Many American Indians used tanned animal hides as blankets. The hair would be left on and worn next to the skin. The process is not unique to American Indians, but certain methods and tools that are still available--especially if you use every part of the animal you choose to skin--make the process more traditional than others.
Things You'll Need
Fresh deer skin
2 2-by-4-inch pieces of wood, 4 feet long
2 2-by-4-inch pieces of wood, 6 feet long
Hammer and nails
4 30-foot lengths of nylon cord (1/8 inch in diameter)
12 to 14 feet of rope
5- to 6-inch wood or metal blade
1 gallon rainwater or non-chlorinated water
Deer brain or two pig brains
Wide, big-bristled paintbrush
Stretching and Wet-Scraping
Make a frame from four 2-by-4s that is a foot larger than the hide on each side, about 4 by 6 feet in size. Lay the frame and the hide on the ground.
Lace the hide to the frame using the 30-foot sections of nylon cord and an awl. Using the awl, make holes in the edge of the hide, one every 3 or 4 inches; lace loosely at first, beginning at the head end. When you get to the end of one side, secure the cord with a half-hitch knot.
Pull on each cord so the skin is stretched taut.
Lean the frame against a tree. If you are tanning the hide in the summer, find a place in the shade so the sun won't dry your hide faster than you would like. Rest the frame against the tree so the head and tail are to your right and left.
Use a split ulna bone from the deer or a drawknife to scrape the hide from side to side. If there are stringy membranes left over, it's O.K. to leave them and move on to tanning the hide.
Take the brain of the deer whose hide you are tanning or acquire two pig brains from a butcher.
Mix the brains in a blender, then add to a gallon of warm, non-chlorinated water (rainwater is best).
Lay the frame on the ground flesh side up and apply the brain mixture with a heavy wide paintbrush with big bristles. The hide should be just damp enough at this point. You shouldn't be able to squeeze any moisture from it, but it should be absorbent, like a damp sponge; you want it to soak up the brains.
Apply a heavy layer of brain mixture and let it sit for an hour. Apply another coat and let it sit for another hour.
Store it somewhere cool overnight where critters can't get to it. Coat it once again with brains the next morning and let it sit for another hour. Watch it closely for signs of drying. If you notice it drying, lay warm, wet rags over the flesh side.
Use a 5- to 6-inch blade of wood or metal to squeegee water from the hide. Keep the hide stretched while it dries by applying pressure as you scrape. This will ensure a soft tan.
Move the hide into the sun or in front of a fan to dry. Continue to scrape or knead with your hands until the hide feels warm and slightly damp. Tanner Kelly Meyers recommends continuing your work in the shade if this is your first hide.
Cut the hide from the frame with a sharp knife, leaving a 1-inch margin. The holes should still be attached to the frame.
Tie a ½-inch diameter rope to the branch crown of a tree that is at least 6 or 7 feet off the ground. Tie the other end around the tree's base. The rope should be tight, but avoid damaging the tree.
Pass the hide over the rope and grasp each end in one hand. Beginning at the top of the hide and working your way toward the bottom, pull the hide back and forth over the rope in a sawing motion.
Rotate the hide 90 degrees (so the edges are now the ends) and repeat.
Continue to soften until the hide is dry and soft. This could take several hours, even all day. Rub it over the rope if it begins to feel moist. It should feel cool and it should have some elasticity. It will be fluffy and white when it is dry.
The drawknife should be slightly dull so you can run your finger over it, even press down slightly without cutting yourself. You have less chance of puncturing the hide with a blade that can’t puncture your skin. If you choose to use an ulna bone, it will have to be sharpened often, but is more traditional. Kelly Meyers advises that when the hide feels dry, it probably is not. Sometimes, she says, you go to bed after a long day of softening, thinking you have a dry hide and you wake up to find it hardened. If that happens, re-moisten it and keep going. This is a lengthy, labor-intensive process, and trying to speed it up will leave you with an undesirable blanket.
If the water is too hot for your skin, it is definitely too hot for the deerskin and could damage it. Don't expect your first attempt to result in a perfectly tanned hide. Do a lot of reading and keep trying if your first hide doesn't turn out just right.