Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tanning a Deer Hide

I was raised under the influence of Foxfire books and scratch-made meals. My dad hunted elk, venison and goose in the Colorado wilderness, keeping the freezer full year round. I have a loving memory of my mom's house made venison jerky among other hearty meals she crafted from the stash.
It wasn't until much later in life when I realized how special it was growing up on wild game. I didn't know it then, but venison, elk, goose and wild turkey became part of who I am. To this day, eating venison is like going home.

When I was a teenager, my father continued to hunt deer each season. I would ask him to save the hide for me to work with. Many many hides were reserved for my idealistic pipe dreams, only to dry out and harden in the garage. I had by this time begun flipping through the Foxfire books myself, and envisioned a pair of homemade mittens made from my father's hunt, until I fully realized how difficult working a raw hide really is.
Last year, my friend Dana offered to show me how to tan a deer hide in the traditional fashion, using the animal's brains in place of harsh modern-day chemical conditioners to soften the leather. I was thrilled.
It began at my place with a fire and some simple tools. My husband and our friend Jeff joined the tanning team. After pre-soaking the hide in lime and water, Dana instructed us on the first step of scraping the hide. We worked at it for hours, taking turns by the fire. I prepared beef stew and buttermilk biscuits to keep us going. Dana brought chocolate truffles.

Once the hair was scraped away from the supple leather, it was soaked in a conditioning brain and water solution for the next session, which included stretching and working the hide. At the end of this second session, we took the hide down to the stream and weighted it with stones. It remained there overnight to rinse.
We carefully folded and wrapped the hide the following morning to store in the freezer for future sessions. A year passed (we got busy).
Last weekend the hide was thawed and reawakened for the last stages of working. This session was held at Dana's place by the river in the gorgeous NC mountians. The day was bright and warm. She had made carrot soup and a batch of brownies in keeping with the tanning/eating tradition of our little group.
We were instructed to stop by the store for some canned brains before arriving. It is not as difficult as you might think to locate such an item in your typical southern grocery.
After another soak in the brain tanning slurry, the hide was rung out.
The final steps included working as a team again, pulling and stretching the hide to make it soft. Halfway through, we paused to sew up the bullet holes in the leather. Afterwards, we continued to stretch, pull and pumice the hide as it slowly dried by the smoke of the fire.
We laughed, told jokes, a few others dropped by, and enjoyed one another's company by the beautiful river while we worked.
In the end, the hide became incredibly soft in most places, but appears to need another brain soak and a bit more working before completion.
I have tremendous respect for the people who used to rely on this process for lodging and clothing needs. It is not an easy task, and best preformed with a group.
I am thankful to my friend Dana (she carried the brunt of the work) for bringing this traditional technique back to life, and teaching a few of us along the way. Can't wait to see what she makes from the gorgeous leather. Perhaps a purse. . .or an apron for that matter?

Pictures from along the way:

Brain soak

Wet hide

Dana instructing

Ringing out the brain soak

Sewing the bullet holes shut

Jeff holding the wet hide

Group stretching


  1. this is fascinating! thanks for sharing. i am constantly amazed at what must be done to do things the old-fashioned/natural way. more time consuming, but usually produces a far better product. can't wait to see what you make!

  2. You make it look so lovely! I love the photos of the process. And I have utterly enjoyed working with you people on this- especially the laughter and carrying on that accompanies the work and eating. One technical note: the first batch of slurry was a lime/ water solution to make the hide more alkaline in preparation for scraping the grain (the layer of skin that holds the hair follicle.) All other subsequent batches of slurry were mushed up brains and warm water...

  3. Ladies, I am SO sorry that we missed this event. It just looks great and entertaining. But also a lot of work if you would have to do it by yourself. Well done you both and keep inviting, maybe one day I will be able to join.

  4. My family tired this years ago, it didn't work out very well. Thanks for sharing.... I would love to try again.

  5. I love this! My husband has been teaching me to tan hides, but we've both been curious about using the brain. Thanks!