Here’s a look at a primitive method for tanning leather using brains and smoke that you can do at home.

There are a number of traditional methods that exist for tanning leather that can be of quite the interest to anyone with the willingness to take matters into their own hands and do the work for themselves. While commercial tanning methods are fast and do provide great results, they lack the charm that comes with keeping old ways alive and thriving. They also don’t present the high level of satisfaction that comes from doing something on your own with simple tools and items that may otherwise have been left to waste.

While some ancient ways, such as tanning leather with urine and then chewing it (yes, with your mouth) are better left to be forgotten in the mist of time -or saved for that overly exuberant friend who’s convinced that all ancient knowledge is superior to modern invention- there are some ways that deserve their place in the homesteader or survivalist’s proverbial toolbox due to their practicality and effectiveness. One such of those ways is using brains to tan hides for leather.

While this same method of using brains to soften a hide and smoke to tan can be done to tan hides, we’ll be covering a method that involves removing the hair to produce smooth, clean leather.​

How to Tan Leather With Brains

How It Works

It’s important to note that, technically, the brains are used to dress the hide, softening it in preparation to be tanned. The actual tanning is done with smoke. For this reason, the commonly used term “brain tanning” is a bit of a misnomer and a bit of a sore subject should you try to discuss primitive tanning methods with a professional taxidermist. You’ll be much better off discussing tips and tricks with hobbyist tanners and those who are into primitive tools and ways.

If you’re working with a hide that you’ve salted in order to preserve for tanning later on, you can skip the next two steps, beginning at “Removing the Hair” below.​

Skinning the Animal

This is done much the same as you would normally skin the animal, however, you’ll want to take extra care to ensure that your cuts are straight and even and that you don’t poke holes into the hide.

Fleshing the Hide

What You’ll Need

  • Fleshing tool
  • Container large enough to wash the hide in
  • Soap
  • Water

This is one of the most important steps when it comes to preserving hides. It really cannot be understated: any remaining tissue and fat on the hide can cause it to rot. So, it’s crucial to use a fleshing tool to scrape all traces of flesh and fat off of the hide. You can do this using a fleshing beam or by laying the hide flat on the ground. It really doesn’t matter and both methods will produce good results. It’s far more important that you focus on not damaging the hide and on removing all remaining bits of tissue.

Next the hide should be washed in clean water with a small amount of laundry detergent, dish soap, or shampoo. Be sure to rinse the hide thoroughly.​

Removing the Hair

What You’ll Need

  • Drying rack
  • Twine
  • Scraping tool
How to Tan Leather With Brains Leather Tanning Rack Sample - Consumer Files

If you’re working with a salted and preserved hide, you will need to first soften the hide by soaking it in clean water. This will serve to remove the salt and rehydrate the hide so that it is soft and flexible. Merely rinsing off the salt is not enough: the hide must be soft and easily pliable or it will tear as you try to stretch, making all your work thus far in vain.

If you are working with a fresh hide that you just fleshed, no additional steps are necessary before proceeding.

First, the hide must be stretched. This can be done by boring holes through the hide, running parallel to the edge of the hide and in by about ½ inch and spaced about 4 inches, and then running twine through the holes in order to tie it to a drying rack. Be sure that the hide is gently stretched, not just hung in place, and that it is smooth and free of wrinkles.​

Allow the hide to dry; this can take up to a week depending upon the climate (humid regions will naturally take longer, with arid and semi-arid regions drying faster.)

Once dry, scrape the hair side similarly to how you fleshed the other side earlier. You can use a scraper made out of a bone, stone, or elk antler -which all have traditional use- or use a metal scraper designed specifically for this use. Move against the grain of the hair, scraping until all of the hair is removed.

You’ll notice a peppery look to the hide now. These are hair follicles in the epidermis -the outer layer of skin. This layer needs to be removed.

NOTE: At this stage, you must be careful with how you scrape. If you scrape too hard, you could bust through the hide, especially on the belly and leg skin (which is naturally thinner than the skin across the back.) But, if you scrape too lightly this step could take you hours to finish.

Scrape in sections about 6 by 6 inches in size until the skin begins to get fluffy like suede. Leave a buffer of a few inches around the holes punched in order to stretch the hide and then come back to these areas last.​


How to Tan Leather With Brains Softening Sample - Consumer Files

What You’ll Need

  • Brain of the animal
  • Something to cook the brain in (old pot, coffee can, etc.)
  • Water
  • Blender or masher
  • Zip-close bag or garbage bag (depending on size of the hide)
  • Drying rack
  • Hide breaking tool or stick with rounded end

For this step, you’ll need the brain of the animal. You can get it by cracking open the skull and removing the brain. Of course, this dressing method precludes being able to keep the skull for a European skull mount [INSERT LINK HERE] if you’re tanning a deer hide. Conveniently, the brain of any animal is just large enough for dressing its hide in preparation of tanning.

Cook the brain in a small amount of water -no more than 2 cups for a large hide- until it breaks down and becomes soupy. Afterwards, you’ll want to run it through a blender or thoroughly mash it so that the liquid is creamy and there are no large chunks.

While the brain cooks, take the hide off of the drying rack. Rinse the hide in warm, not hot, water to make it more malleable and to allow it to better absorb the oils from the brain. Be sure to thoroughly squeeze out any excess water, using a couple of towels to blot and absorb excess moisture.

How to Tan Leather With Brains A Deer Hide Rack Sample - Consumer Files

Now, rub the brain mixture into the hide. You want to be sure to rub it into every last inch of the hide. Then, roll the hide up. You can place it in a zip-close plastic storage bag or even a garbage bag, depending upon the size of the hide. Allow the hide to soak up the oils from the brain at least overnight, though a full day is better. You can place the hide in your refrigerator if you’re concerned about any weird smells, but it’s important that the hide not freeze. It does not need to be cool while it marinates in the brain mixture.

Once enough time has passed, remove the hide from the bag and place it back on the drying rack. Wipe off as much of the brain mixture as possible.

Now, the hide needs to be truly softened. This is done by working the hide with a stick with a rounded end or a hide breaking tool. Work the tool or stick across the hide continuously until the hide is no longer cool. When it is clearly warm to the touch, the hide should also be dry. At this stage, you should have a skin that is soft and fluffy.

NOTE: avoid getting the hide wet from here on out or it will turn back into rawhide.​


What You’ll Need

  • Strong needle
  • Strong thread
  • Hardwood to burn
  • Punky wood that will smoke more than burn
  • A few straight stick about a foot long
  • Rope to suspend the hide
  • Shovel

This is the final stage and is done using smoke. Sew the hide together along three sides in order to create a pouch. Leave the neck side open by about 6 inches.

How to Tan Leather With Brains Tanning Process_1 - Consumer Files
How to Tan Leather With Brains Tanning Process_2 - Consumer Files
How to Tan Leather With Brains Tanning Process_3 - Consumer Files
How to Tan Leather With Brains Tanning Process_4 - Consumer Files

Get a fire going consisting of hardwoods. Nearby, dig a hole about a foot wide and 6 to 12 inches deep. Construct a way to suspend the softened hide pouch just above the hole. A tree works well for this.

Fill the hole with glowing coals and place punky wood on it to create a lot of smoke. Suspend the hide pouch above the hole with the open end down. Place sticks around the edges of the hole to reach up and hold the hide pouch open so that the smoke is funneled inside.

How to Tan Leather With Brains Tanning Process_4.0 - Consumer Files
How to Tan Leather With Brains Tanning Process_5 - Consumer Files
How to Tan Leather With Brains Tanning Process_7 - Consumer Files
How to Tan Leather With Brains Tanning Process_8 - Consumer Files

Let the pouch hang until it begins to change color. This should take between 30 and 60 minutes. Then, flip the pouch inside out and allow the other side to catch the smoke.

Once tanned, undo the stitching to return the pouch to a flat piece of leather. Gently wash in water with a mild soap to remove any ash or soot. Blot dry with towels.​

Final Thoughts on How to Tan Leather With Brains

This process, while being admittedly messy and a bit much for those with softer stomachs, can produce a high-quality piece of tanned leather that is soft, flexible, and perfect for any leather crafts you may want to try.

This can be done with the fur still on the hide, however, it does require some modification of the steps. As it is more complicated, it’s better left until you have a firm grasp on this method and a handful of beautifully soft pieces of leather.

Should you find yourself getting the hang of primitive tanning and preservation methods such as have been outlined in these posts, you have the ability to run a small side business among friends, neighbors, and fellow hunters looking for a local and more affordable option than a professional taxidermist. This may prove to be another part of your self-sufficiency plan for your homestead.

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