Hide Tanning Workshop
Hide Tanning Workshop
Late Summer 2020 Serious Outdoor Skills held its first Hide Tanning Workshop over three days, at its base camp in a beautiful Cornish woodland. Originally scheduled for May, it was pushed back to August by the current state of things, and despite difficult weather conditions the course participants all managed to leave with their own piece of buckskin, and more importantly, the knowledge to go away and make more.
On day one, the course participants were shown and talked through the process of skinning a roe deer in such a way as to minimise damage to the hide. This means minimal knife work, as cuts and scores can quickly turn into big holes and rips in the scraping stages, so after a few necessary cuts, the skin was worked away from the meat by hand. Next, they were shown how to easily butcher the deer with minimal waste, and were talked through the process of cutting and drying some of the meat for jerky, which was hung to dry over the weekend with a small fire below to keep insects away. Most of the rest of day one was spent using beams and fleshing tools to remove any remaining meat and fat from the roe deer skins provided to them, which had been pre-soaked in water for several days. Then they were flipped over to scrape off the hair, epidermis and grain layer, before a final scrape on the flesh side to break up the membrane left on the skin. It’s a lot of scraping, but necessary so that the skins would be capable of absorbing the tanning agent, in this case brains, which contain the oils necessary for the hide to dry soft.
(Cleaning the hides on the fleshing beam)
This can also be achieved with eggs, but traditionally brains were used. When scraping was completed, the skins were returned to water for the night. Before dinner there was just enough time for the students to collect materials from the surrounding woodland and use them to build the frames they would be using on day two, before enjoying a slow-cooked venison stew and chilling out for the evening.
Day two was all about softening. Hides were removed from the water they’d spent the night in, returned to the fleshing beams and given a once over with the knives, both to remove any membrane missed the day before, and to squeegee some of the moisture out of the hides to make wringing easier. Wringing well at this point is very important, as any excessive moisture will repel the brain solution meaning that part of the hide won’t dry soft, no matter how hard it is worked. The hides were wrapped on poles in such a way as to prevent slippage, then twisted and wrung hard with a stick to drive out as much moisture as possible. The brains were removed from the deer heads we had with us and heated in a pot with some water to release the oils. When wringing was completed to a good standard, the hides were stretched back into shape by hand, and submerged in the prepared brains. The solution was massaged into the skins and then left for an hour to soak. After we’d had some lunch, the hides were removed from the brains and returned to the poles for their second thorough wringing. Next the wrung hides were stretched by hand and laced into the prepared frames, where they were worked for several hours until dry and soft. This softening stage involves stretching the framed hide deeply with a wooden stake to keep the fibres open while it dries.
(softening the hides in the frames)
Periodically both sides of the hides were rubbed with a pumice stone to keep them nice and fluffy. If this isn’t done a crust can form which prevents the hide from stretching enough to keep the fibres open. Hides must be worked in this way until completely dry, or the fibres will glue themselves shut and the hide will stiffen as it finishes drying. The weather was mostly kind to us, though there were a couple of times when we had to grab frames and hide from rain showers. By dinner time (venison tagine today) the hides were mostly done and everyone was aching from the day’s work. Some finishing was done on a cable before the completed buckskins were put away in a dry place for the night.
Day three was about smoking and recapping.
(Above Smoking the buckskin in the tipi)
Students collected punk wood (dry rotten wood) and hung their buckskins in the camp tipi, which had a tarp wrapped around the top to trap the smoke. Hot coals were placed in the tipi which were smothered by punk wood. The door was closed and the fire watched closely over the next few hours to keep it nice and smoky, and avoid flare ups. Smoking is done for a few reasons. If a completed but unsmoked hide was to become wet, it would dry stiff. If a smoked hide becomes wet, it should dry nearly as soft as before, and a little bit of hand stretching will have it as good as new. It also acts as a repellent, and bugs will be a lot less interested in eating your hard work once it’s had a good smoking. While the hides were being smoked, we went over everything we’d done throughout the weekend, discussed alternative methods and potential craft projects, and sampled some of the jerky we had prepared.
By early afternoon the course participants were heading home with their own lightly smoked buckskin, and the knowledge to make more in the future. A couple of the guys also took home some spare skins which they had framed and dried over the weekend to hopefully process into furs at home.
Overall the Hide Tanning Workshop was a success, thanks mostly to the group. Everyone was willing to put in the work required to produce buckskin, and did so, despite being hampered by temperamental weather. They were a joy to work with, and I hope to see them making more buckskin by themselves in the future.
2021 dates are now online if you would like to join us for our next Hide Tanning Workshop