Brain Tanned Deerskins
How To Brain Tan
Skins can be found in many places. A few common places to start looking are with hunter, garbage bins, meat packers, the sides of roads, a sign with your phone number and a $5 cash offer in a strategic local, or if your lucky, from a brain tanner in your area. There seems to be more buckskinners all the time.
A fresh skin is best scraped of the blood, meat, and muck and dried in a safe place out of the reach of critters and nasty bugs that eat little holes in your skin. The next best option is to freeze the skin as is. The third best option is to heavily salt the flesh side of the skin and store in a cool dry place. This salt will need to be completely rinsed from the skin before it's worked again. Use natural osmotic pressure if you have enough water, or in other words soak the skins a whole lot to remove the salt. DO NOT REMOVE SALT DIRECTLY ON OR INTO LIVING THINGS LIKE GRASS OR CREEKS BECAUSE THINGS WILL DIE.
Fleshing the skin
The flesh side of the skin is the side that faces the insides of the critter. All the fat, meat and other chunks plus layers of thin membrane are removed to allow penetration of the brains. These bits are removed by scraping with a dull edge, my favorite being a draw knife, but old planer blades work well. The skin is draped over something round and smooth and is pinched between the "beam" and whatever the beam is supported by. I use a aspen log as it doesn't splinter much and has a nice smooth, even surface but lots of folks use PVC pipe these days. Photos in the gallery show how this is set up. Note how the skin is neck up, tail down.
Some folks use beams that are about waist high and scrape the skin by pushing away from the body, using the body to hold the skin on the beam. This is known as a waist beam. Like I mentioned, I use a piece of aspen that leans against a tree. This is known as an upright beam. Either way you want to protect the skin from whatever it's being pinched, the body or the tree/wall/rock. There will be a whole lot of scraping on your skin so get used to it. Try to develop a system of moving your skin to expose the next spot to scrape as efficiently as possible. I basically sort of scrape out a "T" with the top of the "T" being the neck and the body of the "T" along the spine for my reference point for both fleshing and dehairing.
Dehairing the skin
Buckskin gets it's name from the next part of the process called bucking. Bucking is using a basic (as in acid/base) substance such as lye or wood ash and adding that to water to penetrate and break up substances in the skin to allow the brains to penetrate. Re-read that because it's an important clue as to what your doing overall, preparing fibers of the skin expand and "fluff" up to become soft.
To buck your skin add Wood Ash (check out Matt Richards book for more info on the recipe for wood ash) or 8 oz. Potassium Hydroxide (both end up as only water when used up) to a 10 gallons of water mixing thoroughly. A plastic trashcan works well and is preferred. Place your skin in the can/bucket and allow it to soak. Mix it several times per day until the hair on the neck pulls out without breaking hairs to remove them. You'll notice that the skin swells considerably. Try to ensure that the skin has the same uniform grayish tint throughout.
When the hair pulls easily you'll need to rinse the skin some otherwise it's way to slippery to work with. Running water is the best way to remove the slipperiness. Several many changes of water will make the skin manageable. If you get your skin on the beam and it's way too hard to control then you need to rinse it some more.
Time to scrape. You'll notice as you scrape that there is a layerof the skin just under the hair that wants to scrape off with the hair. This layer needs to be completely removed. Much may be said about scraping but it's something best experienced to find what works for you. You will find that the skin varies in thickness and in how hard the hair and skin comes out. These variables will always exist on every skin and be dependent on what time of year the animal was killed, the age of the animal, storage methods of the skin, and penetration of the lye.
After scraping the hair and epidermis layer off of the skin I rinse the hide out in a creek until there is no more of the basic solution left in the skin. Any of the basic solution will inhibit brain penetration. After the basic solution is rinsed from the skin I then place the skin in a weak vinegar bath to get the pH back to normal. I then membrane the flesh side of the skin again then dry the skin out completely.
Braining the skin
One pound of brains will tan several skins. I blend my brains in a blender with hot water and add more water until I have about 3 gallons of "slurry". I take the dried skin and wet it enough to make it somewhat supple and then add it to the brains. I soak it in the brains long enough to let the brains soak into every fiber of the skin. I then wring the skin out, removing as much of the moisture as I can from the skin. To ensure that you have brained your skin as well as possible I recommend braining your skin again and wringing again.
Softening the skin
I take the well wrung skin and lace it into a frame, cutting holes every 3-5 inches along the outer portion of the skin. I push and stretch on the skin with a heavy stick until it no longer feels cold to the touch and then stretch it across an aircraft cable until it's completely soft and dry.
I then cut the crusty outer portion of the skin off so that I have a supple edge. This process can take from 2 hours to 7 hours dependent on ambient temperature and skin thickness and size.
Smoking the skin
I take the softened skin and glue it into a large bag and sew a "skirt" onto the skin. Dig a hole in the ground and make a fire in the hole. When there are only coals left in the pit add the most rotten wood you can find to the pit and place the skirt over the hole so that there is no air getting into the pit or smoke coming out of it except to go into the hide bag you have suspended over it. When the skin is the color you want it be flip it inside out and smoke the other side. You now have a BrainTanned, smoked skin that will last you for many years.
Again, these instructions are very crude and brain tanning is largely a trial and error sort of art form and best learned from someone who has experience in this skill. For 200$ I am available to teach you how to perfectly Braintan a skin. For this fee you get a green skin, a scraping tool, and the instruction. During the class I also ramble on about all kinds of other primitive skills that will get your aboriginal juices flowing.