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Bark Tanning: Page 1


Intro & History
Tannins & Tannin Sources
Hide Preparation
Making the Bark Solution
Softening & Finishing


Bark tanning (aka vegetable tanning) is an ancient method of creating durable, water repellent leather with a lot of body. It can be done to virtually any skin, but it is generally reserved for tanning grain-on leathers from large thick hides such as cattle, horse, buffalo and pig. It has been commonly used for saddles, canteens, stiff shoes, belts, wallets, holsters, harnesses, helmets, pouches, trunks, shields and gun cases. It is used as an integral part of many useful items from bellows, to hinges of trunks, to holding wagon wheels together. You know those beautifully carved holsters and saddles? That's all done on bark tanned hides. 

There seem to be two major schools of bark tanning, historically. There is the style developed by civilized man in ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece....which is what we typically think of as "bark tan". There is also a style of bark tanning done on thinner, softer hides such as deer and caribou employed by northern tribal peoples such as the Saami (Laplanders), Inuit and Eskimo, and the Chukchee of eastern Russia. This type of bark tanning tends to involve much less soaking time (and thus less 'tanning') and a softer finished product. Many people believe that this type of softer bark tan was once common throughout Europe.

In general it is considered a bad idea to bark tan furs as the tannins can stain the fur, but these northern peoples did (and still do) tan this way, generally by just applying the tannin to the flesh side and doing it on relatively thin hides. We've set up a separate section on the bark tanning techniques of native peoples. In this article we'll focus on the bark tanning tradition of 'civilized' peoples. 


"Through-tanned vegetable leathers of appreciable firmness are extant from 1500 BC in Egypt, for example, but even so by modern standards they are lightly-tanned and contain only small amounts of fixed tannin."

R. Reed, Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers 

Highly developed bark 'tanneries' were common in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. The earliest known example of vegetable tanning comes from Gebelein Egypt, a tannery thought to be over 5000 years old. Bark tanned leathers were an important tool in the development of civilization, providing an immensely strong and durable material that was pliable; a very unique and useful combination. Bark tanning continued to be an important and basic trade throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and India until the late 1800's when cheap modern chemical tanning methods came into widespread use. Unlike brain tanning, which wasn't efficient to mechanize, bark tanning was mechanized from a very early date. The need for large quantities of bark to be crushed, and dozens of vats for the long soaks encouraged this. 

When the colonists came to North America they brought their leather working skills with them. Bark tanneries were set up in nearly every settlement of the new world because this type of leather was considered a necessity. In 1633, Peter Minuit had the first bark mill in North America built in New Netherland (later New York). It was a stone mill powered by a horse and its creation caused a number of tanneries to begin operation in the area. Bark from the clearing of forests for agriculture was in great supply. The census of 1840 estimated some 8,229 tanneries in operation in the US. Bark tanning continues to be done on a large scale and used throughout the world, though on a much more limited basis than in the past. Modern uses include saddles, harnesses, belts, dog collars, holsters and shoe soles.

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