The North American Frontiersmen





Staff Writer

   Smoke Signals

                   Mar./Apr. '09



We contacted a few old friends asking for some articles and not 3 days later my good friend Randy Bublitz did just that.  When Randy and myself where deeply involved in another group I could always depend on him when we needed to get things done and that's been 10-12 years ago. Thank goodness some things and some folks don't change. Thanks once again brother, God Bless you. 

Folks meet our newest Staff Writer      Randy Bublitz


by Randy Bublitz

   Before you put too much stock in what I have to say, Please read ‘Deerskins into Buckskins, How to Tan with Natural Materials’ by Matt Richards. {ISBN 0-9658672-0-x (also, see Also, you should read ‘Wet-Scrape Brain Tanned Buckskin’ {ISBN 0-9654965-4-6}.

   A long time ago I came to the realization that if I wanted my gear to be more like that of the men I emulated, the old time Mountain Men, I needed more brain tan and less yellow chrome tanned Tandy leather as the basis for my gear and clothing.  Brain tanned leather is generally fairly expensive to buy, $10-15 a square foot.  At the time it was out of the question that I could spend that kind of money for what I wanted.  The answer was easy, and fit with every other aspect of this Mountain Man fascination- Do It Yourself!  In the early days I would get taxidermist scraps, capes from head mounts, etc…. These small pieces of raw deer hide were perfect for a beginner like me. If I wrecked them, no big loss.  The pieces were small, so not too overwhelming for a novice.  And when successful, the small pieces (bath towel sized and smaller) were great for bags, etc…  My goal was to practice on scraps, and when I became more proficient at brain tanning and got a hold of a prime hide I would be able to tan it without the beginner’s mistakes.

   I’m no expert, but I have brain tanned deer and elk hides.  Let me share my basic methods with you.  I have to say that I’ve talked with a bunch of other tanners, and we all have differences in our favorite methods.  You just have to try it, and determine your favorite method. 

   There are two basic methods of starting a brain tan hide, wet scrape and dry scrape.  With wet scrape the hide remains wet, and is scraped over a beam.  With dry scrape the hide is laced into a framework, allowed to dry and then scraped.  Scrape?  Yes, you need to remove the hair and epidermis on the hair side and remove the flesh, fat and membrane from the flesh side before actually tanning the hide.  The tools to do this differ, depending on which way you decide to do this chore.  I prefer the wet scrape method, but that is my preference.  I feel that the wet scrape process is more forgiving about cutting, nicking, etc… the hide.  With the wet process, it is easy to start and stop at any point.  I just roll up and freeze, then thaw when ready to resume work. The dry scrape method can be left in the frame, started and stopped, but must be kept out of the weather, away from the dogs, etc….  We need to remove the proper layers of membrane, etc… as these will act as a barrier to our tanning solution, the brains. 

   You’ve all see raw hide.  Like dog chew bones.  When dry it’s hard as a rock.  Wet it and it gets soft, but dries to rock hard again.  Why?  Hide glue is the answer, the mucus type stuff in the leather.  What is tanning?  Removing the glue. There are many ways to do it.  In brain tanning, the acids and enzymes in the brains break down the glue in the hide.  The word tanning comes from tannic acid (acorns, etc…). 

   This is how I do it.  I take a hair on, meat and yuck clinging to the inside of the hide, and soak it in a tub with water and hydrated lime (available at hardware stores, etc…).  I let soak a few days to a week, depending on temperature.  The warmer it is, the shorter time for soaking, it’ll get stinky.  The hydrated lime lets the hair ‘slip’ (scrape of easier).  Then I rinse the hide really well (lime is caustic).  Then I throw it over the beam and start scraping.  A good beam can be a smooth cottonwood log (or in modern times a piece of PVC sewer pipe) hard and smooth. My first scraper was the back edge of a drawknife.  I bought a scraper from (cheap) since.  I scrape all the hair off, if you can see follicles (black dots), there is still too much membrane (epidermis) and you need to scrape more. Then scrape flesh side until uniform clean.  Once properly scraped the brain tanning starts.  I used to get cow brains from the Mexican markets here.  Now sale is banned due to Mad Cow Disease. sold canned pig brains, but apparently that is restricted now too. Good luck finding brains.  I’d mix brains with warm water and make as viscous a mixture as possible (blender at home).  I’d soak the hide in the mixture (usually in a large Dutch oven) from hours to overnight depending on event and temp.. I’ll usually stretch the hide out as much as possible, allowing the tanning solution maximum penetration, intermittently during the soaking time. You want no barriers to soaking (membrane) and you want that solution to penetrate every pore and fiber of that hide. Once soaked, the fun begins. Wring the hide out more than you’ve wrung anything out before.  Get as much moisture out as possible, twisting, wringing, etc….  Then stretch, twist, use and abuse that hide every which way until it is completely dry.  This is called breaking the hide.  The idea is not to let the fibers dry all lined up.  Once dry you should have a white, soft brain tanned hide.  The next step is to smoke it, where it gets the golden color that Tandy tries to copy with yellow. The reason for smoking the hide is to re-introduce oils into the hide.  The oils make the hide more resilient . A good brain tanned hide will be able to get wet and dry soft (or softenable with mild manipulation) A good brain tanned hide will be naturally anti bacterial, ie: won’t stink like a sweatshirt upon sweating into it.  Best of all; brain tan will allow your outfit to be more historically accurate, and looks cool.  Brain Tanning is a lot of hard work, which is why it isn’t cheap to buy.  I will buy hides, when I see a good deal.  I bought a few small hides from one of our members, Mike Masterson ( Kansas ) at our National Doin’s in CO. , summer ’07.  He does absolutely beautiful work with hides and sold some to me at a very fair price.  Once you’ve tanned some hides, you’ll appreciate how much work is involved.  Then, you may not balk at the prices others charge for their hard worked hides.  I have a good friend who I taught the brain tanning to.  He did his hides, and decided he is a good horner (he is) and he’ll just make more horns to sell, then buy his hides with the proceeds.  Nothing wrong with that, he’s contributing to the arts – and getting his brain tanned hides by supporting someone else’s labors….. a win win situation.   Check out the books and website mentioned and you’ll have lots of good information to get you started tanning your own hides.  It’s worth doing a least once, just so you learn the process.  Who knows when you may need to know this?   I hope this helps some of you who may be interested in tanning hides.  Hope to see you around a camp fire before too long.


Randy Bublitz

N.A.F. #8



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updated  03/10/2009   

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