not enforce rules of respect for God's creatures.  Those rules are left to Mother Earth and the Great-Spirit Creator to enforce.

What you do to them - you do to yourself.


INTRODUCTION

O.k., letís climb down from the soapbox and discuss one way to tan hides. We said "one" way, not necessarily the only way to tan. There are many different methods. Dry-scrape, wet-scrape, braining, smoking, pre-smoking and fur tanning to mention a few. This page is intended to be a short primer on the subject, therefore, we will talk only about dry-scraping and touch lightly on the wet-scrape method.

We hope this primer on tanning will encourage you to learn more. There are many good books and web sites on the subject. If there is enough interest in this page, we will consider including "braining" and "smokin" hides.

You are accomplishing a great deal if you learn to tan what you take from the forest. First, you are using, not wasting, the hide for good use. Second, you gain pride in making something with your hands. Third, the product of labor will provide a useful and beautiful thing for your family.

Warning: read other information on tanning before you begin. The information contained here is far from complete and is just enough to cause you a great deal of work and time to produce a mess. One of the best ways to learn is to watch someone with experience. The method discussed here is for making buckskin, hairless on both sides. Tanning furs is another subject.


Step 1 - DEER SKIN TO BUCK SKIN

Evette Tubby and delightful Lakota friend in Louisiana provided most of the items on this list of materials needed to start the tanning process. The rest comes from what I think I remember.

Tools Tanning Frame Soaking Softening

C clamps or sinew

sapling frame or slanted plywood

20-55 gal barrel

 w/ air tight lid

1 Neat's Foot oil

 sharp flat rock

or metal scraper

5 gal bucket 5-15 gals water fine sand paper or pumice stone
sharp awl or knife 120-220 lbs elbow grease 2-3 gals slaked lime smooth log, beam or saw horse
2 - 3 lbs salt  1 gal hardwood ashes

1 lb alum

www.CQConcepts.com

2 quarts vinegar

Step 2 - SKINNING

Skin the hide from the carcass keeping it as whole as possible. Make cuts on the inside of the legs and be careful not to make holes. After the hide is removed from the carcass, be sure to skin the tail as well. The bones of the tail should be removed by making a cut along the underside. 

If you do not plan to tan the hide immediately after skinning it, remove as much of the flesh, fat, membranous tissue as possible. Lightly sprinkle salt over the inside (hairless) of the hide, tightly roll it and place in a freezer. 

The removal of the fat, flesh and tissue is the most important step. Place the hide on a large flat surface for scraping the flesh side of the hide. Make sure all the fat and flesh is completely removed or the hide will not tan properly. Warning: this process should not be rushed. It is hard work and requires time and patience. A sharp knife makes for quick work, but there is too much risk of ruining the hide with a slip. 

The Indian used flat palm-sized stones with beveled edges as scrapers. They also used bone, wood and trees for scraping. The hide was placed on the opposite side of a smooth-bark tree while holding it with both arms. A sawing motion, back and forth, being careful not to pull to hard, would effectively remove the fat and tissue. 

If you plan to leave the hair on the hide, skip to Step 4.

Step 3 - HAIR REMOVAL

If you plan to tan both sides of the hide to make buckskin. Mix One (1) gallon of hardwood ashes, Two (2) pounds of slaked lime, with five gallons of warm water in a large barrel. Stir until dissolved. Immerse the hide. Stir two or three times daily for three to four days or until all the hair comes off easily. Warning: If the hide is left in the mixture too long, it will deteriorate.

Remove the hide from the barrel and rinse in cold water. Place the hide on a raised surface with the hair side up. Use the back of a knife blade or wood scraper to scrape off the hair. Rinse the de-haired skin several times with clean water. Place the hide back in the empty barrel. Pour in ten (10) gallons of cold water and two (2) quarts of vinegar. Replace the hide and soak for 24 hours. Stir every 4 hours. After 24 hours, empty the garbage can and fill it with clean water. Soak the hide in the clean water overnight.

The American Indian has an easier way. The hide was taken to a cold stream, immersed in one to two feet of water and weighted down with rocks. The force of the water and time decayed the hair. Simple and effective.

(See Tanning with Hair On Section below)

Step 4 - CLEANING- NEUTRALIZING

Dissolve one (1) pound of alum in one (1) gallon of warm water in a small bucket. Pour 2 Ĺ pounds of salt in the large barrel with four (4) gallon of cold water. Pour the contents of the small bucket into the large barrel and mix thoroughly. Replace the hide in the large barrel and soak for six (6) to seven nine (9) days, depending on the weather. Stir the mixture a couple of times a day making sure the entire hide is always immersed. After soaking, remove the hide, drain and thoroughly rinse.

Step 5 - DRYING - SOFTENING

Place the wet hide out of the direct sunlight on an upright flat plywood surface with flesh-side out. Allow to partially dry and rub lightly with warm Neatís Foot Oil. Remove it from the board and repeat the process on the other side. Remove excess oil with an absorbent cloth.

Step 6 - SOFTENING

Lightly dampen the hide with a cloth. Remove excess water. Gently rub the hide using a back-and forth motion across a smooth (no splinters please) surface, a log, saw horse, metal pole. Continue the process until the hide is soft and supple. Very lightly apply Neatís Foot Oil when needed.

Step 7 - SANDING

After softening the hide, rub fine grit sandpaper over the surface of the hide to remove tool marks and further soften the leather. When it looks very soft and smooth, your buckskin is ready for use in making clothing, bags, wall handing or anything else you desire. (See Suggestions below for another sanding method)

SUGGESTIONS AND COMMENTS

1. A lye mixture (called buck) for soaking hides may be used instead of lime.

2. The alkaline solution sterilizes and makes the hide free of leather-wasting bacteria.

3. If using the dry scrape method, use a very sharp high quality scraper.

4. Wet-scrape method of scraping may be done instead of scraping while dry. Many tribes preferred the wet-scrape over the dry-scrape method. Wet-salting keeps the grain from drying out making it easier to scrape. Wet-salted hides must be kept virtually air tight in the soaking solution, otherwise they get hard. Wet hides some times become slippery during the softening process. A towel or other nonabrasive material placed between the work surface and the hide make them easier to work.

5. Two by four lumber frame does not twist and warp like sapling frames.

6. Using a metal barrel? Make sure it does not rust from the salt. Check often.

7. Keep soaking containers out of the direct sun. To keep hides from weakening, any mixture of wood ashes, lye or lime must remain cool when hides are soaking.

8. Use a pumice stone in addition to or instead of sand paper to achieve a softer hide.


 

HAIR ON TANNING

Kelly Meyers

 

TIMING

Tanning a hide with the hair on traditionally is very time-restricted. That is really the hardest part of the process.  If it sits too long and is not frozen, bacteria will begin to develop that will loosen hair starting on the belly.

"Too long" depends on temperature and humidity.  Hides will last several weeks in the winter and maybe 2 days in the summer if its in cool shade.  If you are worried about hair slippage, there is a step that is not traditional that I will include. Its not too chemically heavy, but not traditional. 

STEP BY STEP

Hydration The first step is to bring the skin back to fresh condition. If its frozen, simply set it out in the sun and stretch at it occasionally. If its dried it will need re-hydrated. If you need to re-hydrate, or if you are worried about hair loss, now is when we have to pickle the hide to set the hair. A hide tanned fresh will not need this step. 

 

If you want to tan something with the hair on, make sure to get it fresh. To pickle the hide, you will need vinegar, water, a large tub or plastic trash can, and a ph meter (litmus paper is not accurate enough).  As bacteria sets in, the ph will go up. We will add vinegar to bring the ph gradually down to about 1.  

 

Fill your tub with enough water to completely cover the hide. Add about 1/2 gallon of vinegar to the water, stir and add the hide making sure to get it soaked up all over. Check the ph. In 4-6 hours check the ph again. It should have gone up. Add another quart or so of vinegar. Check the ph. Eventually the ph will be 1 when you do an initial check. Keep repeating this process until the ph does not go back up. The hide is now pickled. 

 

CAUTION:  There will be hides that are far enough along with bacteria that the pickle will do nothing but make it very hard to tan unless its really rinsed well.  If this is the case, thank the animal for giving you a nice buckskin, and remember what happened for next time. And remember, if the hide is fresh, no need to pickle.

After the pickle, the hide will need to be rinsed very well. Drain the water and let a garden hose run in the tub with the hide for the afternoon. That is it to rinse the pickle.  If the hide does not need re-hydrated, or is in danger of hair slippage, the pickle can wait until after fleshing. Which brings us to the fleshing step.

Wet Scraping: There are many differences between wet-scrape and dry-scrape, but the biggest and most obvious is that wet-scrape is done while the hide is wet, and dry-scrape while the hide is dry. For fleshing you will need a draw knife (found in antique stores for $3) and a log about 6 inches in diameter and 6 feet long. Make sure the log is very smooth and cleaned of all bark and knots.  A  6" PVC pipe works great. The draw knife is important in that the blade must be dull enough to run your finger over it with pressure with no chance of getting cut.  Any sharper will cause holes in the hide. If anything, err on the side of too dull which will work just fine but will require a bit more energy. If you want to go traditional, use a split ulna bone from the animal which works exactly the same except needs to be re-sharpened often. 

 

Set one end of the log on the ground, the other end on a cross-brace about waist high. Lay the hide on the beam with the head hanging down one side, the tail down the other so that as you scrape down the beam, you scrape side to side, not head to tail.  It will be so much easier.  Lay the hide so that a bit of it is hanging over the top edge of the beam.  As you scrape down, you can lean against the beam and it will hold the hide in place.  Push away from you and the meat and fat will plow right off. 

 

Don't worry about the smallest pieces of membrane, the thin stringy stuff.  After you get all the meat and fat off, its time to tan it.

Tanning: To tan, you will need the brain of the animal.  Every animal has enough brains to tan its own hide except for the buffalo.  (Buffalo have a process all their own)  If you can not get the animal brains, beef or pork brain works well.  Stick the thawed brain in the blender and mix.  Add the brains to about a gallon of water and stir well.   

 

 

We do not use neats foot oil in this type of tanning, but some folks do. Use bone marrow grease for buffalo only (which is what oil is substituted for), but deer, antelope, elk, and moose, get just brains.  Use warm water so it penetrates but not too hot.  A good rule of thumb is that if its too hot for you, its too hot for the animal.  Too hot will ruin the hide.  The biggest trick to good brain penetration is proper hide moisture content.

You want the hide damp in that you can not squeeze and moisture from it, but feels like a sponge. Too dry and the pores will be too tight to let the brains through, too damp and the pores and fibers will be too full to let anything else in. You want it to suck right in.  Lay the hide out flesh side up and spread the brain mixture on the skin.  

 

Use a white-wash brush or heavy paint brush.  The wide big bristle kind of brush. Go ahead and slop it on and let it sit for an hour of so. Come back and slop some more on and let it sit.  Fold the hide in half and then roll it up, keeping the brains in. Set it someplace cool and out of reach of critters for the night.  The next morning come back and coat it again with the solution. Keep the brains refrigerated over night if it is really warm.  They rot fast (which does not hurt the tanning capabilities) but you'll never forget the smell of rotten brains. 

 

After your morning coat, go ahead and stretch it out good, really pull at it.  If you have brains left, save them, if not, that is ok too. Its time to soften.

 

Stretching and Softening: The key is to keep the fibers moving as it dries so they do not re-align the fibers.  You can use a cable, or a rope, even the back of a chair.  We have good luck stretching it by hand and abrading it with a rock.  

 

Stretch the hide and abrade at the same time.  Cables work great for large animals.  Just saw it back and forth.  The wetter it is, the more short breaks you can take.  The drier it gets, stay close to the work.  Keep sawing it back and forth.  A fan or the sun helps, but if its your first, we do not recommend it.   It is better to take longer than it is to have it stiffen up on you. 

 

When it feels dry, it is not.  I've softened a hide all night, going to bed tired and beat only to wake up to a stiff hide.  It felt dry, I thought it was and it got hard. 

 

If this happens, or if a spot starts to stiffen too much, give it a spritz with a spray bottle of water and keep going.  It should not feel cool at all and it should stretch but come back into shape.  

 

If the hide turns out hard or just not the way you want it, analyze it.  Figure out why.  Rarely does your first hide come out soft and velevety.  

 

Brain tanning will give you better, longer lasting results than anything else. 

 

Kelly Meyers


Want to learn more about tanning?

CP-261  HOW TO TAN SKINS THE INDIAN WAY 

by Evard H. Gibby, Montejon and Monte Smith  

This exciting Eagle's View publication explains everything you ever wanted to know about brain tanning as it was done by Native Americans. Brain tanning is the process of mechanically separating the fibers of the hide, lubricating them with oils from the brain tissue and making them water resistant by the application of smoke. It is the ideal method for home tanners.   This fully illustrated book features clear, simple, step-by-step instructions for tanning all kinds of skins, with and without the hair. Methods described include: making buckskin (including fleshing, removing the hair, braining the skin, and breaking and drying the skin); tanning rabbit and sheepskins with the hair or fur on; and smoking the skins. Techniques for making rabbit skin ropes and rabbit rope blankets and a special section on primitive clothing are also provided. The appendices contain information on constructing many of the tools used and suggestions on tanning without brains. Brain tanned leather is far superior to chemically tanned leather for use in native American crafts such as beading and porcupine quillwork, or any work which requires stitching on leather.  The high cost of brain tanned leather makes learning the technique a very attractive alternative. This book will be invaluable to anyone interested in traditional skills of the American Indian or survival skills, and to those who enjoy making and wearing their own craftwork.  Soft Cover, 28pp.  $16.95 + s/h

Proceeds from book purchases go to support the nonprofit, cultural, educational and religious purposes of the Manataka American Indian Council.  Thank you for your support.

Notice: Occasionally books may be discontinued or out of stock without prior notice. With written permission, your order may be filled from the 'shelf'.  Shelf books are new, but some may be slightly discolored or sale tags may be still attached.  

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SKINNING AND TANNING: A Complete Guide to Working with Pelts, Fur, and Leather 

by Monte Burch

Here is the complete guide to a skill that may be mysterious to some, written by Monte Burch, an authority who practices many of the ancient traditions of tanning and hiding. Starting at the beginning, Burch introduces the hunter to the tools of a tanner, and even gives complete plans for making many of these implements. Instructions are given for making fleshing beams, stretchers for pelts, fleshing knives, and many others. He also covers tanning formulas and materials, both traditional and modern. Soft Cover, 256pp.  $34.95

Proceeds from book purchases go to support the nonprofit, cultural, educational and religious purposes of the Manataka American Indian Council.  Thank you for your support.

Notice: Occasionally books may be discontinued or out of stock without prior notice. With written permission, your order may be filled from the 'shelf'.  Shelf books are new, but some may be slightly discolored or sale tags may be still attached. Fulfillment rate: 98.6%.

 

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