Many people say to me; “I’ve always wanted to learn how to brain tan” but have never tried, or have tried and failed, and for good reason. Without knowledge of the process it can be a very frustrating experience with so-so results at the end. The best thing to do is learn from someone who knows how how the hide should look and feel at each step of the process.
The next best thing would be to buy the book “Deerskins into Buckskins” by Matt Richards. The first tanning class that I took was with Matt, and at that time he taught how to tan with all “primitive” tools. That means bone, vines, wood… No metal scrapers or steel cables, and we finished the hide in a day, while some folks in another tanning class next door to us were also tanning but using modern tools, and it was taking them up to 3 days to finish! It goes to show, that it’s not the tools or the muscle, but the step-by-step process along with the experience to problem-solve and save time and energy along the way.
In this article I will go over the first three steps, some of the most important, to getting a good quality finished product.
Step 1: getting the hide off the deer
Seems simple. Just cut it off, right? Patience! You will want to take the hide from the carcass using the knife as little as possible. I hang the deer by it’s neck with a secure rope. Cut around the neck, down the belly, then up the inside of each leg, cutting the legs off completely at the “elbow” joint. You can cut around the genitals and between the anus and genitals from leg to leg. All the while you will want to be careful not to cut into the gut, or any of the meat if you can help it. A knife specifically made for skinning is helpful for this.
Next, try pulling the skin down from the neck. You may need to start with the knife, but eventually you should just be able to pull it away from the flesh. As it comes off, roll the hair side inward as you pull down. This will make it easier to grab the slippery hide. Keep pulling, and use your fingers and fists to “punch” down between the flesh and hide. This will help separate the two. As you go you may see a bit of flesh cling to the skin, usually from the ribs. This is OK. If there is a LOT of meat ripping out you will need to use your knife sparingly to help separate that flesh from the hide. You will be scraping the fat and meat off the skin once removed anyway, so all you’re trying to do with this process is remove the hide cleanly (with no knife cuts) and save the meat. Did I say patience?
Step 2: Now what to do with it?
Hunting season is cold season. Tanning season is warm season. Unless you really want to tan your hide while it’s cold out, you will need to store it. No matter what process you use to store your hide you will want to start by “fleshing”. This is removing the meat and fat that clings to the hide. If you don’t remove it the meat will attract bacteria that break down your hide and the fat will turn rancid as well as soak in to your hide creating grease burns.
There are basically two ways: racking or beaming. If you want to leave the hair on for tanning you will be racking it to a frame. You would also do this method if you are going to use the “dry scrape” method of tanning. I’ve used this method for sheep hides, but not deer. Beaming is much easier and so that’s what we’ll talk about here.
You will need a 6-8″ diameter hardwood beam without bark or knobs on it, or, a similar piece of PVC pipe, etc… by about 8′ long. You will need to figure out a way to put one end of this beam on the ground and the other end up at about your navel. It has to be solid.
You will also need a fleshing tool. An old dull draw knife can work, and I’ve seen people cut and sharpen a 18″ or so piece of car leaf spring. Something that you can hold between your two hands and push down on. It shouldn’t be razor sharp, but not dull either. I use a piece of flat metal, 14″ long by 1″ wide and 1/8″ thick, sharpened on one side with a file, and the grips made by rubber tubing stretched over the ends wide enough for me to grip.
You will be draping the hide hair side down over the beam, part of it tucked between you and the end of the beam. (wear a smock or garbage bag!) This will secure the hide as you use your scraping tool to push down and away on the beam, scraping the meat and fat off and down the beam.
Step 3: Storage
You want to keep the hide from rotting, being eaten by bugs, and being eaten by bacteria. You also want to keep the pores of the skin open as much as possible so that it will soak in your tanning mixture later. Once you’ve fleshed your hide you can move on to one of the following storage methods.
Option 1: Freezing
- It takes up space and energy
- It keeps the pores of the hide open, even dries the hide a little, making the hide thirsty for your tanning solution later (brains, eggs, oil, soap, etc)
- All you do is thaw and use!
Option 2: Drying
- It seems to close up the pores a bit, making it harder to tan later
- Watch out for bugs! Once dry store inside a couple layers of plastic garbage bags
- you can dry and store the hides flat, stacking multiple hides in a small space
Option 3: Salting
- You have to wash all of the salt out. Even after tanning some people report a “colder” or wetter feel to the finished material.
- You don’t have the difficulty of re-hydrating the hide and potential of bacteria eating away the skin. The salt keeps just about everything away.
The beginning of your journey to tanning starts with these 3 steps. Do them well and you are well on your way to a nicely tanned hide.
Tell us how it went, Stay tuned for more photos. And If you’re interested in learning this process first hand with great results join us on our next tanning adventure!