I am asked a lot about what tanning materials people should use in their part of the world. Well, be careful what you ask for he he. Here is a very large amount of information to address fill that gap. I had already typed up a partial list for a vegetable tanning book project that I have done some writing on which is mostly presented here (don’t hold your breath on me publishing it anytime soon). That information comes largely from Howe’s book on tanning materials, which I think is still in copyright. But I decided to list a bunch of full text excerpts on tanning materials from some other old out of copyright tanning books. To top it off, at the end there is a surprisingly long bibliography of publications on tanning materials put out by the USDA, with such fun topics as tannin content of some acorns, Tannin content of pacific coast trees, tanning materials in South Africa and the tanning industry of Washington state. There is still much more that could be dug up on the subject. If you want to research a specific material more, you can use sites like googlebooks.com and Archive.org Try different combinations of keywords such and as leather, tanning, tannin, the plant’s common names and the plants botanic name (or names, plural since they often change over the course of 100 years or more in order to keep botanists employed and make them look busy).
In this blog post and new video, I cover all the essential tools needed to make good bark tanned leather as well as a few non-essentials. Tanning materials will have to be treated separately and I will try to revisit many of these tools and their making in the future.
Real natural vegetable tanned leather is that which is tanned with tannic acid sourced from plant materials. While there are excellent sources of tannin in not just barks, but in roots, leaves, pods, fruits, nuts and wood, tree barks are the most used sources, thus the common term bark tanning. There are only a few tools and materials that could be considered essential to the process and none are complicated. In fact, if you strip it down to the real essentials, you need very little. Adding a few simple tools will improve your experience though, and in some cases your leather.
The tanner’s knife, or fleshing knife, is the most important multi-tasking tool of the tanner. In a typical vegetable tanning process, I will use this tool for fleshing, dehairing, re-fleshing, scudding, removing excess water and stretching open the skin. It is also handy when re-soaking dried hides to work open dry spots so that they rehydrate faster. Many new models are available on the market, but a lot of home tanners get by well with homemade tools. Read my blog post on fleshing knives, and watch the Fleshing Knives 101 video for more than you probably wanted to know about them. I just received the Wiebe 12” Fleshing knife in the Mail so I can review it for you guys. I like the overall form a lot for general use, and was told by a dealer that it is actually tempered tool steel, not mild steel. Aside from the potentially weak, narrow and probably short tangs, it looks promising, but I haven’t had a chance to use it at all yet. Aside from unknown potential steel/tempering issues and iffy tangs, as a general purpose home tanning knife it seems likely to be a good choice for under 30.00 shipped.
The tanners all purpose scrapping knife is of no use without a beam. For most, a beam around 6 to 6.5 feet long will do well. I’m currently using. 6.25 foot beam, which is just about right for me. It can be of wood or plastic pipe. If wood, it is best to have a smooth work area that is free of knots, large cracks, grain tears or other major blemishes extending at least 18 inches down from the top. I would try to stick with 8” diameter and larger, but to get started, or in emergencies, you can use a smaller diameter beam. If the diameter is very small, you can flatten off the working area to a larger radius. A very small radius results in a small area of contact between the tool and the beam surface. For most vegetable tanning related beam tasks, a larger surface contact between beam and tool is preferable. Large logs should be at least split in half, or even hollowed on the underside to thin them. Most of my old beams were hollowed out on the underside with a hatchet to reduce weight and discourage cracking. Taking the center of the log out by splitting it in half will reduce both the incidence and severity of cracking. Reducing the thickness further will reduce that risk even more. It doesn’t have to look pretty, just chop out some of the wood to form a hollow on the underside.
A good source of nearly ready made beam material are the round sided slab cuts from the outsides of logs removed in milling lumber. You may be able to get some from a local mill, or small custom miller. Check the phone book (under lumber, milling?) or ask about local portable mill owners at your chainsaw dealer or repair shop.
I haven’t done it, but I suspect a pretty good beam could be made by radiusing the working area of a 2x12. I don’t seen any good reason it wouldn’t work. If so, try to choose one that has edge grain on the working face and not face grain. that is to say that the rings of the tree run from about 45 degrees or more toward straight through the thickness of the board. This is usually referred to as vertical grain and will be much less prone to cracking than plain sawn wood faces.
Now that I’m thinking about it, an edge grain (if you can find that good of a board these days) 2x12, backed by another 2x12 could make a pretty nice beam. I would leave a slot in the backing board for a plywood stand, augmented by two 4x4’s firmly attached with lagbolts similar to the arrangement pictured below. For a firmer union, wedges could be used to afix the plywood in the slot.
You can do many different things to put legs on the beam. A good option is to drill large holes, about 2 inches in diameter and plug in round wooden staves for supports. My current beam has two closely spaced boards screwed to the bottom on edge, just far enough apart to slide in a piece of plywood as a support. It works well enough.
DRAW KNIFE AND SPOKE SHAVE
These tools are used for creating and maintaining, a smooth beam surface. It is ideal to have both. The draw knife is best for major wood removal and repair, and the spoke shave for maintenance and smoothing. You can get away with just one of them though, in which case the draw knife is the more versatile of the two. Draw knives are also handy for peeling tan bark from logs if it is not slipping off easily. If you intentionally shred the bark off of the log in small, thin slices, you may not have to chop it any finer for extracting the tannins.
When shopping for used draw knives watch out for two things, wear on the blade and rounded bevels on the back side. Old draw knives can sometimes suffer severe wear. Look to see that the blade is about the same width it’s whole length. It should also be flat on the back with a bevel on the top side only. Either by long wear, or by mis-sharpening, the back is sometimes not flat. In a very well used knife the back may be subtly dished or rounded off, but if it has an obvious bevel or extreme wear, steer clear.
I would not recommend buying a spoke shave that has only one screw to adjust and no fine adjustment screws. The type shown is common and works well.
WATER AND HOSES
Water is not just a material, it’s a tool for cleaning things off. Skins, tools, boots, hands and tubs need frequent rinsing You will use a lot of water, and the more convenient and available it is the better. I usually use a standard hose end shut off valve to control flow. I like these valves better than most purpose made sprayers, because when opened wide the flow is fairly high, which is nice when you are filling containers with water a lot. If opened only part way, the shut off valve makes a reasonable sprayer for cleaning things off. As far as I have seen, craftsman rubber hoses are the best deal going when they are on sale in the spring, which they usually are.
A stiff cleaning brush will be found almost indispensable for tubs, aprons, beams and tools. You may also need a finer brush to scrub bloom off of the grain side of skins. Bloom is a whitish deposit that forms on the grain surface during tanning. It is more common with certain tanning materials and also when layering or pit tanning is used.
BOOTS: Rubber boots are very nice to have if you do a lot of tanning. If you don’t wear them, the hide will inevitably drip all over your feet as you stand at the beam working.
GLOVES: I tanned without gloves for years, but I love my elbow gloves now. Don’t bother with dishwashing gloves, or any other short gloves. You will inevitably reach into a solution and they will fill with smelly liquid. I use these affordable Atlas gloves, which have held up okay. When they die, I may invest in a more heavy duty glove.
APRON: I would avoid buying very cheap aprons. I am still using the same two heavy duty black, rubberized cloth aprons that I bought used at a yard sale over 20 years ago. You can make one from a sheet of vinyl or plastic of some kind, or tie a trash bag around your waist, but if you tan a lot, the protective gear is really nice to have. Hip waders are great if you already own them.
Vegetable tanning requires certain kinds of containers. Materials that can be safely used for all the processes are wood, plastic and rubber, ceramic, stainless steel and enamel ware. I use galvanized tubs, but only if there is no rust at all on them, and for liming and rinsing only. Aluminum I’ve used for rinsing only. I know aluminum and ashes don’t mix well but I don’t know about lime. While I have no idea if aluminum is safe for tanning liquors, I’ve avoided it. Anything that rusts is out of the question for all processes related to vegetable tanning except for dyeing the skin black. Any rust or iron will darken the skin permanently.
The ubiquitous 5 gallon plastic buckets are handy to have around for various uses, but tanning anything over the size fur bearers in buckets is unpreferable. Large rectangular plastic storage tubs of 15 gallons and up are very useful as are other large tubs of various sorts. I have used wooden wine barrels cut in half quite a lot. They look really great, but aesthetics aside, they have their down sides. Wooden barrels need to be kept filled with water, or they dry out and fall apart. Since they need to be full of water, they breed mosquitoes unless you dump them regularly and they are quite heavy when full. You can tan hides up to the size of deer in half wine barrels very easily and sometimes large hides if you get creative. The size of the container should be adequate for the size of skins you are tanning. Without getting into specific details, an 18 to 20 gallon tub is adequate for deer, goat and similar sized animal skins. I’ll usually cut cattle and other large hides into sides and bellies, and those pieces can be tanned in a half wine barrel or large rectangular tub easily enough.
Rectangular tubs are an advantage over round ones, when layering, a technique where you put layers of shredded bark between layers of hide and let it sit for a month or three. I can layer a deer hide well in an 18 or 20 gallon tub, by carefully folding it up with layers of bark between all the folds, but if layering a larger hide, or even a very large deer skin, you’ll need to size the tub up. For liming, rinsing, or tanning the skins in liquors, round containers have the slight advantage in being easy to stir, but that is not important enough to favor buying them over the more versatile rectangular tubs. Use what you have or can get cheap or free if it works, but if you buy something storage tubs with lids are probably the best all around. If you are tanning cattle, elk, moose, horse or buffalo skins, and want to keep them whole (not a very good idea unless you really need it that big), start keeping your eye peeled for larger containers. However, too large is too large. You don’t want to have to use excess amounts of liquid to tan, rinse or lime a hide.
Some materials, like sumac leaves are easy to use, but you will generally have to cut up barks, roots and woods. I have almost always used a hatchet on a block of wood. I lay out a tarp to catch the chips and start hacking away. You could use a small axe, but for most people, an average sized hatchet is a good weight to start with. A heavy hatchet or axe can lead to repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel much faster. Just ask my tendons about that.
Hatchets can also be used to “raze” off the outer dead portion of the bark, which was sometimes so removed in traditional tanning as it was considered unnecessary or even injurious to the leather.
Chipper/shredder machines can be very effective. Garden chippers are often under-powered for thick heavy bark, but they are nice when they work. If necessary, you can break the material up into smaller pieces, or try shredding it while still fresh and softer. If there is a lot of rust in the chipper, it could contaminate and darken your liquor. Consider running some branches and leaves through the unit to clean it out.
It is possible to extract the tanning materials from plants with cold leaching, but it is much faster to cook it out. Even though I don’t know that it isn’t safe, I have always avoided aluminum. That is easy for me to do though, because I have large stainless steel pots from 3 to 5 gallons. Enamel pots could work, but be sure there are no rusty spots where the enamel has chipped away. Copper was used at one time, but large copper containers are expensive and uncommon. Large thin walled stock pots with thin bottoms can be very cheap and are fine for cooking bark, but will easily burn food if you are not careful. Try to get at least 16 quart and preferably 20 quart or larger. I find large stock pots like this to be indispensable tools in my lifestyle and they are a lifetime investment. When shopping key points to look at are thickness, build quality (especially handles) and steel quality. Some stainless imports are made of inferior metal. Read reviews carefully. When I won some fancy all clad cookware in a contest, I sold it on ebay and bought a Tramontina stock pot, which I’m happy with.
You can also modify an old beer keg, which many home brewers do for cooking beer mash. Full sized Kegs are 15.5 gallons and a 1/4 keg is 7.5 gallons.
I also own a large pool filter housing that must hold around 25 to 30 gallons. I set it up with a valve and cook large batches of canning jars and bark in it. I have never seen a comparable one. In most units the lid is nearly as tall as the body, making them of limited use.
SLICKING TABLE OR BOARD
To use the following two tools, the slicking iron and slicker, you need a large flat surface of some kind. The skin is stretched, smoothed and flattened with this trio. These are only used if you want to dry the skin smooth and flat. If the hide is to be softened you dry it in some way that is less involved. A good technique for drying hides flat is to paste them down to the board with fat applied to the flesh side. This technique allows us to finish the grain out perfectly smooth and then leave it on the board to dry slowly. Just put it where your chickens can’t walk on it! You can also nail the skin to a wall to stretch it, or lace it into a frame, but for leaving hides well flattened and finished, you probably can’t beat the slicker and slicking Iron on a smooth slab. If you are doing thick skins, you can get away with something that has a rough surface, such as unfinished plywood. When working thin skins on a slab, the surface should be smooth or the texture of the surface will show through on the grain, much like the technique of rubbing a piece of paper placed over a textured surface with pencil or charcoal. I use plywood and a large slab of thick salvage plastic. Traditionally, stone tables have been used. If you run across a large surface that is very smooth, water resistant and 4 feet or more wide, grab it.
The skin can be pasted to the board with a coating of fat on the flesh side. It will stick well enough if it is dried slowly. When pasting thick skins to boards, you must use wood for thick skins or the skin may mold from drying too slow. For thin skins you can get away with pasting them to a non breathable surface like plastic, but make sure they still dry out within a couple of days. I use this technique a lot. I also often use it if I’m going to use the graining board to soften the skin (see below), but in that case, it is okay to use a rough piece of plywood, because the grain is going to be wrinkled and reworked anyway so the texture of the board showing through the skin is of no consequence.
This tool is usually made of stone or glass and you can make your own with a piece of slate. it is a slab of hard material, with one rounded smooth edge, and and smooth rounded corners. A handle is nice, but not necessary. The tool is used to smooth and even the grain side of the skin and to paste it down onto a slicking table or board with fat for slow drying. You could probably have a glass shop make you one out of a 3/8” glass. A shop that works with stone tiles should be able to make you one as well, or at least cut a slab for you if they don’t already have some spare tiles of the right size. If you want to make one, cut a piece of slate or other clean hard stone and grind the edge round on a slab of cement or sand stone. Use water as a lubricant. If the stone is hard, add sand with water to make a slurry. Slate is fairly soft and easy to work. This method will even work with hard stone or glass if you are patient. It can be finished and polished with diamond sharpening hones and/or sand paper. A belt grinder would also be very handy, but the dust will mess up your lungs. Silicosis fibrosis anyone? Glass grinders are lubricated with water to prevent dust. You can also still buy slickers new, since a few leather workers use them for polishing. I have also used hardwood and moose antler in a pinch.
Size should be around 4x5 inches and 1/4 inch or more thick, with the long edge being the rounded working edge.
This tool is similar to the slicker in size and shape, but it is a metal scraper with a dull edge. It is used on the flesh side of the skin to even out wrinkles and smooth and stretch the skin out toward the edges, before turning it over to use the stone or glass slicker. The slicking iron should not be super wide, about 5 inches wide at most. If I made one to my specifications right now, it would as in the diagram. It would have a very, slight radius across the working edge. I would also add a generously sized hardwood handle that is slightly drop shaped in cross section, copper riveted, and saturated in raw linseed oil. Regular carbon steel is okay to use, but always check it for rust and clean before using. Never leave it resting on the skin.
Dough scrapers can be used if modified. Most dough scrapers are wide and could stand to have an inch or more removed from their width to make them 4.5 to 5 inches wide, which you can do with a hacksaw and files. Use a file to sharpen and modify. The corners should be rounded off well to a 1/4 inch radius and the whole thing sharpened from both sides to form a fairly obtuse edge (not too thin) and then dulled enough that it won’t cut the skin. The edge should be of such a dullness that it will easily grab the skin and pull it when the tool is used, but will not cut or gouge it. If shopping for one, look at reviews to make sure it is not too thin. Cheap scrapers will bend under the high stress applied to this tool under normal use. I bought this one and it is barely thick enough. It is also already showing some rust as cheap stainless steel is prone to do. Here are a few that look like they may be thick enough, but it’s hard to say until you see them in person. pizza cutter, RSVP, OXO. Keep in mind that they will still be better if modified by narrowing them, so dropping by your local sheet metal worker or metal fab shop first is probably smarter. They usually have lots of scrap around and all the tools to make something like this quickly, minus the handle. If you have a file, a drill and a saw to cut a kerf in a wooden handle, just have them cut out a slab for you and do the rest yourself. If you have a good metal salvage yard around, look there for scrap stainless.
You may very well be able to use some sort of household item or kitchen tool in place of the slicking iron, for instance a thick stainless spatula. You can also do some of this work on the beam with the fleshing knife, like stretching the skin our toward the edges. At times though you may wish you had the slicking iron for dealing with tough wrinkles and lumps in heavy hides. I would definitely say it is more necessary and useful when dealing with big thick skins. It’s not a tool you have to have to start tanning. You will know when you need it. Checkout this image of Talcon working down a paunchy spot in a bark tanned bull hide. That spot ended up totally flat in the end. This is the kind of application where the slicking iron shines.
OTHER OPTIONS FOR STRETCHING AND DRYING
If you do not have a slicking table, and need to stretch a skin out to dry, you can use a frame with ropes. Cut many holes, parallel to the edge and lace the skin evenly and tightly. This will not always remove wrinkles and paunchy spots like slicking out on a flat surface can. Framing a hide is also a lot of work and wastes skin around the edges. Similarly, you can stake the skin out flat just off the ground. A better option than both for most people will be to nail the skin out to a large board or wall. Use hot dipped galvanized box nails if you can. Any nail that will rust is not recommended and nails that are already rusty are a sure way to leave black stains on your hide.
PALM AND ARM BOARDS
Skins can be softened by rolling on a table with the hands and forearms. These tools are used to make that job easier and work the skin a lot harder.
The soles are designed to grip the skin’s surface. One type has a wooden face with ridges carved into the sole from side to side for when the tool rides on the flesh side of the leather. Boards with cork glued to the soles are used when the tool will contact the grain side.
There are two basic sizes, a hand board, sometimes called a pommel, and an arm board. The hand board is short, 8” or less, with a strap that goes over the hand. The arm board rests along the forearm and has a strap at the back and a peg at the front for a handle. The difference is size and scope of work. Any home tanner ought to do fine with hand boards.
If the skin is worked folded grain side to grain side, the result is a pleasing wrinkled grain surface since the grain is crushed and compressed. The process of creating that grain effect is called graining, thus the term graining board. In this case, the sole of the tool touches the flesh side only and the teeth cut into the wood provide excellent grip.
If a board is used with the skin folded flesh side to flesh side, the grain surface is left smooth because it is stretched instead of compressed. The cork soled board is used in this case to prevent denting and damage to the grain surface.
In some cases, we may want the skin to be compressed and hardened, not softened and broken loose. The tool for this is a wooden mallet with a polished face, which is used to condense the leather when it’s in a damp, but not wet state. The face can be close to flat, but the edges have to taper off and round out gently. If you are leaving any kind of dents in the skin, then you need to either hit the leather flatter, or refine the edges. The leather should be smooth when finished. Use the heaviest wood you can, mine is probably iron wood and is extremely dense. Polish the face to a gloss finish. In the past, both Iron and brass/bronze mallets have been used, but make sure they are very clean and polished, with zero rust or oxidation. Even so, you are risking staining the skin with a steel hammer, so I recommend sticking with wood.
This is a dull metal blade set into a post that is used for softening and breaking open the fiber of skins. They are useful if you are trying to get skins really soft and for working furs. Unless you are doing one of those two things, it’s not a very essential tool. I find them more useful in braintanning buckskin and working furs of any kind. The post can be permanent or in a stand of some kind for portability. The blade should be rounded at the corners and they usually have at least a very slight radius. The width of the blade can vary. For any kind of large skins, a wider blade would be better. 5.5 inches with the edges rounded to a 1/4 inch radius and a very, very slight radius to the whole edge would be good for general home tanning work of all kinds. A lot of dough scrapers are 6 inches wide, so that might be a good source of material for a blade. It should be stainless if possible, so you can leave it wet or in the weather. Use stainless steel screws as well.
This blog post and similar content is informed by almost 30 years of research, experience and communication with other tanners. You can support my efforts to bring back and preserve these traditional self reliance skills and arts by sharing content to friends, forums and social media, with general financial support on patreon.com/skillcult, or with one time donations using the link in the side bar. I also now keep separate accounts for earmarked donations toward research in tanning and apple/plant breeding. If specified, donated funds will be used for things like tools and materials, and outside labor solely related to either endeavor. Thanks for reading :)
The Tanner's Knife, An Essential Multipurpose Tanning Tool for Fleshing, Dehairing, Scudding and Frizzing
The fleshing knife as it is commonly known, but probably more appropriately known as a tanning or tanner’s knife, is the primary tool of the tanner. This versatile knife can be used for fleshing and re-scraping the flesh side of the skin, de-hairing, removing the grain (frizzing), scudding out liquids to flush unwanted moisture and loose material from inside the skin structure, moving the hide on the beam and trimming the edges of the skin. While there are specialized two handed knives for some of these tasks, they can all be performed with the same tool if it’s within certain design parameters, which is what will serve most home tanners best. In this Blog post and video, I go over some of the different types, both commercial and homemade with some tips on weight, length, styles, making your own, and other such things.
The focus here will be on the home tanner working on beams about 8 to 12 inches wide. Keep in mind that most new models are designed by and for fur trappers, most of whom do not do a lot of general tanning work. The amateur tanner can get by with tools that are much less than ideal, so there is no need to overthink the problem too much, or find the perfect tool just to get started. You can always upgrade later if you want to.
Length: The typical professional tanners knife of the European style is quite long and not really best suited to the home tanner. Samples I have range from 3 to 3-3/8 inch wide. 16 inches is a typical working edge length. These long knives were often used on very wide beams with shallow curves. The strong, experienced men using these tools, combined with the large area of contact formed between the gently curved edge of the tool and the wide beam, would make for very efficient and quick work. I think the ideal length for home tanners working a variety of skins on narrower beams is about 20” long in total with 11” working edge and 4.5” handles. A working edge up to 12 inches and down to 10” with 4.5 inch handles is also fine. With such a length, the tanner can comfortably do all manner of work from very large hides, down to fur skins. Wider beams require wider knives and/or the edge of the tool may need to protrude out in front the handles. I would not recommend working edges much smaller than about 10 inches, and then only out of necessity. It is not just the working edge though, but also the space between the handles, which allows for comfortable work.
Styles: Nearly all traditional styles seem to be curved. The classic European style of tanning knife that is most common is wide, curved and dished. The compound curves of the cup and the arc combine to strengthen the tool, allowing it to be fairly thin, and yet still very rigid. The concavity of the underside seems to offer some geometric advantage in scraping. The concavity also means that the tool can be used flat on the hide without rubbing on it, which I suspect might be part of the impetus for the design, although I have rarely used them that way. Professional tanners who worked hides day in and day out would probably be able to get away with doing things that the rest of us can’t, such as using sharper tools at lower angles. These traditional, wide, dished knives are very nice to use, though if I were designing one from scratch for home tanners who are doing many different types of skins and tasks, I would probably make it considerably narrower than they usually are and no wider than 3 inches. The back edge is sometimes kept very sharp and can be used for tough spots, gaining access under tough membranes, or as a sharp slicing knife for trimming the skin during fleshing. I have also read of tanners filing teeth into the back of the knife so it can be used to pull skins up the beam to reposition them for scraping without using the hands. You can do this maneuver on small skins without cutting teeth in the back of the tool, and I do, but on large heavy hides, I can see why they would make this modification. The option is to let go of the tool with one or both hands to readjust the skin on the beam as each area is worked over, which is much slower.
Other tools are narrower and usually thicker, sometimes with only one working edge. This type is good for home tanners with a surprising number of models and brands available new. Newer ones are often sharpened on the back as well and many are fairly flexible compared to older ones I’ve seen.
Width: A versatile knife for the home tanner would probably be anywhere from 1.5 to 3 inches wide. Though still very usable, extremely wide tools can be less stable when it is required to push very hard as is sometimes necessary when graining (frizzing) un-limed buckskins or fleshing very difficult skins. My two favorite tools currently are a shortened traditional cupped knife that is worn down quite a lot to about 2.5 inches wide. More relevant though, is that the concave curve, which is the main working edge, has been worn back closer to the handles, making it more stable to use when pushing very hard. A full width knife however is fine as well, but if I designed one from scratch it would probably be under 3 inches wide.
Another favorite tool I have was forged out of a wagon leaf spring and is about 3/16 inch thick and 1.5” wide, which makes for a durable, versatile tool of a good weight. Tools as narrow as 1 inch can be fine too depending on material and use. There is a type of knife that is very thin and flexes to conform to the curve of the beam, but I have never had a chance to examine, let alone use one. If the tool is both narrow and short, the handles may get in the way, necessitating the use of a very narrow beam.
Thickness and weight: Wider tools are generally relatively thin in order to avoid excessive weight. Narrower tools are often a lot thicker, though many of the newer, higher end tools are thinner than the older ones were. A range of weights are usable, but tools can be both too light and too heavy in my opinion. I’d much rather a tool was too light, but some weight offers stability and the advantage of momentum in some scraping processes.
Straight v.s. curved: Straight tools are perfectly serviceable. I do prefer a curve and would never design the perfect tanning knife with straight edges, but if material is available to make a straight tool, I would not hesitate. I’ve used straight planer blade tools for countless hours and endless square feet of hide scraping. Once I started using a curved tool, I was sold instantly, but I could go back easily enough. I think the main advantage of curved tools is that it is easier to incorporate tilt and slide techniques in scraping.
Tilting the knife edge slightly off of perpendicular is an important refinement to scraping technique. Imagine a straight edged fleshing knife held at a slight angle by putting one hand slightly away from you, and one hand slightly back toward you. If the tool is pushed straight forward while tilted askew like this, there is a slight advantage in scraping, something akin to a slicing action, though not quite the same. You can achieve the same effect with any cutting edge in wood, such as a plane, spokeshave, knife or draw knife by tilting it. This subtle difference in technique can have a large effect. Curved tools, when held slightly to the left or right, create this effect automatically without having to hold the tool askew at all, or at least less so.
Sliding the tool side to side very slightly in a slicing motion as the tool is pushed forward is another very important subtle refinement of the hide scrapers art. Combined with tilt, it is even more effective. Since tilt is already built in to a curved knife, it is easier and more ergonomic to achieve this combination of techniques when using a knife with a curved edge.
The radius of the curve should not be too drastic. Shown are some curved tools to give you an idea of what some look like. A factor in degree of curvature, or lack of curvature, is that the radius of the beam combined with the radius of the knife determine how much of the tool contacts the beam. That contact width has everything to do with how much work is done with each stroke and how hard it is to do that work. In one extreme case, you might be scraping off the grain from the tough neck skin of a deer, which is going to require a narrow area of contact. If the width of contact between beam and knife is wide, you will have a very tough time of it. Still, with an 8 inch beam and a very moderately curved knife, you should still be okay. For general work, I prefer a beam around 12 to 14 inches wide with a moderate curve. Coupled with a curved knife, that makes for a reasonably wide area of contact resulting in efficient work for most processes. If I used a 6 inch wide beam with a high crown and a straight tool, I would be at my work much too long when doing most of the relatively easy processes that I engage in most often, such as fleshing and dehairing, simply because the strips I would be scraping off would be so narrow.
The bottom line is that I prefer a moderately curved tool for general work. The curve I would start with as a prototype for testing would arc in an even radius, with a rise of about 3/8” at the center of the tool on an 11” blade.
Material: The cheapest knives are made from cheap mild steel which cannot be tempered to keep an edge. This type of budget tool can work, but they are not preferable and will require more frequent sharpening. Better knives are made of tool steel and tempered to take and hold an edge. If at all possible, I would recommend something that will hold an edge. Stainless tools are nice to have when working around water and salt, but If tools are taken reasonable care of, regular carbon steel is fine. Planer blades, discussed below are rust resistant, but not stainless. For making tools at home, you can use a number of common pieces of steel.
Leaf springs from cars are good. If possible, find a set that is narrow. Almost every junk car has a full set of springs under it waiting to be salvage with the removal of a few bolts. The steel is temperable and already hard enough to work well enough. If you can find a narrow spring, you could grind out a tool and retain the temper if you are careful and patient.
Chainsaw bars seem like a great source of steel of a good thickness. I’ve never used them, but I understand they are carbon steel of some kind, and would already be hardened and tempered to hold their shape under hard use. Once worn, they are of no use on a chainsaw and should not be hard to find in any rural area in the states.
Lawnmower blades: are fairly common and seem like reasonable stock to work with. They have a propeller twist which would have to be removed, necessitating heating, forging and preferably re-hardening and tempering afterward.
Large files are a good source of tool steel,and could be used. I would grind or file out all the teeth though. They are too hard as is, so making a good tool with one would entail at least heating to anneal (soften), grinding to shape and preferably re-tempering. If you’re going to do all that, you might as well forge it out into a better, wider, curved tool.
Misc mild steel bars can be used, but will not hold an edge well. In a pinch, you can even use a square edge, instead of a more knife like beveled edge.
Planer blades of high speed steel make very nice scrapers. They are extremely hard, tough, rust resistant and hold an edge incredibly well. Another advantage is that since they are straight, some will have two usable edges. I use two tools or edges of varying sharpness during the processing of most hides into bark tanned or braintanned leather, so having two edges of different sharpness on one tool is great.
The steel in planer blades is too hard to drill with normal tools, but can be ground easily enough with a 4 inch grinder, belt grinder or bench grinder. [EDIT: Melvin Beattie, one of my tanning teachers, Just wrote me the following: “Yes you can drill planner blades, files, etc.. Here are the drills that work, I have used them many times putting handles on planer blades. If I am using a hand drill start with a 1/8 “ then use 1/4” but you have a drill press just use the 1/4’’ and a good drill lube.” ] Handles for planer blades can be of two pieces of half round wood with rubber or vinyl tubing or epoxied wood (rough up and clean the metal surface before applying epoxy).
Antler handles are also very nice and may be the best option if the planer blade is only 12 to 14 inches long. You need at least 1.5” stuck into the antler, preferably more. Grind the end of the tool that will go into the handle to fit within the antler pith as shown in the photo below. Smooth and round off all sharp edges and grind the end into a slight wedge. Soak the antler overnight then boil for 15 or 20 minutes. Clamp the blade in a vice if you can and pound the antler handle onto it. Don’t drill the antler, just pound it onto the end of the blade. Allow the antler to dry completely before using it at all or you will loosen the union. Finding comfortable pieces of antler that are not too curved or too small can be a trick, but you can end up with very nice handles. Antlers vary in the amount of pith they have and general density and strength. If the antler is not too pithy, this method can also work for narrow tangs.
Grinding out tools: If you have a piece of stock that is already tempered, such as a chainsaw blade or car leaf spring, it is possible to grind and or file it to shape without changing the temper. If you overheat a hardened and tempered tool in grinding, it will become soft, a mistake commonly referred to as “burning” the steel. If you see colors appearing on the edge of the tool during grinding, you are flirting with danger. For something the hardness of a tanning tool, avoid letting the steel turn anything darker than bronze color, after that it will turn a purplish color, then light blue. Dark blue is pretty much dead soft, so stay well on the right side of that color. Using a high speed bench grinder, 4 inch angled grinder or belt grinder, it is very easy to overheat steel, especially when thinning the edge. Work in very short spurts, with frequent water cooling and watch for those colors with unfailing vigilance. For a tanning knife, one of two soft spots are not likely to cause you huge problems, but do your best to prevent them.
So, what is the ideal tanning knife for home users? I would definitely be a compromise in some way, but that would also be it’s strength. I have drafted up some plans and I hope to someday experiment with some prototypes. So many projects, so little energy :-/ for a fairly simple tool, I would say a good place to start would be a moderately curved, 3/16” thick, 1.5” to 1.75” wide, 11” working edge and 4-1/2 inch handles for a total of 20” long. Such a tool could be filed or ground out of a chainsaw bar, or forged from leaf spring or a large file. I would put a bevel on the back, to keep sharp for trimming skins during fleshing and other tasks. The bevel on the front concave edge should be at least 45 degrees, but thinner would be better, maybe something like 20 to 30 degrees?
As far as new knives go, there are a lot on the market. On the low end, the Wiebe 12” knife is as cheap as 20.00 before shipping from some dealers. According to Dakota Line Snares, a Wiebe dealer, “The steel on all three of the fleshing knives (8”, 12” and Elite) is 3CR13: Hardness Hrc52-55. The Elites are sharpened in the U.S.”. I think the Wiebe 12” flesher might be a very good budget option for new home tanners. Reviews on Amazon are good, but it’s hard to know what people are doing with them or how many of them are experienced enough to judge. In some pictures I’ve seen, it appears to be bent just in the middle in the classic dog leg formation common in cheap knives instead of forming a long gradual arc. In others it appears to be bent off center, or not much at all. I would not expect too much quality wise. They are produced in China with Chinese steel. A step up from that class of tool, there are the Wiebe elite, Neckers of various models, the caribou and Au Sable are in the 65.00 to 95.00 range and generally get good reviews. Many of them may be more flexible than would be ideal for a home tanner, so shop with caution. I have the Necker 600 and am not crazy about the handle design or the down sloped handle angle, but I actually haven’t used it yet. It is also more flexible than I’d prefer. The wider necker 700 looks interesting but it’s a little more costly at 95.00
Also in the mid range, there are affordable imitations of the European style knives that are sold in the U.S. According to one supplier they are stainless. The 12 inch version (which I would recommend over the 16 inch) is about 45.00 to 50.00 My guess is that the tangs will be the weak link in these English knife copies. There are also new real English Sheffield knives by J. Adams which have separately attached tangs that run all the way through the handles. They are expensive at about 145.00 for the 12” model. This is the high end of new tanning knives, outside of custom made tools. I would hunt ebay for an old european style knife before purchasing the new Sheffield knives. The problem with the antique ones is that they are usually on the long side for a home tanner. Exercise caution in shopping for new English knives as the American made copies are sometimes unscrupulously marketed as being from England or Sheffield.
For me to buy and test all of these tools would be quite expensive obviously. I also don’t tan enough currently to put them to the kind of test needed to sort them out really well. None are what I would design from scratch, but again keep in mind that most of these are designed by and for fur trappers, whose only job typically is fleshing furs.
For used tanning knives, ebay is the best market, although they do show up on Etsy now and again. Obviously you can hunt old junk and antique stores, but you will be lucky to find one at all, let alone at a reasonable price in good condition. Avoid the cheapest and very common knives that are bent in the middle instead of in a continuous arc. These cheap tools usually have wire wraps on the handles, but some have solid ferrules. They are made of mild steel. They will work, but get something better if you can afford it. With the Wiebe 12” budget knife being tempered steel, there is hardly an excuse to buy a mild steel tool.
Quality vintage tools of both the old school thin wide cupped European type and the thicker narrow type tools come up on ebay, but they are often over priced. Patience is key. Look at ended auctions to see what has and hasn’t sold in the past and for how much, as well as what has been re-listed recently or lowered in price. There is a W.H. Horn and Brothers knife, just like mine, in nice condition for 85.00 plus shipping on ebay right now. Last week it was listed for 150.00
Zack Hribar came over to show me his first batch of bark tanned leather. We shot an informal video talking about them and vegetable tanning options, troubleshooting the hides, stories and that sort of thing. It was fun. Zack is an enthusiastic new bark tanner, check him out on instagram as z._hriack_bar
Last winter I started a project oak bark tanning a deer skin to make leather for the axe strop project. The project follows the collecting and processing of materials to build pocket sized sharpening strops as prizes for people who completed the Axe Cordwood Challenge. I'm making everything I need for the strops and decided to show the whole tanning process and everything else in a series of videos. Almost 6 months ago, I laid the prepared skin away to tan in oak bark. It sat in there about 4 months longer than it needed to, but I took it out and finished it this week, and it looks like it turned out pretty decent.
The leather is perhaps a little light and spongy, "Empty", as they say in the tanning trade. Emptiness results from the loss of structural proteins in the skin by chemical or bacterial action. It isn't much of a surprise considering that I over-limed it to start with, and that it sat in a weak vegetable tanning (plant based) solution for 4 months longer than it needed to. Those are actually the type of things that a tanner might do on purpose to a hide in order to make the finished leather soft and pliable. That's not what I was planning though. I would prefer a rather firm and weighty leather for this project, but that is not even the nature of deer to start with. Deer skin, at least our deer skin here in the Western U.S. has an open, coarse-fibered, low density character that lends itself well to softened leathers. It would have been better to move it through the process faster with shorter liming time. But, a process that uses somewhat preservative solutions like lime and tannin, begs for procrastination. Add that I have to make videos of it all and it's a perfect storm for not getting things done in a timely manner. It will probably work fine for the project, but I haven't assessed it closely yet. If it doesn't work out, I have plenty of other skins I've tanned over the years that are suitable and I got to show the process start to finish, with some of the warts and mistakes that any home tanner is likely to experience.
The next steps will be making the wooden paddles, making glue and putting it all together into the finished product. I only need a small amount of leather for the project. Seven brave and industrious individuals chopped one cord or more of firewood for the cordwood challenge using axes only and will receive a finished strop and a leather patch when they are made. The balance of the leather will be stowed away with the rest of my leather cache, to wait for a suitable project.
In this segment we finally begin tanning the skin. Vegetable tanning is one of the neatest things I've ever learned. This is the most exciting part where the hide fiber is transformed into leather. Leather is not skin or tannic acid, it's a unique material made of the marriage of those two. It can be left in the weather for years, and though it may become moldy and damaged it will not rot away for a very long time. There are pieces in my compost piles that I pull out and throw back in every year just to see how long they will last. The first piece of leather I tanned was a rotten piece of skin that I should have buried, but I had some oak bark sitting around so I made a solution and tossed it in. The tan almost seemed to heal up rotten parts of the skin and knit them together. I still have that piece of leather. I left it hanging in a tree outside for a year or two once, but it appears pretty much unfazed.
Moving along with Part 4 of making axe strops from scratch for the cordwood challenge. As some will remember, two of the hides for the project were stolen by a bear or bears. The remaining hide is now ready to flesh and begin the deliming process. In this video I finish scraping over the skin to remove as much hair as possible and then re-flesh it. Next it is rinsed and scraped alternately to remove all of the lime and return the skin to it's normal flaccid state before tanning. Also below is my original video on unhairing skins for tanning.
I picked some fresh oak galls to extract juice from this spring. When fresh and green in April, our large oak galls from the California Valley White Oaks are very juicy and exude a clear liquid when squeezed. I put a piece of skin in the straight juice to test it and it case hardened, a phenomenon where the skin is shocked by the extreme astringency, becoming shrunken and stiff. In case hardening, the outside surface of the skin is so tight and contracted that the tanning stops or proceeds slowly because new tannin can't penetrate to the interior of the skin. In the video, I discuss the fact that fear of case hardening often leads to just the opposite problem, which is far more common, not using enough tannin. The experiment also provides a few other talking points.
Here are a couple of recent videos I did on the stuff I do around here. One is a short update on labeling and protecting fruit that was pollinated earlier this year as part of my apple breeding project. I talk a little about the breeding parents and related stuff, but it's pretty straightforward and short, with a quick visit to my new pig. The second is a follow along while I cut down, cut up, and peel the bark off of a tan oak tree that is infected with the organism involved in sudden oak death. I use the bark for tanning skins. I'm working on a book right now on tanning with plant materials like bark, various leaves and pods and stuff like that. Writing, research and experiments around that project now consume most ofmy time, energy and thought. In the video I show a few pieces of leather tanned with oak bark, peel the bark, split the wood and clean it all up. There are few things I'd rather do with my time than that type of forestry work. Splitting wood, playing with wood, using my axe, burning brush to make charcoal, etc.. is all my idea of a good time! woo hoo! It's really hard for me to cut these videos down and focus them in. There are so many satellite topics I want to talk about! Definitely some stuff coming on axe use, wood splitting tutorials, forestry and forest ecology, and lots of tanning and skin working stuff.
It's been a challenging year. My love and best friend moved away in the spring, leaving a hole in my life that still feels like it will never close all the way. In classic bad timing, I was also embarking on diet and lifestyle changes in yet another attempt to improve my crappy health which I had made worse the previous season by going on a very restricted low carbohydrate diet called GAPS (shudder). My new approach included, as importantly as anything, stress reduction, but with a broken heart, very little money, no energy and pretty much on my own for the first time in forever without anything resembling a reliable income, that didn't happen so much. I got pretty low functioning for a while but managed to squeak through the worst of it.
I was only able to make the farmer's market, my main source of income, about once a month where I average less than 100.00. I was as chubby as I've ever been in my life and pretty damn weak. I remember killing a chicken to eat and having to rest 3 times in order to finish processing it. I started plucking it, but it was too much work so I just tore the skin off. Another time I prepped for the market the night before, and finished washing carrots in the morning. By the time I was ready, I was too exhausted to make the trip, so I had to blow it off. A bunch of produce, including a cooler full of amazing carrots, the best crop of the year, went to the chickens. That sort of thing was not unusual for me unfortunately, but doing it alone was. I almost never slept more than 5 hours consecutively,usually less, and often only managed to get 4 or 6 hours of sleep total over 24 hours.
Fortunately this nutcase/genius,
Matt Stone's advice on improving my metabolic rate has paid off in the long run, in spite of some circumstantial bumps in the road. Regardless of all of the difficulties, my mood was greatly moderated throughout by listening to my body and eating whatever I felt like, whenever I wanted, and then some. I also stopped working unless I felt really up to it and drastically cut my consumption of liquids, especially the holy elixir of eternal youth, plain water. Over the last couple months I've lost fat and gained muscle while continuing to follow that basic approach and adding a very small amount of body weight exercise.. I still have some way to go to be really high functioning, but I have a pretty normal body temperature for the first time in ages, and I feel good with increasing frequency, not just not bad, but actually good, always a great rarity for me and valuable beyond words. On new years eve I wore a t-shirt outside until about 11:00 pm because my metabolism was so jacked up that it felt like I was pushing the cold air away by radiating heat. My personality has definitely changed for the better, and I'm more convinced than ever that the severity of peoples emotional and phychological issues is often, if not usually, rooted in physiological dysfunction. A resilient physiology makes for a resilient person.
Other things have helped me along the way, but this is the ONLY approach that has ever felt like it's given me a real foundation on which to potentially build back true health after 15 years of lyme related issues, as well as being kind of messed up for most of the rest of my adult life. Throwing supplements, exercises, superfoods or whatever at health problems is largely a waste of time if the baseline of the organism, the production of cellular energy, is compromised and replaced (as it always is when compromised) by a stress response chemistry. Metabolism is where it's at folks. Low body temperature = an unhappy body.
At this point, I'm pretty much letting my body do the driving, doing my best to make it feel safe, well nourished and well rested, and trusting it to sort out what to do with the resources I give it. I'm pretty sure now that it's smarter than me. I'm hoping that I will continue to improve so I can more fully realize my potential to kick some serious experimental/educational butt in 2014, but everything will take a back seat to gaining and retaining a healthy state, whether I get there or not.
Even with all the challenges and a major lag during the summer, I still managed to do some cool stuff and take a bunch of pictures. I've broken the year in pictures up into two parts of which this is number one. Hopefully next year it will be in 4 parts!
By Steven Edholm
Hey!, the Buckeye Gathering barktanning class is coming up and I have bark on the brain. This article is going to be awesome. A lot of people ask my advice on barktanning and I see the same mistakes made over and over again. I can help, because I’ve made them all too (and still sometimes do), so I know whereof I speak! So listen up fledgling barktanners, because we can save you a lot of frustration, heartbreak and WTF moments.
Procrastination: This is a common mistake in tanning in general. I still do it all the time, unfortunately, but I shouldn’t and you shouldn’t either. Bark tanning is more forgiving than some other types of tanning because some of the solutions the hide is put into can be preservative to a degree, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to keep putting off what needs doing. The solutions used in liming and tanning are not foolproof and will not preserve the skin indefinitely, so try not to use their limited preservative power as an excuse for procrastination. good luck with that.
Using crappy hides: For some reason, people tend to pick some crappy hide for bark tanning. I don’t like to start any tanning project with a crappy hide. It’s too much work to waste on something which can’t be better than the material which you are starting with in the first place. If crappy hide is all you have and you want to experiment with bark tanning, working with just a small piece of it can be a great learning experience. And in general, don't be afraid to "round out" scrappy skins, meaning trim off the rough stuff and tag ends, before tanning. I also don't think it's a great idea to start with a really large hide. Actually, squirrels are great and make a great starter project, and really nice leather.
Leaving in the lime or buck too long: Leaving the skin in lime or a bucking solution too long is not uncommon. The skin can stay in for quite some time and come out Ok, but try to leave it in for a reason other than blatant procrastination! This issue is dependent somewhat on the strength of the solution. Although long liming is sometimes used intentionally, and sometimes in weak lime, generally you can process the skin as soon as the hair slips out easily. Overly long liming can weaken the skin and damage the grain.
Failing to de-lime adequately: Residual lime in the skin can cause brittleness and dark coloration. Rinse the skin thoroughly many times, and scrape over it on both sides between soakings. Re-scraping to push out lime and dissolved tissue is called scudding. You can finish with bating or drenching (soaking in poop or fermenting bran respectively, but that's another story), or at least rinse with a splash of vinegar in water before tanning begins.
Using weak-ass material to make the solution: It takes quite a bit of tannin to finish out a full skin from a medium sized animal, let alone something large like an elk or cattle skin. There are tannins everywhere. They are in most plants to some degree. Finding sources rich enough, or abundant enough, to make good tanning solutions and finish your project is less common. Don't use, old dead bark or dead leaves. You need leaves or bark that have been gathered when fresh, and have not been rained on for a season, or worse. Keep your eyes out for freshly fallen trees and get the bark when you can, storing it for later. It is possible to use weak-ass materials, but it is not practical, nor very fun, and the results are likely to be disappointing. In most cases, older trees have bark that contains more tannins than younger trees. Stripping saplings may work, but be prepared to do a lot of it! When you get that good material, chip it up fine. Boiling large pieces is another common mistake. You just can't tan an elk skin with some big chunks of old dead pine bark floating in a tub... not gonna happen.
Making the tanning solution too weak: This problem can happen for numerous reasons, some already covered above. Many people are so terrified of case hardening, that they start with a very weak solution and then finally end up with a solution that isn’t even strong enough for a good starter. The skin can be put into a pretty strong tea in the beginning without adverse effects. It can also be brought up in strength very quickly once the skin is partly tanned. For instance, you can go from weak to medium over the course of a day and have the skin in a fairly strong solution on day two. Case hardening is not common and in my experience must require a verystrong solution. I’m not even entirely sure I’ve even ever seen it at all! I just threw some squirrel skins into a full strength tanoak tea and they came out soft and beautiful. (full strength meaning shredded tanoak bark just covered with water and boiled for hours, like the picture below.)
Not strengthening the solution often enough during tanning: This is the most common mistake. The skin will use up tannins very quickly in the beginning. The process slows somewhat until the skin is struck all the way through, but it doesn’t slow down that much unless the skin is thick (think big animals like cattle). If the tan is agitated, the skin will tan quickly and the solution can be strengthened frequently to keep the process moving along. The typical beginner scenario is to put the skin in a very weak solution to start with, and then just leave it there until the solution becomes completely used up, which can take only a day, or even just a few hours. If the solution is not strong enough, the skin will begin to rot. Add concentrate frequently. If you are using materials which are poor in tannins, you will need a lot of the stuff to tan a skin (a good reason to do smaller experiments before moving on to full skins). Don’t judge by how much material you are using, judge by the strength of the solution and how the color is progressing through the skin. Judging solution strengths is difficult and has to be learned by experience for the specific materials you are using, but I also just don't think it matters that much unless it's too weak, which will be fairly obvious with a little experience. From what I hear from other people, and judging by my own experience, I’d say that a rule for beginners might be that if you think it’s strong enough, it could probably be a lot stronger. After the color reaches the center of the skin, most of the tannin binding sites are taken, and the fiber takes up the solution only very slowly.
Not moving the skin enough: This mistake is probably most important to avoid during the tanning phase, but it applies to many of the processes, such as rinsing out salt, liming, de-liming and tanning. Any time a skin is put into a solution, stretch it over and move it around to be sure it is soaked all the way up in all areas. Several visits may be necessary if the skin is not well soaked up to begin with. Air bubbles trapped in the skin can also be an issue. Many beginners stuff skins into a bucket or vat and just leave them. The skins must have solutions contact all surfaces to be processed evenly. It’s okay to fold or wad hides into containers, but there should be adequate room, and the skins should be stirred several times a day for the first few days and then occasionally until finished. If not, they will not tan evenly and can finish uneven in color. A good strategy for small containers is to remove the skins and put them back folded differently each time. Just do it often enough.
Drying the skin without oiling: This practice usually leads to brittle leather and cracking grain. It is best to oil or fat-liquor the skin once it is tanned, and before it is dried out. Otherwise the grain is generally brittle and liable to crack on bending. Oil functions somewhat like moisture does in living skin, providing lubrication for the fibers and engendering suppleness.
Bad water: Water with iron can make skins dark and brittle. If you have to use high iron water, try to keep the time the skins are in the water to a minimum. If you have very hard water,or especially if it contains iron, consider collecting rainwater for liming and bark solutions. It is difficult to collect enough rain water for rinsing processes however.
Whelp, there are of course a lot more details to fill in but, given a basic working knowledge of tanning, that's actually most of the wisdom you need to know to successfully barktan skins! If you know someone dabbling in barktanning, send them this post. We rely mostly on word of mouth to get people here. Please let us hear your experiences and experiments in the comments section. Hopefully we'll be adding Barktanning to the Paleotechnics class list sometime in the near future!