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Brain Tanning – One of the Oldest Methods, and How It Works

While researching old-world tanning methods, I came across brain tanning, a process that utilizes the fats and enzymes from animal brains to treat leather. Fascinated by this process, I decided to look more into this tanning method and what it provides for the hides it is used on. 

Brain tanning is one of the oldest methods for turning raw animal hides into leather. By soaking hides in a pool of animal brains, the fats and enzymes slowly break down the tissue fibers. The hide must then be stretched and dried over a flame, creating a soft, supple, and stretchy leather.

While brain tanned leather is not as popular anymore, hides are still being produced using similar techniques. Let’s look at brain tanning and the qualities it provides leather. 

What Is Brain Tanning?

Brain tanning is an age-old method of tanning leather by soaking it in animal brains. The fat enzymes in the brains break down the tissue fiber, helping soften and preserve the leather. This soaking process makes the leather extremely wet, requiring it to be dried out before use. To do so, the leather is stretched on a frame and placed over an open fire, allowing the heat to dry the leather. 

The residue generated from the smoke binds to the surface of the leather, giving brain tanned leather a darker color from the smoke, as more water-resistant properties from the reside. This makes brain tanned leather a wear-resistant material often used for garments and other items that will see tough environments. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Brain Tanning
  • Brain Tanning Overview Table
  • What Is Brain Tanned Leather?
  • Types of Brain Tanned Leather
  • Does Brain Tanning Produce High-Quality Leather?
  • Common Uses for Brain Tanned Leather
  • How is Brain Tanned Leather Made?
  • Brain Tanning vs.Other Tanning Methods
  • Pros of Brain Tanning 
  • Cons of Brain Tanning 
  • Common Brain Tanned Leather Products
  • Why Does Leather Made From Brain Tanning Smell?
  • My Personal Research Into Brain Tanning
  • Helpful Brain Tanning Insights
  • Key Takeaways
Animal Hide Drying on a Wooden Frame - Brain Tanning - Liberty Leather Goods
Animal Hide Drying on a Wooden Frame

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

A common myth in leathercraft is that smoking leather will make it waterproof. However, smoking leaves an oily residue that bonds to the leather, which many believe makes the leather waterproof. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as no leather is waterproof. The smoking process used in brain tanning will make the leather more water resistant, but it could be ruined if the leather were to become completely saturated. 

However, brained tanned leather still remains one of the most water-resistant leathers. The leather will easily repel water and can even become wet without drying out the leather. In addition, heavy smoke can sometimes prevent the color from darkening due to water. The leather is a great choice for hard-wearing items, but it is not waterproof.

History of Brain Tanning

Brain tanning is said to have been created by North American indigenous people before the 1500s. With animal remains being prevalent after hunts, they began soaking their hides in animal brains and fats. This was a quick process, often being completed in a few days. The wet hides would then be stretched and hung over a fire in a smoking tent. This would darken the leather and add a residue that helped make the leather more water-resistant. 

Although brain tanning is less common today, a few tanneries still produce leather this way. However, they now use extracted chemicals from animal brains and fat to tan the leather. This makes the tanning process more consistent. The hides are still smoked, which is a key quality to producing water-resistant leather that can get wet without becoming rigid. 

Brain Tanning Overview Table

SoftnessBrain tanning stuffs fats and oils into the leather, making it much more supple; however, it may feel oily.
DurabilityThe added oils and smoking finish help keep the leather protected. It should be slightly more durable than other leathers.
WaterproofnessSince the leather is smoked, a light coating is added to the hide. This coating keeps water from penetrating it, making it one of the most water-resistant leathers.
FlexibilityThe fats and oils used to tan the leather make the hide extremely supple. Brain tanned leather is often a great choice for garments or other soft items.
Brain Tanning Characteristics

What Is Brain Tanned Leather

Brain tanned leather is any hide preserved by using animal brains and their fats, giving the leather the name “brain tanned.” The enzymes break down the fibers by rubbing this combination into animal hides. This, along with the physical rubbing of the hide, softens the material and makes it supple. The main benefit of the animal brains in the tanning process is to preserve the leather. 

The lecithin coats the leather fibers, preventing it from rotting over time. After the leather has been saturated in the mixture for a few days, it is ready for its finishing process. The leather is stretched out onto frames and placed under a fire. The smoke billowing upwards dries the hide and leaves an oily residue, acting as a protective coating and becoming more water resistant. 

Types of Brain Tanned Leather

Two types of brain-tanned leather are still produced today: natural and commercial. 

Natural Brain Tanning

The natural method of producing brain tanned leather follows the old methods of using the remains of the animal hunted. This is typically done by home tanners who may have little access to industrial equipment. With the relative speed of brain tanning and the straightforward steps, this is one of the simplest methods for preserving hides at home. 

Commercial Brain Tanning

Commercial tanning, on the other hand, uses manufactured chemicals to emulate the animal remains used in tanning. This ensures the leather will be consistent and allows tanneries to produce much larger batches of brain tanned leather. 

Both types of brain tanned leathers will still be smoked, with the natural using the traditional fire and commercial using a large smoker. There is little difference in the final product, but commercial tanning is more consistent, offering a more uniformly tanned hide with more even color throughout. 

Does Brain Tanning Produce High-Quality Leather?

Brain tanned leather’s quality is varied by the hides used and the tannery that produces the leather. While the tanning method uses heritage techniques that have been found to produce quality leather, a poor hide will remain low quality. This is especially true with brain tanning, as the process does not include steps for grain correction. If a hide is riddled with bug bites, brand marks, and other blemishes, it will remain when the leather has finished tanning. 

However, when brain tanning is at its best, it can produce high-quality leather, making soft, supple, and elastic hides perfect for garments. In addition, the weather-resistant properties added by the smoke residue make it one of the only leathers that can be exposed to water without becoming rigid. 

Common Uses for Brain Tanned Leather

The main qualities of brain tanned leather are a material that is: 

  1. Soft
  2. Supple
  3. Flexible
  4. Wear and water-resistant

Traditionally brain tanned leather was used for garments, as the softness and flexibility allow the material to remain comfortable without restricting movement. In addition, the leather is fairly durable, allowing it to be used for shoes and even slings, depending on the animal hide used. One of the stan-out features of brain tanned leather is the ability for the leather to get wet yet remain supple. 

Therefore, the leather is great for items including:

  1. Small pouches
  2. Bags
  3. Outdoor goods
  4. Clothing
  5. Footwear
  6. Accessories 

How Is Brain Tanned Leather Made?

Brain-tanned leather uses the brains of the animal or other materials to create soft, supple, and highly workable leather. Here is an overview of the basic steps involved in making brain-tanned leather:

  1. Cleaning – Prepare the hide by cleaning. When they arrive, water is used to wash away any dirt, salt, and fluids on the animal hides. 
  2. Removing hair –The hides must then be scraped to remove the hair and any excess fat before they can begin tanning. 
  3. Tanning – During the tanning process, artificial chemicals, emulating animal brains and fats, saturate the leather. This process may take a couple of days to complete. 
  4. Drying – The leather is stretched onto frames, where they will then be transferred to a smoker for finishing. 
  5. Smoking – As the smoke infuses with the leather, it darkens the hide and covers it in an oily residue. Giving the leather its color and the water-resistant properties brain tannage is known for. 

In this video provided by TananaChiefsConference, Tom Huntington provides a guide through the brain tanning process, detailing each step and the purpose they serve when making the leather.  

Brain Tanning vs. Other Tanning Methods

Brain tanning’s goal is the same as any other tanning method: to preserve the leather. The source of the tannins used is what differentiates brain tannage. Other methods use tree bark, plants, and salts, while brain tanning uses animal remains to preserve the leather. 

Brain tanning’s finishing process is also unique. Smoke is used instead of adding traditional dyes and oils to the leather. This limits the colors available for brain tanned leather and uses natural residue as a finishing coat. These differences lead to a softer and more water-resistant leather than other tanning methods. 

Pros of Brain Tanning 

Brain-tanned leather has several distinctive advantages that make it desirable for certain purposes. Here are some of the pros of brain-tanned leather:

  1. Soft and supple leather
  2. Can be wet without becoming rigid
  3. Made from any animal 
  4. Quick method for tanning leather 
  5. Versatile usage for projects

The hide will then need to be stretched and dried over a flame,creating a soft, supple, and stretchy leather.

Cons of Brain Tanning 

While brain-tanned leather has several advantages and unique qualities, it also has some drawbacks and limitations that may affect its suitability for certain applications. Here are some of the cons of brain-tanned leather:

  1. Limited suppliers
  2. No colors available
  3. Strong smoke smell
  4. Stretches during crafting
  5. May have inconsistencies through the hide

Common Brain Tanned Leather Products

Brain tanning is a traditional process that produces soft, supple, and durable leather. Common brain-tanned products include:

  1. Garments
  2. Shoes
  3. Pouches
  4. Bags
  5. Bookbinding

Katherine S. Kelly, Dan Paterson, Frank Trujillo, and Lydia Aikenhead from the Library of Congress and Morgan Library & Museum discussed the use of brain tanned leather for bookbinding, providing examples of how to identify the leather and discussing the history of its use — showing the popularity of this leather throughout history. 

Why Does Leather Made From Brain Tanning Smell?

The smell brain tanned leather is known for comes from its drying process. After the leather has been soaked in animal remains, it must be dried. To do so, the leather is stretched onto frames and placed in a room over a fire. The smoke generated from the fire will bond to the leather, helping protect it and add color to the leather. 

However, this will also leave a strong smell that will remain in the leather for months. Although many do not mind the smell, it is possible to use small amounts of vinegar diluted in water to help alleviate the heavy smell without damaging the leather.  

My Personal Research Into Brain Tanning

Brain tanning is a popular method for tanning leather at home. For my research, I looked at why this method is so popular by asking community members and following informative videos. I found that accessibility, speed, and the low-cost nature of brain tanning are why most choose it.


The first step in any tanning process is receiving a hide. For many at-home tanners, this is likely through the result of hunting. After they have harvested their animal for their meat and pelt, they are often left with various remains. If they decide to tan the pelt they have harvested, they can easily access tannins within these remains. 

This makes the process much more accessible than harvesting other tannins, such as tree bark, or purchasing chemicals. In addition, brain tanning requires little to no additional equipment, allowing home tanners to preserve their hides without a large investment cost in materials or machines. 


The tanning speed is another factor of why at-home tanners choose brain tanning. This left effort process can be completed within a few days, as opposed to weeks, limiting the time a hide would need to be stored and allowing an at-home tanner to begin working on the leather quickly. While the process can be expanded to take up to a week, it is still the fastest method for preserving hides without potentially harmful chemicals. 


One of the best benefits of brain tanning at home is the low cost of the process. The brains, which are the main tanning element, are harvested directly from the animal hunted. The oils and fats added to the leather may come from household supplies. Olive oil, eggs, or other products are a great addition that can help soften leather during the process. 

The only other requirement for brain tanning is to have an area set up to smoke the leather. This can be as simple as a campfire. The smoke will also act as a way to color the leather, allowing for beautiful natural patterns to form without the need for additional supplies. 


While tanning leather at home may not be for everyone, those who choose to do so have found great success with the traditional brain tanning method. It is effective in preserving animal hides and creates a soft, supple leather. Although dedicated tanneries may produce higher-quality leather, this DIY method is equally effective for making long-lasting products. 

Helpful Brain Tanning Insights

What is brain tanning?

Brain tanning is a method for preserving animal hides through the use of animal remains. Specifically, the brain and fats of the animal are harvested to saturate the leather. By doing so, the lecithin in the remains bond to the leather fibers, preventing it from rotting over time. 

How long does it take to brain tan?

The brain tanning method is relatively quick, as it can be finished within a week, with the saturation of the hide only taking a couple of days. This is a similar tanning speed to chromium tanning and much quicker than vegetable tanning, as vegetable tanning can take weeks, if not a month. 

What makes brain tanning work?

The chemical lecithin found in the animal brains is what causes the process to work. The hide will be completely saturated, allowing the chemical to bond to the leather fibers. This protects the hide from bacteria and other sources of rot. The smoke during the drying process of brain tanning also helps, as the residue from the smoke provides a protective layer on the leather. 

What is the difference between vegetable tanning and brain tanning?

The tannins used for vegetable tanning come from tree bark, plant roots, and leaves. Tannins in brain tanning come from animal brains and fats. This produces a much softer leather, while vegetable tanned leather is rigid. 

What is a good substitute for brain tanning?

A substitution that can be made for brain tanning is egg yolks. The fat in the yolks will also break down the fiber tissues, creating a soft hide that is ready to accept smoke. The more porous the leather is after soaking, the better it will receive the smoke during the tanning process. 

Can you freeze brains for brain tanning?

Yes, after the brains have been harvested, they can be sealed in a bag and placed in the freezer. Using the brains for tanning within six months is recommended, as it may degrade over time. However, some home tanners note using brains as old as a year with no change to the outcome in the leather. 

Where did brain tanning come from?

It is said that brain tanning came from the North American indigenous people in the 1400s, who would use the readily available brains to create their hides. However, the process is also said to be used by the Zulus in Africa, the Sámi in Scandinavia, and different groups from Asia. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Brain tanning uses the animal’s brains and fats to soften and preserve the leather.
  2. Although the leather is known for being water resistant, it is not waterproof and may still be damaged.
  3. The smoking step in brain tanning provides the leather with color and a protective finish from smoke residue. 

In Closing

There are many ways to preserve leather that have been used throughout history. While brain tanning may not be as popular as it once was, it influenced other tanning methods. This tanning method is also still reliable for those who enjoy tanning their leather at home, with great results. 

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