Tannins are all over the place. They are in the trees, in the roots and most plants. They are in the tea you drink and the leaves and weeds you walk on. Bark tanning is a bit of a mis nomer, although not as much as the term Braintan is, because you don’t need bark to tan your hide, what you need are tannic acids. They can come from bark, or other sources. Sumac leaves (not the poison kind) are an excellent source of tannin, for example. Hardwoods such as Oak are one of the better sources for bark high in tannins, although softer woods can work.

Barktanning is not complicated, but like brain tanning, don’t assume that simple means easy. Most barktan operations include liming or lying the hide, then rinsing, to better receive the tannins. The bark is chopped up as fine as possible and boiled to extract the tannins. The basic goal is to soak the hide in the tanning solution long enough, or with enough agitation, that the tannins penetrate entirely though the fibers of the hide, to the center, then to apply oils and work the hide, to make the leather flexible and somewhat water resistant.

Bark tanning was once a huge industry in the eastern United States. Chrome tan has almost taken over the leather industry and very little true barktan is produced in the country anymore. Some of us would like to change that to some degree and allow people to see the benefits and beauty of all natural barktan again.

There are really only two components needed to braintan a scraped hide. One is brain oils (or similar oils from another source) and the other is wood smoke. Of course, in reality there is a third element-a whole lot of elbow grease. Although it is certainly possible to kill a deer, scrape its hide the same day, apply brain oils multiple times and soften and smoke it, all in a 24 hour period, it is not the most practical way to work. You may have seen pictures of Indian villages with dried hides hanging around or in frames. This suggests that they did not immediately process their hides as they harvested them, either. A hide that is stored for several months, sitting around camp and absorbing some smoke, is sure to soften easier than a fresh hide. Hides are mostly composed of a bunch of woven fibers bound together by a glue like substance. That is a very elementary explanation of hide chemistry, but it’s perhaps the main thing you need to know in order to become a good tanner. Most variations in brain tanning methods involve different ways to either: dissolve much of the glue in the hide, or to keep the hide fibers open so that softening becomes easier. The main ways to get rid of the glues are, bucking, (that is, soaking the hide in a weak lye solution), then rinsing the lye back out, and/or aging (letting a dried hide sit around for a few months before finishing it.) The other common method, pre-smoking, is really a way of keeping a stretched, somewhat open fibered hide in an open state by adding smoke before the final softening. It would take a book to explain all the variations of brain tanning methods out there and such books have been written, but the goal, always, is to open the fibers and keep them open by smoking the hide. Brains do not tan a hide, in spite of the name. Smoke does.