How to Brain Tan a Pelt

Long before toxic chemicals and tanning solutions, our forebears tanned hides using the naturally occurring oils in the animal’s brain. The brain of every animal contains the perfect volume and balance of conditioning oils to tan its own hide. All you need is your animal hide, the brain of the animal, and a few other items to make tanned pelts just like our ancestors.

After fleshing and drying the pelt, sand the flesh side with sand paper to make it more receptive to the brains. If you’re at home, use your blender to blend the brain with warm tap water on the liquefy setting. Look for the resulting liquid to be the consistency of hand lotion. If you are doing this off the grid, simply mash the brains up by hand in a quart of water.

Next, boil the solution for 2–3 minutes. Then let it cool to the touch before bringing it into contact with the skin. Lay the pelt on a flat surface and use your fingers to work the brain solution over the skin until thoroughly covered.

Dampen a towel and wring it out. Roll the skin up in the damp towel and set aside for a couple of hours. While still slightly damp, begin stretching the hide in all directions to break up the skin and soften it. This may take one hour, or several hours, depending on the pelt size and thickness, as well as the humidity and air movement around the skin. Once the pelt is both soft and dry, it’s time for the final step – smoking.

Smoking a tanned hide won’t waterproof it, but it will help it return to normal if it does get wet. To do this, you’ll need to make a simple frame over a small fire pit from which to hang your hides. A teepee shape works well. Start by turning your skin fur side out and sewing up the sides to make a sort of bag. In a shallow pit, build a fire and let it burn down to coals, then add some rotted, punky wood. Watch closely for flare ups, as you want a lot of smoke, but no heat or flames. When you have a good amount of smoke going, stretch the pelt over the constructed frame and let it smoke for 30 minutes. Carefully remove it, turn it inside out, and smoke the fur side for a few minutes.

This tip, and 337 more survival tips, are in MacWelch’s new book Prepare For Anything. This latest Outdoor Life survival manual is available at Amazon.

Follow him on Twitter @timmacwelch  And check out more of MacWelch’s outdoor skills and survival articles in Outdoor Life Magazine.

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