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Thread: Apprentice tips on braintanning buckskin, or, learn from my mistakes

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    Dilettante Crooked Bird's Avatar
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    Default Apprentice tips on braintanning buckskin, or, learn from my mistakes

    I think this probably isn't high-level enough to go in Tutorials, but if anyone thinks it should be moved, sure.

    I have a belief that it's sometimes better for an apprentice to teach a newbie. Especially with physical skills. I get this belief from learning to drive stickshift from my Dad, who just kept yelling, "Pull the clutch out smoothly. SMOOTHLY!" The fact is, when you've been doing a thing for so many years it's second nature, you don't notice the details of what you're doing and you don't put them into words. But if you've only just learned, you have to think about every detail and you can communicate it. I just completed my third braintanned deer hide (my second if you don't count the, er, bad one), so I'm not ready to do a tutorial yet, but I'm able to offer a nice little list of things NOT to do and a few tips. So, this is the list of things I learned on my own rather than from tutorials, because tutorials don't always think to mention "don't do this utterly stupid thing" or "here's what happens when you rub a Walmart bag on your hide." Maybe it can help someone (you could read it along with a real tutorial), and maybe it can have some entertainment value. Feel free to laugh, I've done a few pretty laughable things.

    I'll do this in order of the process:

    - It's possible to de-hair a hide by putting it in a creek. I experimented, left a fleshed hide in a clear shallow creek in late November for two weeks and when I came and got it (assuming it would be complete crap, actually) the hair came off nicely and the hide was fine. But the grain wasn't swelled, which is what you need for scraping, so this is only useful for making rawhide or if you want the hair off so you can save the hide for later. (It's a lot smaller in the freezer that way.)

    - BE CAREFUL WITH LYE! Holy crap, I'm an idiot, I made a lye solution for the soaking ("bucking") stage and I put my hands in it without gloves once or twice and it was OK, just stung a little on my cuts, so I got careless. I was messing around in there shifting the bricks that were holding my hide down and I must have come into contact with a little undissolved lye, or an area of higher concentration. Barely noticed the stinging was getting worse at first, then went OW and rinsed my hands off and then kept rinsing and rinsing, poured vinegar on it like the lye bottle said to do, there were two spots on my fingers where it had started eating away at my flesh. Literally the top couple layers of the skin were gone and the flesh exposed, and this slippery clear liquid was oozing out. I think it was saponifying my fat. Literally making it into soap, just like when Grandma made lye soap in a big kettle. Just in two small spots, but AAAGH! Took a couple weeks to fully heal and scared the hell out of me. I still have the marks.

    - Using wood ash gets your hide dirty, but it may not matter all that much. A lot of wood ash has charcoal bits in it, especially if it's from a woodstove. You can sift them out, but in my experience it's not perfect (even with a fine sifter) and you'll still end up with a gray rather than white hide after stretching. I noticed the pros didn't seem too concerned about this... and then realized that when the hide's been colored by smoking, you can't really tell the difference. I dunno, it may make a small difference, but my ex-gray hides look fine.

    - It's better to flesh right away but if you can't, a wood ash or lye bucking solution will keep the flesh from rotting. Sometimes the pros don't mention that, because they have their routine down and always flesh right away.

    - Don't take it out of the bucking solution and try to grain until the hair is coming out so easily you don't even have to pull. This wasn't my own learning, a guy at PaleoPlanet forums told me, but it helped me a lot and I hadn't gotten that from the tutorials so I include it. If you soak it long enough, graining's so much easier.

    - Ever wonder what'll happen if you skip the graining process? I can tell you! I'd soaked a hide in a bucking solution that was too weak and hadn't swelled the grain up enough, so scraping the grain was just the toughest thing in the world. I kinda bodged it up, got maybe half of it off. I brained it, started stretching it. The parts where I'd gotten more than half the grain off just had splotches of grain, discolorations--but the parts where I'd gotten less than half of it off were completely stiff. The grain, as it dried, became this stiff, hard, translucent layer over top of the buckskin that prevented the buckskin from stretching when I stretched it--so the buckskin became stiff too. Unusable. That was the "bad" hide. Maybe a quarter of it is OK, the rest is crap. Chalk it up to experience.

    - Guess what printed plastic grocery bags and lye can do to your hide? This is how great discoveries are made, except my discovery is "how to make a crappy blue blotch on your hide." Seriously. I was graining a hide soaked in lye, and I didn't have one of those spiffy rubber aprons, so I grabbed a random plastic bag to put between me and the gross hide. It was a Walmart bag with blue printing on it. The printing rubbed right onto the lye-soaked hide in a big blue blotch that's still there to this day, somehow chemically fixed on the smoked hide. Lucky for me it was the bad hide again.

    Think I'll split the post here so it's not too long.


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    Dilettante Crooked Bird's Avatar
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    More!

    - If you want a perfect-looking hide, you have to grain perfectly. Bits of grain that stay on the hide won't take the smoke color when you smoke it, they'll stay lighter colored and they really show, so if you don't want that, you have to get every bit off. On the other hand if you're going for utility, "character" or the homemade look, hey, no problem. I may achieve perfection someday. But then my pigs would fly away, and I would like to keep them.

    - USE THE RIGHT SIZE BRAIN. Every animal has enough brains to tan its own hide, is the saying. However, it doesn't follow that one deer brain equals enough to tan one deer hide. (Duh, you are saying, but some of us are not that smart.) I asked a friend doing temp-work at the meat locker during hunting season to bring me some deer brains. He did, great. Then a hunting friend offered to let me have the hide of a nice eight-point buck, a monster with neck skin so thick it took all my strength to grain it. I took that and a smaller buck hide, made a solution with two random meat-locker brains, and brained them together in that. When I took the small buck hide out and started to stretch it, it didn't stretch right. It got stiff no matter what I did. And I've stretched enough now (including re-stretching that same hide twice!) to know I wasn't doing it THAT wrong. My belief is, there weren't enough brains in that hide. Whole day of back-breaking work wasted. I'll get meat locker brains again, but I will always get--AND USE--extra.

    - If you've got a stiff hide, don't forget to soften it in water before you put the brains in! I was re-braining that same hide, the one that was mostly stiff because of not enough brains. Kinda forgot this piece of advice (which I had read in the tutorials). What you're supposed to do is soak it in water till it totally softens up, then wring it out and let it dry a bit--you want it soft but not saturated with water, so that it can absorb the brains. I basically stuck stiff rawhide into a brain solution, and the upshot was that the damn thing didn't absorb enough and stiffened up on me AGAIN. Last week I re-brained it and stretched it for the third time. It's now good. <whew>

    - If your hide is stiffening up while you're stretching, they say to moisten it a little with a sprayer. I have had no luck with this. What has worked for me is getting a washcloth moist, balling it up, and using it to carefully moisten the stiffening areas only. They don't get stretchy again till the water's penetrated all the way through the hide, in my experience, so it's no good trying to moisten them a tiny bit with a sprayer (which, besides, you can't aim all that precisely.) I applied pressure with the balled-up moist washcloth until the moisture penetrated and the hide got stretchy, and then just went on stretching, and it worked.

    - You can smoke and then re-brain a hide that didn't get stretched right, but the color might be uneven. As someone explained to me, smoking a hide that still has stiff areas after stretching is like saving your game so you don't have to repeat the early levels. If you smoke it, the tanned, soft parts will stay tanned and you can focus on the bad parts when you re-stretch. Thing I found out is, when you smoke a partly stretched hide, the nice soft parts take the color and the stiff parts don't. When you re-brain it some of that color comes out, but not all. Which means that when you smoke it for the third time, those parts that were nice and soft the first time you smoked it come out a lot darker than the rest. Hey, that's OK, you've got buckskin... but it's worth a heads up. If I had really-really wanted uniform color, it might have been worth it to me to go back to Level 1.

    And finally...

    - Brains smell good. Maybe it's just me. But when you totally forget the concept "brains" and you're just stretching a hide and thinking about nothing... kinda smells like rising bread or something. Mmm. I have so far been able to resist the urge to put it in my mouth though.

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    Senior Member GreatUsername's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Crooked Bird View Post
    More!

    -

    - Brains smell good. Maybe it's just me. But when you totally forget the concept "brains" and you're just stretching a hide and thinking about nothing... kinda smells like rising bread or something. Mmm. I have so far been able to resist the urge to put it in my mouth though.
    Zombies, anyone? XD I must say, this is really really helpful, but if you might be able to explain the basics as well, for those who know nothing about tanning at all, that could be great. Good luck with your further attempts!
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    Senior Member hunter63's Avatar
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    Sounds about right......
    Was making rawhide for parfleche bags.... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parfleche

    When drying out a raw hide...hide, don't use plywood , unless you leave plenty of air drying room behind it........You will have a 'wood grained" piece or raw hide....
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    Dilettante Crooked Bird's Avatar
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    Brains. BRAAAIINS....

    For an awesome tutorial, go to the Making Things forum, Tutorials sub-forum, and look for "Braintanning the simple (or overcomplicated) way" by your_comforting_company. (I tried to just link that, but the site wouldn't let me.) Maybe I will make my own tutorial with all this stuff in at some point, but I think I need to do a handful more hides to make sure I have all the details RIGHT as well as communicating them. Because the fact is I haven't done a hide where I did all the steps correctly from A to Z without having to backtrack yet, so...


    I guess a little clarifying for anyone who's just a little curious what the steps are:

    - Fleshing: Scrape the flesh and fat off the inner side of the hide.

    - Bucking: Soak it in an alkaline solution (bucking solution) of ash, lye, or lime, till the hair comes out and the top layer of skin ("grain") is swollen. (This takes days, depending on temperature.)

    - Graining: Scrape off the grain. That's why you need it to swell, it makes scraping possible.

    - Braining: Blender up some brains and water, and soak the hide in that overnight. This makes it stretchy.

    - Stretching: Wring it out and spend all day stretching it over and over again in all directions, and also abrading it, as it dries. If you don't keep stretching it'll becomes stiff as it dries, if you do stretch it enough it'll get soft like cloth.

    - Smoking: glue the edges together to make like a giant sock with one opening, and put a can under that opening (with something connecting, cardboard or cloth or whatever, to protect the hide) with hot coals and dry punky wood in it, to make the right kind of smoke. As the smoke penetrates the hide for half an hour or so, it sort of cures it--until you smoke it, it's not really tanned and if it gets wet it will get stiff again.


    But if anyone wants to try it, stop reading this and go read your_comforting_company's tutorial, which is AWESOME. (Then come back and read this and whatever you do, don't rub a Walmart bag on your hide!)

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    Dilettante Crooked Bird's Avatar
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    Hey thx for the tip, hunter, I have one more hide & no brain (haha) so I was thinking of making rawhide... are you saying normal wood works OK?

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    Asian or sometimes Mexican markets often carry pork brain. It works fine. Apparently brains aren't species specific.

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    Senior Member hunter63's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Crooked Bird View Post
    Hey thx for the tip, hunter, I have one more hide & no brain (haha) so I was thinking of making rawhide... are you saying normal wood works OK?
    LOL, no just don't let it dry touching the plywood, I was in a hurry....you can't be when working hide.....kinda like your bag........makes a real cool looking wood grained raw hide......
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    I asked that b/c the only thing I ever read on making rawhide (yet) said you should nail it to a board. Why, I don't know. But I don't trust that book much, it didn't explain tanning very well & made it sound easy. Bad sign!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Crooked Bird View Post
    ..........I tried to just link that, but the site wouldn't let me...........

    I think the site blocks you from posting links until you have ten posts. You should be good to go now.
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    Thanks for the post. Educational and amusing!
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    Quote Originally Posted by Crooked Bird View Post
    I asked that b/c the only thing I ever read on making rawhide (yet) said you should nail it to a board. Why, I don't know. But I don't trust that book much, it didn't explain tanning very well & made it sound easy. Bad sign!
    Raw hide pretty much is the same as tanning, .....soak hides(plastic garbage can....I used lye) till the hair .."slides", put on your fleshing beam, (old wood ironing board works good) scrap off hair, flesh, fat.....but at this stage streach on to drying rack (recommended), or nail to a large piece of plywood (lazy way).

    Tying the drying rack does leave larger holes for the ties, nail not so much.........allow to dry.

    Rawhide kinda cool stuff to work with, wet it use it for what ever then let it dry, and will retain its shape, (till it gets wet again)

    Kinda a beginners manual for all sorts of primitive skills....

    "Mountain Man Crafts and Skill" by Davis Montgomery

    http://www.amazon.com/Mountainman-Cr.../dp/1599213435

    I must have bought, lent out or given away 10-12 copies of this book over the years.....and everytime I see one used for sale "used" $5 bucks, (and have bought them) always looking inside the cover to see if I had already owned that copy......
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    I think that's a really great post that makes light of many things that don't get mentioned. I would like to make a few comments on your comments. if I may.

    If you go over each hide at least twice in several different directions, you'll get most all of the grain. Sunlight and a good rinse in clean water before and after scraping (scrape, then rinse, then scrape again) will help to reveal places where you missed the grain. It's a slightly more yellow color, while the fiber network is very white. Being very methodical and accurate helps with keeping the wood ash from staining the hide, but you are bound to get slight discoloration in places. Thank goodness for pretty colors!

    As far as brains.. I use a much higher brain:water ratio than most folks. Try this: scrape, buck, and grain your hide. After the rinse, while it is completely saturated and dripping, wring all the water out into the bucket. Take that volume, add a little for what's left in the hide, and then divvy up your recipe. Mine is about a pound to about 2 quarts. I know the old saying, too, but I know another one: If a little is good, more is better. Use more than you need, just remember that you want more brains than water in that mix!

    Moistening a stiff spot with a spray bottle isn't going to help, unless you have some of your brain-mash in it. The whole reason it got stiff is 'cause there wasn't enough brains in that spot! I know this seems obvious since you can feel the hide change as you work in into the bucket, but when you wring it out again, some places get squeezed more.

    ..and thanks for the creds!
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    And keep up the good work! I can tell by your frustrations that you have tremendous dedication and a desire to be good at a craft that can be so very rewarding.
    Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. Helen Keller

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    All very good information...appreciate it....great forum, great information....

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    Thank you for the awesome tips. Really helpful. I have also read a few books and tutorials on this matter, and not seen some of this info. Keep up the good work, and keep helping all us 'newbies' and 'wannabes' perfect our instruction manuals.

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