Muzzle Blasts Online
October/November 1998      Volume 3, Number 5
Past Issues Index
Book Review:
Wet-Scrape Braintanned Buckskin

A Practical Guide to Home Tanning and Use

Reviewed by Susan Jennys

Wet-Scrape Braintanned Buckskin: A Practical Guide to Home Tanning and Use
by Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder
    Paleotechnics Publishing
    PO Box 876
    Boonville, CA 95415
    Copyright 1997. ISBN 0-9654965-4-6.
    Softcover format, 307 pages.
    Retail price $17.95.

Over the past five to ten years, the literary market has been flooded by material about brain-tanning: magazine articles, books, and even videos. Seminars on brain-tanning are a very popular feature at rendezvous. It seems that just about everywhere you go for living history events, brain-tan leather is a topic of discussion. Brain-tan leather has become not only a material of choice with some re-enactors, but also a topic in the eternal authenticity arguments. There seems to be a craze over brain-tan! Yet anyone who has recently purchased brain-tan leather for an outfit may still be reeling from the dent in their pocketbook! Brain-tan buckskin is quite expensive to buy, compared to the price of commercial or factory-tanned leather. Although it may be desirable to own an outfit made from white brain-tan hides, many folks have taken one look at the high cost of buying brain-tan leather and given up their aspiration. Still others have been motivated to try to produce brain-tan leather for themselves! With all this interest in brain-tanning, is it any wonder that publications are full of instructional articles that-as one phrased it-outline the brain-tanning process in "a few simple steps"?

The operative word here, of course, is simple. For all the talk of simplicity and ease, many of these resources have contributed to what I like to call "brain-tan burn-out." The typical scenario plays out something like this: John Doe falls in love with the brain-tanned leather he sees the people wearing at a rendezvous. With the look of awe still on his face and a batch of well-intentioned encouragement from his friends, John decides to try his hand at the brain-tanning process; after all, he reasons, "How hard can it be?" He picks up a copy of an article someone recommended to him. After acquiring several raw deer hides and some tools, Mr. Doe begins his journey of discovery. Scrape, scrape, scrape, scrape,-OUCH! Scrape, scrape, scrape-WHEW! I'M REALLY WORKING UP A SWEAT! Scrape, scrape,-OOPS! Scrape-(big sigh)-GOOD GRIEF, THIS IS A LOT OF WORK! Scrape, scrape,-OUCH! HONEY, COULD YOU BRING ME A BANDAID? Scrape, scrape, scrape, scrape...(loud Klunk) SIMPLE?! EASY!? FORGET THIS--WHERE'S MY WALLET?

If this sounds familiar to you, don't feel too bad. I have met a lot of John Does out there in living-history land who have had similar experiences. After talking with many of them, I have come to the conclusion that the majority who gave up simply did not understand the process to begin with because the "how-to" resource that had been recommended to them fell shy of expectations. In short, they didn't have access to enough basic tanning information, packaged in realistic form, to get them through those initial questions, frustrations, and failures. To these folks, I say, "Take heart! Someone has called the cavalry and help has arrived in the form of a new book from Paleotechnics titled Wet-Scrape Braintanned Buckskin: A Practical Guide to Home Tanning and Use."

Expertly written by Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder (both well-known tanners), Wet-Scrape Braintanned Buckskin is both an instruction manual and a narrative of the authors' experiences while learning the brain-tanning process themselves. The authors are refreshingly straight forward, sharing candidly with readers about not only their tanning success, but also about those frustrating failures. "We had done some wet-scraping (in past experimentation)," they write in the Preface, "but most of the experiments (some very laughable now) had gone poorly or even pathetically!" If you're like me, hearing such an admission is at once comforting and motivational. Steven and Tamara have become noted specialists in pre-metal technology--despite those frustrating set-backs! Through their unique business, Paleotechnics, they teach primitive living skills (including brain-tanning) at various locations throughout the Western states. Their writing has appeared in the biannual Bulletin of Primitive Technology, and in Woodsmoke: Collected Writings on Ancient Living Skills.

In Wet-Scrape Braintanned Buckskin, Steven and Tamara take the reader through the entire wet-scrape method. (As opposed to a dry-scrape process, finished hides tanned with the wet-scrape method typically have fewer chatter marks on the surface). The process is meticulously outlined not only in the text of the book, but also through line drawings, diagrams, and photos. Twenty-nine chapters brilliantly cover all the necessary information on every aspect of tanning, including the origins and history of brain-tanning, differences in tanning methods, health and safety concerns, requisite tools, getting the proper edge on the scraper blades, and even sources for acquiring hides. Seven full chapters walk the reader/beginning hide tanner through the actual process of tanning. Other chapters discuss the hows and whys of smoking tanned hides, the production of basic buckskin clothing, and even the process involved in dyeing buckskin (which is a topic that should appeal particularly to re-enactors of the longhunter persuasion).

Wet-Scrape Braintanned Buckskin is a fascinating book, chok full of practical information. It is written in a straight-forward style, backed by the authors' realistic approach to things. If you have been wanting to learn the art of brain-tanning (or have already experienced an acute case of Brain-Tan Burn-Out), Wet-Scrape Braintanned Buckskin is the resource for you. Before you try your hand at tanning-even if you think you know how to proceed-pick up a copy of this book and read it cover-to-cover. I think you will agree with me that this book is the finest, most complete treatise on brain-tanning currently available on the market!

Happy tanning!


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