Brain Tanning

The Ancient Process of Brain Tanning Hides

Brain tanning hides is a lot of work.  It's a very labor intensive process that uses an emulsified solution of animal brain and water to provide outstanding absorbancy to the final product. But what you get at the end of your sweat and toil is an exceptionally soft hide that stays pliable even after it gets wet. Nevertheless, the process of tanning hides by hand using the animal's brains, is not for the feint of heart.

At the end of a hunt there's usually no time to tan a hide because the priority is to process and preserve the meat.  At this point, we used to tie the hides in a bundle and string them high up in a tree safe from scavengers...not porcupines, though!  When they were removed from storage they were often dirty...and always smelly.  Nowadays when the hunt is finished the hides might be salted, rolled into a bundle and stored in a freezer until needed.  For this discussion, I'll assume that no freezer is available.

Step by Step Guide

When the time comes to begin the brain tanning process, you have to first soak the skins in water for a few days to clean and soften them. If you have access to a handy dandy lake then that's the easiest way to go.  City bred wives tend to fret if they find you've taken over the bathtub for this purpose, so if a lake isn't close by, call on your creative side. 

Then, without doing damage to the rawhide itself, you're going to have to scour the skin to remove bits of flesh and fat. This first fleshing can be done over a wide log using a carved leg bone as a scraper. 

Using your bone or steel scraper remove the grain.  The grain is the name given to that part of the skin where the hair grows.  You have to work hard and be sure that you scrape off every last bit of grain because otherwise your hide will be stiffer than it should be and won't take the smoke evenly later.

Sorry...I just messed up!

Unfortunately for you and me I just messed up royally!  I had my step by step guide already to go and closed this page WITHOUT BUILDING IT so lost all my work!

I'll have to wait until tomorrow to re-do the page so you're left with my notes which follow. 


When you're sure you've got rid of the grain spread the hide out in the sun to won't take too long.  Drying helps with the next step.

Now it's time to turn your attention to the inside of the hide.  You're going to scrape off the membrane layer which is where the blood vessels are.  Before you start you have to wet the hide again.  Soak the hide for about fifteen minutes in the handy dandy lake, a five gallon pail of water, a kids' wading pool or whatever turns your crank.

Place the hide back over the log and methodically scrape off the membrane.  If you leave any in place the finished hide will be stiff and won't accept the smoke in the tanning process.  The point is to end up with a hide that doesn't have any holes or knicks, so any scraping is best done with a deer leg bone or a blunt iron flesher. The tanner's aim at this point is to remove every...EVERY... bit of flesh and fat, including the paper thin epidermal layer between the carcass and the outer hide.

When you think you've done an excellent job you have to find a way to rinse the hide in running water overnight.  It takes a LOT of rinsing.  Said lake would do the trick, but a creek would be better.  If the hide is small you could put it in a five gallon pail and run a stream of water from a hose all night long.  Don't tell your wife or your mother I said this, but a couple of cycles in the washing machine works, too if the hide is small enough. 

You're trying to get to the point where your hide feels loose and thin.  It will take awhile and at first will seem to get thicker so don't fret.  Just keep rinsing.  Worse case scenario is that you'll have to do fling it over the log again for more scraping time.

Next morning wring the hide thoroughly.  Rig up a wringer on a deck railing or heavy tree branch and ask a friend for help if its a big hide.  You have to wring in one direction, then the other.

Now you're going to have to stretch the hide as wide and evenly as you possibly can. Usually you can do this on a frame made of poles that you lean up against a couple of trees or your cabin. The prairie tribes used to stretch the hide between stakes pounded into the ground so I guess that's an option.  The further you can stretch the hide at this point, the larger the final piece of leather.

At this point, instructions on brain tanning hides often jump into the preparatory steps leading to the final scraping of every hair and bit of flesh still remaining. But the next step really depends on what will eventually become of the hide. If the hide is intended to be made into a rug or warm winter coat only one side of the hide needs to be scraped, because the hair doesn't have to be removed. But if the intention is to make moccasins, a jacket or other piece of clothing, all the hair must be removed from the skin.

Some animal hides are better suited for one purpose than another. Deer and moose make useless rugs, but great footwear. Wolf and fox fur stand up to some abuse and are also good for embellishing clothes. Rabbit skins can be tanned but are either ornamental or cut into strips and knit or woven into a jacket or cape.

If you want the hair to remain on the hide, of course you don't have to follow through with any of the procedures that loosen the hair. But when you come to the bit about applying the brain slurry you're going to have to be extra careful so that its only applied on one side.

If the hair is to be removed, then soaking the skin in a mild acid (urine was used in times past, for example), letting the skin putrefy for several months, or painting a sludge of slaked lime (wood ash and water or ground seashells boiled in water) will loosen the hairs. The hide should then be rinsed before proceeding with the brain tanning.

Tanning Hides

Moose Hide Tanning