Rawhide is one of the most versatile and durable materials that the natural world has to offer. Its ability to perform so many functions has made it a favorite of many primitive cultures. For example, Utzi the Iceman used rawhide to lash his copper axe and Native Americans on the Plains used it to make parfleches. Rawhide has applications in archery, clothing, shoes, containers, glue, music and much more.
Rawhide vs. Leather
A rawhide, by definition, is just that; a hide, or animal skin in its raw form. Leather is animal skin that has gone through the process of tanning, which, in return produces a more flexible and supple material. Leather and buckskin are generally used for anything that touches the skin or needs a degree of flexibility. Rawhide, on the other hand, is easier to produce and gives the user a firmer medium to work with. Depending of the product desired, one may choose to tan their animal skin or make it into a rawhide.
Making rawhide is simple. The word “simple” is not to be confused with the word “easy”. This is a time sensitive process. It is important to understand that if the hide is not treated properly, it can be harmful to humans. If at any point the hide smells like it is rotting, get it dry as soon as possible. If you have cuts on your hands, wait to start the process until they heal.
1. Skinning- The first step is skinning the animal. This can be done in a number of ways, but the most important part is that the skin comes off in one piece with few to no holes in it.
2. Fleshing- This is when the work begins. Take the skin, and drape it hair-side down over a log that has been carved smooth. Then, use a scraper to scrape the meat, fat, and whatever else is clinging to the flesh side. Depending on the size of the animal this could take over an hour, so it is helpful to find a rhythm and maintain it. When the flesh side is a uniform white color fleshing is complete.
Here the choice must be made whether or not the hair/fur of the animal will be used. If the hair/fur is desired then skip to drying.
3. Dehairing- Now is the time to remove the hair. First soak the hide in a creek for 1-2 days, until the hide is fully saturated. Use the same log and scraper used in fleshing to scrape off all the hair. This will likely take nearly as long as fleshing. Start in the middle of the back and work out to the edges, repeat all the way around.
4. Drying- Find a sunny south-facing slope. Cut ½” slits parallel to the edge of the hide a few inches apart, this will create a “dashed line” around the entire hide. Keep track of how many slits you cut and carve an equal amount of 6” stakes. Place the hide hair side down and, with the first stake in the corner of the neck, pin it to the ground. With each subsequent stake, stretch the hide till it is taut (no ripples), and work your way around the hide. When the rawhide is fully stretched, gently “scoot” it up the stakes to ensure airflow underneath the hide. If the weather conditions are right, it will be dry before sundown. A “flick” test is a great way to determine if the hide is completely dry. Flick the flesh side of the hide with your finger. If the hide bends and absorbs the impact with a dull sound, keep drying. If the flick resonates and the rawhide feels hard against your fingernail, the rawhide is dry.
5. Storage- You now have a fully preserved rawhide! Care must be taken to ensure it stays dry, and safe from insect damage. This varies greatly on climate, and therefore it is best to keep it in a cool, dry place and check it often.
Due to rawhide’s versatility this section could be a book all its own, but here we will touch on the broad concepts, and discuss some tendencies of rawhide.
Soaking- Generally the first step in using rawhide is rehydrating it to return it to a more workable state. Soak in warm water to accelerate absorption. Let the hide drip dry for a few minutes before bringing it to the workspace.
Cutting- Cut out pattern or desired shape. Pay Attention to the orientation of the fur/hair if it is still attached. Plan each cut before making the first cut, and always “measure twice cut once.” Save any small scraps that you create for hide glue.
Assembly- Assemble the parts, watch the creation come into form.
Drying- The method of drying a finished product of rawhide can vary depending on the product. For cordage, dry suspended from a tree branch with a weight tied to the end keeping it taut. Fill containers, bags, quivers etc. with dried grass. Ensure the grass is tightly packed, filling every corner. Check on projects regularly as they dry. Notice the change of shape/length and make any adjustments necessary.
Curing- Traditionally agents such as fat, wax, resin and tar have been used to cure and waterproof rawhide. Apply the curing agent to the flesh side. To ensure complete penetration rub on agent, then warm the rawhide item next to a fire and allow the agent to absorb into the rawhide.
The natural glues in the hide give the material both structure and strength. This is why it creates such sturdy bindings and rigid containers. Anything made from rawhide will shrink as it dries. Rawhide lacing on snowshoes is a great example of this effect. Laced while wet and left to dry, the rawhide lacing shrinks length-wise further tightening each strand and augmenting the structural strength of the snowshoe!
This versatile material has sparked human creativity throughout the ages. Working with rawhide gives us a glimpse into the technological world of our ancestors, while strengthening our connection to our natural world.
Article written by Samuel Royce.