Rawhide was used for everything in the early days
In pioneer days, rawhide was used for everything from musical instruments to door hinges. Made from the skins of various animals, the thickness and toughness of the rawhide depends on the thickness of the animal skin. Heavy buffalo rawhide was used by Native Americans to make war shields that could stop an arrow or turn aside an enemy war lance. In the absence of glass, many pioneer cabins had windows of thin, translucent rawhide made from the skin of a young deer. Knife sheaths, drum heads, gun holsters, moccasin soles, lampshades and snowshoe webbings were made of rawhide.
One Appalachian museum contains several early American stringed instruments, resembling banjos, made from a thin wooden box with rawhide from a woodchuck skin stretched on the top to form the sound chamber. Another widely used application for rawhide was to attach handles to tools. The working end of tools, ranging from war clubs to garden hoes, were held tightly to wooden handles by dried rawhide.
Rawhide is simply animal skin which has been de-haired (usually but not always), stretched and air dried. It is very strong and firm, as it has not been through any tanning process. When soaked in water it will soften for molding, cutting, shaping or cutting into thin strips to be used as lacing. When dried again, it stiffens and will retain its new shape. One problem with rawhide is that it will re-hydrate in wet weather unless protected by a waterproof coating such as shellac or varnish.
The process of making rawhide is quite simple and uses only natural materials, animal skin, water and wood ashes.
The first step in making deer skin rawhide is to remove the flesh and fat from a fresh deer hide. This can be done by scraping the hide with a hunting knife, dull draw knife or even a sharp hoe. The best method is by using a two handled fleshing knife and a smooth fleshing beam. Place the hide on the beam with the hair side down and push the flesh and fat off the hide. The result is a clean hide with the hair still on it.
Next, the hair will need to be removed from the hide. This is done by soaking the hide in a five gallon pail of water, to which wood ashes have been added, until the hair begins to slip free. The amount of ashes used is not critical. The old rule of thumb was that the mixture should float an egg, but any strong mixture will work. Wear rubber gloves and eye protection when using this lye mixture. Slosh the hide around with a stick a couple of times each day so the mixture reaches every part of the hide.
After a few days, test the hide by pulling on the hair to see if it will slip loose. The belly and sides will slip first, the back and neck area will be the last part of the hide to be ready for the next step.
When all the hair will slip easily, wring the water out of the hide and put it back on the fleshing beam with the hair side up. Use the two handled fleshing knife to push the hair off the hide. The hair should come off fairly easily.
After all the hair has been removed, turn the hide over and use the fleshing knife to clean the flesh side of the skin again. This removes a thin, gray membrane and leaves a nice clean hide free from hair and slime. The hide is now ready to be washed in clear water with a little vinegar added to neutralize the lye process caused by the ash and water treatment.
The final step in making rawhide is to stretch the hide and allow it to air dry. Lay the damp hide out on a sheet of plywood. Try to keep the natural shape of the skin as you nail it around the edges. Pull it snug, but not tight, as it will shrink as it dries and may pull the nails if stretched too tightly. Use a nail every couple of inches. Finally, use a screwdriver to pry the hide up on the nails so air can get underneath to dry it evenly.
Once dry, the hide will be translucent and thump like a drum. When rolled up and stored in a dry place it will last indefinitely. The finished rawhide is now ready to be used to make authentic pioneer or primitive equipment.
Rawhide For Archery Use
My purpose for making my own rawhide was to make authentic archery equipment the way it was done a hundred years ago. Around the turn of the century, (the last century, not this one) wooden bows were backed with rawhide to protect the bow from breaking under tension when drawn and arrow quivers were made from rawhide. I thought it would be interesting to make my own archery gear the same way the early American archers did.
The practice of gluing rawhide on the back of a wooden bow, to strengthen it and keep the bow from breaking, was popular in America from the late 1800s up until fiberglass backing came into use around 1950. Almost all archery equipment was hand made at that time. In 1926, Dr. Saxton Pope published his book, Hunting With the Bow and Arrow, where he wrote that he and his companions had many bows break until they started backing them with rawhide.
I used rawhide to back a wooden bow made of ash. I first cut two rawhide strips from my prepared deer skin, each about two inches wide and long enough to cover one bow limb. Soaking the strips in warm water softened them enough that they become very flexible. Roughing up the wood on the back of the bow with sandpaper and cleaning it with acetone insured that the rawhide would bond well. To be authentic, I used hide glue, just as Dr. Pope described in his book. I glued the thin rawhide on both limbs, overlapping it under the area that the leather bow grip would cover.
After drying, I cut off the excess rawhide along the sides of the limbs. Since rawhide can re-hydrate, I glued snake skins over top of the rawhide backing to protect it from moisture. This ash bow has now been shot hundreds of times without any problems.
In his book, Hunting With the Bow and Arrow, Saxton Pope also described how he and fellow bowhunter, Art Young, made their arrow quivers from deer skin rawhide with the hair left on. This style of belt quiver was commonly used by archers before back quivers became popular. Being a romantic, Pope thought it important that the hide came from a deer which was taken with the bow and arrow. Luckily, I had such a deer hide.
I used the measurements and pattern from Pope’s book to make my own quiver. For this use the deer skin was simply fleshed well, stretched and air dried. (Rawhide with the hair on) After cutting the pattern pieces from the dried skin and soaking them in water until flexible, I sewed the quiver together. Dr. Pope sewed with cat gut. I had to settle for false sinew.
Placing the quiver on a wooden form to dry finished the job. Once dry, the rawhide had stiffened into shape and made an authentic belt quiver the same as those used by the pioneers of traditional archery a hundred years ago.
When the book, Hunting With the Bow and Arrow, was published, over 80 years ago, Dr. Saxton Pope took the sporting world by storm. In an age when most rifle hunting was done mainly to obtain meat and archery was almost unheard of, Pope, in his romantic style, wrote about the joy and satisfaction of hunting with the bow and arrow.
Perhaps the best hunting story ever written is Pope’s account of hunting grizzlies with bow and arrow in the middle of the night. In my opinion, Saxton Pope was instrumental in starting an American tradition in archery and bow hunting that is still enjoyed by many to this day.
I’ll carry on that tradition next fall when I hunt with a bow and quiver just like the one Saxton Pope carried in 1920 on that famous hunt for grizzly bear by moonlight.