3 Tricks for Brain-Tanning a Wild Game Hide

Learn how to tan a hide yourself.
Learn how to tan a hide yourself.Outdoor Life Online Editors

Long before toxic chemicals and high-tech tanning solutions, our forebears tanned animal hides using the naturally occurring oils in the animal's brain. The brain of every animal contains an adequate volume of conditioning oils (unless it's a whale or something) which can be used to tan the hide. All you need is your animal hide, the brain of the animal, and a few tools to make tanned pelts and leather just like our ancestors. Yes, it's a laborious skill to practice (not to mention smelly), but if you use brains instead of brawn, you can turn out buttery-smooth, super-soft buckskin. So to make your life easier, here are three tricks for easier brain tanning with deer hides.

1. Age Is Just A Number

There’s glue in every hide—a lot of it, in fact. Hide glue is an ancient product that is still used in modern times, due to its excellence in certain tasks like woodworking. And hide glue is essentially hide shavings that are dissolved in hot water and reduced to a “syrup”. If that doesn’t communicate that hides are full of glue, I don’t know what will. So now that you know what you’re up against—turning dried glue into soft leather—here’s your first trick: age the hides. Remove all the meat and fat from fresh hides and dry them completely. Then age them for several months in a dry and rodent-free location. If hide beetles are a problem in your area, shake borax powder (a common laundry additive) in the hair to kill these leather-chewing devils. Aging your hides is supposed to break down the glue, and whether that is what’s really going on or not, aging the skins will yield softer hides.

2. Is There Anything Bear Grease Won’t Fix?

The rendered oil from bear fat has been used to lubricate firearms and to waterproof leather for centuries. It’s also a great additive to mix with your brains for brain tanning. Just a few ounces of hot bear fat, poured into a very warm solution of brain and water, will put this age-old conditioner to work for you.

3. Smoke ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em

Liquid smoke. You can buy it where they sell BBQ sauce in many grocery stores, or you can make your own by simmering cloth that has been heavily smoked in a pot of water for a few hours. However you get it, add a little liquid smoke to the brain solution and you’ll get an early start on the necessary process of smoking the hide.

Have you tried your hand at hide tanning? Tell us how it turned out by leaving a comment.