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Workshop explains tanning

David Thell, left, Thomas and Joseph Rogers listen as professional brain tanner Joe Furuseth describes to Matt Johnson what the membrane looks like once the hair is removed from a deer hide. Furuseth presented the demonstration Thursday evening at the Sustainability Office at Bemidji State University. The class was one of three traditional skills workshops offered at BSU this fall. The first workshop was on natural dyes, and the December workshop will be on bread making. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

"Moisture is not your friend," said Joe Furuseth, a six-year veteran of brain tanning.

He noted this fact throughout his demonstration on hide tanning Thursday evening at the Sustainability Office at Bemidji State University.

Twelve people from the Bemidji area signed up for the tanning class, one of a series on traditional skills offered at BSU.

Furuseth walked the students through all the steps of tanning and offered helpful suggestions from experience.

Step one was fleshing: "Hang a deer by its hind legs, not his neck," said Furuseth. "The least amount of times a sharp knife touches the hide the better. Cuts around the legs and neck are all that required. Just reach in a pull."

Furuseth uses a draw knife for fleshing,

"If it's sharp enough to cut you then it's too sharp for fleshing.," he said.

He recommended the book "Deerskins into Buckskins" by Matt Richard.

"The natural way is the best way," said Furuseth.

He said manmade products can be used and work nicely, but when in doubt refer to the book or talk to Bruce Dryer at Northern Surplus - a great resource said Furuseth, who started tanning by reading on the Internet.

Soaking in an alkaline solution is the next step. Furuseth uses oak ash from a wood stove.

After several days of soaking, it's time for the next step - removing the hair, graining and membraning. Again, he uses a draw knife. During the fleshing and hair removal Furuseth uses a 4-foot long log cut lengthwise in half. He prefers a ash log without knots. Knots can create tears in the hide, he said.

Rinsing out the alkaline solution is the next step. The hide goes for 24 hours in running water, such as a river with a solid bottom.

Wringing the hide follows. There are several techniques, but getting the moisture out is crucial before dressing. Again, he said, refer to the book.

Furuseth showed students how to fold and role the hide then use a stick to twist and wring the hide, repeating the steps multiple times.

"Tawny and white colors in the hide are ideal when finished, blue and gray indicates moisture is still present." said Furuseth.

Its time for the dressing, the use of the brain solution. How much brain is needed?

"The animal has enough brain to tan itself," Furuseth said.

The brain solution adds the natural oil to the hide and the softness. Furuseth said eggs or a soap/oil solution can be substituted for brain.

This step is followed by restretching the hide and dry.

The final step is smoking. This adds the yellow tint to the hide and permanently preserves the soft state of buckskin. Smoking also makes the hide less susceptible to bacteria and rot. Furuseth cautioned to use smoke not heat from an outside ground fire.

The final product is soft deerskin suitable for clothing.