Brain Tanning

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Brain Tanning

Post by ThreeperMan on Mon 13 Jul 2009, 16:23

Brain Tanning Furs

by George Michaud

Editors Note: This article is adapted for the web
from an article George originally wrote for Fur-Fish-Game Magazine.
There is an assumption that the reader already has a basic knowledge of
certain steps of fur-handling. I recommend using this article in
conjunction with Jim Miller's article Tan Your Pelts With Nature's Tools, as a source of more information and alternative ways of doing things.

Over the last several years I have been brain tanning many of my furs. This
is the way the Indians did it. It is a safe, easy and inexpensive way to
tan your furs. The skins that you do
this way are even edible.

The furs that I have tanned with varying degrees of success are marten,
muskrat, fox, coon, bobcat, coyote, and beaver. Beaver and muskrat are
the two hardest that I have tried. When tanning coyote and coon you
must thin the skin on the shoulders to get the softest tanning job.
To thin the fur I place the dried skin on a fleshing beam and using a
sharp large knife I scrape the skin. I hold the knife at a 90 degree
angle to the skin and I scrape it very carefully.

Getting Started

I will describe how to tan a fox. Most any fur will work the same way.
The process begins as soon as we get the animal, the less knife cuts
you make in the hide when skinning the easier it will be to tan and the
nicer it will come out. (If you are worried about fleas you can place
the dead fox in a trash bag and spray it full of Raid or some
other flea killer).


After skinning the fox you want to scrape it thoroughly making sure to
get rid of all the fat and any membrane. Be very careful that you don't
damage the hide. If you do put a hole in it, sew it up, and take extra
care when you begin to soften the skin in this area.
I use two different types of fleshing beams. One is a 5 foot maple
beam that has a rounded and tapered point that is mounted to a 2X6 base
board and
it has a supporting leg. It is set at an angle that hits me just above
my belt. In this way I can place the fur on the beam and hold it in
place by pressing my body against the beam. I use this method for deer.
beaver, coyote, and
coon. I use a two handled fleshing knife that I bought through a
supply catalog. I also have a small beam that I can mount on a bench
and use a hose scraper for muskrat, mink, and pine marten.

Washing Your Fur

Now that the skin is scraped you want to wash it. I use Suave shampoo
for this and the bath tub when my wife isn't looking. Next I borrow her
hair dryer to blow dry the fur. This is usually best done when she isn't
home. The next step is to turn the fur in and dry the skin a stretched out like
you would if you were taking it to the buyer.


For tanning you will need one brain, a blender, a microwave, a
bath towel (not one of the good ones) and some punky wood, here in the
Rockies I use aspen. For the brain I go to the local market and get either a
pig brain or a beef brain. It really doesn't matter which one as either
one will work. At times I have been forced to buy a whole case of brains
as it is a special order but they are not very expensive, and they
will last in the freezer forever.

Remove the skin from the stretcher when it is completely dry and you
are ready to begin. It is best to start this project in the morning as
it will take a few hours to finish. Get all of the above mentioned items
together and now the real fun begins.

First thaw the brain in the micro wave. They come in a nice little
container that is real handy. After the brain is thawed (about 1 minute
30 seconds on high) you drop it in the blender with a 1/2 container of
hot water (out of the tap is fine). Hit liquefy until it looks like a
strawberry shake. Next pour the contents of the blender into a plastic
bowl and put it back in the micro wave for another 3 minutes. Just to
heat it but not cook it.

Place the fox skin on a table and pour some of the brain on the skin
and start to work it in with your hands. Continue doing this until you
have covered the entire skin. The skin should be already starting to
soften up some. Now take the towel and soak it in hot water then wring
most of the water out, all you want is a hot moist towel.

rub the brains into the flesh side of the skin

roll the fur up in the warm wet towel
Place the fox skin on the towel and pour more of the brain mix onto the
skin. You want to have the skin covered with it. Turn the skin over and
do the same on the other side. Next roll the skin up in the towel and
let it set for a couple of hours. Remember to put the bowl with the
brain in it in the refrigerator until you need it again.

Unroll the towel and check the skin to see if it is thoroughly
soaked and pliable. If not, work some more brain into it and roll it back up in
the towel for another hour or two. The more of the brain that gets
worked into the skin the softer and easier it will tan.


After the skin has been treated I wipe as much of the brain solution
off as I can with the towel, and just hang the skin up to dry on the
clothes line (don't stretch it). Just as it starts to feel dry in some
places I begin to work the skin. You don't want to wait til the skin is
completely dry as this makes softening it harder or impossible.

To soften the skin I use a new beaver snare, or you can use a piece of steel
cable (available at hardware stores or through the Store). I attach one end of the snare to a door knob and the other end to
a solid object. This way I can increase or decrease the tension on the
cable by leaning on the door. I begin pulling the skin back and forth
across the cable (fur side in). This action causes friction which causes
heat and helps dry the skin. I pull the skin different directions to
work the fibers, I also stretch it with my hands.

working the pelt of a steel cable

softening a skin that has been split open
It is easier to split the skin down the belly to work it, but it makes
it a lot harder to smoke it (You smoke the skin to water proof it). If
you do split the skin you will have to sew it back together to smoke it.
Be careful not to over work the skin to where the fur starts to come
through the inner side of the skin.


After the skin is softened you will want to smoke it. The smoking doesn't make the fur water proof, what
it does do is make it so that if it gets wet all you have to do is rub it
between your hands when it is dry and it will be as soft as the day you
tanned it. It also prevents decay and bugs from devouring it.

The easiest way to smoke the skin is to turn it fur side out and sew
an 18 to 24 inch canvas skirt on it. This is sewed to the bottom of
the skin so that it is slightly funnel shaped sloping up to the skin.
One other thing: sew the leg holes closed as the smoke will discolor the
fur anywhere it escapes.

the smoking holeNext dig a hole about 12 inches in diameter and 18 inches deep (a post
hole digger works great for this). Build a fire in the hole and let it
burn down to coals, now put the punky wood on the coals and have some
water handy to put out any flames that break out. All you want is smoke
and not heat because high heat will damage the fur.

Build a simple tri-pod over the
hole to hang the skin from by a cord through the nose. Spread the skirt
that you sewed on the skin over the hole and place rocks on it to hold
it down. Stay right with the skin checking frequently to make sure the
wood doesn't catch fire. I smoke my furs for about 30 minutes.

Parting Thoughts

this method you can tan several skins with one brain and for under two
bucks. This is a safe way to tan furs around children and pets. The
tanned furs will be as soft as the finest fur dress if you put a little
work into them. If the wife catches you using the kitchen appliances
just tell her that you were doing it for her new fur coat.

Your Bic lighter, and your pocket knife...
Don't leave home without 'em!!!

Posts : 537
Join date : 2009-07-12
Age : 69
Location : Galveston, TX

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Re: Brain Tanning

Post by ThreeperMan on Mon 13 Jul 2009, 16:25

Tan Your Pelts With Nature's Tools

Adapted for the web from a chapter in Brain Tan Buffalo Robes, Skins and Peltsby Jim Miller

still life with brain tan furs
Jim Miller and friends
Our ancestors lived very close to the circle of
life. Thankful always for the food, tools and clothing that came from a
successful hunt. Warmth, color, protection and camouflage are shared
with us by our four-legged brothers through the giving of their pelts.
Today, one need only walk the roadside to find animals whose lives were
taken. Thoughtlessly and sometimes without knowing, left there to
become crow food. Whether you are seven or seventy, for the beginning
tanner a road kill could become a rewarding first project.
Many of these pelts are in perfect condition. Nonetheless, a pair of
rubber gloves are recommended when handling these critters from the
wild. My hat is made from the first pelt I ever tanned. It was a large,
fluffy road kill raccoon I named Ricky. But whether from the trap or
the road, each animal comes with a complete tanning package -- no
chemicals are needed. The process is an easy one and will start you on
the way to using all of the animal when you take it's life. So let's
get started.

skinning furs and pelts


To remove the pelt from the body or carcass, tie both back legs to a
tree limb about head high. With knife or sharp stone in hand make an
incision from the hock to the vent (see diagram 1). Next cut the tail
on the underside from the vent to it's tip. Using the knife gently,
begin pulling the pelt up away from the leg and cut the film or
membrane that holds the skin to the meat.
As much as possible pull the pelt off the carcass. Only use your knife
if absolutely necessary. If the raccoon is a fairly fresh kill and
still warm, the membrane and pelt will pull away easily. However, if
the carcass is cold, this stuff acts like rubber cement and must be cut
carefully, particularly at the head, neck and tail. Always leave as
much of the fat and meat on the carcass as possible. It will sometimes
want to pull off with the pelt. Cut through the cartilage beneath the
nose and ears. Pelts taken off in this manner are referred to as cased. They're great for bags and pouches to flip over a belt. Also very warm as socks though usually the fur is short lived.

the pelt tacked  out
Fleshing a pelt, tacked out on a plywood board


To simplify your first project, slice the hide open all the way up the
belly to the hair of the
chinny-chin-chin. (Sorry, it's an old butchers saying.) Now, throw it
over a very smooth log or tack it out flat on a piece of plywood (see
photo). Buffaloes I stake out right on the ground. Definitely not a
good beginners project! You can use a fairly crescent shaped knife held
at a 90 degree angle to the pelt. I also use the same scraper used on
Now push and scrape. Remove all the fat, meat and membrane until you
begin to see the pores of the skin. Sometimes hair will pull back
through the underside of the skin. This is usually from animals killed
during the summer or early fall. Just move on to the next area and keep
scraping. The membrane on the head or mask is the toughest to get off,
so take your time.
Of course if the animal was struck by a car and
has Good Year stamped in the facial fur, you may want to cut the mask
off entirely. The tails generally have a lot of fat on them. Clean them
well (soap and water?) but go gently, they can break fairly easily.
Fortunately they're so fluffy they can be sewn back together without a
sign of the disaster.


You've finished the first step referred to as fleshing.
Pelts and skins used for brain tanning require a thorough fleshing job.
The fine oil that is used is the reason for this. No harsh or toxic
chemicals are used. This is the only way for me. The way it was created
to be used. This leaves you with a pelt that is soft, light, fluffy and
very natural feeling.

When the animals life is taken it gives you a complete tanning package
as a bonus. Every critter has enough brains to tan it's own hide,
except buffaloes (and some people I know). Remove the brain from the
raccoon's skull and mix with about 1-1/2 cups of water. Cook this
mixture for about 10 minutes. Then mash, mix or blend into an oily
liquid. This will be divided into two equal amounts.

Buff up the pelts surface with some sandpaper, sandstone, or
granite rock. Apply the lukewarm mixture and rub it in by hand. Go
ahead ladies, it'll make your skin soft. Allow to dry overnight.
Thicker pelts require more brain and more applications but most
raccoons can be done in just two coatings. Buff the surface again and
apply the second coat. Now cover with a very warm and wet towel and let
it set overnight.

Tan Your Pelts with Nature's Tools:    page 4

softening the pelt
Working the hide over a straight edge


The following morning uncover and begin to stretch your hide (see
photo). Pull side to side and head to tail. The back of an old wooden
chair works well for this. Pull the pelt down over it, stretching and
buffing over the full length of the pelt. Take breaks whenever needed,
but continue to stretch until dry.

A Note From the Editor

While some pelts do come out soft with the first braining, you should expect your pelt not to do this. If it does consider yourself lucky.

If you are softening and you notice that the pelt is
getting unacceptably stiff (anywhere besides the edges)and you can't
work that stiffness out...its time to re-apply the brains. If you wait
until the hide is totally dry before re-braining, it won't absorb the
brains as well and won't soften up as soft. You can continue this
re-braining, re-softening cycle until the hide is as soft as you want
it to be.

If for some reason the pelt dries tough in some spots, mix another solution of brains and re-apply, let it soak
and stretch until dry.
If you do enough tanning you will get some tough ones. Take it as a
lesson from mother nature and keep trying. The fibers in the skin
a lot like a baby diaper, crossing and overlapping each other. Applying
oil to these fibers and rubbing them together fluffs them up making
them soft and airy.


When the pelt is dry and no longer cool to the touch, it's ready to be
smoked in the teepee. The skin can be hung at the top and rotten wood
placed on the fire to smolder and smoke. At the campfire the pelt can
be suspended on sticks downwind but out of reach from a possible wild
flame. Remember you want smoke not fire. Moths like tanned pelts of any
kind. but smoking deters them allowing you to enjoy them year round.
So clear out a corner of the garage and brain-tan those pelts. A
beautiful and respectful momento from the hunt or a well earned reward
for salvaging a road kill.

Hey, honey, stop the car. I think I saw something back there.

Tips for Tanning Heavier Furs

A couple additional bits of information for you when working with
beaver pelts. Average to large blanket size beaver are very thick at
the neck, tail and jaws. I call them baby buffalo. And as with buff's I
use my hand held scraper (wahintke) to thin them out a bit before
braining. This will require them to be stretched and tacked on a board
after fleshing over the beam, or laced onto a hoop or small rack.
Feel the thickness of the pelt in the rib area and use that as your
gauge for the rest of the back, neck and tail. This scrape/thinning is
most easily accomplished when the pelt is still damp. It works well in
winter to hoop and freeze scrape them too. Temperatures of 20 degrees
or less work best.

Also, with many of the heavier pelts such as beaver, I brain
them twice and work them dry as described earlier in this chapter. Then
I dunk them right into the warm brain slurry. After soaking for an hour
or more I stretch and pull it in the solution until it is completely
saturated and then wring it out just as a deer skin! The hair will look
shiny and does not slip. (I got this tip several years ago while
working with another tanner from Montana.) Just be sure to work the
pelts completely dry and give them a thorough smoking of a couple hours
or more.

This Article is excerpted from Jim's forty page book Brain Tan Buffalo Robes, Skins and Pelts. You can read our online review and ordering information to get a copy directly from Jim. You can find contact information and more details about what Jim does in's Resource Directory or at his 'Willow Winds' website.

©️1997 by Willow Winds

Drawings by: Joe Schnur

Photos: Greg Lashbrook

Your Bic lighter, and your pocket knife...
Don't leave home without 'em!!!

Posts : 537
Join date : 2009-07-12
Age : 69
Location : Galveston, TX

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