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 :)
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
I shot some footage to possibly use as support videos for my book, Buckskin, The Ancient Art of Braintannning which is in process for reprinting. These are some videos I put together from that footage recently. More for the archives.
I remember many years ago trying to understand what type of lime I should use for tanning and being really confused. This video and blog post are an attempt to foster a basic understanding of lime as well as which type to use and where to find it.
Lime is used in tanning to loosen the hair for removal, and sort of clean the skin fiber of unwanted substances. It is used in the same way for processing rawhide as well as skin for making glue. While there are other alternatives, lime was most commonly used in 18th and 19th century tanning processes and by home tanners since. It is easy to use, accessible, safe, predictable and does he job well.
What we call lime exists in a cycle. There are three stages in the cycle and once the cycle is completed, it could theoretically be started over again. Only one of the stages is useful for tanning and in the majority of other arts.
The first phase is the one in which lime naturally occurs. That is as calcium carbonate. Calcium Carbonate is what shells and limestone are made from, the natural materials from which we make the lime that we use. This form would include chalk, limestone, dolomite, marl, marble, shells and coral. Calcium carbonate is fairly inert and stable. Ground limestone or ground shells can be used as a soil amendment to raise ph and provide calcium, but not for tanning.
If we heat calcium carbonate up red hot we end up with Calcium Oxide aka quicklime. Qucklime is mostly an interim stage, though it has some uses in the arts and industries. As relates to tanning, it is an interim stage. If you read old tanning books that say to use quicklime, but that is because they acquired quicklime and slaked it immediately into the the next form for use. Quicklime is easy to transport because it is very light, and it just made sense in the old days to order freshly burned quicklime and transport it that way. It would then be slaked immediately as it does not keep well.
When we add water to quicklime, it produces Calcium hydroxide in one of two forms. If we add a lot of water to the quicklime we end up with lime putty. If we add only a little water, the quicklime disintegrates into a fine powder that can be stored dry.
The dry powder, Dry lime hydrate is what you can easily buy for processing hides for tanning. It is available at hardware stores as "type S lime" or "builders lime" and according to some of my viewer/readers as "barn lime" in some parts of the country sold for spreading on barn floors. Just make sure that you are not getting dolomite or agricultural lime which is just ground up rocks.
Lime putty can be made at home. It is more potent than dry hydrate and less apt to go bad since all you have to do to preserve it is keep it under a layer of water where it will keep indefinitely. Either dry hydrate or lime putty can be used in tanning to equally good effect though, you just don't have to use quite as much lime putty. For more on lime in general and burning lime at home, see the lime page.
For more on what lime is actually used for, tanning and pre-processing hides, you can see this video on de-hairing.
The video for this post is the visually interesting short version. I think it turned out really neat and hopefully entertaining, while still giving a glimpse of possibilities. But it is not intended to be instructional or detailed beyond offering crucial supportive visual information for this post. This written version on the other hand will be fairly long and rather utilitarian. It is far from exhaustive, but basically written for people out there who actually want to do this, but who hopefully have some experience with the things involved or can learn some of the necessary skills involved on their own. So, watch the video first and if you are sufficiently intrigued, you can read more.
I am somewhat fascinated with the idea of leather cups and bottles. There was a time when leather mugs, pitchers and bottles or flasks of various kinds were rather common in Europe. There is not a whole lot known about how they were all made, but there are some clues and the mystery just makes it more enticing to me.
The black jack was something of an English icon, and the use of leather mugs persisted beyond what seems reasonable from a practical perspective. I think so anyway, maybe not. Now that I’ve made one, I can say it is rather pleasant to drink from and seems pretty durable. It’s probably not going to shatter if some drunk drops it on the floor, slams it on the table too hard at the end of a draught or uses it to keep time with a drinking song, or all three! Or what if there’s like some really buxom barmaid with her mammaries threatening to breach her corset carrying a huge tray stacked with a pyramid of Bombards and black jacks and some red nosed drunkard spanks her butt as she’s walking by causing the whole arrangement to be scattered asunder, filling her cleavage with delicious foamy beer? Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but I think that shit could’ve happened on a regular basis! My friend also just pointed out that they are probably a pretty good travel mug, light and not too fragile. BTW, the first person I showed it to promptly dropped it on the floor, no harm done. I'm just glad it wasn't full of precious beer!
I did what research I could and found a couple of useful things. Wayne Robinson uses a frame for stretching, but I simplified that into two boards, which seems to work fine and is much simpler. I’m glad I ran into his page on black jacks and got that basic concept, because I had no clue how I would stretch the leather on the form. His quotes and notes were also very useful.
Then I found Rex Lingwood and his article on working boiled or cooked leather. He is a very experienced leather artist who hardens and shapes leather by cooking it. What he does with leather is impressive and not at all expected. I watched his demonstration on youtube and that was really the key to my relative success with this project. I’d like to thank him for putting information out there for other people to take up and run with. Thanks! Here is Rex’s article on Cuir Bouilli, "boiled" leather, also very helpful.
We do know that black jacks were made of vegetable tanned leather, that is leather tanned with tannic acid from plant sources like oak bark and many others. I also think they were baked or boiled to harden them. They were definitely coated on the inside with some sort of natural waterproofing, most references seem to say it was pitch.
It is the actual process of manufacture that is least well known. I think it is a safe assumption that basic shaping was done before the sewing. I also feel pretty sure that all sewing was done before any hardening. The outside was probably treated with linseed oil and soot, though it may be somewhat more complicated than that.
I decided to shape the wet leather on a form, shape the base separately, dry the parts completely on the forms, then sew it all up, re-wet the whole mug, cook it, re-dry it, seal it with pitch on the inside, and then paint the outside with layers of linseed oil mixed with lampblack. What I didn’t know till toward the end was how I would keep it from deforming in the cooking phase, but we’ll get to that presently.
I used some bull leather that I had tanned a few years ago with oak bark. I would not recommend using any commercial leather unless the company is absolutely clear that there are no chemicals or metal salts used in processing at all. I’m not just talking about not using chemicals to tan the hide. They may be used in other parts of the process too, I think particularly in dressing the skin with oils which may contain solvents for better penetration, such as neatsfoot oil compound. I’m not sure what is available out there for truly natural, traditional leather, but it is certainly not much.
I used the neck section, which has a loose fiber and is probably not the best choice. But, I didn’t want to risk the best leathers that I’ve tanned in this first run. I had pounded the leather previously and was wondering if any of the black jack leathers were pounded either on forms, or before forming. I didn’t know, but it seemed like a really good idea to use the pounded stuff. Pounding leather while it is damp compresses it greatly. It might end up half as thick and that means twice as dense. Pounded leather is really cool and something I just started playing with recently after reading things like this quote from an old translation from french:
“This dressing is of great service to the hide, and there is a considerable difference between the goodness of a hide well beaten, and that which has not been beaten; shoemakers who value themselves on the goodness of their work, beat their soles strongly and for a considerable time.” The Art of Tanning and of Currying and Leather Dressing 1773
So I used the pounded section and pounded the base piece as well, though not as thoroughly due to time constraints. More from me on pounding leather in the future, but the short version is that it is awesome. Use a heavy and very smooth faced mallet with rounded edges to beat the skin when it is in a slightly damp state, or on and off as it dries.
My leather also varied in thickness. Commercial leather is often split down to an even thickness. That is harder for me to do here and I didn’t have time to get it together and shave it down which is a sizeable project in itself. Parts of the rim turned out a bit thinner than the rest and it tends to deform a slightly, but it’s not a big deal, and especially not for this first run.
FORMS AND CLAMPS
I had some nice fine straight, close grained fir lying about the yard that I used to make all the forms. It was so nice that I was compelled to make the two clamping pieces from it instead of using scraps of 2x4 which would have worked fine. The fir turned well enough on my lathe after roughing out with a hatchet. I needed three pieces. One for the main body, one for the bottom and a third to use as a form to shape a metal ring. The ring is used in conjunction with the bottom mold piece to stretch the leather into shape and hold it while it dries.
The metal work was a bit of a diversion. I had to find a piece of metal and set up a forge. Setting up the forge was possibly the easiest part of that. I cut a piece of metal tubing that was a little small, turned a piece on the lathe to form it on, set up a forge, grabbed some charcoal from a charcoal trench that I hadn’t emptied from last spring, heated the metal tubing, hammered it wider till it would start to fit over the form, heated it up nice and evenly hot and pounded it over the form to shape it. Just in case it might want to warp, I cooled it on the form by quenching it in water so it would shrink down to the shape of the wood. It went very smoothly all in all and could have taken a lot longer. Back when these vessels were common they didn't have scrap piles with pieces of welded tubing sitting about. A smith would more likely start with a piece of iron nothing close to the needed shape, beat it out into something they could use, weld it into a ring in the forge and then do what I did. Not a difficult job for any smith, but more time consuming.
The body was turned with a flared base. I like that look a lot and might even consider making the flare more pronounced in the future, though now that it is finished, and shrunken slightly, the flare is more pronounced. As soon as the pieces were turned I oiled them up with some old lard that was sitting about to help slow or stop any checking (cracking) of the wood as it dried, being especially generous applying it to the end grain. It was splattering me with moisture on the lathe, so it really was quite wet.
The clamps were hewn out of the split fir slabs with a single beveled hewing hatchet, and briefly planed smooth on the faces that would be next to the leather. Pretty smooth anyway. Then they were notched to accommodate the flare at the base of the form. The edge that would be pinching the leather was slightly rounded. That is one place where a 2x4 may not be so great since the edges are probably usually too strongly rounded as they come from the mill.
I soaked the leather in warm water till it was completely wet through. some of the work of pounding was reversed in soaking because the skin swells in thickness with water, but I’m sure that work of pounding was not all lost. After a warm water soak, the thoroughly wetted leather was stretched on the forms using the stretching clamp boards and some nails. I had to pull the nails once and re-pound them differently to stretch it tighter. I just used a couple of clamps to tighten it down I wish I had pulled the nails and redone them one more time to stretch the leather even tighter around the body form, but it turned out fine. A welt (an extra piece of leather) was sandwiched between the two outside handle layers to increase the handle thickness.
That metal ring for the base was very hard to pound on over the thick leather. I lubed it up with some olive oil though and it went on eventually with much pounding. With everything pounded and clamped together, I cranked up the woodstove, hung the pieces to dry overnight right next to the hot stove, and went to bed!
In the morning I took it all apart and trimmed the pieces close to where I wanted them. To insure the pieces wouldn’t shift on me during sewing, I ended up glueing on the base to hold it during sewing and I also glued the three handle flaps together for the same reason. I put in a couple of temporary stitches at the top and bottom to hold it all while I got the first seam finished. I used hide glue, which is water soluble, but again, only temporary. I think I made this hide glue from pieces of this same skin. I ended up using that batch of glue a couple more times during this project. More on hide glue here.
I have actually done very little of this type of stitching, so I was worried I would be lame at it. The first seam, had to be the one closest to the body. I have a stitch marking tool, which is a little wheel that marks dots on the leather so you can make even stitches. They are great. It seemed like the stitches it marked were a little far apart though, so I doubled them by marking stitches in between resulting in a hole about every 1/8 inch. That didn’t go too well. With the large thread, awl and needle sizes I was using, it just turned out pretty rough looking no matter how careful I was. The rest of the stitches are not all perfect, but I’m satisfied. I still think this stitch wheel is a little wide for this project at 1/4 inch wide, and would guess that 3/16 inch spacing might be closer to ideal. But it worked fine and the liquid proof nature of a black jack is not from tight stitches, it’s from the pitch coating.
I got to make a new awl for this project. I make awls to sell that are basically designed for sewing buckskin. They are stubby though and a longer handle is better suited to this type of sewing. Mostly, I had to get that first row of stitches very close to the body, so I knew I'd need a long skinny handle. I turned the new, longer handle out of some native oak on my lathe and wrapped the tip with sinew to keep it from splitting. Hide glue was used to paint the area before wrapping and several times after wrapping with time left to dry in between. After alternate sanding and re-coating with glue several times I put on a final glaze of glue, it is clean looking and very tough. As long as it stays dry it should perform admirably. Most leather sewing awls for this sort of thing are shaped like a diamond I think or maybe a triangle. Anyway, they are faceted so that they cut the leather as they go through rather than just stretch open a hole by parting the fibers like my round awl bits do. I thought I would compromise and make it faceted at the tip, but basically the same long tapered shape. I would say it worked pretty good, and honestly, as long you can get the job done with reasonable effort, the less cutting of fibers that happens in leather sewing the better. So, whether the facets I ground into the tip did anything or not, the awl worked well.
This stitch uses one long thread and two needles. The needles are passed through the same hole, from opposite sides, first one then the other. The stitch lines were marked carefully with dividers and a stitching wheel to offer the best opportunity for keeping the stitches even and straight.
Normally this type of stitching is done in a simple wooden vice. I have long wanted to make such a vice, but I decided that the cup’s shape was probably too awkward for the vice to be of much use anyway. Without a vice, the stitching was extra slow. It took about 1 minute per stitch at the very best, but that is after I got into the swing of it and not including problems or set up time, so two minutes per stitch is probably closer. At a rough count of 198 stitches, 2 minutes is about 6.5 hours, which seems about right, if not low. The basic process was to cut the handle to shape with a sharp knife, use dividers to mark the stitch lines, and run the stitch-marking wheel down the line. This sewing method uses two needles and one long piece of linen thread. The thread passes from both sides through the same hole. I often needed pliers to pull it through. That’s good, I wanted tight stitches anyway. Once both threads are through, they are both pulled tight. To finish off, the threads are back tracked down the seam through several holes and then simply cut off flush.I was up sewing till 3:00 am on day two, but the cup was ready for the next stage in the morning.
COOKING, FORMING, DRYING
I spent a lot of time in the morning reviewing whatever information I could find and finally decided on a plan of attack. Watching Rex Lingwoods video helped me understand what I might be dealing with when the leather shrank in cooking. What I decided was to cut the form into several parts, in this case 7. The center piece would be tapered for easy removal. That meant I had to cut the base off of the original form and will have to turn a new one with the same size and flared base if I want to use any of the rest of the form in the future. I was torn between cooking the leather with the form in place or cooking and then stretching it back into shape. I decided to go with cooking in hot water and then putting the form back in. I soaked the mug and heated some water to 85º to 90º degrees celsius (185º to 195º F). I think I could have cooked it longer, but it seems to have turned out fine. Once the leather shrank quite a bit, I put the form pieces back in and drove them home. I was really thinking it probably wasn’t going to work, but it did. Whew!
I had to push the shrunken leather back up the form and in retrospect would have liked to have done that more. I just rounded the edge of a hardwood stick to do that. A clamp of some kind would have really helped. So, there it was. The form was back inside, though slightly smaller than it had been because the many saw cuts I made took away a little bit of the wood. That was okay with me. having a smaller form accentuated the flare at the base and made it easier to put the pieces back in. I had to dry it fast, so I left it right up close to the very hot woodstove with a fan blowing on it, turning it often.
PITCHING THE INSIDE
While the leather was drying I started messing with pitch formulas. I thought the pitch should be slightly flexible. After trying many different mixes of pine pitch, rosin, beeswax and raw linseed oil, I ended up with a beeswax/pine pitch mix. Now it seems a little soft when it gets warm and I removed it to be replaced with a straight pitch coating. There is a difference between pitch and rosin. Rosin is hard at room temperature and is made by driving off the volatile components of pine pitch. Pine pitch is more gooey and sticky. Rosin can also happen naturally when pitch sits long enough that the turpentine evaporates naturally. I had pitch in all stages from fresh to rosin, but favored the stuff that was closest to rosin. I think a fairly hard coating is probably what is wanted. Something that is not at all sticky unless heated up, and these vessels are not used for hot liquids. Pitch loses the solvent portion when cooked in my experience, so just heating it and melting it enough to strain out bark, bugs and pine needles makes it more hard and brittle. I thought that the brittleness would cause the pitch to crack and flake off. The mug was a little flexible, but as soon as the pitch cooled inside it, it was quite stiff! I was surprised that the pitch offered so much to the structure of the mug, and now think stiff pitch will probably not flex enough to crack under normal use. In truth, I would think that they require some maintenance no matter what anyway. Since pitch is thermo setting, it can probably just be melted back together if cracked badly. Or it could just be cleaned out competely and re-coated.
I poured the molten boiled pitch with about 1/5 to 1/4 beeswax mixed in, sloshed it around and dumped it back out a few times. As the molten pitch cooled a little, it allowed me to get a thicker layer. I'm not sure what it ideal, that will be learned over time I guess.
PAINTING THE OUTSIDE
The lampblack for the outer painting was made with a simple oil lamp arrangement covered with a stone plate. You can read more about lampblack in this blog post. It’s cool stuff. The lamp black was mixed with linseed oil to paint the outside of the mug.
There is something that you read about in old technical and formula books called Japaning. I imagine that term evolve from westerners trying to emulate the fine art of Japanese lacquer ware. So far as I can tell, it involves various process, most of which use linseed oil, resulting in a shiny enamel like finish. It was used on tea trays, cars and apparently on black jacks. It is hard to tell from pictures if all black jacks had that sort of gloss finish, but some certainly did. Linseed is a drying oil, which means that it cures over time by reacting with oxygen to form a sort of plastic-like film. Older recipes for this type of finish often call for Japan drier, which is a solution of toxic metals that speed the curing time of the oil, the same metals found in what is now sold as boiled linseed oil. I’m not going to use toxic metals on a food item, or probably on anything else, but there is a question I have not yet answered regarding whether the metals and other treatments of the oil, like heating it for a period of time in the absence of oxygen, just make it cure faster, or make it cure more thoroughly in the long run. I plan to test that eventually if possible. In the meantime, pure raw linseed oil, even the cold pressed food grade stuff from the health food store cures to the touch in a few warm days and seems fine for the things I use it for. I think I’m going to go as far as I can using just the raw linseed oil and lampblack for now. For a little more on linseed and other drying oils, see my video on oiling tool handles.
The goal is to eventually have a thick somewhat glossy outer finish. My basic process for painting the outside will probably be something like, paint on a thin layer, let it cure, then add another and so on. Maybe I can polish the outside once I build up and cure enough layers. The oil is best spread thin and allowed to cure. If it is thin, oxygen can reach it and it will cure faster than a thick layer will.
I put on two thick layers right off to get the oil to soak in as much as possible and a couple more the next day. I wanted to get the oil into the skin pretty far so that it would eventually stiffen inside the fiber structure and help harden the mug. I think I got quite a bit in there. The layers of oil applied will soak in for a while, then at some point one of the coatings will not soak in all the way because the surface has been saturated and sealed. This is the point at which you can start building up thin layers on the actual surface. At least that’s how it works with wood. This is new territory so we'll see.
I put the mug near the open oven on low heat to drive the oil that was sitting on the surface into the leather. That melted the pitch coating most of which ran out, especially on the hot side, which was basically left with no coating at all. When I filled it, the mug leaked slightly where the pitch had drained away at the bottom seam. Otherwise it seemed to work fine and it was actually quite nice to drink out of. Boy that Racer 5 IPA tasted good after three days of frantic problem solving and work! There was no off taste as I suspected there might be. I don’t think I’d mind a little pine flavor in my beer anyway Pine is a common flavor component found in hops. Actually, I may not have detected it since I was drinking IPA. I missed the midnight deadline to enter the instructables leathercraft contest by 15 minutes waiting for my hastily patched together youtube video to finish uploading. It’s probably just as well, because it is pretty rough with missing footage, typos and clips out of order. The new video posted here is much better put together and contains footage missing from the first one.
THOUGHTS AND WHAT TO DO DIFFERENT NEXT TIME
I would like to eventually make a second black jack. I could do it much faster a second time, especially on the same forms. I would probably push the boiling further, and use leather that is pared down to an even thickness. I might also try boiling it with the form in it as a sort of second boiling to set the shape better and harden the leather more. Actually, I did try that, but I was having technical issues with my water heating apparatus and had to give up on it. The other option would be to bake it on the forms. This intrigues me as well and I’m curious enough to want to try it.
Other things I might try or do different. I would experiment before hand with stitch length, but would guess that 3/16 is going to be about right. Straight pitch as the coating, with no beeswax or oil. cutting the handle closer to the stitches after the mug is sewn up (I just think they could be closer, but sewing them that close to the edge might be awkward). I would make the rim too tall. You can see in the pictures how it shrunk down making the rim taper down away from the handle. It may be possible to push it back up enough to get it level, but not without a something to firmly hold it while it is being worked on. If there were extra leather on the rim it could even be nailed in place to shrink and dry and then trimmed to the desired shape. A wooden vice to hold the piece while working would be very nice, even if it only worked for some parts. maybe a special vice to accommodate the fat cup body. Proper leather stitching needles. I ordered John James Saddlers stitching needles size 2 on recommendation of Youtube user Ian Atkinson I also just need to bone up on general leather working and stitching skills. I'm still much more of a tanner than a leather worker, so I may also pick up these two books 1 2 that he recommends and work on those skills. Lastly, I'm not sure about the outer finish and would like to do some more research and experimentation around "Japaning" with linseed oil to get that high gloss finish.
Another project I'd really like to tackle is a leather bottle of the short keg-like variety as in this picture. They are so damn cute! I have ideas on how to make those, but again, we don’t actually know how they were manufactured. This experience was fun and just the kind of adventurous multi-disciplinary project that I like doing. Trying to resurrect old technologies from available clues gets me all hot and bothered. It was extremely time consuming though and ate up most of 3 days. I think I can figure out the leather bottle thing and will certainly post that as well. I’m also currently working on recovering the apparently lost art of making genuine old school apple butter, which is very exciting. I have already compiled hours of research that I’ll be publishing, which probably constitutes, much if not most of the best available references relating to that subject. I’m also amped up to make a throwing tomahawk out of wrought iron and steel forged and welded in the ground forge that I just built for this black jack project.
Each of these projects takes many hours, or sometimes days, let alone the time required to write it all up, and to plan, shoot and edit video footage. In order to keep doing all this and building an archive of information here, without having annoying advertising on the website or on my youtube videos, I need to have at least a small income. If you appreciate this type of information, you can help me keep it up by using my amazon links. Thanks so much to the people that are already using them, you guys rock! If you bookmark this link in your web browser toolbar and use it whenever you shop at Amazon, I get a small advertising fee at no cost to you, regardless of what you purchase. It is usually not much, but if a lot of people do it, it adds up. I appreciate your support. If you make a black jack, or have already made one, please let me know!
Ira came to help out up here at Turkeysong today and showed me the Ukelele he's working on with a gourd box and rawhide drum skin. It's pretty neat! You can check out his new project at youngartistsactionleague.com and he taught this at Saskatoon Circle Gathering put on by some friends of mine in Washington state. Thanks for the tune Ira, and thanks for the help!
I slaughtered a goat a couple of days ago for meat and used the opportunity to make this video on proper skinning. I've skinned hundreds of animals to develop this simple strategy, which works well for me. It could be streamlined by anyone with enough practice and experience, but I think the approach is pretty solid. Yes, some of you aren't as big or strong as I am and may think this method is not possible for you. It may take quite a bit longer and you may have to do a little more cutting, but don't give up too easy! You may have to use the knife a little more, but use it only where you really actually have to and do your best to muscle and technique your way through the rest of it. Get all up in that carcass and use your bodyweight, and you may be surprised at what you can do! No need to be a purist. If you have to use a knife, then so be it, but it seriously takes FOREVER to skin an animal carefully with a knife and you will still slip up and cut the skin sometimes. Countless hides are ruined every day due to poor skinning which is by far and away the norm, even when people are well intentioned. Share this video with those hunters and animal raisers you know to help change that! Hides are a valuable resource and tanning is an accessible skill for homesteaders and small farmers. I'm still working on that tanning book, which is going to make it more accessible than it has every been, but this goat was a bit of a distraction among others. It's almost processed and put away now, just have to render the fat and salt the skin (which may also be videos) and wrap some stuff for the freezer, then I won't have to worry about meat... at least until buck season opens in a couple of weeks.
This approach is somewhat applicable to lambs and sheep as well, and some parts to skinning almost any animal.