Buckskin is something you can make with only raw materials and materials that nature offers. Tanning skins is also a beautiful dance of various skills: Looking, feeling, waiting, contemplating, preparing, thinking and physically working. A truly rewarding process! The skin is often the largest organ in mammals. We aim to honor the animal by using almost everything. When we start tanning the skin of a large four-legged friend such as a deer or a moose, this skin transforms into a beautiful fabric that we can use to make anything. We start with a skin like that of the animal came after skinning. Ultimately, we want to achieve that the skin becomes soft, dry, strong and flexible. When tanning buckskin, we therefore take away almost everything from the skin, except for the strong tissue. We line the fibers in that tissue in such a way that they can continue to move more freely and continue to do so if they were to get wet again. In the English word for tanning, ‘tanning’, you see ‘tannin’ appear. Tannin is one of the possible substances that we can use for tanning. We can tanne with bark, with fats of animal origin, with minerals and /or with smoke. Here we are going to talk about traditional tanning with fats and smoke.
The structure of the skin:The skin consists of several layers of specialized tissues. On the outside, lies deepidermis. Beneath that lies dedermis. Below the dermis lies the hypodermis or connective tissue layer. Buckskin consists only of the lower layer of the dermis. From coat to meat side we have: The epidermis contains dead and hardened skin cells, hair and pigments. The dermis gives the skin its firmness. This layer consists of dense connective tissue, divided into two layers. Directly below the epidermis, the dermis is less rich in fiber. The second, lower layer of the dermis is formed by a much thicker layer of connective tissue that contains a lot of fiber material. It consists of:1) The ‘grain’ (or papillary) layerThis contains mainly mucus/mucus. Mucus is a very important player in the tanning process, because mucus prevents oil substances from reaching the collagen fibers. While we just aim for that…. Get rid of the mucus, so.2) The reticular layerThis contains the main amount of collagen fiber. These fibers largely run parallel to the skin surface and thus make an important contribution to the mechanical strength of the skin. Collagen is responsible for the firmness and elasticity of the skin. For this layer it is therefore our to do at buckskin tanning! We want to keep this layer and be able to edit it properly. It is processed in various ways, including by denaturing the connective tissue protein collagen by means of tanning. HypodermisDehypodermisis subcutaneous tissue that mainly serves for fat storage. It is not an added value for buckskin, so we also remove it. What do you need to start tanning?:A smooth scraping bar or a frame to tighten the skin in, a not too sharp scraper of metal, bone, shoulder blade, flint or a traditional Inuit ‘Ulu’, …. a wring station, stretchers, softeners such as a cable (steel cable or dyneema rope with sheath), an L-post, … , solution for bucking, solution for dressing, smoke tentA good breakfast, perseverance, knowledge and awareness about what the skin tells you.
Steps of the process to transform the fresh skin of the animal to buckskin:This overview is rather theoretical. In a future blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the practicalities of buckskin tanning.1.’Reading’ everything with a scraper. We will first remove the membrane, flesh and fat from the hypodermis layer by carefully scraping over the inside of the skin. You do this with strength and a sense of direction but be careful not to damage the skin. Try to feel what you’re doing. Only scrape off what you want to scrape off, look and feel. Besides, nothing has to be lost. Anything you scrape off can be used to make skin glue.
2.Place the skin long enough in a ‘Bucking’ solution. This is an alkaline solution with a pH of 12 to 13 to prepare the next step in the process. This bath dissolves the mucus of the skin, which will make it easier for the hairs and outer membranes of the epidermis to come off. In addition, this solution ensures that the skin swells and you can better distinguish the different layers of the skin. Leave the skin in this solution until you can pull out the hairs with little effort. The thicker the skin and the coarser the hairs, the longer this will duren.3.In the graining phase, we are going to remove the epidermis, the hairs, the follicles and the grain layer with all the mucus with a scraper. Here too, we have to work very systematically, pay attention to the scraping direction and use enough force. Also pay close attention to this at the edges, at holes and at thinner areas of the skin.
4.Rinse and/or neutralize. In this phase we want to wash away the unloaded mucus and the bucking solution. We can do this by soaking the skin in frequently changed clean water or preferably in running water. This leaves the fibers in the skin’s tissue open, ready to adhere with oil after you remove the water from the skin. You can see that the skin is completely rinsed, when the swelling (due to the bucking solution) is gone and the skin has the same structure as after the flake. If necessary, we can also use a mildly acidic solution to reduce the pH to approximately 7. (Light acid provides better oil absorption at a later stage.) 5.Nu we are going to ‘membrane’ the skin. In this phase, we are going to scrape off the inside of the skin to remove the last membranes and open the structure. During scraping, we also push a lot of water out of the skin. This makes the next phase a bit easier.
6.Wring the excess moisture out of the skin. Wring first by hand and then with tools. This is easiest by tensioning a bar around which you place the skin rolled up in a ring. You will then turn it up with a debarked smooth stick. If necessary, you can also roll up a cloth in your skin to get the most moisture out of it. Also when wringing, make sure that you do not put too much tension on the skin. You pull holes or cracks in the skin without noticing. Learn to feel and look! After wringing, stretch the skin in the length and width direction. Help from a stretch partner is useful here! Attention, we do not want the skin to dry out completely, because in this phase the collagen fibers would still stick together and the skin would become hard.
It is therefore a matter of finding a balance between: Skin that is dry enough so that it can absorb the oils of the next phase and Skin that is moist enough so that the collagen fibers do not stick together.7.Massage the skin into with a dressing solution. If we let the skin dry after wringing, it would harden because the collagen fibers would stick together. The dressing solution contains tannins that will counteract this. There are vegetable tannins, mineral tannins and organic non-vegetable tannins (brain / lecithin / eggs / fish oil). Here we are talking about tanning with fats. These fats are preferably as unsaturated as possible, so that they can oxidize well in order to optimally support the collagen fiber structure. This prevents the sticking together of these fibers and ensures that the fiber structure does not fall apart… By tanning, the proteins in the skin are made insoluble. Do steps 6 and 7 at least twice: wringing, stretching, dressing, wringing, … Try to read your skin every time to see if you deed.8.De skin sufficiently. Keep the oil-wrapped fibers moving until the skin is completely dry. Only when the skin is dry, soft and stretchy everywhere, you are done with this. Stretch the skin horizontally and vertically, following the direction of the skin. With your (clean) hands, knees, feet, cable, L-post, paddle & frame … The fibers are pulled apart, so that they become more beautiful and beautifully loose next to each other. The heat generated by the friction of softening also helps to further oxidize the fats of the dressing in the fiber structure. However, during and after this phase, the skin should not get wet yet. If she gets wet, she will harden again… Make sure you soften attentively and with feeling, avoid making holes or tearing out existing holes further… 9.If you tanne the skin with fats, you should preferably also smoke-tanne the skin. This can be done in a makeshift closed tent or teepee in which a wood fire burns. The smoke ensures that your skin remains soft even if it were to get wet. The essential oils in the smoke cover the collagen fibers so that they can no longer stick together. The formaldehyde in the smoke ensures that the collagen will no longer cause the fibers to stick together, but instead will build bridges between the fibers so that they remain better separated and the skin is prevented from hardening. In addition, the smoke also has an antibacterial effect on the skin. Some substances (acrolein and phenol) in the smoke of a wood fire, cause chemical changes to happen in the skin. The collagen in the skin becomes less hydrophilic, preventing the fibers from attaching back to each other. The heat from smoking also helps to further oxidize the fats in the skin.
Buckskin tanning is a craft in which knowledge and practical experience go hand in hand. To be successful in buckskin tanning, everything has to be right. Your knowledge, attention, feeling, equipment, preparation and skillful handicrafts must all continuously work together with the beautiful raw material that is a skin. You have to build a relationship with the skin, learn to see how it changes. The skin will open up to you so you can read it. You can see her change during tanning. Through this craft you learn to communicate with your skin, with your raw material. A wonderful skill that you can mirror and take with you in the other crafts you do. Buckskin tanning is a craft that rhymes the clear hard skills you need with the soft skills that will make your result stand out.