How to Brain Tan a Deer Hide

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Tanning leather with animal brains is a traditional at-home method.
Tanning leather with animal brains is a traditional at-home method. (Image: leather image by Andrii Oleksiienko from Fotolia.com)

Tanning your own leather is a time-honored craft. Native Americans used animal brains as a natural emulsifier to soften and preserve hides. Brain-tanning is still the simplest method of at-home tanning, and you don't need many special tools. And when done correctly, brain tanning transforms deer hide into buckskin, the distinctively soft, flexible and breathable tanned hide that can only be produced from brain-tanning.

Things You'll Need

  • Deer hide
  • Fleshing knife and beam
  • Non-iodized salt
  • Drying frame
  • 10-gallon nonmetallic container
  • Smooth board
  • Scraper
  • Baking soda
  • Stirring paddle
  • Hydrated lime
  • Vinegar
  • Animal brain
  • Stretching frame
  • Canoe paddle, axe handle or other smooth wooden tool

Flesh the hide. Lay the hide on a flat working surface, hair side down. Remove all scraps of meat and fat with a fleshing knife and beam. Remove as much of the film between the flesh and hide as possible. Salt the hide immediately to prevent spoilage. Sprinkle the salt over the fleshed hide, using a pound of salt for each pound of hide. Rub the salt in to the coat.

Dry the hide. Stretch and hang on a drying rack so that any fluid can drain from it. Let dry for 10 to 14 days or until hide is thoroughly dry.

Clean and dry the hide. Soak in a nonmetallic container filled with water and change the water several times until the skin is soft. Soaking time will depend on the condition the skin is in. Lay softened skin on a flat working surface and work over the hide, pulling it taut to break up any remaining tissue and fat. Be careful not to damage the skin or expose the roots of the hair. Scrape the surface of the skin with a scraping tool.

Transfer the hide to a solution of water and baking soda. Use 1 oz. of baking soda per gallon of water. Stir the hide with a paddle to soften and clean the hide further. Remove the hide and place on a flat work surface, hair side down. Work the skin with the back edge of a knife to remove fatty and glandular tissue on the flesh side of the hide. Rinse the skin a final time. Squeeze but do not wring the skin to remove excess water.

Remove the hair from the hide, if you want to make true buckskin. Mix 4 or 5 quarts of hydrated lime with 5 gallons of water. Soak the hide in the solution, immersing completely, until the hair slides off easily, about 6 to 10 days. Remove the hide, transfer to a flat work surface and push off the hair with the back side of a dull knife. When hair is removed, soak the hide again, then transfer to a solution of 10 gallons of water mixed with 1 pint of vinegar. Soak in the vinegar solution for 24 hours to halt the action of the lime.

Mix the tanning solution. Combine 1 pound of animal brains for every 2 gallons of water. Untreated water is best. Soak the hide in the brain-tanning solution overnight or for 12 hours. Remove and squeeze out excess solution, then stretch the hide out with a frame. Work the hide by stroking, pushing and stretching it with a smooth tool like a canoe paddle. Work the solution into the hide until it dries.

Tips & Warnings

  • If the hide tears while you're working it, repair the tear by stitching it closed with a waxed thread such as dental floss.
  • To make the hide more durable, smoke the hide in a smokehouse for several hours after tanning it.

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