Episode 107 S3-26
The Walls of Freedom Ch 26
James E. Hart
The Walls of Freedom adventure continues as Erika hauls the bull elk back to camp with Master Sergeant Bennet. Here to discuss hide preservation using the brain tanning method is James E. Hart, author of Urban & Wilderness Survival, Emergency Preparedness.
Brain tanning is one of the easiest ways to preserve the hide (skin) of an animal. You can choose to leave the fur on or take it off, depending on the animal and the intended use of the hide.
The first step, after removing the skin from the animal, is to flesh the hide. Place the hide on a fleshing beam. The beam is basically a smooth log with the bark removed. Use a fleshing blade (or a very dull knife) in quick, strong strokes across the hide to remove any access fat, meat or left over membranes. You must flesh the skin directly after removing it from the animal. If you wait, the hide will begin to decompose. You have to be careful not to damage the hide as you flesh it. Don't use a sharp knife! You can damage the hide.
After fleshing, wash the hide with clean water and a soap made from natural substances. A lye soap is effective or a mild dish soap like Dawn or Palmolive. This will wash away impurities and debris off the hide.
After washing the hide, bore holes into the edges and tie it to a stretching rack. The stretching rack is a square frame in which the hide can be completely suspended. It must be larger than the size of the hide. Use a natural string like hemp or cotton that does not stretch like Nylon. Use the bore holes to stretch the hide out in the stretching rack and let it dry for a few days. The more it is stretched now, the larger it will be once the tanning process is completed. If you have to hang it on a wall, make sure there is ample space between the wall and the hide to allow for proper air flow so the hide dries completely. This drying process could take up to a week, depending on the climate.
After the hide is dry, it is time to de-hair the hide if you are going to remove the hair. Removing the hair allows for better tanning solution penetration. Take the hide off the dryer and use a rounded steel blade with a handle to scrape into the epidermis of the hide and the hair will come right out. If the hair is long, cut is shorter with a pair of scissors. Always scrape against the grain of the hair and away from yourself. Be careful around the belly because that skin is much thinner.
Now it is time to take the brains out of the container you stored them in and make your tanning solution. Every animal has the right amount of brains to tan its skin. There are lots of oils in the brain that work as a softening agent on the hide. You are going to get dirty and oily.
Cook the brain with a cup of water until the brain breaks down. Don't take it to a full boil, it will cook the brain. Bring the water near boil so the brain breaks down into a soup like substance. If you have power, put the mixture into a blender to ensure it is mixed. If you don't have power you will have to use your hands to accomplish the final mix.
Wash the hide again to remove any debris and to ensure it is wet before the applying the tanning solution. Wring out the hide and squeeze out all the water you can. Then place the hide in between two towels and keep squeezing it. You want a damp hide not a wet one.
Lay your damp hide out on a tarp. Grab a handful of the brain mixture and message it into every bit of the hide, front and back. Channel your inner message therapist and keep rubbing it in. When you have used up all of your tanning solution, roll up the hide and store it in a large plastic freezer bag or storage bag and put it in the refrigerator. If you don't have power, you will have to use a cold storage or utilize an area that keeps the temperature cool (below 40 degrees). Keep it in this cool area for 24 - 36 hrs.
Once you take it out, it is time to begin the softening process. Put it back on the drying rack and remove any remaining brain mixture. Use a large stick or "hide break" and run it back and forth across the skin. Have your partner or friend do the same thing on the other side. Then take it off the stretcher and pull at either side with your partner or friend, continuing to pull on opposite sides all around the hide. Then repeat this process until you are so tired you can't anymore and the hide is soft. You are trying to break down the fibers in the skin so it softens. It will take a lot of work and time.
When you first try your hand at tanning it is a good idea to start with a small animal. Big hides are a huge challenge so make sure you know what you are doing before you try to tackle it.
The final step is to smoke the hide. This is an essential part of the process that must not be forgotten. The smoke helps the brain oil fully penetrate the hide and removes any access from the skin. This works as a preservation method for the hide. If you are wearing your brain tanned leathers and get them wet, you will need to re-smoke them.
Start a nice fire and let it burn down to coals. Place your smoking chips on the fire. Sew up your hide so that it is cone shaped and open on one end. Then place it over sticks so it is help open over the smoke. Smoke one side for half of an hour then turn it inside out and do the other side for a half hour. Make sure there is plenty of smoke but not a hot fire. It would be very sad to watch all your hard work burn up over the fire.
The Changing Earth Series
James E. Hart
A veteran of 2 tours of duty in Vietnam, James began his survival training at the age of 7 when he was stranded in the Mojave Desert for 7 hours without food or water during a family move in 1954. Since then he has been through the scouting program where he attained Life scout, served as Scoutmaster, Assistant Scoutmaster, Venture Advisor, and earned the Badden Powell Award. An avid outdoors man, he has winter camped in Utah and northern Quebec, Canada, snow shoed in upstate New York, Utah and Quebec, and camped in the Mojave Desert of California, the Uintah Mountains of Utah, and the Piney Woods of East Texas, among numerous other locations. James has traveled and been through 42 of the 50 states of the US. Three provinces of Canada, sailed the Pacific Ocean, and crossed the Equator and 35 countries from jungles of South America to the Himalayas of Nepal. Having earned an Associates of Photography Degree from Houston Community College, he has beautifully captured many of his travels with his camera.
Now retired from a career with the Trinity River Authority of Texas, James resides in Dallas, TX, where he lectures on Wilderness and Survival Training. He is the author of SWET Survival & Wilderness Experience Training, Urban & Wilderness Emergency Planning, 35 other booklets on wilderness training, monthly articles for Survival Life Magazine, and a column and articles for The Garland Messenger Newspaper. James also does workshops and speaking engagements.