Confession time…. I’ve been working hides for probably the last 6 years with sub-par tools. Shocker eh? I always seem to start tanning as a last minute project without thinking about it in advance and just use whatever I have on hand. Which has led to some excessively difficult and time consuming projects! (Not to mention probably a few ruined hides.) At any rate, I’ve decided to wet-scrape an elk hide this weekend and figured it’s about time I make myself a new hide scraper. Up till now I’ve been using just a 16 inch bar of random ¼ inch metal that I picked up somewhere, I cobbled it together when I was in a hurry to do a hide about 8 years ago and have been using it ever since. I wonder every time I use it why I haven’t replaced it– it has 4 inch sections of garden hose inserted over the ends and then wrapped with duck tape for handles. Terrible idea, tape really wears on the hands and garden hose didn’t provide enough padding or large enough handles to really work comfortably with. And yet…. I’ve used it for years and tanned more than a dozen hides with it. Lesson learned, better to start with less than ideal tools than wait until everything is perfect. That said, I’m really excited to finally improve my tools!
Fall has hit with a vengeance in the last couple of weeks here…. Rainy days in the 40’s, snow on the foothills, heavy frost in the mornings. Which I love, but it also made me a little anxious…. See, I had told my wife that I would throw away any hides in the garage that I hadn’t tanned by the end of summer. Already fleshed and dried hides. That I’ve been carting around for WAY too long already (think 3 years for this particular hide). At any rate, after seeing a forecast for a couple day warm spell this weekend (supposed to be mid 60’s!) I decided to soak up an elk hide and get it scraped before the cold weather set in for good. And seeing as I’ll have a few days for it to ripen before I can scrape it I decided to make a new scraper as well.
So what is a hide scraper? Well, to make traditional braintan leather you need to remove the hair and top layer of the skin which dries hard (a layer known as the grain). You can either do this by stretching it out in a frame, letting it dry and shaving it off with a sharp blade (dry scrape method) or by soaking the hide long enough for the grain to swell up and become soft and then throwing it over a beam and
plowing it off with a dull blade. This is a VAST oversimplification of the process, I’ll do a buckskin tutorial in the future and link it up here. This time around I want to wet-scrape the hide, so here I’ll be showing you my process in making a new hide scraper of that variety.
What material to use? I have a small thickness planer, and I decided to use an old blade for the scraper. Don’t get hung up on that though. Use any decent steel you can find that is 15-18 inches long or so. Mine had a bevel on one side already which was a plus. It’s 1/8 inch thick and 15 inches long with a single bevel on one side— just about perfect. Could possibly be a little longer….. and maybe a little thicker…. but it will at least be an upgrade! Don’t get too hung up on dimension, if you have a metal bar laying around then use what you have. I would optimally have had a slightly longer bar if I was going to do wood or cloth handles, but 15 inches worked alright for what I did (elk antler handles, I just didn’t pound them all the way in). I also would have chosen one slightly thicker as the scraper has a little bit of flex in it that I’m not used to with my old scraper– which is ¼ inch thick. Side Note: after scraping an entire elk hide with the new one I have to say I’ve enjoyed the slight flex it has, so maybe that was an unanticipated blessing. For the handles I used some elk antler I had laying around, I make and sell items out of antler and frequently have miscellaneous pieces scattered around my garage. I picked two chunks with a large porous interior and cut them to length (3 ¾ inches) with a bandsaw– you can also use a hacksaw if you want to use muscle power.
I actually had initially planned on using wood handles– I drilled two holes in each end of the planer blade and was going to epoxy and pin the handle in place like I do knife handles. That’d be a good suggestion too if you want to go that route, I changed plans because I decided 15 inches would be a little short for a scraper once I used up 4 inches on each end of it for handle space. Using antler I was able to only set the blade 2 inches into each handle and so end up with a greater length of usable blade. At any rate, ignore the holes I have drilled in mine if you intend to use antler handles as well.
After drilling the holes I took a file to the blade and tapered each end so it would insert into the antler easier (I tapered off about ¼ inch over a total of about 2 inches). I also slightly beveled each end.
To prep the antler, I took each handle and filed and sanded the edges off until smooth. I then took 150 grit sandpaper and smoothed out any rough irregularities in the antler and basically made them more comfortable to hold. You ever hafted anything with antler handles before? I haven’t, so it was a fun experiment for me– it’s something I’ve been meaning to try for years. At any rate, simply toss the antler handles into a pot of water and boil for about 20 minutes (notice in the pics how one of my antlers floated and the other sank? Fascinating the differences in density between the two.) until the interior pith of the antler is soft. Once it’s soft, take it out and pound the scraper blade into it using a hammer– I simply set the first one on my back porch and pounded the metal into it, for the second one I clamped the blade in a vise and then tapped the antler onto the end. Make sure you start the antler on straight as you don’t want to be trying to adjust it after you have it halfway on. Besides the mechanical bond, antler is supposed to have a natural glue in it that is softened when boiled but that will tightly bond to and help hold the blade in place once cooled. I’ve been meaning to try this type of handle with a flintknapped knife blade for years but somehow it keeps ending up as a ‘someday’ project……. Maybe one of you will beat me to it and let me know how it goes? But I digress, once hafted simply set it aside to cool and dry for a day or two. After that, I once again sanded the handles to ensure that I didn’t feel any sharp or rough edges anywhere and then coated them in a bit of oil (I usually use beeswax on antler jewelry).
Once the handles were installed and dry I sharpened the blade using a file and a sheet of sandpaper wrapped around a board. I took it to a very sharp edge and then dulled it down with a file until it would barely shave my thumbnail (per the book Braintan Buckskin by Steven Edelholm and Tamara Wilder– one of my favorite buckskin books). I actually still had the blade too sharp, and had to come back and dull it down a little more after I had scraped the hide for a few minutes and managed to slice it a couple times. It was dull, but not quite dull enough for that much pressure– ideally you should BARELY be able to cut your thumbnail with it. Prior to using a dulled single-bevel blade like this I had used just a squared off metal bar as specified by Jim Riggs in Blue Mountain Buckskin, but have found that I
prefer to use a scraper with a bevel. Either way, you want something you can exert some serious pressure on without slicing into the hide. Your scraper is now ready for use!
Post scraping update: After having scraped the entire elk hide I have a couple thoughts to share. First off, choose very rounded shaped antlers for your handles. I had one that was more narrowed an oval shaped, and it definitely exerted pressure on part of my hand more than the other (it made it tender and rubbed a small blister). I’ll probably end up grinding that handle down to be a little more rounded and hopefully that’ll alleviate the issue. Not bad for breaking my hands in with a decent size elk hide though! It scraped beautifully and was SOOO much more comfortable and efficient than my last scrapper.