Making bark tanned leather: A refresher and overview for future participants

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master
— Ernest Hemingway
 

Video: Short overview showing most of the processes involved in making all natural leather from tree bark high in tannins, such as the Black Wattle (Acacia Mearnsii) here in Australia.

 

Ever wondered how to or experimented with making your own leathers at home or in the bush from natural ingredients?

It's not as hard as it looks (although yes, there's a bit of elbow grease and tools involved.... but it's well worth the effort if you're willing to put in the work).

 

The tools and materials you will need to make this happen:

1. Double handled fleshing knife or bone scraper

2. Sharp skinning knife or fashioned blade of some kind (A curved blade end is ideal so you don't create punctures)

3. Bark high in tannins (Here in Australia we have an abundant supply of Black Wattle, and in Europe, America, Asia etc... you'll have certain trees that contain higher quantities of tannin - I recommend doing your own research on this and experimentation)

4. Enough cordage to frame your hide up (Approx. 100m (109yds or 300+ft) of either nylon or cotton or handmade cordage will do the trick - just make sure it's strong)

5. Medium sized stick for stirring your brew (Depending on how deep your vessel is you can adjust the height of your stirring sticks. For small buckets you only need a short stick and for larger drums and vessels you use larger sticks and paddles).

6. Large sized stick with tapered end for wringing out and frame softening (Wringing out will be discussed more later, for now you just need to know that the stick is most effective with a pointed end so it softens properly).

7. Old woolen sock/ sponge and natural leather balm (This you apply right at the end as the leather is in its final stages of drying in the frame).

Materials not shown in the video include:

8. Large stainless steel pot for brewing and strainer to prevent bark spilling into your vessel

9. Pot stick for stirring brews (It's all about those perfect sticks for the job - You'll know what I mean when you start utilising what's around you in the bush or even your own backyard)

10. 2 x large plastic or wooden drums OR you can start small with a 20Litre food grade bucket with a lid (recommended for first timers - beginners)

11. Pair of chemical gloves (This is for when you are handling the skins after they have been soaking in a lime/ or wood-ash solution to remove the hair - especially if you have sensitive skin)

12. Hydrated lime or Wood-ash (If using wood-ash you will need plenty of it if you're planning on doing larger hides in comparison to the lime which you don't need as much of)

13. Sturdy wooden frame to tie your hide up in, slightly larger than the skin/ hide you're working on (There will be more in depth videos later on how to build the frames and the making of other traditional tanning tools)

14. Fleshing beam (Probably one of the most important pieces of traditional tanning gear you will own and use over your practices. There are many ways of making these, however we favour the split log leaning on the cross frame - Matt Richards in his book 'Deerskins into Buckskins' is an excellent guide for the different fleshing beam methods and also our go to guide for buckskin tanning).

 

Ok so yes..... It does look like you'll need a lot of tools to get you going. Although a lot of this stuff you will find for free or to little to no cost and easily accessible!

 

Snapshots of some of the steps involved in the bark tanning process

 

Step 1 - Fleshing

 
 Pictured: A participant in a recent workshop wearing sturdy gloves to protect any open cuts as they remove the flesh off of a goat hide.

Pictured: A participant in a recent workshop wearing sturdy gloves to protect any open cuts as they remove the flesh off of a goat hide.

 

Step 2 - Liming/ Ashing

 
 Pictured: A fleshed Kangaroo skin is stirred into the lime mixture inside a large plastic drum

Pictured: A fleshed Kangaroo skin is stirred into the lime mixture inside a large plastic drum

 

Step 3 - Dehairing/ Unhairing

 
 Pictured: Our willing volunteer and participant Tom removes the hair off of a goat skin in preparation for our Buckskin Tanning workshop in 2016.

Pictured: Our willing volunteer and participant Tom removes the hair off of a goat skin in preparation for our Buckskin Tanning workshop in 2016.

 

Step 4 - Deliming

 
 Pictured: Dropping the now swollen and hairless piece of Kangaroo skin into a fresh drum of soft water (town water/ treated water can contain chemicals that are best avoided if possible).

Pictured: Dropping the now swollen and hairless piece of Kangaroo skin into a fresh drum of soft water (town water/ treated water can contain chemicals that are best avoided if possible).

 

Step 5 - Bark tanning

(Collecting and preparing the bark solutions)

 
 Pictured: Often the richness in the colour of the bark shows the level of tannins available. Sometimes peeled back pieces of Black Wattle look like freshly cut steaks.

Pictured: Often the richness in the colour of the bark shows the level of tannins available. Sometimes peeled back pieces of Black Wattle look like freshly cut steaks.

 
 Pictured: Mulched and or hand stripped bark boiling on the fire for the first round of brewing.

Pictured: Mulched and or hand stripped bark boiling on the fire for the first round of brewing.

 

Step 6 - Membraning

 
 Pictured: A participant in our most recent Intro to Bark Tanning workshop removing the last bits of membrane before going back in the solution for the final stages of tanning.

Pictured: A participant in our most recent Intro to Bark Tanning workshop removing the last bits of membrane before going back in the solution for the final stages of tanning.

 

Step 7 - Test Cutting

 
 Pictured: Test cutting a piece of bark tanned Kangaroo skin and revealing the full penetration of the tannins right through. This skin is now ready for the next step...

Pictured: Test cutting a piece of bark tanned Kangaroo skin and revealing the full penetration of the tannins right through. This skin is now ready for the next step...

 

Step 8 - Framing

 
 Pictured: Josh (Facilitator), applying the last of the cordage to the hide. Frame is made from standing deadwood saplings that didn't make it, notched and lashed together for strength, although you want to be pretty good at lashing to stop it moving.

Pictured: Josh (Facilitator), applying the last of the cordage to the hide. Frame is made from standing deadwood saplings that didn't make it, notched and lashed together for strength, although you want to be pretty good at lashing to stop it moving.

 

Step 9 - Softening

(Or in this case - Frame Softening)

 
 Pictured: Using the larger stick with a slightly chiselled end, the leaning of the whole body applies pressure to the 'not wet but not dry' skin in the frame softening it as it dries.

Pictured: Using the larger stick with a slightly chiselled end, the leaning of the whole body applies pressure to the 'not wet but not dry' skin in the frame softening it as it dries.

 

Step 10 - Applying natural leather balm

 
 Pictured: As the hide is drying it is important to lather the hide in some kind of natural leather conditioner. In this case an Australian made leather balm with natural oils and beeswax (we have our own balm on the way so keep an eye out!).

Pictured: As the hide is drying it is important to lather the hide in some kind of natural leather conditioner. In this case an Australian made leather balm with natural oils and beeswax (we have our own balm on the way so keep an eye out!).

 

Congratulations!

You're well on your way to understanding and practicing one of the oldest forms of traditional tanning: Bark Tanning

Of course there is a lot more that can be covered in detail like any trade. However we'd be starting to write a book here if any more detail was given! - It was hard not to continue writing in more detail.

If you're wanting to learn more and how you can get involved with The Bush Tannery then please fill in our contact form by CLICKING HERE. It will be great to hear from you and how we can be of service in the future.

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All the best on your tanning adventures and if you did get something out of this article then please share it to Facebook, Pinterest, with your neighbours, your Kids, as the whole point of this is to get other people active and preserving this lost trade for generations to come.

 

See you dressed in your own leathers and furs soon!

 

The Bush Tannery