Braining hides - Paste versus Slurry

beardedhorse
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beardedhorse
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2:11 AM - Aug 10, 2018 #1

There are a variety of ways to brain a hide.   I'd like to hear from those who have used both a paste method and a slurry (or brain shake) method and get their opinions of one over the other.  One may simmer brains in hot water and then rub both sides of a nearly dry hide with them.  I always rub brains onto the flesh side first in case I don't have enough for the epidermal side (which is sometimes the case when I use only the brains from the animal the hide came from).    Simmered brains inside a cotton tea bag with drawstring when rubbing the oils into a semi dry hide filters out un needed connective tissue, blood vessels, hair like filaments, etc. You allow the paste to dry thoroughly in the hot sun.  Sort of like grease burning the lecithin and lipids of the brain into the hide.   You rehydrate the dried hide in warm water or warm dilute brain solution - not too warm or too long.   Just enough to make it stretchable.   Over soaking might draw too much of the dried brains out of the hide and into the water. My experience shows this paste method results in a lighter hide and the brains seem to not spoil and smell bad before the hide is softened.       
The slurry method is where you liquefy or mash or blend brains and dilute with water.   The resulting slurry is enough to completely cover the hide in the solution.   You make have to use more brains and water than necessary to soften a single hide.    Weighing the hide down with rocks, patio stones makes for uneven soaking.  Nice if you can suspended the hide in the solution below the surface.    Dunking and pulling the hide in the bucket encourages more thorough brain penetration.   Many aggressively wring the hide, catching the slurry in the soak bucket.   Let  the hide almost dry and then re soak and stretch and dunk the hide.   Wring again, saving the liquid.  If a strong concentration (one to one or two parts water to one part brain by volume) slurry is made that just covers the hide you may repeat until all the slurry is used up in the bucket.   Then stretch to soften.  The slurry for me seems to attract more flies, wasps and bees and sour sooner.   Could it be the "un wanted" connective tissues, blood vessels" act like cooked meat?   What happens to cooked meat that is not refrigerated and left to age?   My first encounter with the paste method were from Larry Belitz's pamphlet and a video by Robert Earthworm at the 1985 NMLRA western rendezvous in Washington state.    The slurry method is in a majority of both dry and wet scrape books I've encountered.    Look forward to your replies.      
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Beadman
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1:24 PM - Aug 10, 2018 #2

Good subject matter question.I use both methods.Good description of both.Brain slurry for hair off hides and paste for hair on hides.Once a hide is brained it's brained and a person can't over brain it.I believe that's part of the beauty of the brain dressing type method besides it's other great finished qualities and toughness IMO.It's good to have more brains around then not enough.Being in a farming agricultural area extra brains are'nt a problem.They are not a very big expense and even free most times.
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paskinner
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5:18 PM - Aug 13, 2018 #3

Never had the patience to rub brains into a hide, unless doing furs. It's ok as a pre brain, but my hides currently get completely dried on the frame, then soaked in dried brains and water. Using enough brains that you can have three gallons of water make it easier. You can even make five gallons of solution and throw in some smoking skirts and gradually brain a 30 foot dried elk hide. Some deer hides can be done in one braining, most I pre work and do two brainings. You should be able to cut out the pre working by using more brainings, if not in a hurry.
Now, a dried hide put in brains does not soak up well, usually, so you push out excess moisture and either run over the back of the hide with a scraping tool on the beam or work the hide over a cable, before putting back in the brains and bubbling and pulling. For thick hides, I usually run over on the beam first, back in brains for a bit, then over cable, back in brains, pull and bubble some, and then wring and proceed. 
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beardedhorse
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11:36 PM - Aug 13, 2018 #4

Thanks for replies.  I started out dry scraping and putting dried hide from frame in five gallon brain shake bucket.  McPherson and Riggs books were followed.   After multiple wringings and dunkings and soaks it became a challenge of one's manhood to be able to soften the hide in one pulling without having it get stiff and needing to re brain.   This mainly on deer.   Some elk done in one session but majority required several brainings.    Wish that brains were plentiful and cheap here.   Pork and one year old calf brains available but costly so I save the brains from the heads of the animals I skin.  Many of the animals are from other hunters as it is luck of the draw as to what you draw from fish and game lottery.   Another technique suggested by Dave Christsensen is to simmer the brains and let the heavy sediment settle out.   Decant and use the liquid and not the sediment.   He also learned from a Native American woman tanner hold to put the brain in a bag and rub the oils of the brains through the fabric of the bag onto the hide.   I have heard of folks using a pair of nylon stockings instead of the cotton tea bags.                                 Finishing a hide on a frame can result in a larger hide and flatter  one with less wavy puckers which makes cutting out pattern pieces easier but I wind up doing more work to soften the very crispy, crusty edges or trimming them off for lacing up hides.          John McPherson wrote that you can never get too many brains into a hide.     Another tanner thought you can get too much brains into a hide and that it makes them heavy unless you wash it out after smoking.   I found that a slick, dried coating on a brained and dried hide resisted full penetration from a subsequent braining unless I soaked it and stretched it before re braining.  The stretched hide is not sopping wet when it goes into the next soaking.    Not sure if the dried brains worked like wax paper and resists moisture.
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Lazy Stitch
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4:17 AM - Aug 14, 2018 #5

I can personally vouch for Dave Christensen's methods.  I met him in the early 1980's, and his was the first high quality buckskin I ever encountered.  One word:  Amazing. 

That said, I'm pretty much in line with paskinner's approach.  I learned braintanning with the brain milkshake method, and I never rush it, and I get consistently excellent results.  I'm lucky in that frozen pork brains are readily and cheaply available where I live in North Carolina, and I am a firm believer that you can't have too much brains in the solution.  So, I usually mix one pound of brains in about three quarts of hot water, and it's a rare hide that doesn't get a minimum of two pounds of brains.  A weak brain solution just means more work.  I always put the brains in a blender and then strain out the insoluble bits and the occasional pieces of bone.  The osmotic shock of plain water combined with the mechanical shearing force of the blender does the trick for getting the lipids thoroughly into solution.  Pink, frothy milkshakes, baby. 

I prefer not to dry my hides prior to braining since, as paskinner noted, it's usually a challenge to get them to soak it up well.  After I've grained/fleshed/soaked/neutralized my hides, I wring them, open them up on the beam, and either go straight to braining or else I freeze them for braining later.  When they thaw, I'll open them on the beam and then let them dry a bit before the first round of braining. 

I don't simmer the brains, but I do use hot water, and I will reheat about half of the solution on the stove between brainings.  I'll also give the braining bucket a shot of Dawn dishwashing detergent to act as an emulsifier.  I'll add enough water to submerge the hide, and then work the hide rigorously and thoroughly while it's in the solution.  So my solution is always quite strong, but it's definitely a liquid and not a slurry.  Once I'm satisfied with the feel, I'll wring the hide thoroughly, open it up thoroughly on the beam and then drape it over a fence railing again to let it dry a bit.  A damp hides absorbs brains better than a soaking wet hide or a dry hide, and then it's back into the brain solution. 

Lather, rinse, repeat until the hide opens easily after wringing.  I find that each successive round of braining/wringing/opening allows the hide to open a bit more easily, and three brainings usually does the trick for me, but I've done up to five for large and/or heavy hides.  Of course, not every hide has to be totally velvety soft, so sometimes, fewer brainings is a deliberate choice.  If I run out of time or daylight or energy while I'm braining, I'll freeze the entire bucket, with the hide submerged in the brain solution, and then carry on the next day.  I've also simply covered the bucket and left the hides to soak overnight and finished them up the next morning. 

Beardedhorse - I agree completely with your comment about the difficulty of softening a hide in a single go.  I was taught to soften hides in a single go, but it's drudgery to me.  My standard approach now is to frame soften every hide, and I purposefully do it over several sessions.  Yeah, it means lacing/unlacing the hide every time, but I'm never in a hurry, and it allow me to assess the hide closely.  I'll work the hide for a couple of hours and then put it up in the freezer (and usually go do beadwork).  I find that I never get behind on a hide with this sort of phased approach, so I never end up having to chase it or rebrain it.  I rarely use a cable, but have a variety of staking tools. 
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Quillsnkiko
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4:44 AM - Aug 14, 2018 #6

I saw Larry Belitz , brain a Buffalo hide once at a rendezvous once...by just smashing up a raw brain with his hands then rubbing it on the flesh side of the hide. He did not get the hide softened before the rendezvous was over. I never used the paste method myself...but soaked the hide in a brain & water slurry several times. Quills
" You can't stop the waves .... but, you can learn to surf."
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Lazy Stitch
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4:37 PM - Aug 14, 2018 #7

Hard to argue with someone like Larry Belitz, or Dave Christensen, or Melvin Beattie, or Billy Maxwell, etc. etc. 

I am always intrigued by the widely varying methods that are used for making braintan, and I've picked up a lot of good insight from this forum that I've incorporated into my method.  We all probably think that our personal method is the best, and I think that it comes down to working out and streamlining the method that works best for you.  For me, it's mostly about keeping things simple (blenderized brains, hot water, soap), not getting in a hurry, and being patiently thorough with every step.   As long as you get enough brain oils into the hide, I guess that there's really no wrong way to do it.  It reminds me of listening to anglers discuss the different ways to put a worm on a hook: In the end, it's all the same to the worm.  I think it's a lot like that for brains and animal hides. 

I think that the common ground for all of us is in how well you manage to prep the surfaces at the beginning, how thoroughly you get the brain oils into the hides, and how well you soften it at the end.  The hide will always tell you what it needs at every step of your process.
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beardedhorse
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11:43 PM - Aug 15, 2018 #8

Thanks to all who have responded thus far..  The info should be of use to anyone reading it.   Good point about bone chips.  Can tear skin ( of the hide and of the tanner's) so should feel for it and remove them..   When run in the blender, the sound of the whirling bone is obvious.  I think we are all looking for easier and more efficient methods and as we age we might have to adjust our techniques for kinder, gentler tanning.  Good technique might save bodies from carpel tunnel, rotator cuff and other over use injuries.  A lot of my older tanner friends are experiencing those maladies.  Unless one just can't  physically handle tanning, the quality of our  finished hides should not have to go down as we get older. 
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Beadman
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1:41 AM - Aug 20, 2018 #9

Your totally welcome.It's good to hear others same passionate likeness for good old brain tan leather.A while back I showed a build-a-long of my usual process.Just to put pictures for info instead of words.Hope it shows up and ok with PP.
http://www.primitivearcher.com/smf/inde ... 929.0.html
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Quillsnkiko
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9:24 PM - Aug 20, 2018 #10

If one studies old accounts of how different Indian tribes tanned skins...the ways are varied and the results are a lot different as well. Some were well know for beautiful hides consistently...others not so much. A few were more known for shabbily tanned hides...the exact tribe for that is escaping me at the moment. CRS!~! I am sure within any tribe...there were varying qualities as well. Just as it is today. Quills
" You can't stop the waves .... but, you can learn to surf."
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Beadman
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1:24 PM - Aug 21, 2018 #11

I believe some tribes were more creative with decoration than others because they had the time to be so.Being nomadic periods of longer term camping would help.That all many times can depend on enviornmental and location reasons.Areas of larger size under their control would help also.A person can speculate but many reasons go into quality of work being done by certain different tribes.
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beardedhorse
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9:53 PM - Aug 22, 2018 #12

Beadman,  Thanks for posting your PA teach along as Bow Ed.  Good info for beginners.   I've used plow disk bolted to heavy vertical stand as a staking post but thought it dangerous if tipped over.   A one quart tub of pork brains has 6 to 8 brains and weighs close to one pound.   For a slurry I wash blood and pick out bone chips in brains.   Dump brains into a blender and add one quart of clean, non chlorinated water to the blender and push blend button.   Then pour this brain shake into a stainless steel cook pot or deep skillet.  I add two more quarts of filtered water.   This makes a 3 to 1 water to brain solution.   Not heating the brains leaves the enzymes of the brains not denatured.   Simmering will slightly cook the brains and stave off rotting and smelling bad longer.   Hard boiling the brains will separate the blended connective tissue from the oil/lecithin emulsion.   If you boil whole milk you get floating flakes of cooked solids.  All three forms of slurry or brain shake work.  The 3:1 ratio can make the hide too slippery to easily wring in doughnut form.   Adding water makes it easier to do but dilutes the solution and you wind up braining and wringing more times to try to incorporate as much brains as possible in the hide.   Instead of wringing a thick slurry, 3:1, 2:1 you can not wring and let the hide dry.  Same principle as paste application.   When dry you have to rehyrdrate either form of brained hide in warm water or warm dilute solution of brains, egg yolks or lecithin/oil, lecithin/shortening.   Even this time of time of year the bees and wasps and flies are really aggressive.                            Have seen really good Native tanned hides in museums and some not so good.   Might not be tribal quality versus individual tanner.   Hard to tell but good research project for some anthro grad student.   Wouldn't want to malign one tribe by describing their poorly tanned hides or clothes.    Came across information that claimed the men in the Dineh or Navajo tribe did the tanning.   In archery some authors rant and rave about the fine quality of bows or arrows or quivers of specific tribes.
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Beadman
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10:29 PM - Aug 22, 2018 #13

Once a person does a number of hides with success in a row with a certain method it can be retained and understood how to get success most times.In winter I used to do 3 dozen hides through the winter in the basement of my house by my wood stove..A person gets a feel for it knowing when it's brained properly.For new comers it just takes experience and persistence that's all.
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