Squirrel Buckskin

Have you ever walked through the woods and thought “What would I wear if factories stopped making fabric?” No? Well that might just be me, but the question still stands. What would we, what did we, all used to wear?

The answer is that we would have all at some point worn Buckskin made from a variety of animal hides, produced using various different methods.  The end result when we turn raw (termed ‘Green’) hides into a soft, supple and extremely hard wearing fabric. 

So on a recent membership weekend in our Leicestershire Woods we got everyone making buckskin from squirrel hides. The small size of squirrel hides meant that completing the process from skinning to smoking was achievable. We threw in a couple of “here’s some we made earlier”, but you’ll not have the time constraints at home!

So the process of making Buckskin can seem from a curacy glance that it is a long, complicated and completely pointless thing to waste your time doing. Well I can gladly tell you that all though there are several steps to go through they are individually simple and the rewards massively out weight any frustration that’s involved.

Firstly I want to say that there a vast number of very comprehensive books out there that cover this process in immense detail. This being the case I am not going to attempt to recreate these books but run through a very simplified but usable step by step guide. That’s the hope at any rate!

So how do you get hold of green animal skins in the first place? For grey squirrel skins try contacting your nearest Forestry Commission, Wildlife Trust or National Trust Woodland rangers, as a pest they are often shot or trapped to control numbers. For other skins one of the best places to contact in order to get hold of hides is your local game dealer. There are many of these around and you should find one close to you after a short search through the usual routes. Failing this then it might be worth contacting your local abattoir to see if they can help. There will usually be a small charge but the good news is that most of what we’re interested in for Bushcraft is deemed industrial waste or very low value products.

Otherwise keep your eyes peeled on the local roads. That way you get free lunch and free material!

Remember that the process is the same regardless of what size hide you have but the smaller and thinner the hide, the easier that some stages become. This is worth bearing in mind when starting out.


There are very few tools that are required to make Buckskin and most of them you can improvise from ones most people will have in their shed or tool boxes.

  • Fleshing tool/ Scrapper: This has to be something with a dulled edge to it. By this I mean a definite edge but one you’ll happily run your finger along. What I used when first starting is half a garden shear. You could easily modify this with a second handle to make it more comfortable. Traditionally a variety of bones were used with ground edges so it really doesn’t have to be anything fancy.
  • Fleshing beam: There are all sorts of designs for beams to work hides on. Both pushing and pulling beams. Again to quickly improvise in your garden acquirer a log from somewhere (the most difficult bit) and lean it up against a garden chair. This usually works out about the right high to work on the hide.
  • A couple of buckets.
  • Dozen chicken eggs
  • Wood ash

(Uses for the remaining equipment will be explained further on.)

So once you have sourced your hide and are standing in your garden staring at it wondering what do I do with this manky looking thing, it’s time to start!


The first thing that you are going to need to do to your hide is to remove any excess flesh and fat that has been left attached to the hide when the animal was skinned. The amount of fleshing you will have to do will depend on the animal and quality of the skinning. Be aware that many game dealers, hunter and butchers do not take that much care when skinning. This is often due to many not having a use for the hide so just want to get it off as quickly as possible. It is worth speaking to them and explaining what you want to do with the hides and explain that any knife scores will reduces the amount of usable end product.


To remove the flesh lay the hide hair side down on your fleshing beam and using your fleshing tool push into the hide and away from yourself until the flesh and fat is scrapped away. You need to make sure that you carry out this process very methodically over the whole hide right up to the edge of the skin. There is no risk of tearing the hide which is incredibly strong but you will have to go gentle around knife makes and small holes.

Bucking the hide:

This is the process that gives the fabric its name. It is this soaking process that ‘Bucks’ the hair from the hide meaning it is easy to get off. It will also wash out the mucus that is inside the hide so that the oils can penetrate later on. What we need to produce when making up a Bucking solution is a strong alkali solution, and there are a number of ways in which we can achieve this. The traditional method is to use Wood Ash mixed with water for the solution, for those who have a wood burning stove this is the simplest method to use once you’ve saved up a bucket full from the bottom of your stove. For those of you who either don’t have a wood burner or like to use the ash in the garden you can buy some Potassium Hydroxide from a range of suppliers. It is Potassium hydroxide that is the active ingredient in wood ashes so they are both acting in the same way.

It is important to make sure that you have mixture the right strength, it’s a real case of the Goldie Locks and the three Bears, it has to be just right!

With wood ash this becomes more of an art as different woods provide different qualities of ash but there’s a great technique that the pioneers used when producing buckskin. That was to make up the solution mixing well and allowing it to settle for 10 minutes. Then they placed a chickens egg into the solution aiming for a 20 pence size portion of the egg to remain above the surface.
If the egg sinks below the surface then the solution is to0 weak and if it tips over on its side the you’ve made the solution to strong. Which ever happens, simply add more ash or water then remix. Allow the solution to re-settle and re-test with the egg. Simple!

How long to soak?

How long’s a piece of string? The time that your hide needs to soak for will depend of the size and thickness of the skin along with the weather conditions. Cold weather slows the process down and warm weather likewise speeds it up. For the squirrel skins they had started to buck after just 24 hours in the solution, though they had 4 days in total at the end of October.

For whole deer hides a guide line is:

Thin Hide

Thick hide

Cold weather

3+ days

4+ days

Hot weather

2+ days

3+ days

(M. Richards, Deerskin into Buckskin, 2004)

To test whether the hide has been in soak long enough you are after the hair to pull out from the hide with no resistance at all. At this point it is worth trying to move on to the next step graining. If this proves difficult then the hides can always go back in to soak.


 Once you have soaked you hides for the required time it’s time to grain the hide. When removing the hide from the solution wring it out by hand as much as possible but don’t worry about getting it dry. As long as it’s not sopping wet.

We are all familiar with ‘Grain leather’ and its shinny side that our belts appear to have? Well it is this ‘shinny’ layer in veg- tanned leather we are aiming to remove along with the hair. To describe what it is you have to remove whilst graining is difficult and is main step in the process that is best show people rather than describe to them.

In the picture below you can see the distinct colour change from where I am working in the centre compared to the strip down the sides. This is the distinct difference that you are after. The important thing to remember is that you are aiming to remove the layer that holds the hairs on not just the hairs themselves.

It is vital that all the gain is removed otherwise stages that we’ll come on to shortly will be a lot harder.



After you have grained to entire hide it’s time to wash all of the remaining alkali solution out from the hide.

By far the easiest way to do this is to find have a handy local stream that is close by and you can place the hides in overnight. Seeing as most people don’t have a private stream at the bottom of their garden it’s usual  to  rinse in many changes of water in buckets or large containers in the garden.

Continue to rinse until the water is running clear from the hides and it has lost that rubbery swollen look it had when it came out of the bucking solution.

 rinsing out the hides


This is a very short step and one that is not essential to complete. That being said this step does improve the consistency of your results and softness of the buckskin produced. For these two reasons I’d highly recommend that you take the 20 minutes out of your time to complete it.

After your squirrel hide has been wrung, fill a garden bucket with warm water and add a cap full of white wine vinegar. Place the hide in the bucket, stir a few times and leave for 15 minutes. If you leave the hide in the acid bath for too long, over 30 minutes, then it will return to a rubbery state and will require rinsing all over again. So after 15 to 20 minutes it should take it from neutral to just very slightly acidic.

wrung and acidified hides


As with the previous stage this one is quite simple and shouldn’t take up too much time. All we are aiming to do is to re-scrape the flesh side of the hide, telling the flesh side and grain side apart can be a little difficult now! The membrane is what connects the hide to the flesh on the animals. It’s that layer on us that allows you to move the skin semi-independently from the flesh. Try it on your fore arm!

Don’t be tempted to think that because you fleshed the hide really well that I’ll not need to membrane! You still will need to do this and it actually becomes far easier once the hide has been acidified.

The good news is that all we are aiming for is to break up the membrane layer across the hide instead of completely remove it. So be systematic scraping the whole hide to make sure that none stays intact. Any membrane that remains will make softening more difficult and will impede the penetration of smoke at the final stage.

graining 2


As you would imagine this stage is all about getting as much moisture from the hide as possible. You should aim to get the hide feeling damp but not wet. This will allow the fibres to readily absorb the dressing made up in the next stage. Excess water will prevent the Dressing from coating all the fibres.

For smaller hides such as squirrels the wringing has to all be done by hand. This gets easier as the excess moisture is removed and the hide is easier to get hold of. For larger hides you can drape the hide over a clean beam or bar (avoiding sharp edges) and crank the hide to really force out water. You are never going to get to a stage where you’ve over dried the hide unless working in 30 degrees direct sun light. So not much risk of that in the UK!

(you can completely dry or freeze hide for storage at this point)

hand wringing hides


Ever wondered where the expression “every animal has a brain big enough to tan its own hide” comes from? Well it is all to do with Buckskin. Brains are a very oily organ and it is these oils that will be using to penetrate the now damp hide. The aim is for the oils (emulsified fat more correctly) to coat all the fibres that make up your  remaining hide. This coating will prevent them the fibres for re-sticking to one another and forming an inflexible stiff sheet of labour intensive rawhide.

Fortunately for those thinking they don’t have any brains help is at hand! We can use a whole range of substances that contain ‘Emulsified fats’ to coat the fibres. By far the most readily available source is chicken eggs.

To make up the dressing solution your Squirrel hide you need to crack half a dozen eggs into a container and add 500ml of warm water. If you chose to use brains (pig brains can sometimes be obtained from butchers) squish a handful of brains up in the same amount of warm water , it should resemble strawberry milkshake! Make sure the water is warm and not hot as this will cook the eggs or brains and denature them. Once you have put the water in, whisk the mixture up and place in the damp hide. You then need to make sure that the entire hide has been completely covered and well worked in the solution to ensure good penetration of the fats.

You now have the option to wait 30 minutes before wringing out the hide and re-soaking it in the dressing. This can be done a number of times with the more dressings the better the end result will be.

If you are short of time then just make sure the hide is completely covered in the Dressing and leave it overnight. Making sure that no animals can get to it, otherwise you might wake up to a turned over container and be down an almost completed hide!


At this stage you are going to have to commit the time or not bother. As once you have wrung the hide you are going to have to continue softening until finished, otherwise you’ll end up with a board instead of soft material.

So to wring your squirrel skin out one last time simply remove from the dressing solution and squeeze all the dressing out that you can back into the contain. Once you have done this it might help to get someone else to help you wring out the hide as much as possible, one person on either end.

For larger hides such as deer it is possible to make a doughnut from the hide over a clean beam and the crank it up for force out moisture, as shown below.

wringing a deer hide

Once you have got all the possible moisture out that you can then we’re on the penultimate stage!


As I said before it is commit to this stage until the end or not at all. Otherwise you’ll end up having to re-dress the hide and start again. If this happened it’s not a bad thing as you’ll actually end up with more emulsified fats penetrating your hide. It’s just another couple of stages to repeat.

The aim of the softening process is to continually stretch and manipulate the hide from damp until completely dry. What this does is continually moves the fibres around and does not allow them to re-stick to one another which is helped by the presence of the emulsified fats. As you will be working on smaller hides this can be done simply by hand, using the back of a garden chair to stretch the hide over also works very well. On larger hides you have to go into elaborate processes of making frame to lace the hide in so you can work such a big area of material.

Once you start to work the hide you’ll notice that there is a marked change as it begins to dry out and starts to feel more like cloth as it comes out the washing machine.

There will be a considerable amount of stretch in the buckskin which will increase its size slightly. Focus on the thinner areas of the hide along the flanks as these will dry faster and if ignored will turn stiff. As with the wringing working in pairs to stretch the hide is a good option. On our membership weekend the weather was very damp while we were trying to soften them so we had to sit close to the fire while working them. This is worth bearing in mind when planning to soften outside. Sometimes it takes some sweet talking of partners to come inside to work the hide!

softening the hides


Once you are 100% sure that the hide is dry and you’ve ended up with a white, beautifully soft piece of buckskin ten it’s time to smoke those hides. At this point you can store your buckskin until you have a batch to smoke rather than smoking one small hide at a time, although this is perfectly possible to do. If choosing to store them make sure they stay somewhere dry otherwise they’ll start to stiffen up again.

It is because of the fact that buckskin will stiffen back up if wet that we smoke it as the final stage. The chemicals in the smoke  coat the fibres and prevent them from glueing back together if you get caught in a shower. It wouldn’t be most comfortable of clothing otherwise. Once it has been smoked Buckskin can get wet and dry the same as any other material, in fact it really is the only leather fabric and can go through the washing machine if you wished.

In order to make a smoker there are many different designs that can be used. The one that I have found reasonably simple to build and use is a type of pit smoking. This involves digging a small trench, dependent on the size and number of hides you wish to smoke, bending sapling hoops across his trench and covering it over.

To create the smoke take some large glowing embers form an existing fire, placing them in the bottom on the trench. Then you need to cover these embers with a large amount of punk wood that will smoulder. You then lay out your hides across the hoops and if needs be cover them with a cloth to trap in the smoke. This is likely if using small hides.

Covered smoker

The smoker will need to be monitored carefully to avoid any flare ups of the wood which will quickly burn you buckskin ruining all your hard work! So again make sure you have time to spend watching for danger.

unvieling the smoking

After an hour you hides should be smoked enough to be functional but the longer that you can leave them then the more colour they are likely to take on. Colouring the hides is very much a game of pot luck and very hard to predict consistently. This can just add to the uniqueness of each hide. Another thing to be aware of with this smoking technique is that you can end up with grilled steak lines where the hides sit on the hoops. To minimise this it will be worth rearranging them half way through the process. Remember that you’ll lose smoke this way so will need to give them a little longer.

laying out hides on the smoker

The Finished Product!

And it’s as easy as all that! On a serious note though this is more a time consuming rather than difficult process to work through and more often than not if you make a mistake you can simply go back a stage. This doesn’t quite work if you burn you buckskin right at the end!

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this quick run through of the process and that you’re feeling inspired to go out and try it for yourself. As I said there are a number of very good books out there that go into much more detail of each set, along with the science behind it which is worth a read.

So happy hide working and I look forward to seeing any future results!


Danny Hodgson


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