How To…. Make Buckskin from a Deer Hide

This How To… is put together from my records of a Primitive Technology course I did with John Rhyder of Woodcraft School back in 2009. In particular I will walk you through the steps I took to brain tan a fallow deer hide into a piece of buckskin to make a bag.

Buckskin bag

Background info on Buckskin

Any animal hide that is left untreated will harden into what is called rawhide. This has many useful applications, such as making bindings for tools and inserting and holding stone tools in sockets, and these days it’s often used as dog chews.

If a hide is stretched out  on a rack its surface area increases and it can be useful in making drum skins. However if a hide is stretched, manipulated, properly cleaned and soaked in a solution made up from the animal’s own brains and smoked it becomes buckskin. This is very useful in making clothing and bags.

Buckskin making will be discussed in this How To… but it is made differently to normal shop-bought leather. Traditionally processed or shop-bought leather is tanned in vats of tannic acid solutions. This could be from the tannins found in oak, willow and chestnut. Skins can be soaked in these solutions for periods of 8 months to 2 years. This produces a heavy leather which is good for making shoes, jackets, ‘possibles pouches’ and sheaths.

Also with modern commercially made buckskin the process is very polluting with the chemicals used and the grain layer (see below) is also left on. This does not allow perspiration to escape through the fibre so leads to degradation of the buckskin.

With hand-worked buckskin the grain layer is removed and due to the longer periods of stretching the fibres are more open so allowing perspiration to disperse. The skins are also lighter because of the stretching.

Due to hunting restrictions in this country since medieval times, much of the knowledge regarding tanning in this country has been lost. Most of the knowledge that we use now in relation to traditional tanning and buckskin production comes from studies with Native Americans.

It is estimated that there are 6 million hunting licenses issued in the States each year but only about 500,000 skins are tanned each year. This means skins can now be obtained more easily and information about tanning or making buckskin is becoming increasingly available on the web as people experiment more.

In the UK animal skins can be obtained from many sources including roadkill, game dealers and stalkers. It must be remembered that the quality of a skin relates directly to how the animal is skinned. Damaged skins from road kill may prove a challenge to the person treating the skin. Also nick marks from knives in the skinning process can produce cuts in the skin that expand when stretching the skin. The ideal is to get an animal that has a near complete hide and has been skinned with the minimum use of a knife.

If a skin is not processed properly it will either stay dry, hard and stiff as rawhide or, if it gets wet, it will go soft and eventually rot. The ideal with buckskin is that it will be soft when dry, and when wet will not rot easily but be able to dry out and remain soft.

In all leather or buckskin making the flesh and hypodermis membrane are removed. Hairs can be left on or removed depending on the final product. Commercial leathers also remove the hair but much of the epidermis and grain layer is left on.

To make buckskin the epidermis, grain level, much of the small fibres, hypodermis and flesh are all removed. Only the mature fibres are left to process.

Brain-tanning a hide in general

  • Skin the animal carefully
  • De-flesh the hide with a scraper
  • Remove the hypodermis membrane by scraping
  • Remove loose hairs if required by hand
  • Remove the grain level and stubborn hairs by wet scraping
  • Remove small fibres by dry scraping
  • Stretch the (moistened) skin initially to start opening the fibres so as to make the skin more pliable
  • Dress the skin in a solution such as brains and water, or eggs and water
  • Continue to soften and stretch the skin so as to manipulate the fibres and coat them in the oils of the dressing. This helps to keep the fibres separate from each other as the skin dries
  • Apply more and more dressing with continual stretching and manipulating. About 3 or 4 dips in the dressing mixture.
  • When the skin has finally dried out (it needs to  be continually stretched until it is dry) it needs to be smoked. Smoking changes the skin chemically to stop the fibres glueing back together when it gets wet, hence keeping the buckskin soft. Smoking also locks the oils from the dressing into the fibres.


Steve Lawson, the instructor, brought in a range of fallow deer hides for us to work on. There were not enough to go around so my friend Phil Brown of Badger Bushcraft shared one with me. Our skin was the one on the right of the line. Steve set up a pole at about 35 degrees to hang the skins on for us to de-flesh all the remaining muscle and fat (initially we used metal scrapers before moving onto primitive scrapers), The pole had been well scraped to make it smooth so the hide would not be damaged

The skins and set up

The skin Phil and I were working on was particularly thick so we guessed this was an older animal. There was an area of deep red where all the blood had pooled in the skin after it had been shot. By this stage we had moved onto using flint scrapers and they worked particularly well. The edges of the hide needed extra work as this was where a lot of the muscle and fat had been left.


Splitting and removing the hair

After de-fleshing we decided to split the hide. The flint knife cut through the hide as easily as cutting through butter. The hide was placed on the bench so that it could be cut accurately and safely.

Flint knife work

After cutting the hide in two we noticed that one half of the hide had started to lose its hairs. This was due to the blood from the gunshot wound pooling into the skin and loosening the hair follicles but this was only in patches and the hair came away easily. As I wanted to make a buckskin bag I elected to use this half and Phil decided to keep the hair on his half to make a small cover.

Removing the hair

Once the loose hair came off (very easily) I started to use a scraper on the other hair. This did not come off easily at all so I used metal and flint scrapers on it. It took me several hours to remove the rest of the hairs from the healthy part of the hide.


Dry Scraping

While we were working on our hides John Rhyder had set up a dry scraping rack for another student to use.

Dry scraping set up

Once the hide is stretched out fully it is then left to dry and it is then scraped of all the excess muscle, fat and the grain layer.

Dry scraping with flint

As well as the metal and flint scrapers, the shoulder blades of the deer also make excellent scraping tools.

Scraping tools

During a break Steve showed us how to dry scrape an old fox hide. The hair and grain layer came off for him very easily, unlike the hide I was working on.

Getting down through the layers

If you do not remove the grain layer the oils from the brain or egg solution will not fully soak in and the buckskin will not become truly soft.

In detail

Tanning – eggs

We made up one pot of egg solution. For a fallow deer about 12 eggs are required per hide, well mixed with water in a ratio of about 4 parts water to 1 part egg.

Tanning using eggs

With a hide where the hairs are kept on it is best to apply the solution with a sponge or cloth until it soaks in.

Applying the mixture

Tanning – brains

Steve showed us how to take the brains out of a deer. The first method started with a vertical slit down the hide over the forehead. With the skull exposed a heavy knife could pierce the skull, allowing the brains to be scooped out.

The other method is to go through the area of the skull where the spinal column attaches to the skull. Again, a heavy knife is needed to hack away at the bone to open a hole big enough to get a small spoon into it.

Brain tanning – opening up the skull – front and back

Steve used an old knickerbocker glory ice-cream spoon (it has a very long handle) for the job, with the sides of the bowl bent upwards. To get all the brains out you need to mash the brains up with a spoon and scoop out as much as you can. Then add water to the brain casing and scoop or pour the last bits out.

Using a slightly bent knickerbocker glory spoon works well – A long handle and easy to bend up the sides.

Brains are mixed with water in the same ratio as the eggs. It is generally agreed that an animal’s own brains will tan its own hide but in terms of weight, for the average hide you need about half a pound of brains.

The brains we were using were supplied by Steve and they had been double bagged and kept in a freezer until we used them. In the pot in the bottom right picture are two sets of brains. The darker one was thought to contain blood from a head wound.  In total four sets of brains were used.

Preparing the brains solution

Warm water was added to the brains and mixed vigorously. It was topped up again and re-whisked.

Preparing the brain solution

Soaking & Stretching

My hide had gone rock solid so I soaked it in a stream to soften it.


After wringing it out I popped it into the brain mixture for 10 minutes. Then began the stretching. I rigged a line up to help with this and I had to use my whole body weight to stretch the hide (it was very thick).

Dip and stretch

This process went on for a number of hours. I also twisted the hide every now and then while it was attached to the line with a stick to further stretch it. I re-dipped the hide in the mixture every now and then went back to stretching. This repetition of stretching and re-dipping opens up the fibres and allows the oils in the mixture to attach themselves to the fibres to keep them supple.

I alternated the stretching from the line to over my knees. When we could, we even worked in pairs to stretch the hide out. This is quite a tiring process and really works your finger muscles.

Stretch, stretch and stretch

The skins were left hanging overnight and we resumed stretching in the morning without adding any more mixture.

The plastic bag was used to keep the skin as clean as possible so it did not pick up dirt from my trousers.

Knee stretching

Here Phil had decided to use a post. The post is rounded smooth at the top. This allowed him to exert great pressure and really stretch the hide without damaging it.

Stretching on a post

To speed up the drying process we carried on stretching the hides over the warmth of the fire. This is a crucial period as you need to keep stretching the skin until it is completely dry to keep the fibres separated and coated with the oils.

Stretching and drying


When it is dry it is ready for smoking. My skin was very soft and buckskin-like on the outer areas (which covered the stomach of the deer) but still stiff on the inner areas (which covered the hind quarters). This caused the rippling effect you see in the  photo directly below.

To ensure the skin stays soft it needs to be smoked. If it is not smoked then as soon as it gets wet and dries out it will go rock hard.  A small fire was set up with a pipe placed over it. Into this was placed a lot of dry rotten wood, which creates a lot of smoke but little flame.

Preparing for the smoking

I attached a line to a corner of the hide so I could hang it over the smoker.

Then, using hide glue, I formed the hide into a conical shape. I left a small opening by the string to let the smoke trickle out.

Sealing the skin for smoking

It was then hung over the pipe. I kept it in place here for about 15 minutes. The pipe did get very hot at one stage and singed the soft part of the hide, but slowly the hide changed to a slightly yellow colour.


While doing this I also held the bottom rim of the hide over the smoke to try and get as much of it smoked as possible.

Thought about a hat as the final product.

Possibly a Gandalf hat………………………….

Even added a bow but have decided on making a bag.

With matching kit…………………

The bag

The top picture shows the smoked hide flattened out. It was still stiff in the central areas but the outer areas were soft like buckskin.

I trimmed off the ragged edges of the buckskin with my flint knife and used that as thread to make the bag. I attached the bag to my bark belt to hold all my flint knapping and fire making tools.

Decided in the end to make a bag for my primitive kit

I used an offcut of antler as a toggle to keep it shut.

Very happy with the bag in the end

This process took a full weekend  but taught me a lot that I had only ever read about before.

I really appreciate now how long it takes to make buckskin and thoroughly recommend anyone to try it.



Natures DPM – Exploring autumns colours

In September I received a most excellent birthday present from my wife Alison – a Nikon D3200 DSLR camera. As soon as I started using it the colour differences I saw in comparison to just using the camera on my phone really amazed me.

For example I would never have gotten all these subtle shades in the lime leaves to show up so clearly on my phone camera. I am still learning to use the manual settings on my camera so rely on the automatic settings when I am in a rush. I shoot in RAW format so that I can adjust the light and colour levels in Adobe Lightroom easily. I like Lightroom as it helps make up for the wrong choices I make on the camera when shooting in Manual mode.

Luscious lime

I asked Santa to bring me some Kenko lens extensions for Christmas and they duly turned up (thanks Alison and Santa). Lens extensions are a cheaper alternative to a full on Macro lens for close up shooting. Below is one of my first pictures taken with the extensions and the greens and browns in the moss really stand out.

Delicate moss

A splash of white, green and eventually pink is guaranteed from the snowberry. I love going out for a walk and seeing these delicate little globes dotted along the hedgerows. Eventually they turn to a lovely shade of pink before dying.


White can also be spotted in the delicate threads of the willowherb tops, on the bramble leaf caused by the moth larvae Nepticula aurella and the tiny little white dots in the sorrel leaves

Swirls of white and green willowherb, bramble and sorrel

Purple was an unusual colour to find but when I did such as with the herb robert, fern and red dead nettle it made for quite a striking contrast. This was the colour of choice for royalty in the past due to the expense it took to produce a purple dye but also I think because it does look so good.

Pretty purples – herb robert, fern and red dead nettle

Why some leaves go yellow and some go brown I presume is to do with the pigments that are left in the leaves after the chlorophylls stop their production but whatever happens it always leads to some amazing effects.

Sweet chestnut, wild service tree and the sun peaking through a crack in a leaf

This little shot is well staged. I just picked up a few yellow leaves and spread them out in a ring to capture the range of colours found under my feet. I only thought to take this picture as I had been following a small frog hopping around trying to stay under cover of the fallen leaves.

A fairy ring of colour

As some of the leaves went mostly yellow I started to see others like the horse chestnut start to take on a mixture of yellows and browns. this led to a slightly military DPM effect but you could see the odd bit of white still showing as you can see in the goat willow catkin buds.

A bit of DPM – hazel, oak, goat willow and horse chestnut

I particularly liked the brown edging in the oak leaves in the top picture below. You can see how the leaves are shutting down from the edges to the centre as opposed to the bottom two where the process is happening from the inside out. Either way it is a beautiful and striking sight.

Browns into yellows – oaks and ash

I liked the contrast between the two pictures of the berries below. The top one is of a dessicated rosehip I think but am not sure on the bottom one at all. Even when the berry has lost it’s moisture content as in the top picture it can still look rather striking when you get up close to it.

Berries – wasted rosehip and an unknown black berry

Now this is a time of year for fungi and I see lots of Little Brown Jobbies (LBJ’s) dotted around the ground and I have no idea what they are. The picture in the top section below is an LBJ as I do not know its name (I am sure someone can identify it for me). I spotted it in some very long grass well hidden away and am glad I took my time to get the camera out as it is quite beautiful in its own way as it peels apart.

The bottom one is of a fungus called turkey tail I found attached to a log. It had very strong bright colours which I just enhanced slightly in Lightroom by adjusting the light levels on the different colours.

Fungi – LBJ at the top and a turkey tail down below

I was taking a picture of a pond I regularly monitor in my village when I spotted this iris seed pod just opening. The seeds were just waiting for a waft of wind to give them a little nudge and spill out into the water. I like the way how mother nature has packaged them really neatly in wedge shapes to keep them secure until they are ready to be released.

Beautiful brown – iris seed pod

A couple in the reds for you. The top picture below just had to be taken as the reds and greens of the rosehips and the apples contrasted really well. The fly agaric in the bottom picture was one of the very few I saw this year in my local woods but I was captivated more by the little slug that was happily munching away on it than the colours themselves.

Opposites – apples and rosehips versus fly agaric

Three lovely red pictures I took over the autumn. I used my lens extension on the pictures of the haw berry and the frozen leaf tip (left hand pictures) but not on the wasp gall on the right. You can gauge the size of the wasp gall by the thorn in the top left of the picture. I had never observed these tiny little red bundles until about two years ago and now regularly see them on brambles.

All the reds – haws, frozen leaf tip and a wasp gall

On a larger scale the light levels over the autumn have made me think about my photography. The setting sun in the top picture really lends to a dark feel to the woods as opposed to the overcast mid day light being slightly enhanced by the silver bark of the birches.

Contrasting woodlands

My final picture in this post really struck me as one to signify the end of autumn. It was a frosty morning and the sun was just rising when I took this picture of a bud on our cherry tree. I had to adjust the light levels in Lightroom to make the frost very clear and that slightly changed the colour of the sky to give an even yellower feel to what it was really like. It is a picture that I like though and a nice one to end on.

Start of Winter

I am now thinking on to the winter and looking forward to getting some more frosty plant pictures, snowy landscapes and shots of winter plants poking their buds up over the next month.



Meeting Mollie – Fun with the Field Farm Project

Back in October last year I heard that my good friend Mollie Butters would be demonstrating some of her many bushcraft skills at our local National Trust (NT) property – The Vyne. The whole family were keen to go and this is a little report on our wonderful day.

I met Mollie while studying bushcraft with John Rhyder at Woodcraft School back in 2008 and have been firm friends since.

Mollie has set up an outdoor education school called the Field Farm Project with her partner Nick McMillen and to quote their Facebook page it is ‘an exclusive mix of woodland crafts, field studies, farm life, horticulture, ancient crafts and technologies – combining to provide a rich and inspirational learning experience‘.

Mollie had already set up her stand when we arrived and had a lot of her beautiful creations on display. One of Mollie’s specialisations is basketry and she loves to pass that knowledge onto others. Mollie had planned to run classes that day but due to some last-minute changes by the local NT organisers she was only allowed to run some demonstrations.

Meet Mollie

The Vyne is a large estate so we spent the day going off on adventures and then popping back to Mollie’s stall to sneak in a bit of basketry.

My wife Alison and the kids got chatting to one of the NT volunteers who was using a rather strange device, an oval-shaped nest of wires, designed to pick up fallen apples. It was a simple but genius system allowing you to collect lots of apples without bending over, and without damaging them in any way. As the wires rolled over each apple they parted to let it in, then sprang back into shape again to hold it securely inside with all the others.

Once the apples were collected it was off to the device that shredded them ready for pressing.

Apples galore

As this was October the leaves were just turning. I loved the browns, yellows and greens that were all around. The yew was heavy with red fruit and the dew was still lingering in shaded areas of the grass – all quite beautiful.

Autumn colours

My kids wandered off to the woods to play and I bimbled back to chat with Mollie. The Field Farm Project is really gaining strength nowadays with a wide range of courses being run. They have bushcraft courses for children, basketry courses and bow-making courses and they are experimenting with growing many different foodstuffs all year round. For schools, Mollie and Nick offer courses for Key Stages 1 through to 4 covering many different types of learning in the natural environment.

I spent a long time just looking at Mollie’s baskets trying to figure out how she had made them – I can do the basics but that is all 🙂

Field Farm Baskets

I found my family later at the falconry display. Catherine was lucky enough to get picked to fly one of the birds. I was very chuffed to capture the picture at the top left just as the bird landed – Catherine did not move in the slightest – brave girl 🙂

Fun Falconry

Finlay was a bit disappointed not to get in on the act but we had some great adventures in the woods together that day.

I teach outdoor education to city children and I am fully aware that the majority of kids do not truly get to explore outdoors these days – I try wherever possible to let my kids run free and discover nature for themselves. We had a great time climbing, finding kill sites, spotting birds and just generally larking about.

Finlay Fun

I love to find fungi and photograph them. I can identify ones that I know are edible or have some sort of bushcraft use but in the set of pictures below the only one I could hazard a guess at would be the small puffball in the bottom right.

Finding Fungi

As well as the basketry and the carvings on Mollie’s stall, I spotted what I know as a Blobster, a character made out of clay (shown on the left). Mollie works with youngsters making these beautiful woodland creations and it is amazing to see what children can make from just the resources they find lying around them.

I love this activity myself – the trick is to mould the clay around a small twig to provide support. You can create whole communities from mud, twigs and leaves.

Field Farm fun

To finish my day I spent a little while trying out coiled basketry. This is such a simple art but has the potential to create very beautiful baskets in the right hands. Mollie can do that but I think I need a bit more practice.

A great way to relax

It was great to catch up with Mollie again and I know that Alison, Catherine and Finlay had a great day as well.

The Field Farm Project is going from strength to strength and I am looking forward to seeing all the adventures they get up to in the coming year.



Teenage instructors – The new crop

I spent the last weekend of October by a lovely stretch of the Thames at TS Black Swan – Sunbury & Walton Sea Cadets unit. I was assessing a Level 2 Award in Assisting in Basic Expedition Leadership (BEAL).
With me were Perry Symes and Jennifer Burdett. This course is one of the most difficult a cadet can undertake in the Adventure Training world and leads to a recognised qualification.

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T S Black Swan on the Thames

Alongside us our friend John Kelly (bottom left) was running a DofE training course. This proved very useful to us as we could assess our BEAL students as they taught the DofE students the basics of living under canvas.

The other staff members - Perry, Jenny and John
The other staff members – Perry, Jenny and John

The first class, taken by Tara and Jess, was on the different types of food you would want to take on expedition. In terms of assessment, as well as expecting them  to talk about different food types we were looking to see how well they managed to hold the attention of the class. They had plenty of different foods to pass around and engaged the students well by asking them plenty of questions to keep them thinking.

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Delivery from Tara and Jess on food

Next up was Jack with his class on the different types of kit they would be expected to use. Jack had brought a lot of kit to illustrate the discussion and explained well why he used particular pieces.

The DofE students were all fairly new to camping so found this invaluable.

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Kit presentation from Jack

Thankfully Jen and Perry were happy to take all the notes as that left me free to take the pictures 🙂

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Jen and Perry busily recording their observations

While the guys were running their classes indoors, Mehmet and James had been busy outdoors setting up a range of tents and tarps. They discussed the pros and cons of each tent type with the DofE students to give them some information to think about when either buying a tent or setting one up.

Mehmet and James delivering their tent class
Mehmet and James delivering their tent class

We were grateful to John Kelly for letting us use his DofE students for our assessments as we could really see how the BEAL candidates interacted with these younger cadets, which made the assessments very realistic.

From the looks on these students’ faces I would say that they had a good time.

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The DofE crew trying out their tents

While all these assessments were going on it was good to see so much happening on the river. We’d decided to run the final assessment here as we had finished with all the navigation parts of the assessments on previous courses. I had never been at this unit before and really enjoyed watching all the river activity.

The view from the classroom
The view from the classroom

While we were happy that they all could navigate for themselves, we watched each BEAL student run a one-to-one session with a DofE student to explain how maps worked and how to use a compass.

Being a good navigator is important, but if you cannot pass that skill over to someone else then you will never make a very good expedition leader. All the candidates fared well here thankfully.

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Being assessed on how they teach map reading

The classes carried on well into the Saturday evening, when we observed the BEAL candidates supervising the DofE students as they cooked their evening meals.

All went well and everyone got fed quickly and safely. I have seen a few accidents happen at this time as everyone is tired and it was good to see our young trainee instructors still keeping an eye on what was going on.

Some late night assessment on teaching cadets safe stove use
Some late night assessment on teaching cadets safe stove use

Sunday morning was spent getting all the paperwork for the students in order and giving them feedback on their progress. I was happy to see that as a group of instructors we agreed that four of the students had passed after this weekend (the other was deferred, and I’m confident will pass very soon).

This was the first BEAL course the Sea Cadets had ever run (I do not think that even the Army or the Air Cadets have run one) and I was very proud to have been a member of the team. These new instructors (and they are instructors in every sense) are the ones who may well one day take over our jobs in the Sea Cadets.

Well done to all those cadets that undertook and passed this pilot course and I am looking forward to helping out at the BEAL course we will be running this year.