Tanning a Bear Hide
Bear carcass loaded into wheelbarrow at home.
From Reclaimed Roadkill to Hide
While my husband and I were returning from an unofficial war event in North Carolina, we passed what looked like a large black dog on the side of the road. Pulling over, we could see this was in fact a large juvenile male black bear, that had been hit by a car recently. Being an enterprising and perhaps foolhardy couple, we threw the carcass in the back of the truck and took it home with us to see if we could make use of the wonderful hide and fur.
The first step in this process was skinning the carcass and removing any parts of the animal that we wanted to use. We kept the paws, head, baculum, and hide. Skinning was a difficult process, as bear hide is thick and fatty, particularly as we found this specimen in late October. Fortunately, we both had previous experience skinning deer, squirrels, and rabbits; we had both the equipment and basic knowledge to accomplish a full skinning of the carcass. Taking a little extra time, Sir Carlyle was even able to remove the face skin intact on the hide in one piece. The skull was removed and cleaned of flesh mechanically by hand. Paws were removed with a large butchers' knife and block.
NOTE: GRAPHIC IMAGES OF THE SKINNING PROCESS BELOW
We did not have a way to safely hang the bear carcass, so we dressed on the ground, on trop of garbage bags/tarps. Because this was a roadkill reclaimation project, we did not make use of the meat per my strenuous objections; however the bear was very fresh and probably would have been safe to eat. Better safe than sorry.
After skinning, we covered the fleshy side of the hide with butcher's paper, folded compactly, and stored in several garbage bags inside a chest freezer. The hide was frozen for approximately six months, allowing for any insects/ticks on the bear hide to freeze and die, as well as preserving the hide. Sir Carlyle and I had no experience with tanning hides, but knew that we wanted some assistance to preserve the beautiful fur.
NOTE: GRAPHIC IMAGES OF THE SKINNING PROCESS
Defleshing and Graining the Hide
We reached out to a SCAdian that we knew had experience with working with rawhide; Ollam Sadb of the Barony of Black Diamond. She graciously opened her home to us and invited us for a weekend at her farm of working on the bear hide. After defrosting the hide, we began by soaking the hide overnight in water. The next morning we placed the soaked hide on a flesh beam, made of six inch diameter PVC pipe to begin the defleshing process. The smooth, even surface helps to ensure that as you are defleshing the knife does not skip, cut holes, or damage the hide.
Using a draw knife, push down on the hide to scrape/remove bits of flesh, fat, and membrane from the hide. The goal is to remove any flesh, anything organic that may rot the hide later in the process. The hide should also be trimmed of any excess. This process takes some elbow grease and a little bit of time to properly execute. It is important to take the time and fully deflesh the hide to the best of your ability; due to wanting to keep the fur on the hide, it will not be bathed in an alkaline bath (a process called bucking the hide) because while this increases softness, also causes the hair follicles to slip. It is also important to make sure the hide stays wet in this process, adding water if you notice it is drying out. With a thick, fatty, greasy bear hide, this was not an issue.
Illustration from pg. 70, Deerskins into Buckskins
Rinsing and Cleaning the Hide
The next step in tanning is rinsing the defleshed hide. This can be accomplished several ways, but the technique we used was a 30 minute soak in a solution of diluted cider vinegar in the five gallon bucket. This helps to thoroughly rinse out remaining mucus which maintains cohesion of the skin. Mucus can also be weakened earlier in the process by "bucking" the hide in an alkaline solution. The alkalinity breaks down the bonds of the mucus and allows for more permeability of the hide. Rinsing removes the alkalinity of the hide, helps to clear the hide of remaining mucus in the grain layer, and make it softer for the next steps of the process.
After rinsing, we applied a very mild soap and water to the hide, washing away blood, mucus, and generally cleaning the hide from the defleshing process. We then wrang out the hide by hand. At this point, the hide no longer felt as greasy to the touch, and the texture of the flesh was more dry.
After this, to prepare the hide for stretching and scraping, an emulsified oil needs to be applied to the hide. In traditional settings, this was often the brains of the animal, however, many different options are available. Fermented egg yolks, ivory soap flakes, and vegetable oil are all other options. Emulsified oils allow for oils to permeate the fibers of the hide, lubricating them and preventing them from gluing together while drying. We applied a generous layer of vegetable oil onto the hide, making it moist. We then wrung the hide again.
*NOTE: Using brains is traditional in tanning, but should be undertaken with caution. Do not proceed if you have been nicked, cut, or injured in any way while processing the hide. Bacterial infections can be nasty and working with brains can be hazardous.
Stretching and Scraping the Hide
After oiling, the hide is ready to be stretched with physical manipulation. For this project, we stretched the hide over a tanning frame, or hearse using slip-knotted ropes tied onto the hide. Small slits were made using a knife along the edges of the hide, and ropes were inserted and tied to the frame, providing tension on the hide. When tying on the hide, it is important to apply equal tension across the hide. Start by tying the hide to the top of the frame, and then anchor the hide by tying a point at the bottom. Continue alternating points from the top, bottom, right, and left of the hide to apply equal tension. Make sure to tie tight and make the hide taut; skins are incredibly resilient and typically will not "rip" without a preexisting hole or being cut. The hide should be moist from the oil, and ready for the time-consuming but paramount process of scraping and working the hide for flexibility and softness.
At this point, stretched on the frame, the hide will begin drying naturally. This process can be sped up if the weather is very warm or there is direct sunlight. Use a scraping tool to deliberately remove any remaining membrane, which will now be drying and flaky. A scraping tool can be just about anything, but generally should have a blunt or rounded edge to avoid penetrating the hide, with a slight burr on the edge to catch and scrape at the hide. For this project we generally used a homemade scrape with a metal face, but bone and stone implements can be used in traditional settings. For the experience, we did use a bone implement for a short bit while scraping, and it does work! Additionally, another tool should be used to abrade, or break up the fibers of the hide. This tool works the surface of the hide, not necessarily removing material but instead helping to break down the collagen and increase flexibility/softness in the hide. Many tools can be used, a popular option is pumice stone.
This step of the process took by far the longest time and the most physical exertion. As one scrapes and pushes on the hide, the hide becomes more flexible, even loose in its frame. It's necessary from time to time to adjust the ropes on the hide to draw the hide taut once more.
The hide stretched on the frame; all pinkish, scaly material on the hide will be slowly scraped away as it dries.
Hides can be either frame stretched or hand stretched. There are a variety of techniques for hand stretching hides, one of the more popular being using a steel cable on a tree to "work" the hide back and forth. For this project, we used the frame stretching method.
To the right is an illustration from pg. 119, Deerskins into Buckskins which helps to demonstrate exactly how to tie the hide to a frame for stretching and abrading.
Scraping of the hide - Lady Ava
Scraping and abrading of the hide.
Using a bone to scrape.
Scraping of the hide - Sir Carlyle
Using a stick to press and flex on the hide. This is ultimately to improve flexibility/softness of the finished product.
Comparison of the flesh after defleshing vs after scraping.
The (Almost) Finished Product
After scraping, abrading, and manipulating the hide as it dried, we had a more-or-less stable hide, that needs the final step of the tanning process: smoking. Due to running out of time after a full weekend, we plan on returning to Mistress Sadb's farm in order to smoke the hide. Smoking acts as a preservative on the hide.
Ultimately we hope to turn the bear hide into trim and shoulders for some beautiful cloaks.
The below work was invaluable to my understanding of the science of the process and *why* each step was important to the hide.
Richards, Matt. Deerskins into Buckskins: How to Tan with Brains, Soap or Eggs. Backcountry Pub., 2004