The Difference Between Various Brain Tanning Methods

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. 


  1. You can do it in your garage or basement without getting things wet (though you will still find hair in surprising places 20 years down the road). 
  2. Great aesthetic appeal for demonstrations, and easy to get people involved in, in a hands-on way. 
  3. Can thin out thick areas of the hide, making it especially practical for thinning hides like buffalo. Very practical for thinning the neck and rump of any thick hides you are tanning with the hair on such as bear.
  4. Good brain penetration.


  1. Requires a razor sharp tool. If you don’t know how to sharpen well, you really need to learn how (though this is a good skill to learn anyways, it isn’t something everyone readily picks up). 
  2. Easier to create holes, and holes tend to be bigger.
  3. Takes longer.
  4. In the woods, if it’s not dry (or freezing cold for a frozen dry scrape) you can’t scrape. Whereas wetscrape can be done regardless of the weather.

Quality tool-steel dry-scrapers made by Mac Maness are available at the Store.


Traditional elk antlered dry-scrapers made by Chris Hanson. The one on the far right has a flint blade.

Best Learning Resources:

  1. Blue Mountain Buckskin by Jim Riggs
  2. The Ancient Art of Tanning Buckskin, a video by Robert Earthworm. 
  3. Also good: John McPherson’s Brain Tan Buckskin.



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.


  1. Scraping is considerably faster.
  2. Don’t need a frame, or to spend time lacing the hide into a frame.
  3. Can be done in virtually any weather above zero Fahrenheit.
  4. You use a dull-edged tool, which means you don’t need to re-sharpen it regularly, and its fairly easy to scrape with primitive and improvised tools.
  5. Tend to make less and smaller holes
  6. You don’t leave tool marks


  1. Can’t thin really thick hides like Buffalo.
  2. Need to do more to get good brain penetration.
  3. Its wet.
Related Articles
More pictures of wet scraping setups can be found in the scraping section of the 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).


  1. Everything else being equal, it is the quickest and most efficient way to brain tan a hide (in my opinion).
  2. The alkali sterilizes the hide preventing bacteria from creating bad smells, 
    infecting you, or ruining your hide. 
  3. Swells grain making it easier to see and remove. 
  4. Greatly improves brain penetration. 
  5. Easiest method to do with primitive tools.


  1. Requires quite a bit of water.
  2. When doing it primitively, it is not as easy to do if you only have 
    softwood ashes (conifers).

Best ResourceDeerskins 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.

Related Articles

The Pre-Smoking Method, by Joe & Victoria Dinsmore. a seven page online guide.

Smokin’ Hides in a Smoke Housea 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.


  1. Efficient. 
  2. Makes wringing easier than any other method. 
  3. Involves two softening phases, but neither are real hard. 
  4. The smoke gets into the brain water that you soak your hide in, and prevents it from getting stinky for much longer. This makes it so you can use the same brain water many times.
  5. We believe this could be an extremely good way to do hair-on hides…especially thick ones, because the smoke sets the hair and prevents decay (the biggest challenge doing hair on hides is to get them soft before the hair starts to slip).


  1. Works best with a smokehouse setup…so it’s not as convenient for doing 
    in camp or survival situation (though you certainly can).
  2. More steps and working time than bucking.

Best Resources

  1. The Dinsmore’s free six page online Guide to Pre-smoking 

Wetscrape: Multiple Brainings

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.


  1. Requires the least tools, or additional substances. 


  1. Very hard to have enough brain matter to do it with just the animal’s own brain (I’ve only had success when I’ve added the liver which I’d much rather eat, especially in a camp/survival situation).
  2. Tends to be the smelliest of the methods and most likely to give you an infection (though not if you stay on top of things). 
  3. Much harder to get good brain penetration, requiring you to re-brain 
    and/or rework the hides multiple times in order to get them soft, which can be frustrating.

Best Resources: 

  1. Deerskins into Buckskins by Matt Richards.
  2. Buckskin: The Ancient Art of Braintanning by Steven Edholm
  3. The Tanning Spirit a video by Mel Beattie.


Some Recommendations for Different Situations

Wilderness Tanning

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.

Related Articles
Brains, Bones & Hotsprings, a seven page guide to Native American tanning at the time of contact.

Backyard Tanning

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.

Historic Reproduction

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. 

Related Articles

Brains, Bones & Hotsprings, a seven page guide to Native American tanning at the time of contact.

The History of Brain Tana six page online article.

Period Clothing section of the Gallery Bibliography

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 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,

Matt Richards

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