I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had somewhat mediocre luck with brain tanning furs. I turn out a serviceable buckskin, but when I leave the hair on they always turn out a little on the stiff side.
Time to try a different method!
This weeks episode with Jessie Watson Brown from the Oak and Smoke Tannery covers vegetable tanning small furs! I’ve seen a number of people bark tanning fish skins, some folks bark tanning hair off hides (think “normal” leather) but I don’t personally know anyone who bark tans furs. So when I saw her post on instagram about a rabbit tanning workshop she was holding I reached out to see if she would be gracious enough to come on and talk us through the process.
Fortunately she was!
Jessie first attempted tanning a roadkill rabbit hide and it turned out as a “crunchy papery thing”, from there she moved to buckskin and it turned out “like a big bit of cardboard.” Very reminiscent of my first hides! 🙂
In regards to how much a teacher helped fastforward the learning process? “The move from cardboard, solid, things to luscious soft buckskin was instant”. It is hard to learn the subtleties of a process from books! Or possibly even audio for that matter….. Hopefully we covered it well enough for you to start, but if you want to speed up the learning process and you’re in the UK go take a workshop in person!
Why Tan Fur?
Jessie (like many of us) loves to delve into skills from our past and explore historical crafts. . .
That said, she was actually vegan when she first decided to try tanning! But she saw it as a logical way to clothe herself and took the plunge into learning to tan.
These days she still tries to make use of hides and furs that would otherwise be wasted, uses tanning as a way to honor the life and death of the animal.
Tanning also provides a way to turn what is often a wasted by-product into usable articles– she crafts with the furs she tans and sells the finished product.
Oh, and lets not forget… Tanning is fun!
Skinning and Fleshing Rabbits (& other small furs)
Skinning tip from Jessie: “… you don’t need to use your knife as much as you may think you do.”
If you plan on sewing it into a clothing article etc, it is helpful if it lays out flat. Plus, most skins from hunters have already been slit up the middle when they field dressed the animal. . . Go ahead and cut it up the belly side if your fur hasn’t been already.
Once you have a skin and it’s laying flat you’ll need to remove any meat, fat, or membrane on it. For a small rabbit hide Jessie uses her fingernails or a modified paint scraper with rounded corners to pull it off. You will need to be gentle with a rabbit skin so you don’t rip it!
On a larger hide like a fox use a fleshing tool on a beam to quickly remove the membrane.
Once you have a hide cleaned you need to decide if you’re going to tan it now or save it until you have a batch of them to tan all at once.
If you decide to save them to tan in the future: Jessie recommends salting large hides (deer, etc) and freezing the small furs that don’t take up much space.
How To Make a Bark Tanning Solution
When you’re ready to tan you’ll need to make a tanning solution!
The basics? Chip up something that’s high in tannin and boil it!
Jessie mainly uses oak bark and willow bark as her tannin sources since they are traditional and readily available in her area.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- It needs to be fresh (tannin will get leached out by rain, etc if left sitting outdoors)
- The smaller you chop it the quicker/more tannins will leach out
- You’ll need quite a bit!
For a batch large enough for roughly 5 rabbits or 1 fox, fill a five gallon (20 liter) pot ¾ up with shredded bark then top it up with water. Boil about an hour. Jessie swishes it in her mouth to see if it is strong enough– you should feel a noticeable drying and tightening effect in your mouth. Pour off the bark tanning solution into another container and set aside.
Repeat two more times.
Each successive reboiling of the bark will make a solution that is a little weaker, that is ideal for tanning.
Tanning the Rabbit Hide
Submerge your rabbit furs in the weakest solution you made (let it cool down first!) and swish them around to make sure the entire skin gets soaked. After a couple hours pour half of the solution off and replace with half of your 2nd boil tanning solution.
Keep pouring off and adding stronger solution at regular intervals: the hide should be entirely in the 2nd solution by the end of the first day and in the initial and strongest solution by the 3rd day.
For a rabbit hide, 4-5 days in the tanning solution is sufficient. For a medium sized fur aim for 7-10 days– though it can be done much faster if you want.
Softening the Rabbit hide
Once the your rabbit hide has been in long enough, remove it from the bark tanning solution and let it dry slightly.
Now oil the hide so it will finish out supple– simply take a palmful of vegetable oil and rub it into flesh side of the rabbit hide. Jessie suggests using lighter weight, liquid at room temperature, oils for small furs as it produces a softer more flexible leather than when oiled with solid at room temperature oils.
After it is been oiled you can let the rabbit fur dry until it begins going white when stretched. From then on you need to keep it in motion until it is completely dry.
Stretch it, rub it, move it.
Softening the rabbit hide should only take about an hour on a warm sunny day. Now go make something with it!
Deerskins into Buckskins by Matt Richards
Blue Mountain Buckskin by Jim Riggs
Traditional Tanning Leather and Furskin by Lotta Rahme
Fish Leather Tanning and Sewing by Lotta Rahme
Buckskin: The Ancient Art of Braintanning— Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder
skillcult.com— Excellent resource, one of my favorite people to follow online (this is Steven Edholm who wrote the above book). Also check out his Youtube channel for some phenomenal stuff related to tanning.
braintan.com — Primarily a resource for buckskin, but I linked up their stuff on bark tanning.
jutulskinn.no— tannery in Norway Jessie worked at last winter
theoldway.info – the old way year course, Jessie is an instructor
oakandsmoketannery.co.uk — Jessie & Jane’s website, go book a tanning workshop if you live in Europe!
www.lynxvilden.com — One of Jessie’s early mentors
Thanks for listening folks! If you want to help out, please subscribe and share the podcast with someone who you think would be interested!