Introduction: Making Buckskin
Buckskin (also known as braintan deer hide) is truly amazing material. It's soft, breathable, strong, durable, and pest repellent in nature. It's qualities have been tested and proven for millennia. It takes a lot of manual labor to make real brain tanned buckskin. For this reason, good buckskin usually costs at least ten, if not fifteen, dollars per square foot from a professional tanner. There are cheaper commercially tanned hides available, but these are not processed the same. Commercially tanned is fine for bags and accessories, but it doesn't wear anywhere near as well home tanned buckskin. If the word brain has caused anxiety, it is not necessary to use brain, a hide can be traditionally tanned using other natural softeners (I use eggs and olive oil instead of brain). This is only my ninth hide, so I am by no means an expert. For further instruction/discussion/etc., I would recommend braintan.com or Buckskin Revolution. For my original post on this topic (posted Aug. 25, 2014), and more like this, check out my website UncommonCate.
Step 1: Hide Acquisition and Preservation
First things first, acquiring a hide (or many hides). Hunting and taking the hide is the most obvious course, but time, place, etc. for hunting can be difficult to manage, so alternatives... Road kill (fresh) is a good place to get hides, or finding a hunter who doesn't use the hide (which is many modern hunters) and offering some money for a cleanly skinned hide can be good hide source. As few holes as possible makes everything easier during tanning and results in a better product, so spend the extra time to skin the hide cleanly. Unless you're hunting, getting a hide (say off a roadkill or from a friend) it may not be an opportune time to tan, so preserving the hide for later can be a handy alternative.
A hide can be saved almost indefinitely in a freezer. If at any point in the process I need to stop for a few days or months for whatever reason, the hide can simply be thrown into the freezer. The point of freezing is to prevent the hide from decaying. If a hide starts to rot, it is firstly not going to make good buckskin because bacteria will weaken the internal structure of the hide, and secondly is really gross and can make the tanner ill. If the hide is balled up, perhaps bundled into a trash bag, fresh, room temperature, and with the hair still on the hair will insulate the inside of the hide, allowing bacteria to thrive for several days before the hide is frozen through. So, to prevent this, de-hairing the hide first makes putting the hide bundled up in a bag in the freezer possible without fear of rot (see steps 3 and 4 for de-hairing process).
Step 2: Fleshing
The first thing to do is to scrape or cut (whichever is easier) any meat that has remained on the hide after skinning and dispose of it. During the fleshing, graining, and rinsing, I make a point of wearing leather gloves over rubber gloves to thoroughly protect my hands. Hiding tanning is dangerous in that even a tiny cut can get blood poisoning if you work with bare hands. In the long run it's just safer to wear a protective layer, particularly over open wounds, even just a paper cut.
Step 3: Lye Soak
Lye is a strong base (opposite of an acid) and is sold at ordinary hardware stores as a drain opener. The only ingredient should be lye (not just any drain opener). Lye makes a hide swell and shrink temporarily. It loosens the hair, allowing it to come off easily, and the grain (outer layer of skin) to come off more easily as well. To lye a hide, use a tub of water (at least enough to completely submerge the hide) and add lye until the water is slippery to the touch. Lye is a dangerous chemical if used without caution, so use common sense and read the warning label. Leave a hide to soak for a day or so. Changing the water at least once a day helps keep the hide fresh.
Step 4: Graining and Hairing
Making a work surface suited to scraping a hide is not too difficult. There are two common methods; an upright beam and a waist beam. The upright beam (the one I use, pictured) is a log or half a log (perhaps 4 to eight inches in diameter or a piece of pvc pipe of the same size and almost as long a the tanner is tall) leaning up against a tree with the hide draped over the top. The other is a log or pipe of the same dimensions with two legs at one end so that one end rests on the ground and the other is held up to waist height by the legs. Each method uses different muscles when scraping, so it’s really up to whichever one feels best.
After a hide has been soaked in lye and has become rather thick and rubbery, it's time to de-hair. The hair should come right off even if you just run a hand over it assuming the hide has been soaked in the lye solution long enough. The back of a knife or drawknife will lift the hair right off.
To grain a hide, the best tool is a dull drawknife. To be more traditional, a piece of wood with one sharp edge, a bone with one sharp edge, or a rock with a moderately sharp edge will also get the job done. The goal is to scrape off the outer layer of skin without damaging the under layers, so the draw knife should be just dull enough that if one runs one's finger over the blade, it will not create a cut. Use common sense, if you test a blade this way, make sure it really is dull first.
The hardest part on the animal to grain is usually the back of the neck and the very edges. Sometimes its better to cut you losses (literally) by cutting off a difficult edge. Deciding whether to put the effort into a difficult part is about weighing the effort you’re putting into the hide and the quality of material you'll be getting out. If it’s a difficult spot in the center it's best to power through and scrape it thoroughly, but if it's the last inch on a thin jagged edge it's probably better just to trim it off.
Step 5: Wringing
After all the grain has been scraped off, its time to rinse. Place the hide in a bath of plain water, changing it several times throughout a day to allow the lye to soak out. When the hide is white and flexible like wet cloth, as apposed to yellowish and rubbery, it's ready to move on.
Wringing out the rinse water helps the hide become dry enough, without drying completely, to absorb the brain solution more thoroughly. I learned to wring using a very specific technique that has worked very well for me. A good thorough wringing requires a smooth, sturdy, and (mostly) horizontal bar or branch and a small separate bar, branch or dowel. Lay the hide membrane side up on a horizontal bar (smoother is better for the wringing bar because rough spots can tear the hide). Take the edge that hangs farther down and lay it up on the bar, wrapping the hide around the bar loosely. Beginning at one side, roll the edge of the hide up until the middle is reached and then start again on the other side. The small independent pole threads through the bottom parallel to the main bar. This can now be used to twist the hide, wringing out the water. For a thorough wring, repeat this at least three times.
Step 6: Braining
Braining: the word that tends to throw people off. At this point you could take a deer's head, pull out the brain and rub into the hide. It is a good and traditional method, but if you don’t keep brains on hand or hunt your own deer, they can be difficult to find. There are a lot recipes for softening hides, many of which do not call for brain. Different tanners will swear by their recipes, but it comes down to permeating the hide with emulsified oils (that is oils that can mix with water). The brain is filled with emulsified oils, so boiled (to kill bacteria), blended (preferably not with the kitchen blender), and then mixed with a little water (to give it enough volume to cover a hide in a bucket) is one of the most well known basic recipes, and probably one of the oldest. Eggs, or rather egg yolks, is a good natural non-brain method. Grated ivory soap with mixed with almost any oil will work as well. Basically, an emulsified oil or an emulsifier mixed with an oil will soften a hide. The tanner I learned from used brain or half a bar of grated ivory soap mixed with a couple of cups of grape seed oil, sometimes both together. I've taken to using egg yolks mixed with olive oil because those are things I have at home anyway.
After the hide is wrung, let it soak in brain until the hide has absorbed as much as possible. Then wring again, soak again, and wring again.
Step 7: Softening
Softening is not difficult, just time consuming. In essence, softening is continually stretching the hide until it dries. If not stretched, the hide will harden back to rawhide. The two methods of this that I have used are stretching the hide over a post that has been set vertically in the ground at about waist height, or stretching a hide across a metal cable of between a quarter and an eighth inch diameter hung from head height to the ground. Both of these allow the use of body weight to stretch the hide as opposed to just sitting down and trying to stretch the hide with bare hands alone, which is fine, but only for those with strong hands.
When the hide is dry, the hide should be soft and fluffy. If it's not, re-braining and softening is a good course of action. To expedite this process, smoking and then re-processing helps. If you start without smoking, all softening progress is lost, where as smoking freezes the hides at its current level of softness on which re-softening will build. If you soften a hide, don’t smoke it, and then get it wet it will return to rawhide. Smoking also makes buckskin repellent to pests.
Step 8: Smoking a Deer Hide
The point of smoking a hide is to set the softeners so that even when the hide becomes wet and then dries, it will retain it's softness. The smoke smell also repels animals that may otherwise want to eat the hide.
The first step in hide smoking is to sew the hide into a bag. Fold the hide long ways down the back and sew up the sides. Attach a sleeve (about the diameter of a man's pant leg) to the neck. Sleeves are commonly made of canvas or an old cut off pant leg, it really doesn't matter. Suspend the hide bag, sleeve down over the fire (read the rest of the step before trying).
To smoke a hide, make a small bed of hot coals (by burning down some charcoal or small chunks of hardwood) and then add small pieces of wood, preferably rotten and dried, to keep the fire as smoky as possible whenever the fire stops producing smoke. It can be difficult, after a life time of striving for clean burning smokeless fires for heating and cooking, to maintain a smoky fire. When I smoke a hide, I have to attend the fire constantly to maintain it’s smokiness. There should never be flames during hide smoking because this usually means the fire is not producing maximum smoke and flames can burn the hide
To contain the fire and direct the smoke into the hide, I use a cinder block sunk into the ground with a hole under it connecting the two chambers (see pictures). On one side I attach the hide sleeve, and on the other I keep a lid with which to access the fire. It’s easier to use a small wood stove with a short stove pipe and attach the sleeve to the stove pipe instead, but that requires a wood stove. To go really low tech, a hole in the ground will do, but the risk of scorching the hide is much greater this way. The most convenient way is to use a smoke house (the kind used to smoke meat). This way hides can be simply hung in the smoke house and left with no worries about scorching or sewing them into a bag. Returning to smoking a hide with some kind of stove, the key is to not scorch the hide. This will ruin a hide very easily and quickly.
Using wood that smells good, or at least not bad, is also something to keep in mind during smoking. The smoke smell fades over time, but it doesn’t really go away. Also, it should be common sense to not use things like poison oak or poison ivy for hide smoking. It’s time to turn the hides inside out to smoke the outside when the smoky brown color begins to bleed through to the outside. After the color begins to bleed through, leaving a hide to smoke longer is just about getting the desired color. Some people like the pale color and some like the dark, but as long as the smoke has penetrated through the whole hide, it’s essentially all the same.
Step 9: Finished Buckskin
At this point, a hide should be finished; soft, fluffy, and a rich beautiful golden brown. You now have a beautiful material with which to create beautiful clothes and accessories.