By Chris Ball
In the colonial days of America, the Long Hunters of the Blue Ridge Mountains typically resorted to the method of Brain Tanning to preserve the hides they hunted.
At its core, this means to use the brains of the animal you just butchered to properly soften and preserve the hide. Last year I purchased a coyote hide at a Rendezvous (historic, period camping) that I believed was already tanned. However, I soon learned that what I had actually purchased was a DRIED coyote hide.
If I wanted it to survive contact with any moisture, I’d have to tan it. And as an avid historical reenactor, I decided to do so using brain. Just in case there’s any doubt, yes, I am talking about that mass of soft tissue inside most critters’ skulls.
Every animal has a brain big enough to tan its own hide.
As I was being instructed in this ancient technique, that was the first rule I learned. Even should you want to tan a mouse or squirrel, there’s likely enough brain ready at hand to do the job.
However, in Virginia it’s currently illegal to keep the brains of wild animals for fear of brain-born viruses. So, I utilized pig brains purchased from a local butcher.
But first, let me back up a tad.
Prior to starting the tanning process, a hide must be cleaned and dried. With my coyote pelt, this was done before I purchased it, so I can’t speak from firsthand experience there. But I can give you the broad strokes.
My coyote pelt was prepared in a method called casing. This meant the outer skin had not been sliced at all. The trapper started by splitting the back-end of the animal, and then rolling the intact hide up like one might roll a sock. Once the hide was turned completely inside out, the trapper completely cleaned the skin of all organs, meat and especially fat.
The fat is typically removed by scraping the skin very precisely until everything that is not epidermis has been removed. After that, the hide was dried. This left the skin in a state my instructor described as like beef jerky. It is very stable in this state, as long as it remains dry. But if it were to become wet, it would start to rot almost immediately.
So, what I started with was an empty, fur wrapped tube of dried and somewhat brittle skin.
Fur Can be tanned, Hair Cannot
The presence of fur is actually an important deviation from a deer hide. Deer have hair, while coyotes have fur. Fur can be tanned, while hair cannot. A few years ago, I purchased a beautifully tanned deer hide with all the hair still attached (makes for a great seat cushion at camp). But ever since, the hairs have been slowly but steadily falling out. Given enough time, I will eventually be left with a hairless piece of softened leather.
The tanning process will secure fur fibers to the hide, but will leave hair fibers loose and prone to fall out. This is why most deer hides are usually tanned only after stripping the hair out. Removing all the hair – or if you are inclined, all the fur – also allows you to tan the hide from both sides. Every skin cell and fiber needs to be tanned, and this is easier if you can get at them from both sides.
But, if you are like me and you want to keep the fur (or hair for as long as you can), you will just have to work the exposed side much longer to get the brain all the way through. And make sure to keep the hair/fur fibers clear of all the brains mixture. This is very difficult to clean out from the fibers, and will eventually spoil with an awful smell.
If I tan my hide correctly, the fur will never fall out. My plan is to tan it without cutting open the tube. I am leaving it in a tube-like fashion. This meant I had to slowly re-invert it to expose the skin so I could work on it. I was forced to go slow due to the brittle nature of the dried skin for fear of it tearing. As I worked, the skin became soft and flexible, and I did eventually turn her inside out once again.
The first step in actually brain tanning is to apply the brains. As I said earlier, in Virginia I needed to use brains procured from a butcher. In this case, pig brains. Any brain will work for any animal. As far as I know, all mammal brains consist of the same chemical materials.
Your brains need to be mixed with water until it reaches the consistency of yogurt or mayonnaise. I’d recommend buying a cheap blender and using it for only that purpose. Simply throw in your brains and then add a tiny amount of water. Start small. Then puree. Keep adding water until it reaches the yogurt state.
Don’t worry about applying it with your bare hands. Brains are essentially just fat with acids, and they will leave your skin feeling super soft. As long as you don’t ingest any raw brain – or get it in an exposed wound – you’ll be fine.
Assuming you’ve got a properly cleaned and dried hide, start tanning by simply smearing and massaging the brain yogurt into the skin – avoiding the fur/hair as much as possible.
I undertook this process in full Period at the Spring Rendezvous of the Olde Virginia Primitive Riflemen, and let me tell you – it doesn’t get cooler than learning a skill of our ancestors whilst portraying their lifestyle.
With my hide, I rubbed brains in for more than a half hour the first day. The rule is to keep it up until the skin stops absorbing it. Don’t worry about the little bits like noses, ears and paws. You can only tan parts of the animal that can be split open to expose the skin — these parts simply can’t be tanned.
On my coyote, they have all already dried very hard, and as I understand it, they are not in any danger of rotting as they don’t contain meat. Its eyes were obviously removed during the cleaning process and the slits left open. The face was exposed on the underside and dried very hard, but I’m hoping to soften it since I did apply brain to the exposed skin on the underside.
I stopped on Day 1 once I reached a point of general goopy-ness. The brain yogurt started smearing and stopped absorbing. Make sure to rub it in everywhere – no patch of skin will tan without direct application. I moved from one area to another constantly, giving the skin a chance to dry or stay wet. If the skin needs more brain it will get very sticky. Just keep applying until every bit stays goopy and slick.
Freezing is a Big Pause Button
But just because it stays wet for a half hour or so doesn’t mean you are done. I placed the hide in an ice chest for the night to rest (we were in the woods, no access to a fridge). I also made sure to keep the brains cool as well. It’s important to remember that the brains are raw meat and will spoil eventually. I’ve been warned that’s a smell I never want to experience.
When packing it away to save it, always make sure to fold brain-slathered skin to skin, never to fur.
After letting the hide rest in the cooler roughly 24 hours, I removed the bag I’d wrapped it in to check. Sure enough, the skin had absorbed all the brains from day one and needed a whole second treatment. Where the brain and skin had been touching, it grew very sticky and very thin layers even peeled off.
This isn’t wrong per se, but it’s not finished. On Day 2, I did it all over again. Slathering brain on one part, and then moving on to another in a nearly endless cycle. I’d estimate I slathered/massaged every part at least three times on that second day.
By the time my teacher estimated I was probably done, I was left with only a very small amount of brain yogurt left to use. I opted to save that just in case the hide required a third coating anywhere the next time I check on her.
At that point, my hide – carefully folded and bagged – went back into the cooler on ice until I could get her home and freeze her and the remaining brains.
If at any point in the tanning process you need to stop, just throw your hide in the freezer. The freezer acts as one big pause button on the process.
As of this writing, the coyote is sitting happily in my freezer waiting for the next two phases – breaking and smoking. I will update you on the conclusion of my Brain Tan experiment as soon as I am able to get back to it.
To be continued…