As part of the tanning process, a key principal is to remove all layers that you don’t want and then to treat and preserve the layers of skin that you do want. Whether you are using the wet or dry-scrape technique, the first step after skinning a deer is to remove the flesh and fat. You can use whatever surface you have available that does the job, but using a wet-scraper on a fleshing beam is considered the most comfortable and efficient.
The tanner in this photo is using a dull knife which you can use in a pinch for fleshing, but easier to use a blunt flat handled draw knife or wet-scraper.
Afterwards, if proceeding with the wet-scrape method, the beam is also used, whereas with dry-scraping, the hide is transferred to a rack to remove remaining layers.
Home made beam
I decided to stick to a fairly basic design that used foraged tools and materials as much as possible, to mimic a bush situation so that if I might ever want randomly set up a beam and tan a hide in the sticks I could (yes I aspire to this). Personally I get much satisfaction using and mastering simple tools during such projects because as Leonardo Da Vinci said ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’. In urban settings, salvaging “waste” materials are also good, and typically inexpensive, options as you can prevent them from ending up in landfill or as firewood before the end of their useful life.
1. Finding materials
The log I got from a local arboriculturalist. I rang several local businesses and finally found one fellow that was about to fell a tree with a fairly straight trunk about 1.5-2.0 m long and 15-20cm diameter (narrower beams can also be useful for difficult spots as the force is concentrated in a small area whilst scraping). Unfortunately it didn’t have smooth bark, but I had a drawknife and was able to take it off instead. If I was living in the bush, I’d probably find a fallen smooth barked trunk, burn a flat end by putting it in the fire and prop it up using the approach below.
Sure you can probably buy a sawlog, rather than go to this trouble, but then you could probably buy your clothing too…
I cut some thick tree branches for legs with diverging branches that could hold up the beam as a sort of stand. I then whittled some pegs from thumb thickness sticks into stout pencil shapes (flat at one end and pointy at the other) and hammered them into the ground to keep the legs from slipping. The one good thing about having mostly heavy clay soils in Melbourne is that you can rely on your pegs not going anywhere easily.
To hold the whole ensemble together I made some “reverse-wrap” cordage from New Zealand Flax (Phormium sp.) and secured it altogether.
Before you start throwing yourself into the fleshing task, mimic the scraping action slowly to check where there may be any parts of the leg sticking up around the beam that your knuckles may whack into unexpectedly. Open wounds whilst tanning are really not a good idea, especially in remote locations.
Keep your beam out of the weather to reduce cracking and ensure longevity, unless you’ve used already weathered or durable materials and are in a dry climate.