I will state right off the bat that I have just one person in my life with experience turning skins from wildlife remains into leather and raw hide, and that for various reasons relating to our use of language and our differences in the way that each of us learns and teaches, that I was not able to learn this skill from her. I acquired a reference book instead, and read all about all manner of details left unclear in my own head, to my heart’s content, at several steps in the process I have learned. I was also lent a second reference book by someone else in my life, which contained some details and strategies that mine did not. And long before my first steps on this journey, I was also lent a booklet which contained a relatively detailed process that I decided early on was not going to work for me. I am happy that I have now learned the process that works for me
That said, even in learning this process, I did several things wrong in my first run. This entry is about my journey through that first run (up to the point it was all essentially raw hide), and thus, is also about the many missteps I took along the way.
This process, and thus this blog post full of full-colour pictures of the process, is not for people with a weak stomach. For instance, traditionally, before industrialization, European peoples used human waste at various stages to process industrial quantities in leather tanneries. That’s definitely not my preferred approach, so lucky for me, I wasn’t born a working class citizen destined for dumping boxes of hides into human waste in a Victorian era factory! Yay for me! And for you reading this!
1. Acquire Skins
What I used: 1 4’x6′ tarp to put a fresh (see: ripe) hide down on, 1 20-gallon tub to store a frozen hide in while it thawed
I am very lucky, and for my good fortune, I am very grateful. For being born a white guy and a settler on this continent, and for being estranged from my biological relatives, I have been extremely fortunate over a very short period of time. I am also well-prepared to take this task on, having equipped myself with a freezer specifically for the purposes of storing skins before I can get to them, plus a very large collection of knives and the skill to bring them to razor-sharp at my whim and fancy. My first large game skin was given to me by my auntie, who asked her cousin, knowing that she has a son-in-law who hunts for sustenance. And in these territories, one cannot legally hunt elk without a permit, even if they are sustenance hunters and indigenous, as this man about my age is. He just happened to win the hunting permit lottery this season, and just happened to be asked for the skins and brains of whatever he hunts by the right person at the right time. That’s how I acquired my elk skin.
What I used: 1 4’x6′ tarp, 2 dollar store paring knifes, 1 dollar store whet stone, 1 change of easily washed clothes, 3 large ziploc freezer bags, 1 cast iron smudge pan full of burning sage to neutralize the smell of the hide
Once the skin arrived (along with a second elk skin I was not expecting — I told you I’m lucky), so did the work. One of the two skins was partially frozen while the other had never known the cold touch of a deep freeze, and had been sitting wrapped in a garbage bag for a full three days before it was unrolled on a 4’x6′ tarp on the living room floor (our floor is floating hardwood with a veneer finish, and is routinely flooded with water from other work we do here). Most hunters skin elk by either hanging the elk upside down in their garage for skinning, eviscerating, and butchering. Ours appeared to have been laid down on a slight incline in the bush. Covered in gravel and ticks, the skin had large sheets of muscle and little clumps of subcutaneous fat all over it. I may sound like I’m complaining here, but we took all the fat we could pull off and rendered it down. We also removed the sheets of muscle and have frozen them for a later date, to be used as dog chews after they’ve been baked dry (we coat these pieces in coarse salt in the oven to help dry it out while it’s all baking).
To remove these big sheets of muscle and clumps of fat, my reference book (along with every other reference source I can find on this subject matter) advises using a very heavy blunt-edge tool called a fleshing knife (which is nothing like any knife I’ve ever seen). This is usually accompanied by one or more suggestions for how to drape the skin over what’s called a fleshing post, which one uses to apply tremendous force to literally push all the muscle and various connective tissues clean off the skin in an impressive feat of manliness and upper extremity strength. I bet this takes most people under an hour to do, but because I have sexy arms rather than strong arms, I had to approach this a little differently. So instead, I sharpened up a paring knife, sat directly on the hide, pinched the nearest big chunk of muscle, and incrementally sliced off massive sheets of the stuff. Doing it this way, and with a little help from another auntie, each hide was as clean as we could get without scraping like lumberjacks in about 2 and a half hours (for each hide). I’d say cleaning myself up and cleaning all the blood out of my clothes probably took the same amount of time afterwards, too.
What I should have done at this point, but did not think to do at the time, and will now be doing in the future, is cut the hides in half so that one half can go onto the next step and the other half can go into the deep freeze. A full elk hide is a lot of skin, weighing about 80 lbs right off the elk (not to mention taking up a full 4’x6′ tarp without being fully stretched open), and 50 lbs just fleshed with the fur on. I have mentioned before that my arms are sexy rather than strong. After this 50-lb elk hide swelled from the next step in this process, it went back to weighing 80 lbs (or maybe more). Trying to manage that more or less by myself (because auntie can’t lift like a lumberjack, and I’m only slightly better at it than her) was not only physically stressful, but emotionally challenging as well. For my second elk hide, I am only working on half while the other half waits its turn in the freezer for the time being.
What I used: 1 20-gallon plastic storage tub, 1 pair re-usable rubber gloves, 1 pair safety glasses (specifically to keep my eyes safe in the event of chemical splashes — not all safety glasses are created equal), 1 container hardware store lye crystals (I didn’t use anywhere near the entire amount in the container), plastic measuring cups, a big wooden stir stick about 4 feet long, 1 optional chant for dramatic effect while stirring (e.g., “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble!”), 2 human-brain-sized stones
Bucking is both the noun referring to the caustic liquid you use to cause the hide to swell (more on what that means shortly), as well as the verb to describe this process. Various substances can be used to make bucking: off the top of my head, I know of wood ashes (more on that too, shortly), hydrated lime, and sodium hydroxide (sold in hardware stores as lye crystals — and this wound up being my choice). Each substance mixed alone in varying proportions with water will create a caustic alkaline solution, makes the layer of skin holding the hair in the hide swell up (causing it to turn from bluish to white and brownish where ever the skin is thicker), and weakens the hair itself. Bucking also has the convenient feature of breaking down the naturally occurring mucus in the hide, so that it can later be rinsed out right along with the alkaline solution. Thus, once bucking is complete, the hair can be pulled off in clumps (which usually causes the hair roots to stay in unless they are methodically scraped out while the hide is still swollen), or they can be pushed off with a dull knife or bone tool (which generally pulls the root up with it).
Initially, I really wanted to learn to make lye from wood ashes (in part because I also want to make my own soap). Every resource and reference I have found indicated that I should harvest the white ashes from a fire that contained a lot of hardwood, so that’s exactly what I did. Unfortunately, I learned, after patiently waiting for my ashes to chemically react with rain water, that the fire from which I harvested ashes had way too much soft wood in it for this to work. If I were to use ashes from this fire or another one of similar composition, I have learned that I would instead need enough ashes to make a nice filthy milkshake-thick slurry out of them with water, which I would then smear all over both sides of the hide, and subsequently bury the thing in the ground to prevent it from drying out. Not only is this completely impractical for me, it would also cause tremendous problems later, because I would have to be extra vigilant about rinsing so that I don’t leave any of the ash on the hide—and I don’t live next to a creek or river.
So after learning about this barrier, I soon learned that a lot of hardware stores have stopped selling lye crystals. Fortunately for me, the closest one to me still puts them on the shelves in 3-kg jugs. Also fortunately for me, I have a background in safe handling of this exact substance, because it’s a favourite in all three of the years of university-level chemistry I once enrolled in. I determined that I would be needing just 1/2 cup of lye crystals from the jug for every 10 gallons of cold water — and I could only fit 10 gallons of water into my 20-gallon bin with the hide in there too — so, silly me, I went ahead and used twice as much for the first four days, and about all that accomplished was making the hide extra slippery the first time I handled it. With my full elk hide in ten gallons of ridiculously strong lye solution, I needed two stones roughly the size of the human brain to weigh it down. I also happen to have held a human brain once, but if you haven’t, that’s about 10 lbs or 5 kg per stone. You might need more stones, or you might just not be as silly as I was, and cut the hide in half before you get to this step.
4. Removing the Hair
What I used: 1 4’x6′ tarp (at this point, well on its way to becoming a veteran of several very easily disgusting encounters), 1 5’x2″ PVC pipe, 1 folding table, 2 deer leg bones (each with a slightly sharpened edge), several changes of disposable medical examination gloves, 1 auntie to help me keep the hide on the table, 1 jug white vinegar
After leaving the hide weighed down and completely submerged for four days in bucking, I had a very slippery, splashy, and hairy time attempting to pick up the hide (now very swollen and somewhat rigid) so that it could be hosed down outside on the front porch. Thinking we could lighten it up a little, I pulled about a third of the hair off in clumps with my unassisted hands. It didn’t make the hide lighter. It just made it less hairy in various patches with no specific pattern. It also came off by breaking off the roots, which stayed inside the hide unless they were pushed out (and a lot of it is still visible now in the raw hide as I type this). We also thought that hosing the hide down would make it less slippery, but it did not. It just made it less partially-decomposed-blood-y. Which I guess is a good thing? Either way, it was a huge and awkward and cold and wet energy expenditure for no net gain.
Once we got the hide back inside, it was on the table with a PVC pipe underneath the sections we wanted to work. With as much pressure as either auntie or I could muster, and gradually a little less when we realized we didn’t need to scrape like lumberjacks, we simply pushed all the hair off by scooping it in long strokes with downward pressure, along the grain of the hair’s growth, on top of the PVC pipe. If we really were lumberjacks, this would have been enough to take the entire layer of skin right off, which is called graining, so that we would have nubuck by the time we were in our final stages. Oh well. I guess because of my sexy arms, we’ll just have absolutely stunning raw hide for drums and rattles, and amazing smooth finish leather when we’re done. There’s always more than one way to look at it!
Once we were satisfied the hair and all the roots from broken hair were removed-enough, which took us probably only an hour after all our gratuitous fuckin’ around outside with the neighbour’s garden hose, I made a fresh batch of appropriately strengthed lye, and submerged the hide back into it with the stones on top. Then I poured vinegar all over the tarp before mopping up the lye, poured vinegar all over the table before wiping it down, and poured vinegar all over any pools of lye that had formed on the floor before mopping them. Vinegar is perfect for neutralizing the lye, as it creates an aqueous salt. Some people have suggested using baking soda, but this creates a chemical reaction ending in an explosive material. Let’s not do that. I also poured vinegar into the bucket of lye-and-blood-and-hairs, and then flushed it down the toilet to dispose of it. The hide then stayed in the new batch of lye overnight, and for the whole day after that. This probably worked to my advantage, because elk really needs to sit in lye for a full six days before the mucus has broken down through all the layers of the very thick skin as it swells up, and so far it had only been four. Plus, I just needed a break to think. When I came back to it, I finally decided to cut it in half.
5. Rinsing (better known as “What I Should Have Done Next”
What I used: 1 jug white vinegar, 1 4’x6′ tarp
Traditionally, this is the stage I have heard most about, where indigenous peoples would take their de-haired hides, submerge them in a moving body of water, and weigh them down with a large stone so that they didn’t get carried away in the current. This causes the hide to lose its alkalinity and swelling, and to change back to white and bluish-white where ever the hide is thicker. It also has the convenient feature of washing mucus out of the skin for you. If you live close enough to a river or creek that this is an option for you, good for you! That even means you can use the bucking method involving wood ashes. I, however, have to use many, many changes of water, my judgment, and white vinegar added to my first bucket of water. So, when I got to this step with the first piece, I put it in a bucket with a couple cups of vinegar in 10 gallons of water, and let it hang out in there overnight. At this point, I still needed one stone to keep it submerged. In subsequent changes of water, the hide stayed submerged on its own.
As I was very eager to get to work on the hide, it was not completely finished rinsing before I already decided I needed to remove it from the water. However, I did not know it wasn’t finished rinsing, and my first sign was that it was still a bit stiff and thick, relative to fully tanned elk leather I have previously worked with. So it spent 2-3 days out of water in the middle of the rinsing, and in that time, I tried variously (also: unsuccessfully) to squeeze water out by stretching it, and rub the membrane off or break it up with a pumice stone. When it looked like the edges were starting to dry out, I filled up a 5-gallon bucket with warm water, added a heavy splash of vinegar, and dunked my difficult hide into it. Fifteen minutes later, it was dramatically more flexible, thinner, and slippery. Aha! Something else is happening all of a sudden! I rinsed it several more times with plain water over the course of another day. And it is after doing this that I turned my attention back to the piece that was still submerged in lye. If you’re paying attention here, it was in there for about 10 days in total before I got back to it. In that time, most of it was chemically denatured, and turned into a complete write-off.
6. Membraning (better known as “Do This After Rinsing”)
What I used: 1 pumice stone (plus 1 trash bin to unceremoniously toss it in, then from which to retrieve the pumice and apologize to it), 1 dollar store paring knife, 1 machete, 1 dollar store whet stone, 1 pair of kitchen scissors, 1 4’x6′ tarp
So now I was supposed to have a floppy, stretchy, sopping wet hide, with some weird stuff that’s been stained brown all over the unfinished side, and eventually, I actually did. The brown stuff is part of the mucous membrane, and anything left over from fleshing that may still have been stuck to it. Traditionally, again, indigenous peoples (and people built like Ed Norton’s recent depiction of The Hulk) simply scraped all this brown stuff off, right down to the inside of the leather. Alternatively, indigenous peoples strung their hides up into frames, stretched them out, and pushed paddles or big sticks with rounded ends into the hide to squeeze enough water out that they could just rub a pumice stone over the brown stuff, which would essentially come off when it was disturbed enough. I, however, am without an adequately large frame, a paddle, and a stick with the ends rounded down, and I have these terribly sexy arms that are simply not up to the task of scraping, so I just have to make due with my hands and the tools that work for me.
So once again, I found myself doing the pinching and cutting thing while sitting directly on the hide. Before long, I found myself using my machete (with the edge dulled) to push drapes of membrane off the leather, and cut along the seam that glues the two together. That worked a lot better for me, and what counts is that you get the work done, not how you do it. Whatever I was unable to get to come off between the paring knife, the machete, or even by pinching and snipping with a pair of kitchen scissors for smaller bits that the paring knife was too clumsy to manage, will come off later with just a little extra work. When I am done cutting and snipping as much of the membrane off as I can get, it’s ready for a quick sloshing around in a fresh bucket of clean water before immediately moving on to the next step.
What I used: 1 2’x1.5″ dowel, 1 paring knife, 1 thick piece of climbing rope, 1 weaving loom (easily substituted with a strong slender tree branch or some other frame)
Wringing is squeezing most of the water out. Not very scientific or surprising, but necessary. Squeezing the water out causes the hide to change from white, opaque, wet, and a little thick still, to brown, translucent, moist but not dry, and thin. This allows water to leave all the open spaces in the tissue on the microscopic level so that when you put the hide in your chosen dressing to make leather, it can get right in there and do its job. For the time being, the parts of the hide I intend to turn into leather are going to be just fine being stored as raw hide until I’m ready to work them into leather in a dressing made from the brain of the elk they came from.
If you want to turn your hide into raw hide, however, like I did with two pieces, you simply string it up in a frame as taut as you can get it at this stage, and let it dry in a room with good air circulation. Fin.
So I had two pieces of hide that I want to turn into leather, and I didn’t wring it out right away. Eventually I had to just break down and cut holes in odd corners, hang the hide, and use the thick piece of dowel to twist it several ways and in multiple orientations until all the water was squeezed out. I found that the more membrane I had gotten off the hide before wringing it, the more of my cured raw hide is naturally transparent. Also, the less disgusting my new drum will be on the inside, because I won’t have clumps of mucous membrane still stuck to it. I also found that if I strung up the hide in the frame without wringing it, the more of the hide cured into a raw hide that is opaque and with a pleasant natural yellow colour. Incidentally, this colour came out in a raw hide drum that was given to me that was made from a chemically bleached raw hide, after I rubbed some rendered animal fat into the skin to moisturize it. But for the pieces I intend to turn into leather, there is no apparent variation, as I simply wrung them out and hung them without pulling them taut in a frame.
When I’m ready to work them into leather, I’ll be writing another post about that. Until then, I’m onto the next half a hide!