Rawhide Lacing

In this blog we are taking a look at making our own rawhide lacing.

There are many types of binding that all perform differently to one another from both flora and fauna sources, making them more suited to specific tasks than others. The time of year may also be a factor to their abundance or lack of, there is also the processing of the various materials to take into consideration, some taking many weeks like in the case of lime bark due to the retting process to obtain workable fibres. Others you can use immediately like elm bark in binding the top of your stick when ponassing fish over the coals of an open fire.

soaking skinsLacing, soaked and ready to use 

One of the other considerations is how the fibres behave in application. With plant fibres there can be some give, but in using animal skin the opposite occurs. We can use this to our advantage in binding say two poles together which need to maintain their integral strength, in say the frame of a small water craft. The main disadvantage of this material however is that upon becoming wet it will begin to swell and loosen. For such a craft this would prove problematic, so precautions to waterproof it must be taken if it is to be used in this format. An example of a proofing agent could be birch tar or pine pitch, both of which repel water and are thermo setting glues, adding to the strength of the structure. Lets have a look at some of the examples.

hazel boundBound frame of a water craft

Bound hazelBinding two  hazel rounds together

In some applications this is less of a concern, as in the case of the Maasai who use buckskin lacing to bind sheets of rawhide to a wooden frame to create their shields. Pigments can also be used to add some waterproofing properties.

back of shieldMaasai shield constructed with rawhide lacing

ruck sackRawhide webbing on the back of a rucksack, smoked to preserve it.

Now let us have a look at how we produce rawhide lacing in the first place.

To start with you will need your animal hide, in this blog we will be using a fallow deer. You will first need to remove any excess flesh that remains on the hide. To do this you need a length of material with an edge, but not sharp as you do not want to cut into your precious hide. Traditionally this can be done with a worked shin bone from the fallow deer, there are however purpose made fleshing tools available on the market. Alternatively the blunt edge of one of the blades from a pair of garden sheers makes a good alternative.

After the fleshing process has been completed we need to soak the hide in a lye solution such as wood ash mixed with water, which becomes potassium hydroxide. This opens out the pores to allow the hair to slip and be removed easily. Alternatively you can use sodium hydroxide for this purpose, often sold as drain cleaner. With any chemical product please observe the handling instructions. Use a suitable container ideally with a lid to prevent children/pets gaining access. Below you can see we have used a dustbin for this purpose. A fallow skin will need to soak for between 7 to 10 days depending on temperature.

bucketDustbin used to soak the skins in the lye solution.

Test a small area of the hide to ensure the hair slips freely. Once you are satisfied it is time to remove all the hair from the hide. Below you can see me using a fleshing beam to do this. I am using the same fleshing tool to do this. Using a cloth or rubber gloves works to push the hair from the grain once the hide is in the right condition. Be careful not to push too hard if using the fleshing tool as you will end up removing the grain and you will have entered the process of making buckskin, which is not what we want here.

de hairing Using a fleshing beam and tool to remove the hair from the grain layer.

hair removedHair all removed.

Once we have removed all the hair from the hide we need to rinse the hide to remove all the excess alkali. This can be achieved in a large body of water or flowing water overnight. Place the hide in a net or mesh bag to allow the water to flow through. You can always soak it in a clean bin for a period of 24 hours to achieve the same results.

marinaRinse the skin in a large body of water overnight.

Once the rinsing process is complete the next stage is to stretch the hide & dry it out. We do this by lacing it to a frame. When you do this, ensure you stretch the hide out evenly. The time taken to dry the hide out will vary greatly and depending on the temperature, size and thickness of your hide it can take between one and three days. As it dries the hide will become increasingly firm. This is your rawhide, like the dog chews you get in the pet store. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are a viable alternative to producing your own,  dog chews have been boiled and are brittle to use and so make poor rawhide lacing.

At this point it is worth mentioning to pet owners that they may at this stage wish to keep the hide out of their reach to avoid any unwanted interest on their pets part.

Once the hide is nice and dry it is time to section it up. Firstly you will need to remove the outer edges of the hide where you have made the holes in order to stretch it out. This can be used at a later date to produce hide glue. We talked about this in an earlier blog.

cutting outEdge of hide removed, to be used later to make hide glue.

You will notice that the hide has different thickness in different areas and this varies from species to species. This is nature’s way of adding extra protection to the deer in the vulnerable places their natural predictors would attack. In the case of fallow deer the area around the neck & shoulders is the thickest part and the under belly is the thinnest part of the hide. You can see this clearly illustrated below, it is graded from 1 to 5, five being the thickest.

marked outHide all marked out, antlers mark the head end

Usually you can expect to get two large areas of relatively consistently thick hide on one hide. This can vary depending on where the animal was dispatched. On the hide above I have highlighted in black the entry and exit wounds. The path that it follows interrupts the second larger area I was hoping for and so have had to work around it, maximising the areas without the wounds appearing within them.

all cutt outAll cut out and ready to make lacing

You will find the larger and rounder the plates you produce the easier the lacing will be to produce. In order to produce the lacing we will spiral in from the outside edge in. There are many ways you can achieve this, the simplest is to use scissors for this process. Other alternatives are to set up a gig, this will help with the constancy of your lacing. Below we have attached a right angled block onto a round of wood. I have then set a Mora knife at the required distance from the block to act as a gauge for my desired thickness. This will depend largely on the thickness of the hide you are using and it’s application as to what this measurement will be. I varied mine from 3mm to 10mm.

cutting discStarting off the lacing

With care  the rawhide disc can be threaded through the gauge safely. Ensure you do not push it through the gauge, instead pull the lacing through using your other hand purely to guide it through. If you have any doubt in using this method then use scissors only.  If you want to add extra protection to the feeding hand wear welding gloves. At no point in this process did I feel unsafe, which is why I chose not to wear  protective gloves.

cutting feeding it through guidePulling the lacing through

Above you can start to see me pulling the lacing through, rotating the disc as I do so. Below is another alternative way of producing lacing using a freehand technique. You will discover that counter-intuitively the thicker rawhide is a little easier to produce lacing than the thinner ones using this guided method.

cutting bladeAlternative freehand method

Raw hide hankedOne length of lacing

Above, the finished product, In using the lacing you need to soak it for roughly one hour until it is workable. As you soak your binding you will need to stretch the lacing as much as you can as you go and tie a suitable knot to prevent it unravelling when you are done. As the lacing dries it will then begin to shrink, producing a vice like grip on whatever you have bound. Have fun in using it in whatever you have decided that may be.

Happy Bushcrafting, Jay

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