Wilderness Skills Institute's Mentor Resources -

Ancestral Skills Brain Tanning Buckskins

Basic Steps in Brain Tanning Buckskin

This is a very brief overview of the steps of wet scrape brain tanning buck skins.  For further reading please see our reading list for 2 excellent books on the subject: you should have both of these wet scrap books on your shelf.  However, it is best to have a mentor the first time or two you make buckskin.  Words on paper, a photo, or a video is no substitute for a good mentor. 

Wilderness Skills Institute offers brain tanning, animal processing, hunting workshops as well as part of some of our Youth Wilderness Camps in the Santa Cruz and Marin Counties. 

Primitive skills gathering like Buckeye, Winter Count, and Rabbit Stick are great venues to learn brain tanning with skilled experienced mentors.Wilderness Skills Institute as part of our Adult Workshops as well as Tamara Wilder (a good friend of Wilderness Skills Institute) author Buckskin: The ancient of brain tanning also conducts excellent workshops in Northern California. 

Our Next Brain Tanning Workshop is May 17-18 ,2014 Contact Toni@WildernessSkillsInstitute.com for details.


First Cuts around the hocks are the few times the knife is used.

Fisting the Hide

Put the knife away and removing the hide with a fist, not a knife. This is to prevent any knife or score marks on the hide. Score marks now will become holes later. Be careful if the animal was shot with and arrow, there maybe broken blades from the broad used.





Wednesday afternoon remove any meat and fat from the hide.


Floating an egg to determine proper concentration of hard wood ash, Then soak hide until hair slips. The high Ph of the ash water pushes the mucus out of the skin so that the brains in a later step will absorb into the skin more readily. The skin should soak until the hair pulls free easily. If the water is about 70 degrees it should slip by Saturday morning when the real work begins.



Traditional Bone Scraper

A deer bone leg works great but must be sharpened through out the process. It is cool to do the whole process with stone age tools.




Graining with the Stone Age Tools

Remove the grain, the part of the skin that holds the hair. Any grain will make the hide stiffer and will prevent the smoke from entering the hide when smoking the hide latter on.




Graining with a Dull Fleshing Knife

Saturday morning the real workout begins. These tool steel knifes work much faster then the stone age tools but it is nice to know that I can do it with no technology. It takes a skilled person about an hour per skin.


Dry Skins

After the hides have been grained set them in the sun to dry. This should not take any more then an hour on a dry day. I am usually ready to do this by lunch. This drying will make the membraning much easier and productive.




This is actually done in a creek or a kids pool. I never seem to remember to take a picture of the skins re-hydrating. This should not take more then about 15 min.



Using the fleshing tool remove the membrane which is what holds the blood vessels. Like the grain, if any membrane is left the hide will be hard and will prevent the smoke from penetrating the hide.



At the end of the day the skins are put in a big tub and fresh water is run over them through the night. I have also put them in a gunny sack tied off in a creek and left the night. Rinsing in the washer also works great. When the hide is sufficiently rinsed the hide will feel loose and thin. At first the hide might get thicker. As the rinsing continues the hide will become thinner. This will take a lot of rinsing. Adding a 1/4 cup of vinegar can aid in this process if your water is high Ph.




Sunday morning the skins should be thin. Wrap the hide so it forms a donut with the outside of the skin out. Wring in one direction then the other, then rotate the hide and do it again. Do not let the dry out you want the skins thirsty but not dry.


Open up the skin

Opening the skin will make the skin be thirsty and will do a better job of taking up the brains.


Dress the hide

Soak in hide in brains for a few minutes. It takes one brain or dozen egg yokes in about 1/2 gallon of water.



Wring out the hide saving the brains. Then reopen the hide and repeat the braining and wringing processes.



Keep the hide in motion stretching, pulling over a stake, and pulling over a cable. This usually takes me to a late lunch. I suggest that when you think the hide is dry put it in the freezer before lunch if it comes out of the freezer anything but soft then the hide was not dry and should be continued to be worked. If it gets hard in any places it is because those places dried without being in motion. Rehydrate that part the skin and continue to soften it until it is dry and loose.



If the hide was to get wet at this point and dried without working it the fibers would glue themselves back together again and would become hard. Smoking the hide will make it unaffected by water. The resins in the smoke penetrate the hide and prevent them from gluing them back together again if they get wet.

Glue the edges of 2 skins together to form a sack so that the smoke will be forced through the hide. Stitch a cotton skirt onto the bottom to keep the skin from touching the hot bucket and so that all of the skin is in good contact with the smoke.



Place twigs inside so that skins do not touch. This needs to be a cool smoking fire made with punky red-fir. Keep a hand in the fire to feel that is is cool damp smoke. If it starts to feel dry add more punky red-fir. It it stops smoldering and starts to flame the hides will be ruined with all your hard work.



Plugging holes

Plug the holes with cotton or paper so there is a higher pressure inside then out so the smoke will penetrate the hide.




When color starts to come through turn it inside out and smoke it again, this takes about 10 min. per side.



Finished Buckskin Sunday Afternoon

Hand made buckskin feels great, it moves, breaths, is washable and smells great.





Learning the skills of our ancestor gives us a connection to our past that we cannot get by simply reading history books.    

   Brian King

Education Quotes

“Any fool can do something cool and look cool, but it takes skill to make something uncool cool again.” 
― Criss Jami

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