Remember Zenith? My friend Rob (right) and I tanned her hide and gave it to my sister Tess (left) for her birthday. I have to say, Tess was definitely surprised!
I’m not going to give instructions for tanning hides because, well, I don’t really know how to do it very well. If you butcher your own animals, you should definitely try it! But you should also do some research beyond this post first.
You can scrape the meat off of a hide and dry it without tanning it, but it will be completely inflexible. The point of tanning is to make the hide soft and workable. A well-tanned hide can become a coat, a backpack, even a dress. Our hide, which I have to admit is tanned rather poorly, is somewhere in between.
We used the traditional brain-tanning process usually associated with buckskins. The idea is to soak the hide in a solution of emulsified fat and water, and then to work and stretch the hide as it dries so the that its fibers stay lubricated with the fat and the hide dries flexible. The tanning solution, known as the “dressing,” can be made by blending the animal’s brains into water. That’s what I did. You could also use egg yolks or soap and oil mixed into water.
We built this frame out of scrap lumber and poked holes in the hide so that we could tie it to the frame with bailing twine. Then we worked the hide with our hands and a short plastic rod. One of our mistakes was starting this hide in the late fall. According to brain-tanning guru Matt Richards, the ideal temperature for hide stretching is 70-80 degrees. While it was probably in the 60s at 3 or 4 p.m. after we got off work and started tanning, the temperature quickly dropped as the sun went down and the hide just about stopped drying. We ended up having to put our hide in a plastic bag in the refrigerator several times, to string it up and work on it again another day. I think that time in the refrigerator, when we weren’t working it at all, might have stiffened it up.
Our other problem was that we didn’t have good instructions for tanning hides with the hair on. We used the book Deerskins into Buckskins, by Matt Richards, which is a detailed, easy-to-read guide to making buckskins, a specific type of hide tanned with the hair off. But he included some steps, like soaking the hide in an ash-based alkaline solution, that we thought might be bad for the hair. And Zenith’s coat is so pretty, it would have been a shame to lose it! Does anybody know of a good resource for brain-tanning hides with the hair on?
It was a fun project, and I’ll be trying it again, hopefully with a bit more success. When I kill an animal, I feel that the best way to honor her is to use as much of her as possible.
Happy birthday Tess! I’m sure your roommates will learn to love it.