What Is Brain Tanned Leather?

One of the most esoteric leather types involves a process called brain tanning. Intrigued? Let’s see how brain-tanned leather is made, what it looks like and why you might choose this type of leather.

What Is Brain Tanned Leather

Brained-tanned leather is tanned in the juices and chemicals of the animal’s own blood. It is a traditional process in some indigenous American communities. It may come from various animals and its use and price depend on those factors. It may seem to be one of the more unusual types of leather, but has a long tradition behind it.

Image from Two Eagles Kitchen

How is Brain Tanned Leather Made

This kind of leather comes from wild game such as deer. The brains of these animals have enough of the right acids and chemicals to tan their hides. Because of the specialized nature of brain tanning, it is not carried out on a large commercial scale. Instead it is used by hunters to preserve the hides of fresh kills.

This method of brain tanning was used by Native Americans, who continue to tan hides with it today. Animals that have enough oils and tannins in their brains for this purpose include deer, cows, raccoons and beavers. Compared to chrome tanning and vegetable tanning, this method is cheaper and requires fewer resources. It’s also more environmentally friendly.


The leather produced from brain tanning is exceptionally soft and supple. It remains pliable even after it gets wet. It is comfortable, durable and breathable. It is used for traditional leather and fur products since in some cases the hair is not removed from the animal hide. Commercial brain tanning may not use the same process as the traditional method used by hunters because of the labor and complexity involved.

Being of high quality and relatively rare, it may be more expensive than chrome or vegetable tanned leather. In particular, the animals from which the hide is derived are usually hunted and not farmed, so the limited supply of hides makes it expensive.

Image from Blue Creek Traders


Depending on the animal hide used for the leather as well as the brain tanning method used, brain tanned leather has a lot of variation. Brain tanned leather which is not smoked will generally have a white, or light, color. While it will generally be soft, breathable and have a distinct appearance, commercially-tanned leather will generally be more consistent than that from tanning done by hunters in the woods.

Products Brain Tanned Leather is Commonly Used For

Depending on the animal used for the leather, the properties will change. Leather from elk is best used for clothing and bags since it is soft and stretchy. It need not be very expensive and can be used for both low-end and high-end items.

Moose leather, being thick and dense, is suited for moccasins and other products requiring a thicker and durable leather.  Buffalo hide does not stretch like the hide of elk or moose and works well for bags. Wolf and fox fur are durable enough for rough use and are suitable for ornamental purposes. Rabbit skins are also suited for ornamental purposes or cut into strips and knit or woven into a jacket or cape.

Advantages of Brain Tanned Leather

While brain tanned leather is a niche product produced in small quantities, it is a traditional way of manufacturing leather that is ages old. It is an important heritage of certain tribes in North America which should be preserved. It is also environmentally friendly due to using few chemicals and less water than vegetable tanning or chrome tanning.

Disadvantages of Brain Tanned Leather

Because this method of tanning is highly labor intensive and requires a lot of effort, it is relatively rare and expensive.

Image from Native Art in Canada

How to Care for Brain Tanned Leather

Brain tanning is followed by smoking, which often leaves a strong smell of wood smoke. This can be reduced, if not completely removed, by repeated soaking and washing with soap and water. However, washing brain tanned leather will affect the softness of the hide, which is a result of the tanning process. After washing and drying, the item will become very stiff. In order to clean brain tanned buckskin, use cornmeal and a clean brush.


The manufacturing of brain tanned leather is very different from other methods such as chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. In general, chrome tanned products are the least costly, since the method is automated and faster. Vegetable tanned products take many months of labor and use high-quality hides, so it is usually more expensive. They have a natural finish which displays the animal skin’s blemishes and markings and can develop a beautiful patina.

Similarly, brain tanned leather will also display the natural markings of the animal skin. Both chrome tanned and brain tanned leather are soft and supple, while vegetable tanned leather is stiffer and harder.


Brain tanned leather is certainly not for everyone. While available from online stores and specialists, it is usually difficult to get genuine brain tanned leather. It is soft and supple and has a novelty value, so it is suitable for clothing and items that will hold a special meaning for you.

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