“Brains work wonderfully”
Visitors at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park had the opportunity to participate in a deer hide tanning demonstration over the weekend, part of the Knowledge Skill Share program through the Hillsboro Library Friends.
Park superintendent Mike Smith has been tanning animals hides for about 20 years now, and he prefers the methods employed by American Indians rather than modern chemical processes.
According to Bonnie Gifford, member of Hillsboro Library Friends, the free demonstration was the first in a series. She said the program was born out of a conversation she had with some younger folks in the county.
“Emily Newton, Lynmarie Knight, Josh Bennett and I were all talking,” Gifford said. “They're all in their late 20s or early 30s and living in this area, and I've noticed that at a number of our Library Friends events, there is always lots of grey hair. Not as many younger people as I was hoping for, and the young people are really the future of our community. So I met with them to kind of find out what some of the things would be that would attract younger people to the library or library-sponsored events. This was the result of that conversation.”
Gifford said there are lot of younger folks in the county that want to live here and learn “the old ways.”
“Living off the land, homesteading, that kind of thing,” she said. “And there are a lot of people my age that know those kinds of skills.”
Smith said when it comes to tanning, he's never used chemicals — that's not where his interest is. The final product Smith is left with after processing a hide is a soft, suede chamois, and it's really for making clothing. Smith said his old-time method is better suited for making buckskin clothing than modern techniques.
“What passes for buckskin clothing in the modern world is what's called chrome-tanned deer skin,” explained Smith. “There's plenty of others, but that's one that's easy to do and probably the most common. The epidermis, the grain, is still on it. It's not nearly as suitable for clothing because the stuff in your perspiration works against the treatment that's been done to the fibers, and it deteriorates them.”
“With this, that's not the case. The fibers are intact. This is much more like cloth,” Smith said.
Other than the fact that he uses steel tools and some wire cable, most of Smith's methods are the same ones used by native Americans for centuries, and you can really process any animal hide that way, not just deer.
Smith said there is natural glue that can be found in the layers of a skinned animal hide.
“Our job is to take all these layers off and to work that glue from between the fibers out of there,” said Smith. “It's just a protein, and it's throughout the animal. You might've seen it in maybe a canned ham, that jelly that's leftover. That's all it is, dissolved animal protein.”
Smith talked about the difference between buckskin and leather.
“You use the same raw materials, but you get a different end-product,” he said “Leather is chemically tanned. Tannin is an acid. It chemically dissolves the glue out of the hide and changes the fibers. With leather, everything stays very compact. There's not a lot of space between the fibers. A good smooth, hard surface. For clothing, that's not what you want. It might be good for shoes or belts and that sort of thing, but for clothing, you want buckskin.”
Smith said there are a few steps when it comes to tanning a hide — fleshing, de-hairing, braining, wringing, softening and smoking.
They all require time, patience and a lot of elbow grease. He suggested getting a group of buddies together for some of the more labor-intensive steps of the process.
Before anything, you're going to need a deer skin. Smith's method of skinning an animal is definitely not a native American practice.
“It's a very clean method of skinning the deer that leaves the meat clean — without hairs on it — and takes the hide off without any damage or cuts to it. Many deer skins are ruined in the skinning process because people think you have to have a big knife and you have to cut the skin off. Not true. In fact, it's better if you don't.”
Smith said with his method, you still need a knife to cut around the neck or the legs, or to open up the belly so you can get to the skin — just like traditional field dressing.
“Then the skin needs to be pulled off. I hang them by the head, hook my truck to them and just pull 'em with the truck. It's just like peeling a banana,” smiled Smith.
“Just cut around the neck like you usually would. Put a golf ball or a round rock up in the neck skin. Put a loop of chain or cable around it, and that gives you your handle. Then you just hook that to your truck and back away.”
“It works really good and you don't do any damage to the skin,” Smith said. “If you're pulling and cutting and slashing, you create score marks. When you go to stretch the hide and pull it, those score marks are going to be weak spots, and you're going to get holes in your hide.”
The fleshing process is intended to remove all the fat and pieces of muscle attached to the hide.
“Not big skeletal muscles, but the skin muscle,” Smith explained. “There's what's called sheet muscles attached to the skin. Often that will come off with the skin when you pull it loose. You need to get that off.”
Smith said the best way to flesh a hide is to soak it in water first because it causes the skin to absorb a lot of moisture and plump up. He said the hide will get a little thicker and a little more pliable, and makes the fleshing process a little bit easier.
“You lay the skin, hair-side down, flesh-side up on a beam or a log,” demonstrated Smith. “Then you take your fleshing tool, which is just a straight, square edge you can make out of almost anything.”
Smith said the blade doesn't need be especially sharp for fleshing — Native Americans would often use clam shells.
“In a real pinch you can just split a stick and use the flat edge as a plow to push the flesh off the inside of the skin. Usually you start at the neck and just take all the flesh off the skin. All the membrane and fat and that kind of stuff.”
For the next step, de-hairing, Smith said you've got a couple of options. Dry-scraping or wet-scraping. One is significantly more awful than the other.
“Dry-scraping is less messy,” he said. “Dry-scraping is where you take the hide, cut holes all the way around it, and make you a frame out of logs or boards. Then you take strings and tie them in the holes and pull it out tight. Kind of like a trampoline.”
Smith said you stretch the hide out flat in the frame, good and tight, and let it dry.
“For a deer skin, two days, maybe two-and-a-half days, depending on the weather,” he said. “If it's cold and moist it's gonna take longer. If it's real hot and dry it may only take one day.”
“Once it's dry, then you take a sharp curved blade and scrape the hair and the epidermis off. It's scraping, not cutting. The tool needs to be sharp but if you push too hard, it'll punch through. The skin is pretty fragile in this state. Start at the top and just scrape, scrape, scrape until all the hair and epidermis is gone. You want to dry it for about three days, just until it gets dry — not brittle.”
Smith said the end result is parchment, and you can use it for all kinds of stuff.
“You can make drum heads out of this, rawhide string, even head-knockers and stuff. When you get it wet again, it's real flexible. You put a rock in the fork of a branch and then wrap the whole thing in wet rawhide and lace it up. When it dries it'll hold them together like it was welded. Clubs and stuff were made that way. Not that we need head-knockers nowadays, but it's fun to make one now and again just in case,” joked Smith.
Smith said you want to be careful because the skin is very elastic when it's wet and you can pull it into all kinds of strange shapes.
“Later on, when you cut a piece out for your clothing, it's going to revert back to that original shape,” he said. “You'll have one sleeve six inches too long and one sleeve six inches too short. So you want to try and keep it in as natural a shape as you can.”
Smith said his dry-scraping tool is simple and homemade.
“It's just a thumbnail-shaped piece of a file,” Smith told the crowd. “I put it on a piece of rhododendron so you've got a handle and you've got the angle right. You can push with one hand and pull with the other — it gives you a good scraping motion.”
Smith then took on the subject of wet-scraping.
“For wet-scraping. you don't need the frame. You take that fresh hide, put it in the ground, and cover it with dirt for a week or ten days. Just let it rot. When you take it out — well, it's gonna be rotten. If you wait too long, it'll rot completely. If you wait the right amount of time, it's just going to rot away those outer layers and you can scrape it. I can assure you, it's pretty foul.”
Smith said next you'll want to soak the hide in a wood ash solution.
“These are just hardwood ashes out of the stove,” Smith said. “You want to screen most of that out. It's very flour-like, very alkaline. Take about two gallons of ashes and a gallon of water, a 2-to-1 ratio. The way to test it, is to mix it all up, and let it settle about fifteen minutes so that the ash goes to the bottom and you've got a layer of fairly clear water on top.”
Smith said then you drop an egg in the solution. If the egg barely floats, so that the top of it is sticking out, then that's just right. If the egg sinks, it's not strong enough. If the egg turns up and floats level, sideways, then it's too strong.
“It makes a difference,” he said. “It will eat the hide up if it's too strong. When you go to stretch it, it'll just tear apart and make holes.”
Smith said to drop the hide in the ash mixture and stir it up, and let it soak for two or three days. He said the process works better if you come by a couple times a day with a stick and stir the mixture.
“Basically what you're trying to do is get that water to soak to the core of the hide. It gets on the surface right away, but it takes time to work itself into some of the layers. You can tell it's done when the hair is coming off. You can take your hand and just swipe it and the hair will come off.”
“Once you've soaked it in your lye-water, you've got to rinse it and get the lye out,” Smith said. “If you leave it in there, it'll continue to eat the hide and ruin it. The easiest way to get the lye out is to take it to a creek and submerge it, and leave it over night. Just lay it in the creek, put a couple of rocks on it and come back the next day.”
A surgical mask would probably be nice to have for this step — you're literally scraping off and handling rotten fat.
“The fibers themselves are made out of glue essentially. When they're wet, they're flexible and they move easily, but as they start to dry, they start to shrink up. That glue starts to get stiff. What we want to do it stretch and pull this hide so that it can't tighten up.”
The next step is even more gruesome — the braining process. Smith apologized because his brain supply was “all used up,” but he had an alternative — eggs.
“What we're going to use today, I've never tried before. My brain supply is gone, so we're going to use a dozen eggs. We'll see whether it works or not, but I've been assured that it does. Just a dozen eggs whizzed up and a half a gallon of water.”
Smith said another solution you can use is Ivory soap and some kind of oil.
“Either lard or olive oil, Neatsfoot oil is really good, too. A quarter cup of Ivory soap flakes and quarter cup of oil. Ivory soap is one of the more natural soaps that doesn't have any perfumes and stuff in it.”
According to Smith, you're breaking down the oil molecules and making what's called an emulsified oil.
“Milk is the best example,” Smith said. “It's a water-based liquid with little globules of fat and oil all through it. They're so broken up and so fine, they don't settle. That's what you want, so when it soaks into the hide, those little fat globules will attach to the fibers. That way, when they slide back and forth, they'll move easily, and they won't stick to each other because you've coated them with a little bit of oil.”
“To keep these fibers from sticking together, the Indians would soak it in the brains,” he said. “The brain is wonderful for hides. It has enzymes and fats and emulsified oils that cling to the fibers and keep them from sticking to each other.”
Smith said it used to be brains were easy to get. You could buy them in a grocery store, because people used to eat them.
“Nowadays, with all these different prion diseases, you can't hardly buy brains anymore,” Smith said. “The best source are deer that have been road-killed or deer you've killed yourself. Any kind of brains will work, cow brains, pig brains, horse brains, it doesn't matter.”
Smith said to use the brains, they need to be chunked up.
“It's much better if you crush it and mix it with water and make kind of a slurry,” Smith explained. “The easiest way to do that is to put a quart of hot water in your blender and drop the brain in. Instant brain shake at just the right consistency — it's wonderful.”
“I did one at a school one time. I had the hide all ready for the brains. That was the next step. I had a whole brain, I had my blender, I had the hot water in it. I dropped the brain in, whizzed up my brain shake, and one of the kids — one of the boys of course — wanted to touch it and see what it was like. Well sure. So he dips his finger in, then of course he goes and runs over to the girls, shakin' it all over.”
What's the appropriate amount of brain to tan a hide? Smith said a good rule of thumb is every animal has enough brain matter to tan its own hide, so one deer brain will tan one deer hide. He said he likes to soak his hides overnight in the “brain-wash.”
Next, Smith said you want to wring the hide dry the best you can. Smith draped the wet hide over a waist-high, horizontal bar, and tied the hide into a ring shape that hung down to the ground. Then he stuck an axe handle in the loop and started to twist it — similar to applying a tourniquet — until all the egg-solution was squeezed into a bucket.
“You're just puttin' the squeeze to it,” demonstrated Smith. “What this does, not only does it get that moisture out, but it also stretches those fibers apart. A good hide probably wouldn't tear. A rotten hide — maybe. A fresh hide, it's unlikely you're going to get it tight enough to actually damage it.”
Smith said to be sure to use a towel to sop up any surface moisture because if you let up on the twisting, the moisture will suck back into the hide.
“Now we twist it the other way,” said Smith. “Rotate the ring a quarter turn on the bar, do it right and left again, then rotate it another quarter turn. You want the hide to start drying. The next step, softening, doesn't help if the hide is wet. And you can see, this squeezes a lot of it out.”
Smith said once you've wrung the hide dry, you just want to stretch and pull that thing.
“It'll still be damp, it'll still be pliable,” Smith showed everyone. “Then you can either soften it on a frame, or using kind of a shoe-shine motion over a post or wire cable would be even better.”
“The whole deal is you want to be pulling these fibers apart, and they're going to go back, and you're to pull them again, and they're going to go back. You're going to do it over and over and over, while it's drying. It doesn't do any good to do it when it's wet. It has to be during the drying process.”
Smith said during the softening process the hide goes from being 1/32 of an inch thick, to being about a ¼ of an inch thick.
“It fluffs up and gets a lot thicker and a lot softer. You keep doing this until it's completely dry and there's no moisture left in it. My experience has been eight to ten hours. Once you start on this, you're in it for for the duration. You've got to just keep working it until it's done. Generally you're better off to have some buddies. You get tired, let one of them do it awhile, and give each other breaks.”
At this point the semi-damp hide feels like soft suede. The final step in the process is to help weatherproof the buckskin.
“The fibers themselves still have a little bit of glue in them. If that gets rained on, and then dries, they're gonna glue back together and it'll dry papery and hard. To prevent that, you have to go to the final stage and smoke it.”
Smith said to smoke a hide, you want to dig a hole in the ground about a foot-and-a-half deep, build a little fire, put hot coals in it, and cover it up with rotten “punk.”
“Find an old dead stump where you can just pull out the wood,” Smith suggested. “Semi-solid, but soft enough that you can tear it loose. Let that fire die down to coals and cover it with that punk. That'll make a lot of smoke.”
Smith said then you suspend your hide over the fire, but you have to be careful to monitor the fire for the next two or three hours.
“Smoking is one of the things you can't let up on. You've got to be there. If you get a flare-up in the pit, it'll burn your hide up. It requires constant, total attention,” Smith said.
Then you turn the hide inside out and smoke it the other way.
“What happens with the smoke going in there, it penetrates the skin. It has unburned tars and stuff that coat the fibers. Then, when the skin gets wet, the fibers won't stick together. It's not waterproof by any means, but when it does dry, it'll dry soft.”
Smith showed attendees what the finished product looks like, a handmade buckskin shirt he made years ago.
“This shirt is probably twenty years old,” he said. “They will last your lifetime. You put a lot of work into them, but once you get it, it's extraordinarily durable, and it's very easy to clean. You basically wash it just like you would a wool sweater. Squeeze out as much water as you can and lay it out flat to dry. The very best way is to get it mostly dry, then put it on and wear it. It will very much form-fit to your body.”
Jennifer Kaufman, of Bel Air, Maryland was visiting Pocahontas County with Boy Scout Troop 564, and they all attended the workshop.
Kaufman said she has no experience with tanning hides, and she's not a hunter, but she loves the outdoors and learning something new. Earlier, Kaufman bravely volunteered for the most gut-wrenching part of the tanning process — wet-scraping the rotten fat off the inside of the hide.
Kaufman said this was her first time visiting the area, and she really enjoyed the presentation. She was excited to go caving the next day with the scouts and exploring Bear Town later in the weekend. She said she really enjoyed Smith's demonstration.
“He's certainly knowledgable and I think it was a really great experience for the boys,” Kaufman said.
Gifford said there are more events in the works as part of the Knowledge Skill Share series.
“There is an upcoming event that's not specifically through the Library Friends, but it certainly fits this program. Erica Marks, who is the coordinator of the Grow Appalachia program, is having a beekeeping workshop at the Hillsboro Library on Thursday, February 21. A retired professor from WVU is going to come and talk about bees.”