by Matt Richards © 2000
Something you will notice pretty quickly browsing through this website or chatting with other folks, is that there are several different ways to go about brain tanning a hide. Dry-scrape, wet-scrape, bucking, pre-smoking….what do these terms mean and which one’s the easiest?! Enquiring people want to know….
The short answer is that they all work. They’re all ‘easy’ if you know how to do them well. If you have an opportunity to learn hands-on with someone near you, don’t worry too much about which method they’re going to teach you, just go for it! If you are going to get a book or video and teach yourself, or if you see yourself tanning numerous hides, it is worthwhile to look at some of the pluses and minuses of the different methods. Dry-scrape really isn’t the most practical method for Seattle (though it certainly can be done there), but if you are planning to tan Buffalo hides, its pretty much the only way to go. The best method for you depends on where you live, what you plan on doing, and what you enjoy. If you have a strong interest in tanning, it often worth learning a couple of methods as they have different applications.
We’ll start off describing the popular methods, their advantages and disadvantages and the best resources for learning them. Then we’ll give you recommendations for specific situations like tanning in the backwoods, the suburban back yard, on the penthouse terrace or for historical reproduction.
In dry-scrape, the hide is dried out flat in a frame and the hair and grain are scraped off with an extremely sharp adze shaped tool. This method of scraping is what sets this technique apart from the others. The rest of the tanning process is pretty much the same. But how the scraping is done does have an influence on how the rest of the process goes and the final results.
Most people find this method of scraping is harder and more time consuming, but that it gives you some advantages in the braining and softening stages. Its main advantage is that it allows you to thin the hide. Historically it was used to thin Buffalo hides and in many areas, Moose. It was less commonly used for tanning elk, and rarely used on deer except on the Northern Plains.
Quality tool-steel dry-scrapers made by Mac Maness are available at the Braintan.com Store.
Traditional elk antlered dry-scrapers made by Chris Hanson. The one on the far right has a flint blade.
Best Learning Resources:
In wetscrape, the wet hide is thrown over a smooth log (or pvc pipe) and scraped with a tool that has a distinct, but dull, edge. This edge allows you to remove the grain layer where it naturally separates from the skin.
Most people find wetscraping to be faster and easier, but because you aren’t scraping as deep you need to put more effort into getting good brain penetration. Wetscrape is used for making buckskin from deer, elk, antelope, or moose. It was used by Native peoples throughout North America.
More pictures of wet scraping setups can be found in the scraping section of the Braintan.com Gallery
Backs and Beams, gives you ideas for how to make a scraping beam that is more comfortable for your back.
The Various Methods:
Several different methods have been developed to make it easier to get really good brain penetration (and thus softer hides with less work) with wet-scrapes. These methods were all traditionally used by Native people’s too (if you read the ethnology’s you’ll notice that different tribes used different methods, and even within the tribes, different tanners had different techniques they preferred). The three most popular of these are known as Pre-smoking, Bucking and Straight.
The hide is soaked in an alkaline solution made of either wood ashes, hydrated lime, or
commercial lye, until it is swollen. Then the hair and grain are wet-scraped off and the alkalinity is rinsed out of the hide. This soaking cleans a mucus out of the hide that coats the fibers, and prevents the brains from reaching them easily. This mucus predominates in the layers of skin that are not typically removed when wet-scraping (but are when dry-scraping).
Best Resource: Deerskins into Buckskins by Matt Richards
The hide is soaked in plain water and then wet-scraped to remove the hair and grain. Then the hide is soaked in brains, and casually worked dry as if softening. This opens up the fibers for the pre-smoking. Then the hide is smoked in a smokehouse, brained and worked all the way soft.
The Pre-Smoking Method, by Joe & Victoria Dinsmore. a seven page online guide.
Smokin’ Hides in a Smoke House, a four page description of some of the key ins and outs.
The pre-smoking has an effect similar to bucking in making it much easier to brain and soften the hide. It also changes the texture of the hide making them really easy to wring. Many tanners who don’t use the ‘pre-smoking method’, are still very influenced by it. If a hide doesn’t come out as soft as desired, they will go ahead and smoke it, brain it again and re-soften. This method was traditionally used by Native peoples in Canada on moose hides. There is also evidence of its use in other areas.
Hide is soaked in plain water, wet-scraped, then brained and softened multiple times until
it comes soft. Regardless of the scraping method that you use, it never a bad idea to do multiple brainings, because it gives you more assurance that the hide will come out uniformly soft. However if you wetscrape and you don’t buck, pre-smoke or have some other technique to improve brain penetration, you really need to do multiple brainings and softenings to have your hide come out soft. Its just harder to get the brains through that protective mucus.
What’s the simplest way to tan in a wilderness situation? Wetscrape, hands down. Why? Because you don’t need a razor sharp tool. Razor sharp tools are at a premium in the woods. You’d probably have a knife with you, but do you really want to reshape that knife into a use-able dryscraper? Sure you can make one by flint-knapping, and knapped rocks can be incredibly sharp, but few will hold up to the abuse of scraping hides for long. It can and has been done, but I have yet to hear of a single modern person who can dryscrape a hide with knapped tools in any kind of efficient timely manner. Even the most experienced dryscrapers I know, people like Jim Riggs or John McPherson, have only done one or maybe two hides totally primitively with dryscrape…and they’d be the first to tell you it was a pain in the butt.
Wetscrape on the other hand is relatively straightforward to do with primitive tools. Every deer, elk or moose comes with more than enough bones to scrape a few dozen hides. I’ve had many, many, novices tan their very first hide with all primitive tools, and most of those hides have come out every bit as good as the best hides you’ve seen, and it doesn’t take much
longer. If its important to you to know a method that you can rely on in a wilderness living or survival situation, learn to wetscrape. The other factor that makes dryscrape less practical for survival or wilderness tanning is that you really need good weather to get the hide dry enough to scrape, whereas wetscrape can be done in just about any weather.
Brains, Bones & Hotsprings, a seven page guide to Native American tanning at the time of contact.
Backyard tanning is different. Sharp tools are easy to come by, as is five gallon plastic
buckets and other wonders of modern life.
We usually recommend learning the bucking method of wetscrape, as we feel it’s the
easiest and most efficient method. However, this method does rely on a fairly liberal use
of water, so if you live somewhere where water is really at a premium (you are paying for
it and there are no creeks nearby) it may not be the best for you. Next we’d recommend
the pre-smoking method, as it is also very efficient. However, if you live somewhere
where generating a fair amount of smoke would be a problem (like in some suburban or
urban situations), this won’t work well for you either.
In situations where you are limited by your water use and ability to create smoke, you are
better off doing either the plain wet-scrape method or dry-scrape. Numerous folks who have 9 to 5 jobs like to dry-scrape because they can hang the hide on the rack and scrape off some now and then whenever they get five minutes. Of course most wet-scrapers would argue that in the time you took to hang the hide on the rack, you would have been done wet-scraping! Whatever appeals to you most….
Tanning For a Living
If you want to tan hides for sale, wet-scraping with either the bucking or pre-smoking
methods, is the most efficient for volume tanning. There are definitely people dry-scraping hides as part of their living, but the vast majority of volume brain tanners wet-scrape.
If you are trying to do historically accurate Native American work, wet-scrape is appropriate for doing deer, elk or moose in any part of North America. Dry-scrape is documentable for deer and elk on the Northern Plains only, moose in much of central Canada, and for Bison anywhere.
All evidence in Mediaeval and Renaissance Europe, and Colonial America points to the use of wet-scrape. If you are re-enacting the Fur Trade Era, the traditional white man method for deer hides again was wet-scrape. Undoubtedly some picked up dry-scraping Bison or moose from the Natives.
Much of the documentation for this can be found in the Braintan.com bibliography. Primary documentation of actual tanning methods, written during the Fur Trade Era in the fur trade region is admittedly scant, but there is some. The above statements are based on the best available evidence.
If you want to learn how to brain tan, or learn another method of doing it, we highly recommend learning from someone who already knows how. Experimenting is great, we do it all the time, but you’ll save yourself a tremendous amount of effort if you gain from
another person’s experience. If you find that you are bit by the brain tanning bug, then experiment from there! The amount of high quality books, videos, instructors, and just plain friends who can teach you is greater than it has ever been in recent history. I’ve been brain tanning for a living for over 10 years. When I wanted to learn about pre-smoking I messed around with it a bit at home, and then drove to the Dinsmore’s, tanned a hide with them and watched their video. Saved me a fair amount of head banging and scratching.
In fact, there are many more ways to go about this, then what is presented hear. I know guys who buck or pre-smoke their dryscrapes. Others who wetscrape a hide, string it up in a rack and then go over it with a dryscraper. I’ve even heard of people dryscraping hides, and then going over it on the beam with a wetscrape tool. I know one guy who puts his Bison hides between two big pieces of plywood and drives back and forth over it with his truck.
What do I do? I do my hair-off hides with wetscrape (almost always bucking), but I use a dryscraper for thinning out the thick rumps and neck on large furs like buffalo, bear, etc.
Keep using your brains,