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Thread: Braintanning the simple (or overcomplicated) way

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    naturalist primitive your_comforting_company's Avatar
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    Default Braintanning the simple (or overcomplicated) way

    Just the sound of it makes ladies everywhere gag and ask "you used WHAT?!"
     
    Let me break it down as best I can. Skin is composed of some really basic, but complicated, components. All matter is made of atoms and molecules and the bonds formed between shared electrons. Skin is no exception.
    Lucky for us the main constituent is loose hydrogen bonds that fill the space between the fibers with mucus or "ground substance". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collagen

    Once the skin is flushed, either by decomposition, prolonged soaking, salting, or soaking in an alkali solution, it is ready to bind with new things because all it's building blocks are polarized, sort of like a magnet.

    Brain itself is primarily made of amino acids. Acids are the opposite of alkali meaning they will add a + end of one molecule, to bind with the - end of the skin fibers. The advantage to this is that amino acids are fatty acids. That's right, greasy. They make an excellent conditioner for your hands and are used in lots of different cosmetic products (amino acids, not brains lol). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amino_acids
    Amino acids are theoretically the "building blocks of life" in science circles. How convenient!

    Our medium is water. The mucus in the skin is mostly water. The bucking is done with a water solution, and the brains will be in solution in water. What makes this great is that water evaporates and is NOT polar so it doesn't actually bind on a molecular level with any of our work. Water is truly an amazing thing!

    But this is only part of the actual process. Brains won't actually tan the skin. They only serve as a lubricant and stabilizer for the skin. The actual tan comes from wood smoke. Smoke contains (among many other things) different forms of formaldehyde, primarily glutaraldehyde gas, which happens to also be a polar molecule! Also very convenient!

    If you brain a skin, then wash it before it is smoked, the brains wash out and you are back to square one. Why? because your molecules are not complete! For this to work you need your stuff to become insoluble in water, that is to say, stable so they won't "unbind" and wash out. Smoke is that last key element. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glutaraldehyde

    These are the basic elements of braintanning. It is a laborious process and while this makes it seem really scientific and complicated, with this basic understanding the rest of the process will really make sense. By understanding why doing something works, we open ourselves up to a whole new level of experimenting, learning, and growing.
     
    *Also, to make a special note here. There are many recipes for making braintan buckskin. I have tried different methods and techniques, and I've weighed the results against my own scales and figured out what produces the results I like. This is what works for me. I do not want this to turn into any sort of argument or spitting contest. If you do things differently and think my method is wrong, feel free to start a new thread showing how you do it. The process is daunting and confusing enough to the uninitiated without 10 different people interrupting with 10 different methods.

    It is not the method, but the science behind the method that makes it work.


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    Senior Member wareagle69's Avatar
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    excellent article YCC, explains the procces well, but all i could hear in my head as i was reading this was dr sheldon coopers voice, man i gotta quit watching tv.

    As my journey continues as a trapper i will be looking to start tanning hides and make my own clothing, so expect allot of questions in the next year my freind
    WE
    always be prepared-prepare all ways
    http://wareaglesurvival.blogspot.com

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    Default The Tools

    To clarify, this will cover the wet scrape method. It is more intuitive, and self regulating, and can be done without paying a great deal of attention to what you are doing. This means you can talk with friends, listen to music, etc. without worrying about being distracted.

    Dry scrape is a method that requires diligence! you would be using very sharp tools which makes it very easy to cut into or through the hide. It also requires a frame to stretch the skin very tight.
    Wet scrape uses dull tools, making it nearly impossible to cut into the hide, or hurt yourself. I prefer wet-scrape method, and according to Mr. Kirkland, an estimated 80% of skins tanned by native Americans were done by wet-scrape. It is very hard to sharpen a bone or stone and get the edge needed to shave a hide with the dry-scrape method.

    This post will deal with the tools used in wet-scrape braintanning.
    First thing you'll need is a knife (stone, bone, or steel) to skin the deer, either on the ground, or hung by the head. Some folks prefer to hang it upside down, but I find that to be skinning "against the grain" and I usually have to fight meat away from the skin. If you go from the top down, everything comes off like a button-up shirt. Please refer to the skinning thread for more information.

    Next you'll need containers. 5-gallon buckets with lids work very well when doing one or two hides at a time. For 3 or more hides, larger containers will be necessary. Since you are reading this, I'm going to assume this is your first time braintanning, and that you will only be doing one hide at a time. Running water from a tap, or creek is also going to be a necessary item on your list.

    A dull tool, like the back of a machete, or a piece of iron bar that has been "squared" on the corners, will suffice as a scraping tool, both for the fleshing, and graining/membraning steps. The ulna-radius bone from the deer itself is the ideal tool for the job, because it came with the deer, BUT it will require frequent sharpening (not really sharp!) because the skin is quite like a razorstrap that you would use to sharpen a straightrazor. For all practical purposes, an old draw-knife works wonderfully and usually are already dull enough from use on wood to require nothing more than a little touching up. The main thing to remember is the tool should be dull enough to just barely shave a bit of thumbnail. I use my great- grandad's old drawknife most times, though I have made a curved tool I use for fleshing.
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    The item that complements your scraper is the scraping beam. PVC makes an ideal scraping beam. In times past, logs without knots or bark were used. A tripod or prop of some sort should be employed if using it in a horizontal position, which is what I prefer. I've read about much success in using the beam in an upright position, but I prefer to have the work in front of me and below my sternum so that I can put sufficient pressure on the work, and maintain the proper angle of the tool.

    Also of note, is that the neck and rumps of a deer are thick and tough. I use two different sizes of PVC. To start off, I use a 3" beam for the neck. Less surface area means more concentrated pressure and effort. It works sort of like lbs per square inch. Once the neck is done, I swap over to a 6" beam for the rest of the hide.
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    Though it is not required, I recommend soaking the hide in an alkali solution to aid in grain removal. Hardwood ashes work very well, but you can also use hydrated lime, Calcium Carbonate, Calcium Hydroxide, Sodium hydroxide, Potassium hydroxide... There are quite a few things out there that will work. I prefer wood ashes, though they can stain the skin if not cleaned well. If ashes aren't available, I go with pickling lime. A brown egg will be helpful in determining the concentration of your bucking solution.

    Some folks swear by framing a skin, and I admit I used to do it (and still do sometimes), so if you choose to use a frame you'll need, not only the frame, but also a LOT of cordage, a staking tool, and a "buffer" like pumice or sandstone. Keep in mind that once a wet skin is framed, you are committed! It's pretty hard to find a bag big enough to put over a frame to keep the skin from drying overnight! I have made a staker/buffer hybrid tool for use when opening a skin after wringing. (sorry no pic yet)

    If you choose to hand stretch your skin (preferred), all you need is the buffer, and a bag to store it in if you want to take a break. This method produces the softest, stretchiest buckskins. It will have a lot of "bounce" and be as soft as chamois.

    You will need a place to wring water and excess brains from the skin. This can be a pole strung between two trees, or a simple frame like from a baby swing (what I use). You will need another stick to actually twist for the wringing. Any stick will do as long as it doesn't have sharp points that will cut, poke or tear the hide.
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    Additionally, if your hide has holes, you will need a leather needle, and strong thread, like artificial (or real) sinew. It is possible to make holes almost completely disappear. I bet you couldn't tell my abo shirt had holes in it!

    There are several other tools that some folks use, like a cable for stretching / buffing, but I won't include those here. I will try to remember to give mention to them en passe as we come to those steps. Some are utilitarian, some are whimsy, and some are just downright useless. I wonder sometimes if they were part of a cruel joke, like an initiation rite, LOL.

    One other handy item to have around is a friend. For me, this is mostly a solitary endeavor as most people are grossed out by the process. It's nice to have a little comforting company around to distract you from the droning process, and help with little things like rinsing, or passing your cup of coffee, or keeping the fire stoked.
    Last edited by your_comforting_company; 12-15-2010 at 08:34 AM.

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    Actually, WE, questions will help make sure this thread is as complete as possible. I welcome any questions and comments, and offer my assistance to all who would try this.

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    Default Fleshing

    After your deer is skinned, and processed, you will need to remove the extra meat and fat from the skin before proceeding.

    This is really a straightforward process, and all you need is a beam to support the skin, and a dull tool to plow the meat and fat off. Meat will go rancid rather quickly and can spoil your bucking solution, and fat can cause "grease burn" and make some aweful stains in the skin.

    The picture above shows the beam setup and some tools I use for fleshing. RWC1969 has made an excellent video showing this process, so with his permission, this video shows it better than I could describe it. It really is a simple process, so check out his video!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RflPvyT-olM

    I suggest using the items below when fleshing. Depending on how good a job you did skinning, this can get all over your clothes and will ruin a good pair of boots. Wear clothing that's okay to get dirty, and old shoes that you won't mind getting wet!

    Also of note: we will be working with gross stuff, and dangerous chemicals. A few safety items should be mentioned here.

    Apron, to keep grossness off your clothing.
    Rubber boots
    rubber gloves, don't want corrosive chemicals on your hands!

    Though admittedly I don't wear safety glasses, I do recommend them for the dangers involved in using lye solutions!
    Last edited by your_comforting_company; 12-15-2010 at 08:40 AM.

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    Default Bucking your hide

    I don't know who came up with the term "bucking" but it sounds more like a wild ride on a mad-as-hell bull than a liesurely soak in a bucket.

    It serves to flush all the loose bonds out of the skin and leave the skin in an attractive (magnetic.. sort of) state. Soaking in an alkali solution removes all the shared bonds in the skin and makes precipitate salts in the water. We are working with materials that can be caustic and corrosive, so it is imperative that you take proper safety precautions!

    There are many alkaline solutions out there, most of them artificial reproductions of chemicals that occur otherwise naturally. Probably the most familiar is Potassium Hydroxide, KOH-, also known as household lye. It is a VERY potent caustic material so if you choose to use it make damn sure you have your safety gear on and ESPECIALLY wear safety glasses!! I cannot stress that enough! Please use good sense and all safety precautions!!

    A less corrosive material is pickling lime, or hydrated lime. It is available at most grocery stores and is usually found on the canning aisle. Although it is much less potent and dangerous than lye, I still recommend gloves and an apron.

    In my humble opinion, hardwood ashes are the BEST solution to use, mostly because they are free and natural. What you don't use will return to the earth naturally, and it can be used as fertilizer in your garden or flower bed. After being used on a skin it will have a good deal of organic matter (in it's smallest form) which is also great for the soil.

    Whichever agent you choose, you are dealing with the OH- part of the chemicals. Hydroxides are ionic compounds that are reactive with a wide range of otherwise stable materials. OH- really wants to be neutral and to accomplish that, it will rob a hydrogen molecule from wherever it can find one, and become H2O, Dihydrogen monoxide. For those not so chemically inclined, that translates to WATER.

    When I don't have ashes to use, I use pickling lime. Many fertilizers contain the same ingredients, and I think it is worth mentioning that slaked lime, Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) is the active ingredient in Tums antacid tablets. Theoretically, Tums or Rolaids could be used to buck a hide. (only in theory, I have not tried it!)

    If using pickling lime, about half a pound per hide is sufficient. If using wood ashes, you will need to check your pH concentration because different woods will contain different amounts of the chemicals. Too low of a concentration will do basically nothing to the skin. Too high a concentration will eat the skin. Litmus paper is not quite accurate enough for measuring this because the pH scale is exponential.
    Litmus paper can tell you that your pH is 12.0 - 12.9 but less than 13.0, but it cannot tell you that it is exactly 12.9 (which is our ideal pH). That being said, I should explain that 12.1 is 10x as strong as 12.0

    We can use a simple test that was discovered back in pioneer days to determine our pH based on the specific gravity of an egg. Egg shells are primarily composed of calcium. I'm not sure about the details on how this works precisely, but I do know that it works well.

    Chemical substitutes can reach only a certain concentration in water. Beyond that concentration any excess will precipitate out (with the exception of KOH, or household lye). Wood ashes are much like KOH and can reach very high concentrations. If using pickling lime, use more than you think you'll need. Any excess will settle out and every time you stir it, the concentration will come back up.

    Since I primarily use wood ashes, mostly from oak I use the simple egg test.

    Fill your bucking bucket (that sounds funny) about halfway with ashes and add about one and a half to two gallons of water. Stir well and wait for the ashes to settle and the water to rise to the top. While you wait, it's a good time to test your egg. Just as Winnie suggested about floating an egg in tap water to see if it's good to cook, you should test your egg. If it floats in tap water, the egg is no good.

    When your ashes have settled and enough water is on top, tilt your bucket over to the side enough to have room for the egg to actually float. If the egg sinks in the ash-buck then your solution is too weak. Add more ashes, stir, allow to settle, and check again. If the egg floats and rolls over on it's side, the solution is too strong. Add a little more water (a cup or two), stir, settle and test again.
    What you want here is for your egg to float, suspended upright in the solution, with as much surface exposed as a quarter to half-dollar.
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    Once you have properly floated your egg (this can be frustrating!) stick your hide in making sure all surfaces are completely covered with ash-buck. I recommend wearing gloves since this solution is corrosive. If you have any sores on your hands they will feel like they are on FIRE. Take my word for it, I've been known to do stupid things from time to time. I believe it was Mark McGuire who said, "Never make the same mistake once". In other words, LEARN FROM OTHER PEOPLES MISTAKES!

    The amount of time required to buck a hide (flush it out) varies from hide to hide, and with temperatures. Cold makes everything move more slowly (even me!) and hot makes things work more quickly (except for me!).

    Typically a large buck will take 4 or 5 days in milder climates (60 degrees) and significantly more in colder places. A small doe might only take 1 or 2 days. This lends to the toughness of the skin and the animal from which it came. Bucks seem to have tougher and thicker skin whereas does are more tender and thin.

    It's best to check twice a day on the progress of your hide, stirring each time. You'll know your hide is ready to be scraped when you can rub some hair off with your fingers. I haven't taken a picture of a bucked hide with slipping, but I will be sure to take one on the next skin I tan. The solution that is closest to the hide will neutralize first, so stirring makes sure that you always have high concentrations near the skin.

    RWC1969 has another video here showing the bucking phase and does some good explaining. Check out his video to see what the process looks like in the bucket! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTTumhFU2D0
    Last edited by your_comforting_company; 12-09-2010 at 09:09 AM. Reason: added video

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    Default Graining

    Once the skin is sufficiently bucked you are ready to remove the "hard part" of the skin. This is where your beam and draw-knife will really prove themselves.

    Skin is layered, much like the bark of a tree. Hopefully a written explanation will describe it well enough, but if not you can just google "layers of skin" and find a wealth of diagrams and pictures.

    The outermost layer is not skin at all, but is keratin, another protein chain! Keratin is much like collagen in it's raw form though it is not broken down so easily. Another word we use to describe this layer is HAIR. If your hide has properly bucked, the hair will wipe right off in most places with a swipe of your hand or a gentle rub of your tool.

    Moving inward, the next layer is the epidermis. It is composed mostly of dead skin cells and is the body's first line of defense against microbial intruders. It is very thin and often resembles dirt or mud under the hair. It usually will rub off with the hair, leaving the hard layer shiny and visible.

    The hard layer is called the "grain". This is where we make the distinction between utility type leathers and suede type leathers. Buckskin does not have the grain layer left on. It is a very tightly woven layer of skin and is the second line of defense. This is where the mucus starts to do it's job, keeping the skin pliable, yet impermeable. The grain and mucus together are primarily responsible for keeping out bad stuff. Since the animal isn't using it anymore, we will remove it to make very soft material. The grain is the shiny part on your boots and is removed from your suede tennis shoes. This example alone is enough to explain why we remove it!

    Below the grain is the fiber network. It is composed primarily of many loose collagen fibers, filled with mucus. After bucking, the mucus is removed (read neutralized) and we are left with soft, bouncy material much like chamois. The fiber network is the layer we want to isolate and use for our clothing.

    Below the fiber network is the membrane. It is exactly opposite of the fiber network in composition, being primarily mucus, with a few loose collagen fibers and some connective tissue. Most of this part is removed in the fleshing phase, and most often there are only a few tatty fibers left on. It's not a big issue as long as there is NO FAT OR MEAT. All that should have been removed BEFORE bucking!!

    A dull draw-knife will serve you well here. Another option for you primitive-style folks is to use the ulna-radius bone (in deer they are fused together into one bone!). Your draw-knife should be just barely sharp enough to cut into your thumbnail. If it's too sharp you can cut holes into your fiber network while scraping.

    Scraping with the lay of the hair is preferred. That is to say: start at the neck and work toward the tail. I use a 3" beam to start the neck. The grain is attached really well to the fiber network on the neck area and it takes a great deal of effort to start scraping. A smaller beam will give you less surface area and less resistance to the pressure you apply. The neck is the only part of the skin that I scrape against the lay, and only enough to turn the skin around and work with the lay.

    If your tool is too sharp you will cut into the skin!! It might be necessary to dull it before you start. Once the neck is scraped using your 3" beam, swap over to a larger size beam and continue to scrape. I like to use a 6" beam for a wider swath with each pass of my tool. Each pass of your tool should overlap the last scraping, just slightly, and work each side of your "cleaned" area. I normally will run a strip straight down the backbone, and work outward (toward the sides of the skin) from there.

    While it's hard to tell exactly what's happening in this picture, you can clearly see part of the skin peeling off. That is the grain being removed from the fiber network. You see, the grain and fiber network connect to each other in what is called the "papillary layer". It is a tiny section between the two layers where they fit together like egg cartons stacked inside one another. The disadvantage to wet scraping is that the lowermost part of the grain will be left at the papillary layer just above the fiber network.
    This is why it is recommended to scrape the hide TWICE OR MORE. I can usually get by with two scrapings, and I've read about a few folks who can do it in one pass, but I prefer NOT to find white streaks after I smoke the hide, so whether I think I did a good job on the first pass or not, I scrape AT LEAST TWICE over the whole hide.
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    You can tell that on the left hand side how the hide looks dull and even a little browner than the shiny whitish right side. The left side has been scraped down to the fiber network, and the right side still has the grain on. hopefully you can also see the stripes from overlapping the strokes of my drawknife. You'll also notice near the bottom of the picture, and near the center just below my drawknife the layer that has been scraped off. It is rather like a fruit roll-up, but in shreds lol. This is the grain of the skin. On animals it is significantly thicker than humans, which is why it's far less noticable when we cut ourselves.

    I will do my best to get a better picture (or hopefully a video) of the next skin I scrape, since this one was not taken with a very good camera, and in poor light.

    Once your hide has been grained, flip it over and scrape over the flesh side to remove any more membrane and connective tissues that might have been missed in the fleshing stage. This part is usually very fast.

    Many people recommend rinsing before this step, but I find that rinsing before graining allows the hide to "unswell" and leave a lot of grain in the papillary layer. By scraping before rinsing, you are working closely with caustic solution, BUT in my experience it makes grain removal much easier and scraping goes much deeper, leaving very little of the grain at the papillary junction. The more grain that is left on the hide, the stiffer it will be.

    Rinsing is easy enough, all you need is running water and/or a container. Soak in clean water and then wring it out.

    To wring the water out drape the skin over your wringing pole with about 6" of the rump end hanging over the back and the grain side toward the outside (down; It's inside, touching the pole now). Bring the neck end under and back over the top of your wringing pole and let about 6" hang over the front. Now your skin resembles a sloppy tube. Start at each side and roll it toward the middle. This is a lot like rolling up your sleeves. Put your wringing stick through the bottom of the hide and twist clockwise until you absolutely cannot twist it any further. Don't worry, you cannot break or tear the hide unless it has lots of knife marks or holes in it. Really, you can't hurt it!!
    Untwist the hide and twist counterclockwise until you cannot twist any further. Give it a few minutes to drip. A towel will prove usefull to collect excess water that doesn't want to run off. Untwist your hide knot.
    Rotate the hide over your wringing pole 1/4 turn, and repeat the above process untill you have gone all the way around the hide. That means you have twisted 8 times altogether in 4 different positions around the hide.
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    I like to dunk it back in the water and rinse again. Remember we are working with balances, and in order to rinse the buck out completely you'll need the water and hide to reach the same pH, preferrably 7.0. When you think the hide is rinsed and wrung enough, you are ready to open it up and brain it!

    The hide will have lots of wrinkles in it at this point and I like to use pretty much whatever I can find to stretch it over: the back of a chair, a boat paddle, a dull shovel. Lots of things will work for this, basically you want to pull all the wrinkle-lines out of it as best you can, and let the hide dry ever so slightly. A wet hide will look white, too dry will look brown, and "just right" is somewhere in the middle, "tawny". Once you have your hands on it, it's self explanatory and very easy to see the differences. The hide needs to be just dry enough to soak up the brain solution.
    Last edited by your_comforting_company; 12-15-2010 at 09:07 AM.

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    Default Braining and Stretching

    Now is the fun / gross part. This is where the magic happens and you see that sloppy wet 10lbs of flesh turn into this fluffy, soft, light material.

    Once the skin has been properly prepared it will accept the protein based oils from the brains, which will bind into a new "lubricated" fiber. You see, collagen has a "glue" in it that causes it to "wax over" as it dries. This is where the distinction is made for rawhide. Rawhide is not oiled or worked soft. The glues in the skin are allowed to set up and make a very stiff, body-armor type of leather. Rawhide is semi-transparent because of this "waxing".
     
    We don't want our clothing to be able to stand on it's own, so by adding a protien-based oil that is attracted to the collagen fibers and keeping the fibers moving we produce soft material. The oil allows two things to happen: The glues in each collagen fiber become contained and isolated to each fiber, so it stops the "rawhide effect", and it allows each fiber to move freely among the other fibers around it.
     
    I will touch on using soap and eggs later, and some of the less practical oils, but only in theory because I have not used anything but brains.
     
    The saying goes, "The good Lord made all the animals to have enough brains to tan their own hide, except buffalo and some people I know". Since most of you will be using deer skins, You most likely have the brain that came with the deer, which is the perfect amount. If you don't have that particular brain, check with game processors who will usually let you get all the doe heads you want. You might check your local grocer or meat market also, as they often sell hog brains in a 1lb tub. Brains are brains and they are all made out of the same stuff.
     
    Many people suggest cooking the brain so that it turns grey, and I have to say, right here and now, that I believe cooked brains to behave much differently than raw brains. I no longer cook the brains before I use them on a hide. I do warm them up, either in a small pot by the fire, or on a little stove eye cooker out in the shed. They smell a lot like eggs cooking (coincidence?) and it's not entirely unpleasant. Warming them will prove valuable when tanning in cold weather! I have had several failed hides that "go stiff" after using cooked brains, so I no longer cook them.
     
    For deer it usually takes about half a pound of brains to tan a hide completely soft. Sometimes you need to brain more than once.. but I'll talk about that later in the thread. All you need is a container with a lid, that is large enough to hold the skin and about 6-8 cups of water. You will be surprised at how much liquid the hide soaks up in it's tawny state. A large skin will hold about 6 cups of water-brains.
     
    Mash the brains in the water with your hands, or toss them in a blender and use the liquefy setting. The brains should be about the consistency of a milkshake. I usually add half a pound of brains to a cup of water, blend or mash, and then dilute and mix with 4 more cups of water. You want to SLOWLY work the hide into the brains, stretching in all directions a small section at a time as you submerge it in the brain solution. At this juncture most people take the hide back out wring it and submerge it again. I do not see the logic in this however.
     
    Most chemical processes take time. I like to let my hide soak in the brain solution for at least a few hours, preferrably overnight. This allows plenty of time for the oils and collagen to bind. If you wring the hide and wet it with brains or water again, you aren't accomplishing much because the oils are still water soluble. That means that every time you wet the hide, the oils wash out! I would rather soak, stretch dry, smoke, and THEN rebrain if necessary. The smoking is the final step and makes your collagen/oil fibers insoluble in water. This essentially saves your progress on all the places that softened properly and the places that got stiff will be able to be wetted with brains and softened without fear of ruining the part of the hide that did soften. This is called the pre-smoke method, and I'll elaborate more on that if necessary, later.
     
    The glues in the collagen fibers will still try to set up and become rawhide. If we keep the fibers moving against one another while the water evaporates, then each collagen fiber becomes isolated. The idea here is to keep the fibers moving while the hide dries. At this point you are commited once again until the task is done. I'd like to talk about a few softening methods and their pros and cons.
     
    Hand stretching is by far the least demanding of softening methods. It only requires your hands and a bag or container to store the hide if you want to take a break, so that it doesn't dry out. You will want a "buffer" of some sort to raise the knap of the hide, so pumice or sandstone is required. It produces the softest and stretchiest buckskins. The disadvantage to this method is that you can only work a small part of the hide at a time. One more thing is that you are going to get wet with the brains too! (It's okay ladies, it makes your skin soft!)
     
    Frame stretching will require a frame to be built large enough to hold the hide with a little room around for working the lashings. It also requires, in addition to the buffers, a staking tool, which is simply a stick with a wedge-shaped end. Once the hide is framed you will run the staker all over the hide, stretching in all directions. This is advantageous because you can quickly go over the whole hide, then rest a while. The disadvantage is that you are 100% committed. It's very hard to keep a hide from drying out in a frame. It takes time to string and unstring it, and you are in a fight against time. Frame stretching will still produce very soft buckskin, but it will lack a lot of the stretch found with hand stretching.
    This picture shows the hide in the frame, and the staking tool.
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    This picture shows a piece of sandstone I use to buff my hides. I found the boulder under a 15' waterfall on a small creek in the middle of nowhere on one of my "adventures".
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    Staking is a method which employs the best of both of the above methods. Basically you need a stand, like a podium base, to hold a narrow stretching tool on top, where the hide is pulled to and fro. The advantage to this method is that your staking stand stretches and buffs at the same time! You are also able to bag your hide and finish later if you need a break. (pictures coming!) My staker is an abrasive disc for a side-grinder mounted atop two 1x4's.
    Cabling is an alternative to the staker, but because of it's orientation I do not recommend it. It is a fairly aggressive softening method and can cause your hide to have a blotchy texture, some spots being much fuzzier than others. It works just like staking, but is a bit awkward. you won't need buffers for this method either since the cable will buff it while you work.

    Whichever method you choose you have to work the hide from sloppy wet with brains, to completely dry. If the humidity is above 80% you will have a hell of a time accomplishing this! Atmostpheric moisture is readily absorbed by a hide that has not been smoked. Buckskin behaves much like a sham-wow, soaking up about 4x it's mass in water! It would be wise to pick a day when the humidity is very low. The hide will feel warm to the back of your hand everywhere that is dry, and will be cold in places where it is wet. The object is to keep the lubricated fibers moving while their encased and isolated glues set around themselves. If you don't keep it moving it will get stiff spots that are basically rawhide on the inside!

    If needed, I can elaborate on how to frame a hide later. This is a good place to mention that with a frame you only tighten your strings once or sometimes twice. The more movement you can leave in it, the stretchier it will be when it's done.
    Last edited by your_comforting_company; 12-12-2010 at 12:21 PM.

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    naturalist primitive your_comforting_company's Avatar
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    Default Smoking your hide

    Smoking is the final part of the process and is in fact the actual tan. Smoke contains among many things, a gaseous form of formaldehyde, which binds with the collagen/brain to make it become insoluble in water. This is NOT to say "water repellent" as anyone who has ever worn buckskin in the rain will tell you. It soaks up water like a sponge. What this IS to say, is that your skin will be forever preserved in this soft state. Even after being wetted, it will dry, with very minimal stretching, just as soft as it ever was. Because the brains (oils) can no longer be washed out, and the glues around the fibers cannot set up, tanning is complete. Were it not smoked, it would revert to rawhide, which I assure you is not very comfortable to wear!
    A properly smoked hide is just as washable as any cotton shirt you have now. Just don't put it in the dryer! I'll talk about washing and drying in the aftercare section.
     
    This is where your knowledge of woods, and their burning qualities comes in really handy. If you ever cook on the grill with wood, you'll notice that some woods impart a color to the meat. Poplars lend yellows, while several oaks will turn your meats red.
    You also should know how different stages of decomposition affect the burning of the wood. We will need wood that is dry and dead enough to make a nice bed of coals. But this is only half!
    You will need wood that is so dead and rotten you can crumble it into powder with your hands. This is referred to as "punky" wood. Punky wood produces a lot of smoke but no flames. It is often used as a coal extender or a spark catcher, and smolders rather than outright ignites.
    Some should be crushed into dust, to arrest any flames, and some should be left in chunks, for appropriate smoldering. A few pounds is plenty.

    There are several ways to set up for smoking a hide. I prefer to lay it out on a table, grain side up, and use elmers glue to draw a bead just around the very edge, and use clothespins to hold the hide together, folded long-way, like a pillowcase. Some people sew the edges together in the same fashion. Two hides can be smoked together at the same time using either technique. Do two at once so the color will match on your britches!

    The neck is the only piece left open, and around the edge of the neck is attached a "skirt" of denim or other thick cloth, either sewn, or glued, to bridge the gap between the fire and the hide. Skin doesn't take very well to high heat and rather crinkles up and scorches. This is a "hide sack" hanging over a smudge pot. Any holes in the hide should be closed so that it is "smoke-tight".
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    One easy way to set up your fire is the Dakota Fire Hole. A quick search on the forums will produce that info. Lay your bed of coals in the bottom of your hole, lay your punky wood on top of that, regulate your air flow to prevent flames and maximize smoke production, and stand your hide over the hole using a tripod. The skirt should reach the ground and be weighted around the edges with rocks.
     
    Some prefer a "smudge pot" which is simply a small container that functions just as a DFH. Pretty much anything can serve as a smudge pot, from a metal coffee can, to a cast-iron pot. The only trick here is to make sure there is enough space between the hide and the heat! Often a hole is punched near the bottom to allow air inflow to keep the coals alive.
    This is my big smudge pot for deer hides. Notice the denim skirt:
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    And this is my small coffee-can smudge pot for smaller hides:
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    Smoke-houses are generally preferred for furs, or items where you only want color on one side of the hide. These are usually hooked up through pipeworks hooked to a wood stove, keeping enough distance that the smoke is cold by the time it reaches the house. This method takes the longest, and thus requires the most resources, both for building the house, and maintaining the fire. I do not personally see the need for a smoke-house unless you also regularly cure meat in it (but I made one anyway LOL).
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    The idea is to have a sealed container for the smoke. We want it to permeate and surround each fiber as it passes through the hide like a filter. Color is taken on the inside and when the hide is observed to be taking color on the outside (flesh side) in the thick areas, it is pulled inside-out and smoked on the other side. A smokehouse serves to allow the cool gasses to "settle" into the hide. Often color is only procured on one side.

    Smoking times vary depending on the wood used and the color desired. A hide only actually needs to be smoked for about 20 minutes on one side or the other to be functionally smoked. For color effect, and depending on the rate at which it takes color on the outside (flesh side) I usually smoke the grain side (inside) for 45 minutes to an hour, and the outside, once flipped inside-out, about half that time, usually 20-30 minutes.

    NEVER LEAVE A SMOKING HIDE UNATTENDED! Should your smudge-pot get too hot and catch fire your hide could be ruined in a matter of seconds and all that work would be down the drain! Before the hide ever goes over the coals, go pee, eat, get a drink, whatever you have to do to make sure there are ABSOLUTELY NO INTERRUPTIONS! I have ruined a squirrel hide in the moment it took to step outside to get more punky wood!
     
    Different colors come from different woods. I've used laurel oak, red oak, cedar, and cherry. All are various shades of golden brown, but I particularly liked the golden color of laurel oak.
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    To recap, we skin, flesh, buck, scrape, scrape again, rinse, wring, rinse again, wring again, brain, wring, stretch dry, smoke.

    At this point, if there are any spots on your hide that got stiff, Dunk that sucker back in the brains and soften again! The whole hide will soak up the brains, but the places that got stiff will soften this time. I have done this several times and now, if I have a hide get stiff spots, I smoke it anyway, and immediately rebrain and soften those spots. Resmoking is not necessary. There is no worry of the soft spots going stiff, because they are forever soft after being smoked!
    Last edited by your_comforting_company; 12-14-2010 at 12:37 AM.

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    Aftercare is really simple. Wash your buckskin just as you would any other cotton garment. You can just throw it in the washing machine with some colgate soap, or Fels Naptha (This smells really good!) that has been grated. A quarter bar or so is enough to wash a short sleeve shirt. You can just guess at it. Some folks add a glug or two of olive oil to the wash to help keep the buckskin conditioned. I use lye soap with roughly a 7% lye deficit (fat surplus), which serves to wash and condition at the same time!

    You will need some sort of scrubber to get the tough stains out. One of the little brushes like you use to scrub under your fingernails is great. Don't be too aggressive with it, though, or you'll rub a lot of your soft knap off the surface!

    Drying is a simple matter of hand-wringing the garment and hanging it on the line on a sunny day. Even in really cold temperatures, the cold dry air combined with the sun's radiation will dry your buckskin, just as it would your skin. DO NOT PUT YOUR BUCKSKIN IN THE DRYER! It will be 10 sizes too small and very much ruined when it comes out!

    Once your garment is dry, turn it inside out and use your pumice or sandstone to remove the stiff ends of the fibers and re-raise the knap. It will be just a tad bristly but a quick once-over inside and out will make it oh-so-soft again. Also, you will need to do a little bit of hand stretching in all directions. I like to give it a once-over about halfway through drying, and a good 2-3 minute stretch after it's all dry.
    Also of note.. don't use clothespins to hang your garment as they will stretch it at the point they are clipped and make your garment misshapen. Simply drape it over the line / pole, and let it go.

    Freshly smoked buckskin will have a lingering smoke smell reminiscent of a very fragrant cigar. It's best to store them in a small tote, or chest if you find the smoke smell offensive. I particularly love the smell of woodsmoke and like to hang them around the room. Any clothing left near the buckskins will likely gather a bit of the scent, so it is not suggested to hang them near your sunday best.

    Washing will cause your skin to lose some color. It's a simple matter to set up a smoke rack with some tarps or plastic like a teepee, hang your clothing in there, and pump in smoke from your smudge-pot. Repeated washing will make your skin become almost white again. Some folks prefer the darker, more pronounced colors, and some prefer white buckskin. I have heard of using urine to whiten your skins, but I would not recommend it. I prefer to let the hide be what it will be, and I love the golden colors.

    Aftercare is really simple and straightforward, the only things to remember is NO DRYER, a little stretch, and a little buff. Really any soap will do, but I don't like to use harsh cleaning soaps, like Lava or Gojo.

    Also, a good place to mention reading materials: Deerskins into Buckskins, by Matt Richards is top-notch material. My library had a copy I checked out till I got my own, and I would have to say it is the most thorough, explanatory, and detailed book out there regarding wet-scrape buckskin (with some notes on dry-scrape). Get hold of that book!
    The Ancient Art of Braintanning by Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder is another great book dealing with tanning using very primitive methods and provides many notes on alternative methods, like prolonged soaking and decomposition, instead of bucking. Very useful for the individual who needs options!
    Blue Mountain Buckskin by Jim Riggs deals with dry-scrape, and I highly recommend it for anyone who needs to use the dry-scrape method, due to scheduling.
    Last edited by your_comforting_company; 12-15-2010 at 08:14 AM.

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    Senior Member randyt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by your_comforting_company View Post
    Actually, WE, questions will help make sure this thread is as complete as possible. I welcome any questions and comments, and offer my assistance to all who would try this.
    awesome, I may give wetscrape another try especially if I can pester you with questions.

    are you going to cover any alternative "brain" solutions like eggs or soap/ neatsfoot oil?
    Last edited by Rick; 12-08-2010 at 08:35 AM. Reason: Fixed quote tags

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    YCC - This is an outstanding explanation. Many folks don't realize that the strongest force in the universe is magnetism. It's what holds atoms together. If you drop a rock on a table it would pass right through the table (and the floor and the ground) if it weren't for the magnetic attraction of the atoms' protons and electrons in the wood. Knowing how to alter or break that bond at the atomic level is key to understanding WHY smoke or any other element works. Super great explanation and some more rep!!

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    I have not used eggs for braintanning, but I will say that they are made of the same stuff... funny how that works hehe.

    The soap/neatsfoot is covered in the utility leather thread and I don't recommend it for buckskin as the oil is really heavy and will make your chamois buckskin more like sloppy leather. Eggs are a much better alternative, IMO.

    I will perhaps touch on the subject of alternatives, but only in retrospect of my research because I have only had experience with brains.

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    Cool, can't wait to try this, thanks for posting it up.

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    Very well done tutorial, good work!
    Old wooden ironing board works good as a fleshing beam, but people look at your weird at the yard sale, when they find out why you want one.

    Rep your way, man!
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    Just thought I would show ya, the fleashing and scrapping knife I made from a industrial hack saw blade.
    One side sharpened a bit and the side has the teeth ground down a bit, used it for rawhide from deer skins.

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    Hey! that's a great tool! Looks like it would work well for fleshing, though it might be a little flimsy for graining. Thanks for posting the pic H.

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    The bulk of the info is in the thread now. I'm sure as I go back and read over it, I'll make afterthought notes, and as you guys ask questions the work will be even better. I hope I've done a good job explaining the process and why it works, so that you can modify these methods according to your needs, to accomplish some very soft materials that would otherwise be discarded.

    Braintan buckskin is a very labor-heavy endeavor so be sure you have a full bucket of elbow grease, and a cast-iron stomach. Personally, I find it to be a very rewarding hobby, and I think you will too.

    Please feel free to ask questions and make comments. I really hope I've kept it simple enough that you won't be intimidated by all the information, and will give it a try.
    A deer really is an all-in-one package; A blessing. Sinews for bowstrings, sewing, hafting. Bone tools for processing and use for projectile tips, hammers, shovels, hoes... Skin and fur for clothing, meat to eat. Please respect the animal, even if you don't use every piece of it.

    When I take an animal's life, I say a prayer thanking the Good Lord for the animal and the bounty, and apologize for the destruction. There should be no joy in killing, and I do not enjoy the act of killing.
    I enjoy the hunt. Sitting, watching the world wake up and come to life, and go on without me having an active part in it. I enjoy making useful items from the animal, clothing, tools, etc. I do NOT enjoy destroying a life that knows only freedom, something we will never truly appreciate, nor understand.

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    Well said YCC. Tried to send some rep your way, but I've gotta spread the love.
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    I was on another forum and the thread asked what's the best mulit-use item, i said deer. It's amazing just how many uses it has.

    I'd rep ya too, but it won't allow, will have to nominate you instead.

    I have to ask the obvious though, without cooking the brains aren't you worried about disease? I mean, is it possible to contract something, especially considering the time frames for applying them and how quickly brains supposedly rot?

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