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How To: Make Leather/Buckskin

Posted by on 2012/04/03

Some sections that we’ll need to internalize in order to help with this section; as each section is complete, If I remember, I’ll link it.
Campsite Chemistry: Salt, Litmus, Soap | How To: Kill Shit  |   Toolmaking: Needles  |  How To : Skin a Deer  | How To: Build a Smoke Hut/Lodge

You’re going to need to harvest the brains of the animal, along with some gastric acid as well (just remove the stomach and hang it somewhere cool until we learn how to actually do this), and some nice big bones.  You’ll find those guides eventually in the How to : Skin a Deer section, when I get around to writing it.   I mean, seriously, we’re going to need to learn how to use every freaking part of the animal eventually anyway.

Okay, so you’re out there in the wild and you suddenly realize that you have nothing to wear on halloween, and there’s only one costume that comes to mind: Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli (The Fonz).  You have the blue jeans and the white-t in your survival kit, but you forgot to pack your leather jacket, so you’re going to have to make one.

In order to make leather, we’re going to need some animal hide and a few tools.  Tanning is a bitch, it’s a delicate process that is just as likely to completely ruin the hide that you’re working with if you aren’t some kind of tanning savant.  Since we’re doing this early on in our survival schedule, we don’t have sophisticated tools at our disposal; hell we’ve barely got a uniform system of measurements, we’re going to have to wing it and pray.

Okay, so tanning has nothing to do with UV rays and/or the Jersey Shore, the word comes from the chemical ‘tannin’ which comes from Fir trees. We’re probably not going to use that though, doesn’t matter, still counts. Tanning is technically the process of making leather out of hide; useful as leather is more durable and more resistant to decomposition than hide.

This is a long process conducted over several days with a lot of waiting involved.  Down time in the tanning process should be used to fabricate other useful shit out of the animal.  We need Foot Oil. We need some bone tools. We’ll need needles. Sinew is useful, so we’ll want to use the time to harvest that also, but we won’t need it for the tanning process.

The Process, for making leather out of hide, simply stated: 

0. Have your drying/stretching rack ready.  This will be a simple box frame about 2″ wider and taller than the hide made out of 4 wooden rods lashed together with strong cordage. Every 6-8 inches along the frame you want to hang about 4 feet of cordage, which you will use to secure the hide evenly to the frame.

1. Skin the animal, taking care not to puncture or score the hide; the best way to remove skin from the animal is by using a wedge to separate the hide from the flesh and peeling the skin off.

2. Rinse the hide.  There’s going to be a lot of rinsing. You want it really clean. You can use mild soap if you made some.  While it’s rinsing, start preparing your neatsfoot oil, and harvest the animal’s brains. Also, you could use your downtime to make some cordage out of the sinew.  You’re probably going to really want to start curing the meat though. Rinsing means moving the hide between buckets/barrels/urns of clean water every hour or two, or anchoring it in a stream for a few hours.

3. Scud the hide – This is the process of removing any adhering chunks of fat or flesh from the hide using a dull knife, bone, or wood with a scraping motion, careful not to puncture or tear the hide.

4. Lime/Burke the hide – This step loosens/removes the hair/fur, making it easy to scrape off/pull out.  After burking or liming, rinse the hide again; use a little acid if you have some to neutralize the base in the lime/burking solution.

5. Scrape the hide – Lay the hide over a smooth log or smooth round stone, and being exceedingly careful not to score or puncture the hide, you want to scrape off the membrane, remaining hair, and expose the raw fibers of the hide. You can use a sharp knife at a perfect 90 degree angle, or you can make a scraping stone out of flint or any rough stone.

6. Rinse the hide – Yeah dude, it doesn’t stop.  Keep rinsing/soaking the shit out of this hide; then you want to suspend it from a drying rack/stretching rack until it’s almost dry and make sure there are no more shiny/greasy spots.  Give it a last once over with your scraper as it dries. Before it dries completely, brain it.

7. Brain the Hide – Pretty much, you’re just going to want to rub mashed animal brains into the hide, then soak the hide for at least 8 hours in a solution of brains and water.  This will make the hide really soft and almost transluscent, if you scudded and scraped it well.  After the 8 hour minimum, pull it out of the brainmash and squeeze the excess liquid out, don’t wring it out, you don’t need it bone dry, just not dripping wet.

8. Stretch and work the hide – This is the most important part.  You want to suspend the hide from a drying/stretching rack so that it’s pulled taut.  Using a smooth wooden tool, you want to start working the hide, kneading and stretching it, gently at first and more vigorously as you train it to stretch.  The more you stretch the hide the thinner and more supple it will be; as the hide begins to hang in the rack, tighten the cords to keep the hide taut.  This will take a few hours of constant work, and by the end the hide should be dry and incredibly soft. You can work in neatsfoot oil near the end of this process if you like.  *There’s an optional step here recommended by bush-tanners called Buffing, where you rub the dry hide over a length of taut cordage/rope vigorously, but I don’t know how to better explain it than that*

9. Oil and smoke the hide – Use your neatsfoot oil and rub it into the hide, allow it to sun/air for an hour or so, and then you want to smoke the shit out of the hide, smoking will ‘finish’ the hide.  You can either make a smoke hut for it, or just curl it into a wide cylinder and suspend it a few feet above a low smokey fire.  Careful not to cook it, you just want it saturated with smoke.

So now here are the details:

Before we tan hide, we first make ‘rawhide’. Rawhide is untanned but worked hide, it’s made by stripping the flesh, fat, and hair off the hide, usually by liming it. Then stretching it as it dries.  Rawhide is tougher and harder than leather, and can be dried into rigid shapes, but it’s not as resistant to decomposition, and will shrink and harden as it dries every time it gets wet.

If you don’t plan on tanning/working the hide right away, you need to cure it immediately to prevent decomposition.  Here’s How: 

1. Salt the hide.  This is the easiest way to cure hide, if you have access to an ample amount of salt.  If you do, you should use 1 pound of salt for every pound of hide. Just lay the hide fur side down, and rub that fucking salt into every inch of the exposed hide. Leave it for a full day, then brush it off and salt it again to make sure.
2. Brine the hide.  Still requires lots of salt. Same deal, 1 pound of salt for every pound of hide, only you’re mixing the salt with clean water and soaking the hide.  This will still preserve the hide, by pickling it, and is a little more reliable than salting, but more labor intensive.
3. Air-Drying: This is the one you’re probably going to have to do, because salt is precious at this stage, and despite the fact we’ll need to get salt soon, we may need leather first. Air drying will make for less supple hide, but we can mitigate that later in the process.  To air dry a hide, you can either hang it on a drying rack over a bed of hot coals/hot rocks, or on hot dry days, hang it in the shade for the day.   Smoking a hide will also cure it, but not some casual 2 hour smoke job; a full on 12 hour smoke session, hotboxing that shit like your high school friend’s honda civic.

Neatsfoot oil: 
The shin-bones and foot of the deer/cow/ox/whatever can be used to make an oil that we’ll use at the end of the process to work into the leather.  The process is relatively simple.  You want to strip the bones and then simmer the hoof-less feet in clean water for about an hour, maybe two.  Then allow the soup to cool.  The oil can be skimmed off the top and stored for later.  Unless you take additional steps to purify it, it won’t stay for too long, so store it someplace cool.

Rinsing the hide – The easiest way to do this is just to weigh down the hide with rocks in a stream, and letting the cool water work on it for a few hours.  Otherwise you’re going to have to soak it for a couple hours at a time in fresh barrels of water, each time moving it into another barrel.  If we already learned how to make baking soda or soap (Not yet, sorry, we’ll get to it), then add some baking soda and soap each time.  Don’t use a metal container, it’s bad for the skin and the container.

Scraping the hide – This part of the process is made easier by burking or liming the hide.   Since I’m all about easier, let’s do those first.  In the meantime, just scrape off all the visible chunks of flesh and fat.  Laying the hide, while it’s still wet from the animal, over a log and using a dull knife, flat rock, or split bone just go to fucking town on the thing.   Flint works great for this, so does an old, dull hacksaw blade, but work with what you’ve got. The most important part of this step is called scudding, which is going over the flesh side of the hide with a dull knife and scraping all the adhered flesh and fat off.  It takes a while, it smells bad, and it’s hard.

Burking / Liming of Hide : 

If you’ve salt-cured your hide, you want to soak it first to get all the salt off.

Because we want some sexy hairless rawhide, and we know how to make lime, let’s just go for the gold and mix up a batch of liming/burking solution.  For a big ass deer pelt, you can get away with the following arbitrary measurements.  Use about a gallon of hardwood ash, mix it with about two pounds of slaked lime, and submerge the whole mixture in about 5 gallons of water. If you don’t use the lime, you’re burking, and if you don’t use the wood ash, then you’re liming. We’re just using both because it speeds things up (but if you soak it too long it will deteriorate the hide).    This shit works like nair or that magic depilatory powder; it breaks down the keratin in the hair.

The whole point of burking/liming is to get all the hair/fur/grease/excess shit, off the hide.  You want to soak the hide in the burking/liming solution for about a day, then pull it out, and soak it in clean water for another 8-12 hours or so.  You can add a bit of acid or vinegar to the mixture to neutralize the base lime/lye.

At this point you should be able to scrape the hide perfectly bare with a dull knife, flat rock, or split bone.  Then once it’s bare on both sides, rinse it again.

BRAIN TANNING –  There are a lot of ways to tan a hide, using different processes and chemicals, but brain tanning is probably the best one to learn for survival purposes, also, it’s cool. This is fucking magical, seriously, one of those nature is so fucking cool things.  The whole “every animal has enough brains to tan its own hide” apparently is meant to be taken literally.    You’ll need a smooth wooden tool and a stretching frame (Lets use our drying rack a little more aggressively), some warm water (about 2 gallons), the animal brains, our barrel or clay pot, or stone cistern, or whatever we’ve been using as a container.

So, pretty much just take the brain and mix it with the water, crushing and kneading it until it just becomes one aqueous solution. Stir it up, shake it up, whatever you  need to do.  Maybe we should teach ourselves to make some kind of blender? Down the road maybe.  Anyway, this is your tanning solution.  Soak the hide in this tanning solution for at least 8 hours.  Squeeze out excess liquid (don’t wring it) and hang the thing 0n our stretching rack, stretching it until you start seeing dry spots appearing.  Then work that shit.

Smoke the motherfucker –  Now, the best way to do that is in a smoke-hut, which we will eventually learn how to make, but in a pinch, an improvised shelter will work.  The trick to smoking the hide is to use dry, semi-rotted wood and leaves to produce lots of smoke without getting too hot.  You don’t want to cook the hide, just smoke it.  2-4 hours should be sufficient depending on how smokey you can make the thing.

If we were right about all this, then we should have a big slab of supple, durable, leather.

3 Responses to How To: Make Leather/Buckskin

  1. Joan M.

    Hey, what’s the RSS feed for this site?

  2. Kali

    The expression is ‘Every animal has enough brains to preserve its own hide’ – it’s meant to be a double entendre, in that either the animal will be canny enough to escape alive or its own brains give you enough to preserve, that is tan, the hide.


  3. King Kappa

    Holy Shit, you just blew my mind.


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