To Tan a Deer Hide
Thousands upon thousands of deer hides are getting thrown away by hunters every fall. These hides don't necessarily go to waste, as other species will enjoy feeding on them one way or another. But why don't WE use all of the animal we kill? Most hunters would love to tan hides, but they simply do not know how or don't have the time. This time of year I am busy heading to folks' houses collecting the hides they saved for me, happy to see them be used by someone who will appreciate them and give them new life.
The ultimate reward for all your hard work: tough, soft, and beautiful clothing that is sure to spark a conversation!
The deer hides then go through an intense metamorphosis facilitated by my own hard work and spent calories to become buckskin. I first inspect the hides: Are they fresh? Did someone use a knife to get the skin off, thus leaving knife marks? Then, the hides first get scraped on a fleshing beam with a FLESHING KNIFE to remove all of the fat, meat, and connective tissues. Deer hair is hollow, so if we tan the hide with the hair on, we will produce a lesser quality hide long-term because the hair will break off; that's why I scrape the hair all off. The first layer of skin, known as "the grain", comes off as well. We then have a "wet band-aid" skin. This shouldn't smell bad. It smells like deer!
Next, I either freeze or dry the hide if I want to store it so I can work on it later. If I have the time, however, I'll head to the next step right away. I take a dozen egg yolks (we are after the fats in the yolks, not the whites) and a half gallon of warm water, then I mix it all together to create a bubbly mixture of egg yolk water. The hide goes in and I will play with it, stretch it, and submerge it in the mixture. This allows it to soak up as much as it can.
I sturdily tie a strong stick horizontally between two trees. The hide lays on top, and I roll it up like a donut so I can fit another stick through the donut hole and wring it out. This is similar to wringing out a towel, but it's a lot more extreme. We are aiming to squeeze the egg mixture through the fibers in the skin. The hide goes through a process of soaking in the eggs and getting wrung out 2-4 times. I like to take my time and "soak, wring, soak, wring, soak, wring," as I noticed the more you repeat this process, the softer the buckskin will be.
Wringing out a hide. This is hard work. Save the eggs back in the bucket to reuse the solution multiple times for the same hide.
After the final wringing, it's time for the workout. The overall process is physically demanding, but the actual drying and softening phase is what I find to be the hardest part. I take a steel cable with a loop on each end and tie it to a tree with a little bit of slack. The hide gets "flossed" back and forth on the cable as long and hard as I can. I am constantly changing where the hide contacts the cable to make sure I get every section of the hide. This needs to be committed to, so make sure you plan at least a half day for this step. When the hide is done, it will feel incredibly soft, dry, and look almost pure white. I sometimes take a volcanic PUMICE STONE and rub the hide to soften it even more and to remove loose fibers.
Kimi cabling a hide to soften and dry it out.
The hide at this point is essentially "tanned", but the final stage is to smoke it. I collect punky wood (rotten wood), allow it to dry in the sun, and store it for when I am ready to begin the smoking process. I then place hot coals in a metal container and allow them to slowly burn the punky wood, so that a pillar of thick smoke is formed and passes through the hides hanging over it. Preferably, I haven taken two hides and glued the edges together to create a "pillowcase" shape with an opening so the smoke can travel into the hides and permeate the fibers. Smoking gives buckskin its beautiful tan color, keeps the bugs away, locks in the tan, and makes it smell delicious! Be careful with the fire; the punky wood can combust and catch the hide on fire, ruining all your hard work.
When the smoking is all done, you will know it because you will observe a consistent tan color throughout the hide (make sure you smoke both sides). I like to wash it after with a little bit of natural soap and clean water, then let it dry in the sun flat on the ground.
After that, you have a naturally tanned textile that is completely non-toxic, safe on skin, naturally soft, versatile, and looks completely different than any other fabric, so you'll be sure to impress everyone at the next fancy dinner party!
Hat made of egg tanned buckskin and tea tanned fish skin.
(fish skin tanned by Janey Chang - IG @janeychangart)
The difference between buckskin and leather is that modern day leather is frequently tanned with toxic chemicals that are bad for you, the workers who tanned them, and the environment. Leather can be naturally made using a different process that I will save for another time, but if you buy it in any store and not directly from a natural tanner, it will have been tanned with chemicals. Leather has the grain still on so offers both a shiny and a soft side. Buckskin has both sides soft and no shiny side, as the grain has been removed and the process loosens up the fibers more than we would see in leather tanning.
Pouch made of buckskin, beaver fur, and tea tanned salmon skin.
Buckskin can be made into clothing, bags, footwear, cordage, thread and almost anything a fabric can be made into. I have even used it to make cat toys! This was a small write up of my overall process for creating buckskin and I hope you enjoyed reading it. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to email me and inquire further, as I love talking about anything hide tanning and buckskin-related.
If you choose to order the products I have listed here, please know that I receive a small monetary percentage for every order through those links, and I greatly appreciate your help and support! -Tim / Owl Eyes Wilderness Survival