By Chris Ball
Well, experience makes fools of us all eventually. I have to admit, my first attempt to finish a brain tanned hide was not the success I was hoping for.
But from my failures, I learned several lessons that should guide you in your own efforts.
Let me back up and give you the whole story.
In case you missed the first article, I am learning to tan a dried coyote pelt with animal brains — a technique used by colonial hunters like Daniel Boone. When we left off, the coyote hide was resting happily in my freezer.
The first lesson I learned is that it takes very little time to thaw out a frozen pelt. I had not factored in how little mass there is actually left on a cleaned pelt. I’d estimate 15-30 minutes is all you need.
There’s no need to plan for hours of thawing — like I did. I left the pelt in a cooler for the day to thaw and went off to work. By the time I got home to check on it, it had long thawed and was room temperature.
Once thawed, I was frustrated to see that the skin had dried once again in several places. This has the effect of causing very thin layers to rip off in one direction or the other. But I had planned for this, and set about slathering her up again with my remaining brains.
After this, I kept it cold but not frozen for several days, hoping that would help the brains absorb better. This worked just fine and nothing spoiled.
Once I was ready, I set about trying to break the hide.
Breaking the hide involves working the fibers to stretch them. My teacher suggested using the broad end of a wooden paddle to slide the hide back and forth across. I gave this a try, but found it rough going. The brains were still very goopy and sticky. I mostly seemed to smear brains on the paddle.
I kept it up for a few minutes, but once I noticed that I was tearing holes in the skin, I took the easy way out and decided I’d stretched her enough.
This was probably not true.
Ideally, you should break your hide until it is softer than you would like it to be, and until it turns white. Leather is naturally white when softened. Your hide will never be any softer than when you finish breaking it. And it will likely get stiffer during the smoking.
So, try to stick it out if you can and work it more.
Part of why I gave up early lies in how I intend to use my pelt. My intention is to hang it about my campsite as décor. Which means I really don’t have to worry about it being soft or supple. My main concern is durability.
But for you hunters looking to use a deer hide to make moccasins, hunting bags, knife sheaths, or even clothing — you are going to want your leather to be soft and workable. Remember, it will only harden from there.
However, don’t get too discouraged if your hide comes out stiffer than you’d like. Leatherworking requires pieces of all sorts of stiffness. A woodenly-stiff piece of leather might make a great flap for a shooting bag, or even for soles of moccasins.
Once I was done breaking, the next and — ideally — final step is smoking it.
Smoking is what locks the tan in. Without smoking, the hide will still be vulnerable to water damage. Among the plains Indians, a white buffalo-hide robe was considered a true display of wealth and extravagance — because at the first rain it would just fall apart.
It was beautiful, but fragile.
Even without breaking a hide properly, smoking it correctly will still preserve the leather. So I was feeling rather confident that my project was still on track.
But here’s where things went really wrong.
Most important rule I learned: Don’t put the hide near a fire that’s too hot.
Slightly less important: Don’t pick a day with record heat and then get your fire going right before noon.
Frustratingly, this Indian Summer fooled me and what I thought would be a cool crisp autumn day turned out to a brain-melter that reached the high 90s. And yes, I am blaming several of my poor decisions on the heat, haha.
This just made working with the fire all the harder. The net result of this was that I was too impatient and didn’t let the fire settle enough before starting.
You want to start with a good size fire, but let it all burn down to coals. Let the heat really mellow. Once you really think the fire is running cooler, place some kind of metal can in the middle and add punk wood. (I made the mistake of using an aluminum baking pan — which the fire burnt right through.) An empty coffee can is ideal, but I had no luck finding a metal one.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, punk wood refers to really old, rotten wood that loves to smoke. The wetter the better. When you toss it in the can, the heat will turn it into all smoke — but no additional fire.
After that, you just need to place your hide in a position to get smoked. Accounting for wind is also a factor to keep in mind, unless you are able to shelter your fire. Smoke will travel with even the slightest breeze. I initially started with the pelt directly over the fire at a pretty good height, but I’ll tell you in a second why that was bad. I later moved it in the direction I felt the breeze was most often blowing.
I did notice later in the day that the breeze really calms before dusk. In hindsight, it would have been better to do this in the latter part of the day. You might have better luck if you try for late afternoon.
As for what went wrong? In my haste, I put my coyote too close to the heat and well…fried the brains right out of some of the skin. Please don’t do this. It’s pretty gross, and even worse, caused my hide to shrink up in odd ways. And when I tried re-stretching it by hand, the skin was so soft it started to tear.
Eventually I had to just call it on this attempt. I left it out a bit to see the results, but it started hardening and I worried it could still be susceptible to spoiling or rot. So the hide went back in the freezer.
But the good news is that I can always start over at the beginning and try again. From what I’ve heard, all I need to do is start applying more brains and the hide will start softening up all over again.
So in summary of my errors:
–Don’t give up on breaking the hide too quickly. But don’t be too forceful either.
–When smoking, let your fire cool a great deal before you bring the hide out.
–And don’t let the hide get heated by the fire.
I hope my stumbles won’t scare you off from trying your own hand at this historic practice.
Learn from my mistakes and persevere. I know I will.
This is as Frontier as it gets, Long Hunters.