Reduce, Reuse, Roadkill

DIY hide tanning

Here’s your chance to hasten the revolution by practicing urban survival tactics while getting in touch with the natural world that somehow seems to totally disappear under all that concrete. If you yearn for an intense experience of the wild but are stuck in the city and too busy to leave, you can start thinking bioregionally and connect with what is in your immediate neighborhood, even if its dead. There’s plenty of poor furry victims of our auto-dependent, gas-guzzling, concrete culture lying along the shoulders of our city highways and streets, and most are treated with little worth. But we can redeem their wasted lives and disregarded souls. We can make rundown raccoons into caps, smashed squirrels into shirts, and dead deer into dresses! That’s not even mentioning the plethora of pets that are out there! (oooh, taboo…) Plus, there are a number of tools and musical instruments to be made from the bones sinew and teeth. Even handy weapons that’ll pass through metal detectors (but you didn’t hear it here!). Of course, your next roadkill score could be your next meal. With a few skills and a bit of effort, its easy to see the possibilities inherent in the little noticed and dishonorably discharged by-products of our roadside excesses.

HOW TO: And Now For the Meaty Section!

Pretend you are riding your bike down the street and… Aghast!! Someone has callously murdered a deer with their gold-plated luxury full-size truck and left the mess in the gutter, where you ride, and now stand staring, curious about what to do.

You think: “How sad!”

Then the curiosity chimes in: “I wonder if I could make a pair of pants out of its skin?”

Well, here are some clues to look for that will suggest the possibility of such an endeavor:

Is it fresh? First, look at its eyes. How rotten are they? If they are totally rotted out, chances are it’s been there a while and you might not want to mess with it. But if they are intact, there’s a good chance the hide is still in workable shape and the chore of removing it will be relatively less disgusting.

Second, how stiff is the body? If it’s very stiff you’ll be able to use it but chances are it’ll be harder to skin without tearing it.

Third, does the hair pull out? If it pulls out readily, it’s been dead a while. You still might consider using it though because actually, when the hair is falling out, it’s much easier to scrape/slip (something I’ll discuss later on).

Finally, if it is still warm, you can eat it! Otherwise, it might not be a good idea to try, especially if the meat has turned green and is bruised and mealy looking.

If its winter and temperatures are cooler, the animal will not decay as fast, but in the summer its much more difficult to deal with the decay.

Okay, so you decide it’s a viable candidate, and you have some time on your hands to do all of this: what’s next?

Skinning — preferably gloves and a face mask should be worn if you are worried about infection. Caution should be taken to prevent your hands from touching your eyes, nose, or mouth while handling the animal.

Tools you will need:

sharp knife

lye (NaOH)



Dull scraping tool (see Figure A)

Scraping Post

First, while the animal is hanging, cut around its hands, feet and down the length of its arms and legs. If you do not want this portion of the hide, simply cut around the arms and legs where they meet the body. Next, slice a cut from the neck to the anus on the front side of the animal. You should be able to separate the skin from the fascia by pulling from either end towards the spine. When the hide is off the animal, I usually start pulling all the hanging, boogery looking strands of flesh off the inside before moving on to the next step.

Lye Soaking — The hide, hair and all, will go into a bucket of a solution of lye + water. Lye can be obtained in its pure chemical form purchased as drano or liquid plumber, red devil…etc, or in a less powerful form as the water from leached wood ash. Be careful as it is caustic. 8 tablespoons of drano for each gallon of water should be enough to cause the desired effect. The lye makes the epidermis of the skin swell up and enabling the hair to “slip” off the subdermal layers of skin a little easier.

Scraping/Slipping — after soaking for at least 24 hours or until the hide looks very swollen and pinkish, you are ready to start scraping the hide, thereby “slipping” the hair which will result, when finished, in a hairless, wet, slippery, creepy skin.

Construct a scraping post from a de-barked tree trunk, about 3.5’ long and 8-12” in diameter with ends cut at congruent angles to the ground and placed against a wall or tree, as shown in Figure B.

Lie the furry, wet soaked hide over the post with hide arms and legs hanging over the sides evenly, fur facing up, neck end towards the top of the post.

Kneel straddling the post and begin scraping the hair and pink epidermal layer of skin with your scraping tool. Its very important to get all the epidermal skin off, as it is very hard when dry and will not tan, leaving you with crunchy spots in your finished tanned hide. Its best to begin in the middle of the hide, making one hairless, epidermal-less line from the neck to the butt and working out towards the arms from there. Allow 3-4 hours to complete this task with a medium size deerhide.

Braining — “Every animal has enough brains to tan its own hide.” You might think this saying is just a clever aphorism, but physiologically it’s also true. When you find the animal and skin it, the brains are what you’ll use to actually “tan” , or soften the skin.

The way it works is brains are very fatty — like 100% saturated fat. The hide is very absorbent and stretchy and with some coaxing, will soak up the brains into its pores. Unless the brains are applied, when the hide dries it will normally get very hard because the hide is basically made of glue. But when the hide is in a warm water bath with the brains and soaks up the fats into its pores, the fats actually coat the pores so that the glues cannot stick to each other. After being smoked this way the hide can hold its fully stretched out position in dry weather forever, without reverting back to its original crunchy, dry raw hide texture, which when worn as clothing is very uncomfortable and un-sexy.

For braining, you’ll need:



Very warm water


Lots of time

Heat source or the sun on a warm day

4’ long by 4” wide smooth beam

2.5’ long smooth stick.

There is a very grizzly task involved that requires bludgeoning the skull to obtain the brains. There is no not-gross way to do this.

a. Mandatory Brief Philosophical Rambling

As an aside, it’s good to keep in mind the experience of all of this “gore” as we go about this process. Surrounded by a man-made landscape, it is hard to feel how severed we are from the sources of the things we consume. Making a connection in this way can jolt us into other realities that are extremely foreign, psychologically uncomfortable, shocking, and revealing. There are many artifices of civilization between our feet and the earth. These layers of concrete, rubber, metal, and asphalt literally distance us from the Earth, which is relatively speaking, always present. In most of our realities, experience is so disconnected from the reality of the natural world that our minds flip out when faced with something “real”. This skull bludgeoning thing can be as real as it gets, if you let it get to you. As the layers of social conditioning have built up to wall us off from the effects of our increasingly heinous planetary presence, there tends to be even more resistance to engaging with what is — b
ecause what is can be painful, cause anxiety, or make us change ourselves. A more personal analysis of one’s subjective experiences might yield an understanding that activities like skull bludgeoning and brain tanning are not necessarily grizzly and gross, but an extremely natural and reasonable thing to do, given any circumstances where clothing or tools are a necessity of human survival, which they almost always are.

That being said, once you’ve spooned out the brains you should either store them in a frozen state until further use, or use them immediately. Brains especially can become totally nasty smelling in a matter of nanoseconds.

b. Tools

At this point, or at some time previous, two tools need to be constructed to complete the braining and stretching process: the wringing bar and the roughing cable. The wringing bar can simply be a straight, de-barked tree limb fastened with twine between two close trees. The purpose of this bar is for twisting the hide until all the moisture is out of it. A very solid cured wood stick, also for wringing, about 1.5 to 2 feet in length should be procured (think short axe handle). You’ll also need to rig up a 6’ length of cable to something solid at both ends. In the process of hide drying rubbing the hide on the cable roughs it up when it dries too fast, and could become crunchy.

c. Soaking

After scraping the skin and hair off, the remaining wet, slippery hide is then soaked with the squashed up brains in very warm water (but not scalding to the touch). The idea is to ensure that the brains are absorbed into the hide. Using your hands to massage the brains in works well.

d. Wringing

After soaking the skin in the brains, it’s important to wring the hide out as much as you can. The best way to do this is to drape the hide width-wise across your wringing post which is tied up between the trees. By wrapping the smaller stick in the hanging hide and twisting, a lot of water can be liberated. Collecting this water is very important since its good to repeat this process of braining and wringing at least two times.

e. Stretching and Drying

Now its time to find a warm comfortable seat where you can plan on working for two or three hours. During this step, the hide is pulled and stretched again and again while it dries, so that it does not dry in an unstretched position. If the hide dries and it is not stretched, it will be very hard and uncomfortable, like raw hide. The motion is pulling the hide with your hands again and again to keep it stretched out. It can be a real knuckly job, if it’s a big hide. But its worth it because the finished hide is so soft, it feels like your own skin.

f. Smoking

The last stage is to smoke the hide. There are many different types of wood that will impart different effects like coloring or smell to the hide. The best wood to be used is the very rotten wood that you find decaying on the forest floor. Some people sew their hides together like a hot air balloon to get a very complete smoke, but its easiest to just get a ladder or some kind of frame and lie the hide over a very cold fire for a long time. After this step, you’ll have clothing or tool material that is durable and will last you many, many years.