How To Brain Tan Animal Hides
Brain tanning is an old method that is used to tan an animals hide. It’s also known as the open pore method. You will be making leather skins you will need to soak the skin in lye or potash to help loosen the hair so you can remove it by scraping. If you are making fur skins you will need to scrape all the fat and remaining meat particle from the skin side of the fur. Plant tannins are helpful after the skins been brain tanned, but using them alone will produce hard, inflexible skin only good for harness leather, boot soles and belts. No salt at all can be used when you plan to brain tan your animal skin.
To prepare the brains for tanning they must be removed from the skull. Once removed the brains are placed into a pot and mashed. An equal amount of water is added and this mixture which should be the consistency of pudding, is slowly heated until the pink color has changed to gray. The mixture is allowed to cool before applying to the skin. *The brain mixture can be applied without cooking if you find yourself in a position where a pot or fire is not possible. You will need to coat the skin evenly with the brain mixture. The skin is then folded skin to skin sides touching. The skin needs to be placed somewhere out of the sun and out of the reach of scavengers. Coyotes, possums and raccoons love the meal that a brain tanning skin provide.
After a few days you will need to check the skin to see if the process is complete. Take your thumb and first finger and pinch the skin between them. If the indentation of your fingernail remains on the skin side you are ready to rinse off the brains. If the impression does not remain you will need to allow the process to continue. Check your skin daily as the chemical reaction will continue and your hide will decompose into mush. The optimum temperatures for brain tanning will be daytime temperatures in the 60’s and evening temperatures in the 40’s. If its warmer the process will be faster and you may have flies attach your hide.
Wrapping the hide in cheesecloth will help prevent blow fly damage as will allowing a smoke fire to burn near a brain tanning hide. Brain tanning in the winter time takes a long time as the cooler temperatures do not allow the chemical reaction to occur. Brain tanning has a unique and not so pleasant odor and is not something you want to smell inside your house for a week. Generally speaking it will take a week to 10 days for a full sized white tail deer hide to brain tan. Once the process is complete you will need to rinse the hide in water to remove the brain mixture. If your hide is exceptionally dirty you can use mild soap (not detergent) to remove any residual dirt, blood or brains. Dawn dish soap works well as it strips the grease, dirt and debris and does not affect the hide.
Once the hide is clean you are ready to break the hide. Breaking is the process that makes the skin supple and soft to the touch. If you are working with a smaller animal such as a fox or rabbit you do not require any tools to break the skin. Grab a side of the hide with each hand and pull and tug as the skin is drying. Change the position of your hands often to ensure that you work all parts of the skin. Larger animals such as deer and elk will require that you place the hide on a frame or find some friends to help. Using strong twine you place the hide on a frame so that you can use a rounded end stick to push against the hide, breaking it in. Should you have friends you can each grab a section and pull and tug against each other. A fence post is handy to have for breaking larger hides. By using the fence post you and your friends pull the hide across the post helping to speed up the breaking process. Once your hide is broken its ready to be smoked.
Without smoking a brain tanned hide will get hard if it gets wet. If a brain tanned hide is smoked after tanning it can get wet and remain soft and pliable. A fire pit is dug and a trench dug leading up to the tipi frame. A small conical frame built from greenwood branches forms the tipi frame. A fire is made in the pit and allowed to burn down to coals. While the fire is burning down to coals you soak rotten wood in water. Your hide is placed on the small tipi frame skin side in. The trench is covered with rush mats, bark or a tarp to allow the smoke to rise from the fire pit into the tipi frame smoking the skin.
When the fire has died down to coals you add the water soaked rotten wood and cover the fire pit allowing the smoke to be drawn into the trench. The type of wood you choose will affect the color of the skin. Maple will produce a purplish color while hedge apple will produce a yellow tan. Oak produces brown colors the depth of which depends on the species. It takes approximately 3 adult white tail deer hides to make a shirt, leggings and breech clout for an adult. Hunting time not included it will take about a month to brain tan and smoke enough hides to cloth yourself. The additional time is spent soaking the fur skin in potash water prior to beginning the brain tanning process. That process adds an additional 2 days to the tanning process.