by Wes Housler
I’m honored that Matt has asked me to write an article for his buffalo page. I would like to introduce myself and give you some of my background. I started tanning in ’73 or ’74; the dark ages compared with the availability of today’s information. I started with deer as most do and progressed to elk…but on the horizon loomed the buffalo robe I saw behind the museum glass, elusive like a rainbow.
Looking for information I researched any old account I could find, and armed with a couple paragraphs I set out to tan a robe. To make a long story short I’ll pass by the first ten robes and just say my learning curve was more similar to a horizontal line than a curve. Even so I could see definite progress and my results were improving.
With little in the way of help from like minded peer’s (thank goodness for sites like this today) I continued forward. After I had finished 50 or so hides, I finally started getting a feeling for what to do and what was happening. Please remember as I lay down the rest of this article that I have learned to tan through trial and error. My path has been one way and narrow-minded (anyone who knows me will attest to that) since I lacked support from fellow tanners and had no one to give me fresh insights. I hope most that from this, new people will emerge with new ideas concerning the tanning of buffalo hides and my learning line will start resembling a curve.
Not to brag (maybe a little) but to justify Matt’s trust in me and because of the credence people put on numbers, I will tell you that I have tanned well over 500 buffalo hides, and built 3 buffalo hide tipis. This article will cover some of my insights into the nuances while working with these hides, rather than the step by step process of tanning one, it would take a book or video tape to do that (shameless plug). Funny that should come up, since I just so happen to have a tape available called of all things “How to Brain-Tan a Buffalo Hide”
Maybe a little history of the buffalo trade would be of interest. Starting somewhere near the beginning, indigenous people of North America were tanning buffalo in all probability before Columbus. In Coronado’s expedition through the Great Plains of 1540-42, he claimed to have seen buffalo hunter’s living in skin tents. He further goes on to describe a buffalo hide tipi and its framework of poles. Obviously this style of life and dwelling didn’t come about over night, so we can assume that the history of buffalo tanning is lost to antiquity and is probably quite old.
Moving up in time to the early 1800’s we find a commercial use for tanned robes. In 1834 William Marshall Anderson wrote:
“Mr. Fontenelle asserted this evening, to knowing ones, that the American Fur company at their posts on the Miss. & Missouri rivers, traded with the Sioux alone, in one winter, for fifty thousand robes – For this trade, it is remembered the cows only are killed” (Rocky Mountain Journals, Anderson pg 179).
Already the tide was turning for the massive herds, and people were predicting extinction even this early in time. Some interesting points are brought up in this one paragraph, first to the tanner is the last sentence that only cows are tanned. It has been my experience they are alot easier, so try to get cows if possible. The second interest is only historical but all these hides were robes, meaning that they were purchased tanned. In other words all these robes destined to become the lap robes and rugs of eastern white consumers were braintanned by Native American’s. These were tanned above and beyond what the Sioux needed for their own consumption.
Lets move forward to the winter of 1870. Because of a decline in the number of cattle skins available to tanners for the world market interests shifted to other animals. By 1871, commercial tanning methods had been perfected for buffalo leather and the demand for skins was on. Because these hides were destined for leather (hair off) they could now be killed year round. Enter the white hide-hunter’s and the final chapter was written for the remaining herds.
Hopefully this will be read with interest and not as a condemnation. It was a different time and least we stand in judgement consider what our predecessors will think of environmental problems that are our legacy. Anyhow thank goodness today there are plenty of buffalo so let’s move on to something more exciting, like turning a raw buffalo skin into a beautiful robe.
To start with we must procure a raw skin; the North American Bison Association has a list of its membership on the internet. (braintan.com has direct links to the regional Bison Associations where you will find the ranches listed by state and products). I suggest you check this out unless you have a ranch lined up.
In a forthcoming tape due this spring (another shameless plug) I explain the old way to skin a buffalo. Simplistically put, the cuts need to be made up the backside of the hind legs and up the front side of the front legs. I’ve examined many original robes and all the western one’s have the same opening cuts. Before you get all excited about this idea let me tell you how near impossible it is to get a slaughter house to change their ways and unless you feel good about your relationship with the butchers, for a hide or two it’s not worth the trouble.
Before we get off of this topic the two seams you see on both sides of the neck are due to proper skinning. The front leg is actually sewed to the neck starting at the kneecap. This makes a larger square by 8 inches, which becomes important on a small hide.
As already stated try to get a robe from a cow if possible for your first try. When searching for hides I have found it best to ask what is available rather than asking for a specific type of hide. More than once I have found that they will tell you whatever you want to hear and unless you can differentiate between bulls and cows and age of animal, you will get into trouble. More than likely you’ll get a bull, they’re the most commonly butchered, so rather than ask for a young animal ask for the carcass weight, anything under 500 pounds will be acceptable. Carcass weight averages about 55%, they tell me, of live weight. Preferably you are looking for an animal that weighed 1000 pounds or less.
Original wearing robes (rather than bedding) run in sizes from 6 feet long (head to tail) by 5 feet wide (side to side) to 6 feet long by 6 feet wide. this hide comes from an 18-month-old animal most commonly a heifer or a bull. Today this young an animal is difficult to procure. Bulls of this age can be had because they have been artificially fed up in a feed lot and become large quite quickly. These animals will be of the right age but will average 7 X 6. This only goes to show that sometimes we can’t be too picky. The Indians had it easy compared to us when it came to getting raw hides from the right sex and age. Sometimes it seems to me that getting hides is the hardest part of tanning bison.
Conversely too small a hide is hard to tan. Something in the skin of calves isn’t developed yet and I have found them difficult to do.
Remember, when considering tanning first and foremost we are
dealing with buffalo not deer, many applications while similar are not the same, and you must start thinking buffalo not deer. Buffalo has
very coarse fibers and is not very strong especially when wet. What this means for the tanner is that you will not get many tries to tan this beast before it will literally fall apart especially around the front shoulders.Warren Ferris in the 1830’s claimed to have tried to make a bull boat from a “dressed” robe and it fell apart whilst in use. Having worked enough of these I believe that this is the norm rather than an isolated incident. The bottom line is buffalo leather is weak, definitely a difference when compared to deer.
The most important part of the process is the thinning and old robes are hardly thicker than a medium weight paper. In case you missed that I will again say it, the most important aspect of tanning robes is the thinning, if you don’t thin it enough it won’t soften.
To put this into a different perspective what you are really tanning is the grain layer with a tiny bit of dermis attached to the under side. I think this is why the need for grease is so acute. Again I must stress that the most important aspect of tanning buffalo is thinning. If thinned properly there is very little hide left to tan. Conversely this must only be applied to robes not buffalo leather. Leather if thinned too much will fall apart. The way I thin leather is to try tanning it and what won’t tan is then thinned. Sometimes this takes a couple tries.
Believe it or not, if a robe is thinned properly it will soften with one good pulling assuming it wasn’t too wet or dry when done. I would rather pull them twice, once when a little too wet and again when I judge it ready. As you can probably gather the one thing buffalo and deer have in common is the need to learn the “feel” which can only be gained through experience.
Another point that seems to raise eyebrows is that I always use grease (neatsfoot oil) and can find very few old accounts that do not tell you to do likewise. I have tried many times to tan with just brains but usually they rip somewhere before I can finish out the skin. Grease penetrates easily and most importantly lubricates the fibers and softens the grain making the breaking process come about with less effort and strain on the hide.
People today think in terms of “brain” tan and have a hard time believing in grease. But please before I get inundated with letters let me state that I didn’t say it was impossible and I have had results to prove otherwise. But rather that I have run out of ideas and I use grease religiously now, it has a much higher success ratio for me.
Another interesting point I’ve noticed is that old robes are rarely ever smoked. I believe that the addition of grease aids in keeping the hide soft when wetted. I have also found that if wetted too many times grease may have to be reapplied. Again, Warren Ferris claimed that coats made from robes were great unless wet then they became hard and useless. Just like your leather work-boots buffalo may need maintenance occasionally.
I am writing this with the most common misinterpretations and misconceptions in mind. Hopefully it will inspire people to tan these fine hides while giving them a real perspective of what to expect rather than what they think they can achieve based on the deer they’ve tanned.
|Wes Housler’s Online Catalog
Wes Housler tans, makes and sells brain tanned Buffalo Robes, Hide Tipis, Buffalo Rawhide, Buckskin and a whole lot more. You can see his work in numerous museums throughout the U.S. His prices tend to be outrageously low and we have Wes’s entire catalog online!