Hide-tanning report

I have a new respect for leather. Last weekend it took all of my strength and the strength of ten other people to tan three buckskins and a couple of rabbit furs.

We were learning, sure, but to make a single buckskin in a natural way is an incredibly intense–physically and mentally–exercise. We were lucky to have the expertise of Tamara Wilder, a primitive skills master who has been making buckskin and teaching wilderness skills for the past twenty years.


Tamara, pictured here with a student, brought all the poles and beams we needed to scrap the hides clean. She also brought three hides for us to tan–two deer and one goat. It’s her side gig to skin deer for hunters during hunting season so she collects a lot of them. She merely salts the hides, folds them up, and then puts them into a large plastic box in a shady spot. When she has time–usually in the winter–she’ll take them out and start the hide tanning process.

Though two of the hides were almost three years old, they hardly smelled at all. Our first order of business was to scrape off all the muscle tissue and fat off the hides. We donned long plastic aprons, set up scrapping beams, and went to work. We used dull blades and elbow grease to work off the tissue. At some points, it was gross.

Then we flipped the hides over and started scrapping the fur side off. Tamara pointed out that this is the time when most mistakes happens. There’s a membrane that must be removed with the hair. If it doesn’t get removed, it will never be soft and supple buckskin.  This requires a hefty amount of upper arm strength. And in my case, grunting. Every once in awhile we would pour water over the hide to keep it moist.

That first step took almost all day. Those of us who opted to make a bunny fur, also had to scrap the muscle and fat off a rabbit hide which had been soaked in an alum and salt solution overnight (this sets the fur so it doesn’t slip).

Next, Tamara showed us how to properly remove a brain to do the brain tanning solution. We also added about a dozen egg yolks and blended it all up. The scrapped hides and furs went into the brain bucket overnight. We all limped home and licked our wounds.

The next day, we were up early, setting up pieces of thick wire along the fence posts at GhostTown Farm. The neighbors were very curious. We spent the rest of the day fussing with the brain-infused hides. We pulled them, and stretched them, and roughed them up on the wires. Then pulled them some more. The bunny furs were prodded and stretched. After many hours, the hides started to feel really soft and pliable. They could be tugged on. They turned a wonderful white color and were soft as felt. We had made buckskin.

Then Tamara (who was wearing a buckskin tank top and had made a pair of buckskin hot pants!) started a fire with a stick. We all nearly gasped at her genius. We then smoked the buckskin, which makes it waterproof, and turned it a dun color that I’ve only associated with buckskin wearing natives.

By that second day, we were all exhausted, stretched to the limit, giddy with our new knowledge. Tamara divided up the buckskin–each of us got a quarter of a hide–and we all wondered what we would make with ours. I think I have enough to make a bikini top.

Also, tonight i’ll be at:

CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 9410

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I’ll be one of five speakers discussing “transitioning into sustainable urban living.”

10 responses to “Hide-tanning report

  1. interesting. my dad hunts deer where I grew up in upstate NY so we had a bunch of bucksins around but he always took them to the taxidermist to tan (the easy way…)

  2. great story. thanks for sharing.

  3. I’m curious how the taxidermist would tan hides compared with the method used in your workshop. Would the taxidermist use special modern tools and machines to reduce the labour involved or hire labourers with strong arms??

  4. #1 Why would you breed a dwarf mother to a la mancha? Bad move. You’re lucky the mom lived through it and actually, she may have damage that you don’t know about yet. If you want mid-sized goats you breed a dwarf buck to a normal sized doe.
    #2 First time goatmoms do NOT normally deliver one baby….twins and triplets are routine for healthy first timers.

  5. ghosttownfarm

    hi f;
    1. the nigerian dwarf mom was bred to a mini-la mancha buck. sorry that wasn’t clear.
    2. oh good.

  6. ghosttownfarm

    hey! they use tons of chemicals to strip off the hair and other materials. this renders the leather weak and not as long lasting.

  7. That, really nice adventure. I love Tanning but not animal taning LOL

  8. I think you really enjoy this adventure.

  9. Neato! My grandma tanned deer hides this way but she tied them out on an upright frame to scrape them. With bones. Seriously.
    She used to send me to the butcher to get buckets of the pig brains that she preferred for the job.
    How long did the rabbits take to process? Is there a book that you recommend on tanning in this method? I wish I’d learned from my grandma, but of course the pig brains grossed out the teenaged me.

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