It takes 'brains' to tan a deer hide

Bob Frye
| Friday, March 3, 2006

Brain tanning a deer hide to create buckskin is not a task for the faint of heart.

That has little to do with the fact that it involves handling fat, flesh and mashed-up brains, either. No, the thing that can make brain tanning -- an ancient art that can tie the hunter of the 21st century to the Native Americans who hunted Penn's Woods for their survival centuries ago -- a daunting experience is the amount of time involved.

So say people like Greg Kerr, a hunter and trapper from Brush Valley in Indiana County.

"It's simple,deer hides really. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to tan a deer hide," Kerr said while teaching a class on making buckskin at Yellow Creek State Park last Sunday. "But you do have to be willing to do some work.

"How long does it take to do one hide• Fifty, sixty hours probably. I don't know. It can take five hours just to remove the hair, another 12 to smoke it. It's definitely something you have to really want to do."

Kerr should know. He's been tanning -- or preserving, some might say -- deer skins for a number of years now, turning them into things like shirts true to the style of the eastern American Indian.

The process that he uses is one that any hunter who has killed a deer can copy, he said.

The first step in brain tanning -- after shooting a deer, of course -- involves removing all of the flesh from the deer hide. Kerr does that by stretching the hide over a long, relatively narrow board, then scraping it with a knife that's he's filed down to dull the blade.

The next step involves applying the brains to the hide. Brains contain a natural oil that serve to preserve a hide and, interestingly enough, "every animal has enough brains in it to tan itself," Kerr said.

Applying the brains involves first smashing them up in a bucket, using your hands or, as Kerr does, a spare food processor.

"It will look like strawberry yogurt," Kerr said.

About half of that pasty material gets spread on the deer hide and is allowed to soak in. The rest of the brains get mixed with hot water to create a bath that the hide gets plunged into. When it comes out feeling like a wet chamois cloth, "it's pretty much tanned," Kerr said.

That's when the real work starts. To be made into a workable material, a preserved hide has to be stretched, or "broken," over a board or twisted around a tree or pole continually until all of the moisture is out of it.

"You have to give the oil from the brain mixture somewhere to go. That's what you're doing, replacing the water with oil," Kerr said.

The final step in the process is smoking your buckskin. Kerr uses "punky" -- or rotten almost to the point of being dirt again -- red oak because it protects the hide while giving it a nice color. Smoking puts a little moisture back into the hide, so you have to do it again afterward, but "once it's smoked, it's ready to make something from," Kerr said.

"It's not really something you can do to make money. I've had people ask me to make them a buckskin, and I've told them I'd have to charge them hundreds of dollars a hide just to pay for my time," Kerr said.

"But to do it for yourself is very rewarding."

How to do it

Kerr recommends that anyone interested in learning to brain tan check out the video available from Kenneth Berry by calling 205-437-9327.

Other instructional videos and books can be had by visiting Three Rivers Archery at .

Those interested in tanning hides using chemicals rather than brains can find supplies at most Gander Mountain stores, at Cabela's, or from the mail-order company Van Dyke's Taxidermy Supply Co. They can be reached at or 1-800-843-3320.

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