Revised and Expanded December 9, 1998
© 1998 Joseph Dinsmore & Victoria Longtrail D.
A draw knife that is fairly dull, a utility knife, PVC pipe of 6″ in diameter, a plastic garbage can, a 10 gallon plastic garbage pail, a pair of insulated rubber gloves for cold weather scraping (ones with long cuffs). Some sort of anti-bacterial soap for washing. Parachute cord, about 60′ of it cut into 6′ foot lengths. Glovers needles and artificial sinew or other strong thread. I have recently discovered a neat little tool I use during the softening process, it is used by trappers and is called a Yoho. It is a narrow little spade used for digging holes. I like the way it pulls on the hide more than any other tool I have tried. It makes it easy to work on the edges because it is narrow.
Frames made of 2×4’s in various sizes. We put nails about every five inches around the outside of the frames to keep the cord from slipping out of place. Also make sure the ends of the boards extend about four inches beyond where they are connected, so when the frame is turned different ways, the outer nails are not flattened out.
If you are new at tanning, we always recommend you begin with a doe hide or small buck that is not very thick. It is surprising how many inquiries we get about tanning elk for a first project. Choose hides that have been shot as few times as possible. The less holes the better. Also the way it was skinned is important. A pulled hide is ideal but most hides we get have been skinned with a knife. (see the braintan.com Skinning tutorial for details). Avoid hides that have a lot of score marks. Avoid hides that already stink or have maggots on them. Fresh hides also often times still have ticks on them so watch out for that too.
A hide is always easiest to do when it is fresh or has been frozen. We use a PVC pipe to scrape on. It provides a smooth surface unlike a peeled log that will get nicks in it after a while and cause nicks in the hide as you dehair (ed. note: this is only a problem with certain types of wood). When fleshing, get the majority of the flesh and fat off. Cut off any long hanging down legs or pieces of skin to make the whole process easier. Often times we get special orders for hides that have the skin of the legs left on. As we’re fleshing along the belly and find holes close to the edge, we always just go ahead and trim the hide back so that the holes are eliminated.
If you are not going to go ahead with the tanning process then you will want to store the hide. Ideally, freezing it is the best way to go. If you are only doing one or two then you can fold the hide, flesh side to flesh side, roll it up tightly, tie it and stick it in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer until you can get to it. In fact any time during the tanning process, if you are interupted and can not work on the hide for a few hours or days you can freeze it without damage to the hide or the tanning process.
You can salt the hide and it will keep for quite a while like that. Keep in mind that if you have many salted hides and have them stacked up on top of one another, there will be heat generated within the pile that could cause the hides to rot (ed. note: while this is possible it is not typically a problem, storing salted hides stacked is common practice).
You can also hang the hides to dry AFTER they have been fleshed. If you leave meat and especially fat on the hide and dry the hide, it can get what we call grease burned and when you go through the process of tanning the hide will fall apart. If the hide has been fleshed well, then it can be hung and dried and will keep for years as long as bugs don’t get at it. Joe lost over a hundred hides a few years back due to little burrowing bugs.
We usually buy hides twenty or more at a time, some are salted but most are fresh. We try to get as many fleshed and dehaired as possible then they can be rolled up small and frozen or pre-brained as we most often do to them. We’ll discuss this later.(For more on hide storage, see the braintan.com tutorial Storing Hides)
After the hide has been fleshed and you decide to continue the process, place the hide in a plastic garbage can half filled with water. Stir it once or twice to make sure all surfaces are in contact with water. Weigh the hide down with a cinder block or stump to keep the hide totally underwater. Even in cold weather the hide is most often ready to be de-haired the next day. The idea here is not to slip the hair but to thicken the grain enough so that when it is removed, the hair comes off with it.
Place the hide on the PVC pipe so that the neck is closest to you as you will want to scrape the hair off in the direction it lays naturally. You should use old clothing and water proof gloves. Joe takes a large garbage bag and cuts the end out, than slips it on like a skirt. This way it can be thrown away after a few uses instead of hosing rain-gear off. The hair on the neck is always more difficult to remove than the rest of the hide. Once you get past the neck the rest of the hide will be relatively easier. You can recognise the grain as a brown/pinkish layer at the roots of the hair. It is important to remove as much as possible but not necessary to get 100 percent of it.
The neck, down the back and the hips are the thickest part of the hide. As you get toward the sides of the hide, the hide gets thinner and you won’t want to press as hard as it is easier to put a hole in the hide.
Once the hide has been de-haired, we flip it over and pass over the flesh side again, more of the membrane will come off because the hide is not padded by the hair still being on like it was in the fleshing step.
When we have finished de-hairing we pre-brain the hide. We use cow brains. We buy the brains in bulk, by the pound through our local meat market. We have used pig brains but find them greasy and result in a more dense hide, we prefer our hides to be soft and lofty.
Take about a pound of cow brains and either blend them in a blender, or squish them through a screen to get it as mashed as possible when mixed with about four to five gallons of water. We always heat the brain solution. Do not boil it as it seems to have an adverse effect on the solution. Also if possible, do not use chlorinated water. We use well water for this step. If you don’t have well water then any ground water or rain water would do. The chlorine has an adverse effect on the function on the brains.
At this point your hide should be somewhat damp and not real wet as you have just scraped it and most of the moisture from soaking it has been removed. The hide will be discolored, yellowish with bloody spots on it perhaps. Put the hide into the warmed brain solution and swish it around a bit. Take the edge of the hide and sort of work your way around the entire edge making sure it is not folded and stuck to itself. As you are swishing the hide and working your way around the edge you will notice that the hide is getting lighter in color and is becoming soft and slimey. Thats good.
Submerge the hide in the brain solution and let it soak over night. The next day hang it out on a line, making sure it is not sticking to itself and the air can circulate over all of it. At this point the hide should be so soft and slimey that it is difficult to hang on to. We usually hang it over the line, clothes pin it in a couple of places and prop it open with sticks we find laying around. If it is hot and windy, chances are the hides will dry enough in one day to take them down for soaking in cold water, or for storage.
It is possible to let them dry out too much. You want them to be slightly flexible. They can be stacked and stored indefinately at this point as long as they are in a dry place. At this point the hide will be a yellowish color again.
If you plan on continuing the tanning process then do the following in preparation for pre-stretching. Fill a ten gallon plastic container to about 3/4 of the way full with cold water. Fold the hide and stick it in the water, usually you will not get the whole thing submerged as it is stiff but as the hide softens in the water, the rest can be pushed down and submerged also. Leave it in the water overnight.
When you take the hide out of the water after soaking overnight, it should be rubbery feeling. It will again be a yellowish color. This is the point where I trim the hide and cut the lacing holes with the utility knife. I like for the hide to be the shape of a hide but not have all sorts of hanging down pieces on it. If the neck is exceptionally long I cut it down so it is nearly straight across at the shoulders. I cut the legs off rather short so they are not extending much beyond the shape of the body.
Now I cut the lacing holes. I make them about five inches apart and about 3/4 of an inch in, away from the edge of the hide. If they are too close to the edge they tend to break during the prestretching or softening process. I like the holes to be about an inch long so it is easy to lace them. Be sure to hit key points of the hide, or parts that stick out further than others.
It is during this time that I sew up any holes. I use a glovers needle and artificial sinew and a blanket stitch. I sew the holes up now so that there is no pucker in the hide at the end of the process. I also sew any scores that look to me will break through.
Lace the hide onto the frame. It doesn’t matter which end or which side is up, it is all personal preference and doesn’t matter since the frame is reversed and turned all different ways. The idea behind this step is to stretch the fibers apart as much as possible and let the hide dry that way in preparation for the pre-smoking step which is next. I have found that the fibers pull apart best when stretched from side to side as opposed to lengthwise. I start lacing the hide onto the frame from the top end and then lace from one side and then the other, working my way down both sides of the hide so it does not get pulled towards one side or another. At this time I usually end up with a hide that is stretched very wide, and not very long.
I use a tool we have made, with an axe head welded onto a pipe. But you can improvise by using a canoe paddle or something else. As you work the hide when it is wet, it will keep stretching, as it does so, keep taking up the slack by shortening the laces. Keep the hide tight and the fibers pulled apart and not allowed to shrink back together. When the hide has dried, it should be fuzzy on both sides, all the way to the edges. And white with no areas yellowish as when in the rawhide state.
This step is not done by most tanners. From what we have read and from some Native Americans we have talked to it seems it is an old method. Our smoker is built of four pieces of plywood with a top and a hinged door at the bottom of the front. We use a pot with a metal cover that has holes poked in it to allow air inside. It is quicker to sew the hide into a sort of sleeve and do them individually but we do so many hides, that it is not time effective for us.
We found that the darker the hide is smoked, the easier it is to soften in the last step. Therefore we smoke several hides for two days to get them a nice yellow color. Joe says the best wood to smoke with is cedar. We use old juniper fence posts, cut into wafers with a bit of sawdust around them. If you can’t get either of these, then any punky wood would work. Keep the fire smothered so it is cool and not a hot fire. It is possible to cook the hide in the smoker especially if it is hot outside.
There are many ways to build a smoker and most of them work just fine. We suspend the hides in a horizontal fashion, from ties at opposite corners of the smoker. The first hide is about three feet from the smoke pot and then about every foot and a half to the top.
The best way we can figure to explain why the pre-smoking works, is to reason it with the fact that the tops of worn out hide tipis were used to make clothing, and were known to soften up readily when wet. The same thing occurs when the hide is pre-smoked and the smoke goes into the fibers of the pre-stretched hide, thus the necessity to pre-stretch well. The better the pre-stretching, the deeper the smoke is absorbed into the hide and coats the fibers, the easier the hide softens up. Also, by using the pre-smoke method, you are required to work the hide less during the softening process, a hide can be overworked resulting in a stiffer feeling hide.
We found it is best to go right from the smoker, to an already prepared, warm brain solution. The hide when coming out of the smoker will be slightly stiff but as you put the hide into the warm solution it will readily soften up and absorb the brain solution. Slosh it around to make sure all the hide is wet.
Leave the hide in the solution for about an hour then take it out and work it over a band. You might find that the hide feels a bit rubbery or dense at this point, some hides do and some don’t. The ones that do, you will want to make sure you work on the band well, as it will soften as you do. Some hides at this point just stretch like crazy and feel very soft, work them a bit anyway.
We have a metal band connected to a post in a vertical manner with enough room between the post and band to easily put a hide behind and pull it side to side. Just work it back and forth to make sure the fibers open up a bit. You don’t have to really pull hard, just enough to feel the hide stretch. I like to pay special attention to the hair side of the hide, at the neck, back and hip area. When you have done this to the whole hide then put it back into the warm solution to soak over night. We use a piece of screen to lay over the hide in the solution, just in case it floats to the top. A towel would do also. Just something to keep the hide moist in case it floats to the top of the solution.
If we are starting out on a whole new batch of hides and need to pre-brain some hides, we will make up a brain solution and pre-brain up to a dozen hides doing as many as four or five at a time. Usually we then discard that solution. When it is time to brain hides that have been presmoked, we make another brain solution and brain however many hides we will be softening up the next day, usually two.
This solution is used many times as the smoke seems to preserve it. Even after a dozen hides or more the solution still smells like wet smokey wood and does not have a spoiled smell. After that many hides we use then use the same solution for the prebraining step and make a new solution for additional presmoked hides. Thus it is cost effective and also shoots down the theory of one cow brain per hide (ed. note: I’m not sure what theory they are referring too).
We use a wringer like the kind on an old wringer washer. Our’s clamps onto one of our frames we have leaning against the smoker. As you run the hide through the wringer, the liquid that comes out should be a milky white color. The hide should have a smokey wet wood smell and be soft. We run it through a couple of times until most of the moisture is out. Again, there are different ways to wring out a hide, this is the way we prefer to do it. We usually double the hide and run it through. It seems when the hide is wrung by twisting, it tightens up the fibers. To us it seems that way. Also if it is real hot, it is better to leave more moisture in the hide, as at times, before you even finish lacing it onto the frame, it has begun to dry.
Up until recently Joe softened the hides by hand using a square post, cable and band. It wore out my arms and shoulders to do it that way and I opted to do it on a frame. Recently Joe has began to do all of his on a frame too. So this is how we do it on a frame…
Lace the hide onto the frame leaving a sufficient amount of space at the top. Lace across the top first then tie a lace at the bottom. Do not pull the hide tight. You lace it at the bottom so it does not come out shaped wide and short like it does when prestretching. Go back up to the top and begin down the sides, alternating from one side to the other to keep the hide straight in the frame. The hide should be slightly baggy in the frame.
Work the hide in a side to side motion all over, then reverse it and do the same thing to the other side. The edges are thinnest and will dry faster than the neck, back and hips. Work the hide from side to side, as the fibers seperate and soften easier that way as opposed to lengthwise. You will also work the hide lengthwise, but focus more on the side to side motion. As the hide stretches, you will want to take up some slack, but don’t tighten it like in the pre-stretching phase. The hide should always be slightly baggy in the softening step.
As in the pre-stretching, the weather dictates how often the hide must be worked. On a hot day – more often, and on a cool day – less often. Just keep working the hide until it is dry all the way through. The neck, back and hip areas will dry last. Sometimes they feel dry on the surface but are still damp in the middle. If you quit working the hide then, it will harden up inside. We do hides that are equally soft all over and all the way through. If we get a hard spot, we either cut it out, (if it is near the edge like sometimes happens at the neck), or we rebrain the hide again. Some tanners use a sander to sand smooth the outter layers of a hard spot but then the inside is still dense and not suitable for beading.
When the hide is softened and dry, you can either go back to the smoker for additional color or use it the way it is.
About The Authors
Joe has been tanning for nearly 12 years. He has tried many different ways and as many different tools, we feel that through trial and error we are doing hides the quickest and easiest way we have found. I (Victoria Longtrail) have been around tanning for nearly as long but have only been a tanner for about a year. Together we have a production line going with hides in all stages of completion.
Brain tanning is our only source of income. We tan year round. When we treat our tanning like a regular every day job we can produce six to seven hides per week. We sell our hides at $12 per square foot and most of the hides we do are above nine square feet in size, so you can see how we can live on our business of tanning and you could too or use it as a supplement to your regular source of income. Brain tanning is a never ending learning process. We often come up with ideas that make the job easier and faster. Sometime it is by accident and other times well thought about.
Classes with the Dinsmores
Joseph Dinsmore & Victoria Longtrail D.