An Introduction to Natural Tanning

The leather that you buy at the store is not naturally tanned. It is chemically tanned with chromic acids. These acids are very cheap to use but are unfortunately quite toxic and make an inferior leather. 

In those long ago days before factories, before blue jeans, and even before Ronald Reagan; people all over the world made their clothes, footwear and all kinds of stuff out of naturally tanned leathers. 

You can make soft, washable leather with emulsified oils and woodsmoke. This is commonly known as brain, smoke or Indian tanning. Animal brains are traditionally used as the source of emulsified oils, hence the name, but you can also use eggs or a mixture of soap and oil. Brain tan is ideal for clothing, bags, beadwork and all kinds of things (such as shoe-laces, pot holders, hair ties, holding parts of your truck together). 

Hides can also be tanned by soaking them in tannic acids derived from tree barks and certain plants. This is known as bark tan. Bark tan makes a stiff, solid leather that is useful for saddles, holsters and stiff bags.

Brain Tan

Brain tanning is the most popular method for home tanning. The tools and tanning agents are common and easy to get, the entire tanning process can be done in a matter of days, and the finished product is incredibly strong, soft, durable, washable and warm. It cuts the wind, allows your skin to breath and stretches with the movement of your body. When a hide is brain tanned with the hair and grain removed it is known as ‘buckskin’. Buckskin can be made from any of the hoofed animals including deer, elk, antelope, sheep, goat, buffalo, even cow (it is the way that a skin is tanned that makes it ‘buckskin’, not the fact that it is made from a deer hide). This is also a great way to tan furs. 

Buckskin is particularly valued as a durable yet comfortable outdoor clothing, though it is also excellent for pouches, moccasins and many other items. It is not water-proof.

Chrome-tanned sheep and deer skins are currently marketed as “buckskin” even though they have very different physical properties than the traditional material. Traditional methods have not been industrialized because the tanning process relies on physical manipulation more than chemicals. This leaves it in the domain of the backyard tanner, where it has long been. The mystique and reputation of buckskin remains strong however, and commercial interests will continue to cash in on it.

If you want to have some brain tan you have three choices. You can either make it yourself, which is a fair though not outrageous amount of work. You can buy it. It typically sells for $14 to $16 a square foot. Or you can have custom garments made for you.

Learning How Buying Brain Tan Custom Garments

Bark Tan

A very firm type of bark tan is still produced in many commercial tanneries and is readily available through almost any leather dealer. This type of bark tan is not nearly as practical to make at home as the hides must be soaked in tannins for three months to a year or more (depending on how solid of a leather you want), and it takes a fairly large amount of shredded bark or plant matter. In fact bark tanning was one of the very first trades to be industrialized in the US, back in the 1700’s (they had mules pulling a giant grinder that would crush the bark).

However, there has been a growing amount of interest in bark tanning at home, and creating softer bark tans than what is commercially available. So we recently built a 17 page bark tanning information center. There you will find illustrated how-to articles, related links, a bibliography and a place to post your own experiences and learn from others who are doing their own bark tanning. It is a growing body of knowledge created by the many tanners who participate on this site.  

The Problems With Chrome Tan

Pollution of waterways is the number one problem facing the modern leather tannery (as well as the folks down-stream), and chrome compounds are the culprit. Chrome tan doesn’t allow your skin to breathe which makes it very sticky and clammy against the skin. It’s also broken down by the alkalinity of perspiration and soaps (on the other hand, you can boil chrome tan and it won’t affect it a bit, in fact this is a common test to make sure the hide is fully tanned). I personally think that those black leather jackets folks where are pretty slick and comfortable. But I wouldn’t recommend it for much else. Most home tanning books teach you how to do this type of tanning. However, besides making an inferior leather and polluting the environment, you also have to special order and deal with these very hazardous chemicals. You’re better off brain-tanning.

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