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Brain-Tanning Hides

Brain-Tanning Hides

by Ken Gies of Fort Plain, NY

I smell like wood smoke. Brain tanned goat and rabbit hides are hanging on a rusted tomato trellis beneath a tattered blue tarp. Half rotted branches gathered from the woods smolder in a shallow pit below. Smoke oozes out of holes in the worn tarp. Soon I will have rustic leather for my upcoming winter projects.

Many years ago, when I spent time in the far north, I worked in a tannery that produced smoked moose hides. We used lime to dehair the hides and glutaraldehyde as a tanning agent. I really learned how to flesh and dehair hides there! It was smelly, heavy, wet work. But even though the chemicals were safe, I still wanted something simpler. Several years ago I regained the itch to tan hides. I experimented with battery acid, which is inexpensive, but somewhat dangerous to use. Another downside is that bugs will eat the acid tanned hides but ignore the brain tanned hide sitting on top of them.

The way I do it is not technically tanning but treating hides. This is the simplest, fastest way to produce a usable product and uses only farm sourced supplies. It is possible to make thin rawhides, such as rabbits’ and goats’, into finished hides in one day. Here is how I do it.

Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 1: My upgraded fleshing beam with folding legs and feed sack apron.

My fleshing beam is a six inch log about six feet long with two legs attached to one end. It angles down to the floor with the bottom end jammed against a wall so it doesn’t move. The fresh hide is draped over it and held in place by my belly pressing the hide to the high end of the log. A fleshing knife or draw knife is used to scrape the hair and flesh off the hide by pushing downhill each stroke. I made an apron out of a feed sack and a length of twine for a neck hanger and another for the waist tie.

Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 2: The hickory stick fleshing beam and wet hide.

I have always used a draw knife to flesh heavy hides. However, scraping the meat and membranes off thinner hides often damaged them. Recently I learned that traditional scrapers were made out of leg bones. Not having one, I split a hickory stick into a square length about 20 inches long. I used it to flesh and dehair my most recent goat hide. What a difference! The hide was undamaged after both sides were processed.

Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 3: Scraping while pushing downhill.
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 4: Dehairing after hot water soak.

Dehairing is usually accomplished by soaking the hide for several days in a lime or lye solution, or a water soak of several weeks. Instead, I tried a hot water soak. Pigs are often scalded to dehair them. Chickens are also scalded for easier plucking. Hot water at about 120 to 150 degrees loosens the hair in an hour or so. The hide is placed in a bucket and covered in hot water and left until the hairs pull out easily. It generally takes two hours for a goatskin. A rock set on top of the hide keeps it submerged. This worked amazingly well on my goatskin. A little hot water is sprinkled onto the hide as it is dehaired to help the hair keep slipping. At this point I could have stretched the rawhide out and let it dry.

Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 5: Wet hide.
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 6: Partially dry.
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 7a: Brains and warm water. An egg stretched the brain mixture because I was treating other hides.
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 7b: The horns, head and brains, showing how the cuts are made.

Instead, because I wanted a tanned hide, I hung the hide on a fence rail to partially dry. While it dried, I cut the brains out of the goat’s head. I don’t have a meat saw, so I used a hacksaw. I cut the hide from eyeball to eyeball with a knife to access the bone and then sawed a slot through the skull. I did the same in front of the ears. I pried the skull open and scooped out the brains. In a small bucket I added a little warm water and mashed the brains into a slurry. This was spread evenly onto the half dried hide on the flesh side and allowed to soak in.

Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 8: Soaking the hide with brain slurry.

The next step, breaking the hide, is the most tedious. As the hide dries, I stretch it across the top of a fence post or heavy broomstick handle, rubbing on the hair side. This lets the slurry soak in as the hide dries and stretches. It turns white as it is worked. This must be continued until the hide is dry, dry, dry. If it isn’t dry, the result is a cross between hard leather and rawhide. In the far north, untreated hides were sometimes stretched in a frame and broken as they froze. Then they were left to freeze dry and used as is. If they got wet, the hides became rawhide again. Smoking them made them partially water resistant. I have some unsmoked, brained hides that hardened just from the humidity this summer.

Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 9: The white area is stretched. The rest needs to be stretched
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 10: An improvised stretching post.
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 11: Another stretching post.

To smoke a hide, I use half rotten or “punky” wood. The idea is to make smoke not heat. A cool fire is essential. Pine knots and cones are very resinous and treat hides the best. However, I just grab what I can find. I build a small smudge fire in a shallow pit and place an old tomato trellis over the hole. I clothespin the hides to the wire frame and place a ratty tarp as a tent over it all. A couple of hours later, after the fire goes out, I have rustic leather. There are better ways to tan a hide than to use brains and smoke. However this is the cheapest, fastest, most rustic farm sourced way to process a hide that I have been able to come up with. I hope this inspires you to take some of the hides from your processing, whether they are rabbit or goat or something else, and try it for yourself.

Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 12: Fire pit and trellis.
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 13: Half rotten, punky wood.
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 14: Hides clothespinned to the wire.
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 15: Blue tarp over hides and good smoke.
Brain-Tanning Hides
Photo 16: On the left side is a brain tanned hide hardened by humidity. On the right an acid tanned hide with bug holes. They were in the same stack all summer.