Experimental Homestead

Peeling Oak Bark for Tanning Leather and Apple Breeding Update



Here are a couple of recent videos I did on the stuff I do around here.  One is a short update on labeling and protecting fruit that was pollinated earlier this year as part of my apple breeding project.  I talk a little about the breeding parents and related stuff, but it’s pretty straightforward and short, with a quick visit to my new pig.

The second is a follow along while I cut down, cut up, and peel the bark off of a tan oak tree that is infected with the organism involved in sudden oak death.  I use the bark for tanning skins.  I’m working on a book right now on tanning with plant materials like bark, various leaves and pods and stuff like that.  Writing, research and experiments around that project now consume most of  my time, energy and thought.  In the video I show a few pieces of leather tanned with oak bark, peel the bark, split the wood and clean it all up.  There are few things I’d rather do with my time than that type of forestry work.  Splitting wood, playing with wood, using my axe, burning brush to make charcoal, etc..   is all my idea of a good time!  woo hoo!  It’s really hard for me to cut these videos down and focus them in.  There are so many satellite topics I want to talk about!   Definitely some stuff coming on axe use, wood splitting tutorials, forestry and forest ecology, and lots of tanning and skin working stuff.

July 25, 2015 - Posted by | animal parts, Apples, BioChar, Food Trees Fruits and Nuts, Forestry, plant breeding | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. cant wait for the new book. ’bout time too, the wet-scrape one was excellent…. do you have any experience using chestnut hulls for tannins?

    Comment by Chris | July 25, 2015 | Reply

  2. I don’t have any experience with chestnut hulls. I did read about it recently. I’ll try to look up that reference tomorrow when I unpack. Just got back from doing a veg tanning lecture and the books packed somewhere in the mess. Chestnut bark is supposed to be okay and the wood has been used quite a bit. maybe I’ll add chestnut to my list of tanning experiments. I’ve been collecting materials to try, various barks, acorn caps, roots etc..

    The new book won’t be as extensive as the braintanning book. I’m keeping the main test focused on a super basic process, but there will be a lot of cool ideas and options in the back which some awesome old tanning references from the 1700’s into the early 1900’s. It’s funner to teach and easier to write about, just because it’s so much easier to pull off.

    Comment by Stevene | July 25, 2015 | Reply

    • i dont have a ton of veg tan experience but experiments with the chestnut hulls (spiky outer husk) of our chinese chestnuts have been promising. they seem to leach readily without any boiling and it’s a good excuse to pick them up so i dont step on them barefoot all the time. in the best case scenario i pyrolyse them after leaching tannins afterwards which they crumble really easily (and look and sound awesome)

      Comment by Chris | July 26, 2015 | Reply

      • Howe, Vegetable Tanning Materials 1953, says “The dried prickly husk of the chestnut fruit contains 10- 13% tannin, and the brown outer skin enclosing the kernel 7-9%” Those are pretty decent numbers. Have you seen the Japanese charcoal videos on youtube? One of them shows charred chestnut hulls that are some kind of novelty, or maybe used in tea ceremonies? Pretty neat.

        Comment by Stevene | July 26, 2015

  3. great video
    I actually watched it while softening bark-tanned goatskin! well, acorn-cap-tanned, to be precise… did you just mention tanning material deserts? Hell, I seem to live in one. I can only envy those impressive forests there. anyway, what I use is mostly the caps from Quercus ithaburensis, which are good if you pick them in time (I have lost 3 skins this spring to rot after placing them in a solution of acorn cups that have spent the winter outside… very stupid, I know. I just got stuck and convinced myself it’s still strong enough). It makes very good goatskins, more pliable then the one that’s on the video, but without that amazing, uniform color – my skins gets to sort of reddish-brown, not very uniform, but still pretty. summertime I pick sumac (Rhus coriaria) leaves, though it doesn’t give as good a color and I have to go pretty far to get a descent amount.
    I’m looking forward for that new book! if it’s half as good as the buckskin one it’s definitely worth the money. I haven’t yet seen a really, really good book on this subject (there’s Farnham, yes, and Rahme gives some inspiration, but nothing like the buckskin guides… yours, matt richards’, and Jim Riggs’)

    Comment by nimrod | July 26, 2015 | Reply

    • If you have Tamarisk, look for insect galls on them. They are supposed to be pretty good. not sure if you’d have those there, but probably.

      Comment by Stevene | July 26, 2015 | Reply

  4. Awesome info on the acorn caps. I’m collecting several kinds this year. I can think of 7 oak species within ten miles of my house. The most promising is Quercus chrysolepis which has caps that are very thick and corky like the Valonia caps that used to be used extensively. I read that the Valonia early drop aborted caps/acorns are even higher in tannin than the mature caps, so I’ve been collecting those right now.

    This book will definitely not be as encyclopedic as the buckskin book. It’s actually very basic on purpose, but focused on a basic process that avoids all the common mistakes. There will be some awesome stuff in the back though. it is a gigantic topic, much deeper and broader than braintanned buckskin. I’m doing a lot of reading in very old books on tanning and they are blowing my mind with all the variation and the level of craftsmanship that existed in the past. Consistency can be difficult with veg tanning. Most people would find something that worked for them or regionally and stick with it, but there are infinite variations and so many possible options that an experimental person could stay busy or a lifetime messing around with it. We will all always be novices in that sense.

    If you do a lot of softening on your goat skins, definitely try the graining board. I’m in love with that thing. You can put a cork face on one for working on the grain when folded flesh to flesh so it doesn’t mess up the grain. I’m making one of those next, then a wood faced one with finer teeth, probably 100 teeth per inch and sharper than this first one I made.

    Comment by Stevene | July 26, 2015 | Reply

    • tamarisk galls! really? I’ll give it a try. never heard about using them before. Yeah, there’s plenty of them. The only galls I’ve used so far are the “Pistacia palaestina” ones, which contain according to one source up to 70% (!) tannin (an exaggeration, I’d reckon). unfortunately some iron found it’s way into the solution back then, so it all went black and kinda weak, and I never since had another opportunity to collect more, so I can’t tell how good it is really. do you know a way to tell how strong a solution is, when using new material – apart of tanning in it, I mean? I once got something called “barkometer” – just a hydrometer, really – but it showed almost no difference between normal water and my strongest solution. maybe it was intended for use in commercial chrome solutions or something.
      the graining board does look very, very interesting and I am gonna make one, no doubt. I would have drowned you with questions about it had I not known there’s a book and videos on the way.

      Comment by nimrod | July 27, 2015 | Reply

      • Both the pistacia galls and tamarisk are good, but I think the tamarisk are much more used. Not sure exactly thought and ther are several species spread through that region N to S. I’m including as much relevant info on that stuff as I can in the book. It wouldn’t be surprising if the pistachio is stronger, but not preferred for other reasons. Tannin content is definitely not the only parameter. The strength issue is tricky, but the truth is it doesn’t matter that much in a way if you are using some basic observations and becoming familiar with your materials. Barometers are of limited use. I don’t even own one. They only measure S.G., so that could be tannin or sugars or other solutes. They are probably useful when using the same material over and over, like for a tannery, but the measurement is only useful in a context that is understood.

        You may just be making your solutions too weak, but it’s hard to say. Probably the most common and damaging mistake people make is making solutions too weak and or allowing them to get too weak and leaving them. Since that can happen within hours, it is necessary to keep the solution building in strength over time, not falling off and then sitting. I do an initial concentrate by just covering the material with water and heating it (now I’m using 120 to 150 degrees F), then a second extract. I often start with the second extract and start adding the concentrated one, usually within hours, but at least within a day.

        Yeah, wait for the book! I’m working on it right now, or should be ;). Have to slaughter a goat later today and the skin will go toward tanning book pictures and experiments. I got your letter BTW, will contact you later on that.

        Comment by Stevene | July 27, 2015

      • Here, I just typed up the tamarisk portion for the book. This is paraphrased from Howe’s Vegetable Tanning materials 1953:

        Tamarisk Galls Tamarix species: Best known are from Tamarix aphylla (articulata) and T. gallica. Aphylla used in Morocco for finer grades of sheep and goat skins. Galls are called tak-out or teggaout and come in various grades, the best of which are used for goat skins. Galls are ground, placed in boiling water and skins soaked for 10 days. Also used in Sahara and parts of North Africa. Known in Europe from early times and probably used in the 16th century. Average tannin content 40 to 45%. Regarded similar to oak gall and sumac. Fresh galls produce very light, almost white leather, with rose or violet tint, but skin becomes darker with ageing. Galls of T. Gallica are larger than those from T. Aphylla, but similar in qualities- China and Japan, southern Europe and many parts of Africa.

        collect in October or November and dry carefully to avoid fermentation and deterioration. A well developed tree can produce 25 kg of galls a year.

        Comment by Stevene | July 27, 2015

      • pistacia, rich in tannin, 50 to 60% or more, but don’t appear to have been used extensively in tanning.

        Comment by Stevene | July 27, 2015

      • This should be useful. I have a lot of quotes from this guy in the book. Amazing stuff. The end doesn’t entirely make sense to me yet, but maybe it will after I make my 100 teeth per foot board and use it more.

        “the graining board is a square tool, made of hard wood such as the cornil (dogwood) tree, or the wild apple or pear; it is about a foot long and five inches broad. The largest are two inches thick in the middle, and one inch at the extremities; the the finest are but one inch thick in the middle and in proportion at the extremities. The upper part flat and even’ but the under part is convex or arched, so that the middle is thicker than the two ends; this is furrowed across it’s breadth, that is, covered with straight and parallel chamferings, or hollow furrows, whose intermediate edges are sharp like the worm of a hand coffee mill.

        “In the large boards these furrows are one sixth of an inch in depth and one fourth in breadth; on the upper surface a slip of leather is nailed crossing it’s breadth; to receive the hand like that of a horse brush, the workman extends the flat of his hand on the board to pass it strongly ont eh skin, to temper, gather, turn up and form the grain; for it is principally this board that gives that agreeable grain so much esteemed in leather.

        “They have graining boards of different sizes, whose furrows are more or less deep according to the quality of the skins; there are also graining boards made of cork to soften the skin; to raise the the grain and to lay the flesh, because those of wood mark too strongly with their teeth. the largest which are used for harness and sleek leather, are the hardest operations belonging to the currier, have only about forty teeth in the length of a foot; the finest for finishing goat skins, have about one hundred…

        “When the board is passed on the grain, which is called turning up, the grain is laid down, and the skin becomes sleek, soft, and equal; for the grain being wrinkled by the folds made in the leather, the board presses these wrinkles; they ingrain in the teeth of the board, and by that means become more formed and more durable.” The Art of Tanning and of Currying and Leather Dressing

        Comment by Stevene | July 27, 2015

  5. I’m speechless. Such valuable information! much obliged

    Comment by nimrod | July 27, 2015 | Reply

    • Check out that book by De Landethe art of tanning and of currying and leather dressing. it will blow your mind. You can download for free as an epub, just search the title. You want the irish translation (from French) My tanner friend Jason was alway going on about this guy De Lande in the 1700’s. When I finally got the book and understood why.

      Comment by Stevene | July 27, 2015 | Reply

      • Alright then – I found the ebook now. looks good. I’m diving in, see y’all in september

        Comment by nimrod | July 29, 2015

  6. I really liked watching you cut down that tree. I had no idea oak bark was so thick. I wonder if you have any videos of how you sharpen your tools. I have a bunch of dull tools because I haven’t had the confidence to try sharpening them because I’ve never seen it done. I also really want some cherry cox cross apples and I don’t know if I will be able to stand having to wait for the possible future trees, but I will try.

    Comment by Karen Wood | July 28, 2015 | Reply

    • Thanks Karen. I like cutting down trees! Tan oak bark is especially thick and especially rich in tannins. I probably won’t do much in the way of sharpening videos, but I may do a sharpening book soon that I can sell really cheap or give away, just because it’s such a foundational skill to doing anything else. I may do a video on some sharpening theory I guess, because that is the most important part. I have to finish the tanning book first though.

      Cherry cox is a good apple, though it has it’s faults. The cherry flavor is very intriguing. I made a bunch of crosses of it with red fleshed apples, and then those recent crosses with sweet 16, so we’ll see what happens!

      Comment by Stevene | July 28, 2015 | Reply

      • I will be watching for you to have the books done. I’m very interested. Funny that I never knew there were so many interesting apple varieties out there. All I’ve ever been around is commercially grown. I was looking at a bunch of descriptions on a website a while ago and so want to try them all somehow. The whole subject is very intriguing. Maybe more so than with other types of fruits and vegetables. I wish life contained enough time to thoroughly explore all of them though. It would be awesome to know my absolute favorites of everything so I could devote my garden to just them.

        Comment by Karen Wood | July 28, 2015

      • It does take a lot of time and commitment to figure out what seems to be best. With apples, there are always more since there are so many of them. You might find someone in your area that is testing varieties that can at least give you their favorites list. There are also tastings sometimes, put on by groups like the home orchard society. http://www.homeorchardsociety.org/events/ Most of the apples I’m testing will get the axe eventually.

        Comment by Stevene | July 28, 2015

      • Well if they have to get the axe, I know that apple wood is good long burning wood among other uses. Thanks for the link. I’ll check that out.

        Comment by Karen Wood | July 28, 2015

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