Leather and furs have been in use since the dawn of time. The oldest account of their use goes back to Genesis, chapter 3, where God made clothing for Adam and Eve out of animal skins. Whether you believe the biblical account of creation or not, that’s just about as far back in history as you can go. Still in use today, leather would become even more important in a post-TEOTWAWKI world, where the materials available to us would be limited.
But tanning leather is a complex process, and if you don’t know how to do it properly the results aren’t going to be very effective. That problem was solved, long ago, by the invention of rawhide. While many people refer to rawhide as leather, it really isn’t, even though it is made of the same raw materials. As it hasn’t been tanned, it isn’t leather.
Rawhide can be used in a variety of instances where the flexibility of leather is not needed. It is actually tougher than leather, although more brittle, and it doesn’t stand up well to getting wet. But then, leather doesn’t do all that well when it gets wet either.
My father has an original stone Indian tomahawk. It has a stone head attached to a handle, and the handle is wrapped in rawhide. Even though it is over 200 years old, the rawhide still looks new.
Traditionally, rawhide was used for a wide variety of purposes by both the American Indians and the pioneers moving west. You can find examples it being used in lariats, drumheads, tomahawks, moccasins, saddles, western furniture, and door hinges. Today, it is still used in some tools, such as faces for mallets, and is still used for making lariats and saddles. However, the most common modern use seems to be as chew toys for dogs.
Rawhide is just what its name implies: a hide that has not been treated to turn it into leather. Even so, some treatment of the hide is essential in order to make it useable and to keep it from spoiling. The treatment of rawhide is nowhere near as complex as the leather-making process.
The single most important part of making rawhide is doing what is known as “fleshing the hide.” This is nothing more than removing all the meat and fat from the inside of it. The quicker this can be done the better, as the longer the meat and fat stay on the skin, the more damage can be done. So if you can’t flesh the hide immediately, it is best to freeze it.
Of course, many people would not be happy to find a deer hide in their freezer; so if you can’t flesh the hide immediately, you might want to consider soaking it instead. Basically, this is done with a combination of water and lye.
Rather than going to the hardware store and looking for lye, the old way to do this is to use wood ashes. Ideally, you need a 50/50 mix of both hardwood and softwood ashes for this. Using hardwood ashes alone can be a problem as the water will be too alkaline. Using a combination balances out the pH, preventing damage to the hide. You’ll need a couple of coffee cans full of ash, mixed into about three gallons of water.
The unfleshed hide can be placed in this mixture to soak. Be sure to stir it around in the mixture to ensure that it all gets wetted and to eliminate any air bubbles. Then, weigh it down with rocks so that it can’t float to the surface. Stir it daily if you don’t remove it to work on it.
You can remove the hide from the water to flesh it at any time, returning it to soak even if you haven’t finished. Fleshing the hide is normally done by throwing it over a fence rail, sawhorse, or even a big rock. Avoid sharp edges so that you don’t damage it. Rinse off the water and ash mixture before fleshing. The fleshing can be done with a dull knife, a draw knife, or a traditional bone hide flesher.
The hide can be left to soak in this manner for several days. In fact, regardless of whether you flesh it immediately or not, you still need to soak it for about five days (longer in cold weather). The idea is to get it to the point where the hair will come off easily.
Once all the flesh and fat has been removed from the inside, flip it over and do the same thing to remove the hair. The same tool can be used for this. In some cases, you will be able to grab the hair and pull it out in handfuls.
With the hide fleshed and the hair removed, it is ready. Soak it for one more night – this time in water with a little bit of baking soda mixed in to neutralize the lye from the wood ash. Once that is done, all that’s left is to allow it to dry.
The traditional way to dry a hide is to make a frame out of thin, somewhat flexible tree branches. I’m sure you’ve seen images of this. You want them to be flexible because the hide is going to shrink as it dries. If they aren’t flexible, the string will pull through the hide and it will not dry flat. Another way is to nail the hide to a sheet of plywood or even to the outside wall of a cabin. Regardless of how you dry it, leave a little slack to account for shrinkage.
While rawhide can be cut when dry, it rarely is. It is usually wetted to cut, which makes it much easier to work with. We have to remember that it expands when it gets wet and shrinks again when it dries. This can actually be advantageous when using it as a binding – as it shrinks, it will make a very tight binding.
Rawhide that is being used as lacing, cordage, or to make a lariat is usually cut in a continuous spiral, using a whole hide rather than cutting it into strips. It is then rolled in a ball, like yarn, until needed. It can also be cut into wider strips for stronger binding or for use in wrapping handles. The rawhide that was used to make the tomahawk my dad has is about ½” wide.
When using rawhide in this manner (to tie things together or to cover something like a handle), it is stretched slightly as it is wrapped. This allows it to be molded to fit the contours of what it is being wrapped around, even for complex curves. Then, as it dries it fits itself into corners and joints, making a very solid and secure joint.
There are times when rawhide is used in larger pieces rather than as lacing. I mentioned saddles earlier. Rawhide is sometimes used for some of the hidden parts, especially to bind the framework of a saddle together. These larger pieces are usually sewn together with strong thread.
When rawhide is used to make containers or cases, it is shaped over a mold. This usually requires multiple pieces and multiple molds. The parts are then sewn or laced together.
I have a pair of Mexican maracas that are made in this manner. The pieces of rawhide were cut and sewn together using an avocado as a mold. Once they had dried, the avocado was scooped out of the maracas leaving a perfectly-shaped cavity. Dried beans were put inside and handles attached.