What Is Brain Tanning?

What Is Brain Tanning?

You know, brains. Like this, but not made out of plastic

Brain tanning is exactly what it sounds like. The tanning agent that is used in this method is brains, often the brain of the very animal whose hide you are tanning. Game animals, such as deer, have enough of the right kinds of acids in their brains to tan their entire hide. Needless to say, this method of tanning is not practiced in large scale operations. It is mostly found in backyards or out in the woods, often carried out by hunters after bagging their prey.

Pros of Brain Tanning

First off, it is relatively cheap. No expensive chemicals need to be purchased if you are just using the brain! Second, the result is a very soft and malleable leather. Think of it like buckskin. It is much more water resistant than a lot of leathers as well, and doesn’t really get warped when it gets soaked.A third benefit is that it is as “au naturel” as you can really get. There are no unnatural chemicals, no liming, nothing like that. Everything you use is natural and biodegradable. Plus, and this is just my own thought, if you are a hunter that is brain tanning his own kill, that is about as manly as it comes. If you want  to get the full outdoorsy mountain man feel during your hunt, this is the way to do it. And then less of the animal is wasted, you save money getting it tanned, and you get a nice hide to make into whatever you want!

Downsides of Brain Tanning

If you aren’t okay with a messy Do It Yourself job, maybe not something for you to look into. This method is a lot of hard work, and it is much more hands-on than most the other methods. That is why it is difficult to produce it on a large scale. They do try and replicate it with chemicals on a more commercial level, but it isn’t quite the same as the natural version. This has a sort of mix of the properties of chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. It is more flexible than veg tanned leather, so you lose out on the tooling options, and you generally don’t have the color variety of chrome tanned leather. As part of the scraping process,  the grain is scraped off, so it isn’t as durable as some of the other leathers out there, but that really depends on how you do it.

What’s the Process?

I’m going to give the brief version here, but if you are wanting to start brain tanning, there are plenty of books to help you get started. Deerskins into Buckskins is the most popular and according to the majority of people, the most helpful for beginners.

As with the other processes, we’ll start from the point immediately after the animal is skinned.

The hide, like all hides, has to have the flesh removed from it. If you are really authentic, you can do this with a leg bone that has been carved into a scraper, or you can just buy a handy metal one.

How to brain tan a hide

For those who are less inclined to fashion their own bone tools

Once the flesh has been removed, you scrape off the hair and the grain. There is a lot of scraping involved. Basically, you scrape off everything, hair, membranes, veins, the whole nine yards.  Now there are two prominent ways to do this. You can either wet scrape it, or dry scrape it. I bet you can figure out the difference. Wet scraping is a less delicate process, and seems to be preferred by most hunters, as it is faster as well. If you are wanting a fur rug or really anything that still has the fur on it, then ignore everything between here and the picture of the scraper. Keeping the hair on is an option.

How to brain tan a hide

Feel free to use nearby trees to assist in your stretching

Once it is all nice and scraped according to your hair preferences, you wash and rinse it a bunch, and stretch it out to dry. Stretch it as much as possible so then you get the largest piece of leather possible. It will take a bit for it to dry, but don’t worry about that too much. This is a process that takes some time to do right.

Now comes the brain part. Basically, you mash up the brain in some warm water and massage it all over the hide, though if you kept the hair on, keep it off the hair side. Traditionally, the hide is smoked after that, though there may be several applications or intermittent scrapings. I am no expert in this, and this is not meant to be a thorough Do It Yourself guide. If you are looking for that, read the book. In short, once all the smoking and scraping is done, you are left with a soft hide that can be made into everything from rugs to jackets to moccasins!