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Making Buckskin


Making buckskin from a raw deer hide is not difficult. Although it requires a bit of 'elbow grease', the reward is a beautifully supple, light-colored, leather cloth. It gives me an added pleasure in knowing I am using another part of a magnificent animal.

Although the white-tailed deer is the local source of choice for buckskin, the term applies equally well to the hides of elk, antelope, goat, and caribou. The leather is different than rawhide in being much thinner and lighter colored. The downside is it is not as durable as rawhide. Lack of durability does not translate to lack of strength, however, and a shoestring made of buckskin is nearly impossible to break by hand.

There are many variations on the process used to create buckskin.

Tools and Materials

The tools and materials you will need are not expensive or difficult to come by:

    A Fleshing Beam.
    A Fleshing Knife.
    Plastic, glass or ceramic vessel to soak hide in.
    Fels Naphta Soap (1 bar).
    Neatsfoot Oil compound.
    Household Lye (sodium hydroxide)
    Rubber Gloves.
    Protective Clothing and Eyewear.
    Stretching Frame.
    Strong Cord.

Then, the steps are:

Dehairing (Buck)

The first step is to wash the hide in fresh water. This step simply cleans the hide of loose dirt, blood, insects, etc. Prepare the dehairing solution by adding 1/4 cup of lye to each ten gallons of cool water. CAUTION - Lye is extremely caustic. It burns if it gets on your hand or any exposed skin, so wear rubber gloves and protective clothing. It can do serious damage if a drop was to get in your eye so wear protective eyewear. If it does get on you, wash it off immediately with running water.


Add the deer hide to the lye solution. Make sure the hide is completely submerged, especially the fur side. Periodically (every 6-12 hrs) mix the hide in the solution to ensure the lye is working under the hair (wear your gloves and goggles!). After one day, test the hide by trying to pull the hair out. When the hide is ready the hair should come out easily. Don’t leave it in so long that the hair comes off without pulling. Two to three days should be sufficient. Any more than that may deteriorate the leather.

Fleshing

While still in the dehairing solution, and while wearing your body protection, pull as much of the hair off as you can by hand. At the same time, pull off as much as you can of the large deposits of fat and muscle from the other side of the hide. How much of this there is will depend upon how well the hide was initially skinned.

Remove the nearly hairless skin from the lye solution and rinse it in clean water. Do this three times. It makes the hide safe to handle without gloves, and makes it less slippery. Wring hide completely, removing as much water as possible. Place the hide, hair side up, on a fleshing beam. I use a board, six-inches wide by two-inches thick laid against a wooden horse. Tack the board to the horse so it doesn't slip off. Tack the hide to the board at the top with a finish nail to hold it on the beam.


Begin by drawing the knife against the hair side to remove any residual fur. When this side is clean of hair, flip the skin over and scrape the side to remove all muscle and fatty tissue.

Tanning

I prepare the tanning solution in my kitchen. Take a clean 5 gallon pail and fill it approximately halfway with lukewarm water. Into this ‘shave’ the bar of Fels Naphta soap. By shaving, I mean to use a sharp knife and cut off thin slices into the warm water in a manner similar to whittling a piece of wood. Using your hands, squeeze the soap shavings until most have dissolved into the liquid. Add about one-half gallon of Neatsfoot Oil to the solution and stir.


Place the dehaired hide into a clean bucket and cover with the tanning solution. Add enough cool water to completely cover the hide and stir the hide to completely cover it with the oil solution. Leave it to tan for 3 (warm) to 5 (cold) days. Wring as much liquid from hide as possible using a stake, tree or post. You can help wring with a stick if it helps. Work hide in dressing till thoroughly saturated. (You cannot overdress a hide!!) Wring as much liquid from hide as possible. Sew up any holes at this time.

Stretching

Using a cable, breaking post, or combination, work the hide until it is soft and completely dry. This is the most important step of tanning and controls the outcome of your finished product. Make sure you work all parts of the hide, in all directions to keep the fibers separated. Constant working is not necessary, however all fibers must be stretched in both directions every 30 to 45 minutes. To fail to do so will cause hard spots in the hide. This can take from 4 to 10 hours depending on hide thickness, work area temperature, and humidity. The next step is to place the hide in a stretching frame. This pulls the hide in all directions, opening up the skin pores and is the first step in making a soft finished product.

I made my stretching frame out of four pieces of 2"x2"x10’ boards. I screwed steel angle brackets at each corner for reinforcements. Begin by making a lateral cut in the hide at an edge along the long axis of the hide (the long axis would be that portion of the hide that was the deer’s backbone). Through this slit, tie a piece of the twine. Now lift the hide by this string and tie it around the center of one of the sides of the stretching frame. Rotate the frame ninety-degrees and repeat the procedure, slitting the hide about halfway (in the midsection) and 1" in from the edge. Again, tie it to the middle of the adjacent frame side. Repeat for the remaining two sides. At this point the entire hide should be suspended by the four strings. Now continue the same procedure, fastening the hide every one to two feet around the frame.


When finished it should look like this. Rotate the frame initially three to six times a day so the tanning solution does not pool at the bottom edge of the hide. You want the hide to begin drying with a uniform covering of the tanning licquor.

Working

Now comes the hard work - stretching the hide by hand. If you were to leave the hide in the stretcher for, say, a week, it would soon dry into a hard, flat object resembling a large piece of cardboard. In order to get a supple piece of buckskin it must be rigorously worked so that the skin fibers break down as they dry.

After a day or so in the stretcher you will begin to see spots where the hide is drying out. These appear first at the top edge and then show up in the thinner spots as translucent patches. As soon as you see these it is time to take the hide out of the stretcher and begin working it. I work it over the sharp edge of the fleshing beam, hair-side up. Grabbing the hide by one edge, pull it across the fleshing beam while applying a downwards pressure to maximize the stretching action. Then rotate the hide and do another location. Do this over and over again. I sometimes remove the hide from the beam and just tug at it with both hands, stretching across different grains. When you get tired, roll the hide up and place in a plastic bag until you are ready to continue working it. Do not leave it in the bag for more than a day, however, or it could start to mold in a warm environment.


As the hide is worked two things happen: the hide becomes lighter in weight and also in color. The stretching process is complete when the buckskin is soft, dry and lightweight. I think it will be apparent when further stretching yields no improvements to the leather.

Preserving

If properly prepared, the hides will last many years without needing any special care. If desired, a light coat of neatsfoot oil can be applied to the hair side, the hide rolled up and stored in a container that provides air circulation (like a cloth bag).




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