Deerskin:Dehairing a hide for a drum head

This is part of a series on preparing deer hide. This article is about making a rawhide drum head. The previous post is Deerskin:Fleshing a hide.enough water

I let this piece of hide sit in a pot full of water and wood ashes for about 3 days. Wearing rubber gloves I reached in and pulled at the hair. When it slipped (released without any effort) I dumped it out in the field and shook off the majority of the ash sludge, then hosed it off and put it on a work table (outdoors) to scrape off the hair. I used a paint scraper. Probably this is something I could use that scapula for…. It came off very easily for the most part, except for one little patch which must have been in a fold that was less exposed to the ash solution. Next time I will use a larger tub and less ashes, so I can move it around more. I used a paintscraper

Attention: The wood ash solution is lye. People used to use wood ash leachings to make soap. Definitely use rubber gloves and some kind of eye protectors- sunglasses or dime-store readers will do, but eye protection is really useful for many outdoor tasks so get some anyway. You can feel the soapy slipperiness on your fingers if you touch it- your fingers prune up instantly, and I got a tiny drop of the solution in my eye while scraping off hair which really hurt. You can really hurt yourself with lye. Seriously. You can go blind. If you get some on you or a little spritz in your eyes, stop what you are doing and go flush it with water until it feels better. If you really get some in your eyes, flush well and seek medical attention. So I told you! Wood ashes make lye strong enough to hurt you.

The hair smells kind of nasty, and it feels rubbery and waterlogged, as if it had been boiled. The hair that is coming off is sort of softened, like when people use hair remover on their legs. Altogether a bit gross. After the hair was off I soaked it for a few hours to clean it and remove the lye. Too much lye can make the leather crack.Β  Then I hung it up overnight. It froze, so I thawed it by the fire and punched holes all around the edge- about an inch and a half from the edge and an inch and a half apart, by draping the hide over a stump, placing the tip of a large screwdriver against the spot I needed a hole, and striking the back of the screwdriver with a hammer until it went into the wood.

At this point I tried several experiments. I wanted to stretch the hide and work it a bit, and I needed to get it so it was tightly stretched around the ring we took the split drumhead off of. First I put the adjustable rim from the conga on one side of a locust stump that was the same size, and the wire ring on the other side, and wrapped some cord about the thickness of clothesline through the holes I had punched, down the log, around the rim, and back. It looked cool, like the log was a primitive drum, and it stretched the hide pretty nicely, but it didn’t get the hide on the ring. (Sorry I was recharging my camera batteries and I was having too much fun to stop and wait.)

So I took the hide off the log, trimmed the shape a bit rounder, made fresh holes where I had trimmed, and wrapped it around the ring. I did this by making a small ring of rope which I put in the middle, and then laid the edges of the hide over the ring so the ring was enclosed in the hide, and looped the rope from the edge of the hide to the the rope ring, until the whole thing looked a little like like a Native American hand drum or a bodhran. I hope you can see what I mean by looking inside the drum. You can see how I tightened the skin onto the metal hoop before tightening the rim a little. I will take all that out once it has dried. here I am strectching the hide on the rim. You can see the bunched hide underneath. I'm going to trim that once the drumhead has dried into its shape.

Once it was tied, I kept tightening it more and more as it stretched. Finally I decided to try and put it on the drum temporarily. My theory is that the leather on the ring will dry, shrink, and stiffen, and then I can take it off and trim away all the excess rawhide that is making bulges under the head and dulling the sound, but the hide will stay on the ring. Then when I put it back on it will be stiff enough to stay in place and tighten up when I tighten the screws on the rim. We’ll see.

Come back for the update! OK here’s the link. It worked!


8 thoughts on “Deerskin:Dehairing a hide for a drum head

  1. Hi!

    I want to dehair my goathide for my drum and I found your blog! I have couple of questions, I wonder if you would like to help me?

    1. What are the proportions of ash and water you used?
    2. Do I just mix the two, because when I make a search on how to make a lye solution it is a very complicated procedure.
    3. Does a chemical procedure like this (as opposed to mechanically remove the hair with machine etc) damage/weakens the skin so it doesnΒ΄t make a good drum head?

    Thank you! πŸ™‚

    • Hi Therese!
      Sorry never replied- I have been traveling and then playing catch up on the farm, and haven’t worked on this blog for since July, and most of the comments are spam… OK, embarrassing. I’m back.
      This is not rocket science. Most ancient techniques are actually quite intuitive. Just mix the ashes and water into a slurry that will allow the lye to leach onto the hide- you should be able to move the hide so a trash barrel works best for bigger hides. That said, watch it carefully for when the hair starts to pull off easily. You want the ashes to be evenly mixed and applied the the hair, because the hair comes off unevenly and I suspect, although I’m not sure, leaving the hide in too long might make it weaker when it dries.
      One of the reasons it seems complicated when you research it is that many folks are looking to make soap, and the strength of the lye would be more critical. People used to save ashes in a barrel, pour rainwater over it, and collect the lye out of a hole in the bottom of the barrel for softsoap. Soap today is a whole different deal- color, fragrance, mildness- somewhat more precise. Anyway. For hides I have only used ashes and a big mess in a bucket. Somewhere I read that burying a hide in the mud of a pond that has a lot of oak leaves in it would also do it, but this could be totally a myth.
      Around here whitetail deer are like rats with hooves, and most goats are dairy, so we use deer hides, which are thicker than goat, and make a deeper sound/require more tension. I did have one doombek deer hide head split at the edge, and looking at it, I had my suspicions. Maybe it’s because the rim was metal and was designed for a premade head so too sharp for a hide stretched that tight? Another distinct possibility is that drying it by the woodstove was too fast and too uneven. I had no other heads that split.
      I think I need to start picking up dead raccoons and possums off the road (ick) and trying the thinner skins. My husband has a few banjos I’d like a natural head on and one is supposed to use coon hide for that. I also like a plunky sound on a banjo- Remo is just too crispy.
      So I imagine you went on ahead and used the hide. How did it go? Did you just go on and shave it? I tried doing that once and next time I’ll borrow my dad’s old straight razor because it was a bear, especially on deer hide. Again, sorry, for my neglect and I’m back on it.
      Cheers Susan

    • Wow, how did that go? Sorry it took me so long to get back to you- been busy busy. I feel like deerskin works really well for big, deep drums like junjuns. Some of my women friends are studying with a Senegalese master and one of them gave him a deerskin to rehead her djembe. I feel like she left it in the ashes longer than I did because I saw a lot of dark mottling on the drum, and one contributor asked whether that could weaken the skin. It certainly burns if you get the ash water on your own skin, but so far I have only had one head split on me and there were a number of possible reasons. One drum master friend seems to prefer goat, probably because it is thinner- makes a higher tone easily and is easy to manipulate. This makes me wonder about skins from younger deer and even from smaller roadkill animals like raccoon. Of course, I have a wood stove so whenever I feel a drum sounds dead I just face the head towards the stove for a while. If that doesn’t work I just tighten it. But I’m not really a drum person- we violinists can’t count.
      I’m really interested in your talking drum. Could you post photos?
      Cheers Susan

  2. Coming from an experienced soap maker here: the medical solution to treat a lye splash on the skin (NOT IN THE EYES!!!!) is to pour vinegar directly on it! Or have a vinegar-soaked cloth or paper towel at the ready! πŸ™‚

    Thanks for this article!

    • Thanks! I’m sure that would take care of any irratation from ash water, which is quite diluted compared to soap making lye. I have been wanting to try making soap with my excess deer tallow, and would love to know what you think, but we are doing a project in Ecuador, where deer are tiny and rare, so getting to that will have to wait.

      • Definitely try it! Tallow makes an incredibly rich, moisturizing bar when used with thoughtful ingredients (I recommend authentic olive (not all olive oil is truly from olives!), avocado, sunflower, etc. I’m not a fan of palm, because of the deforestation and wildlife issues, or coconut because it can be drying on the skin)

        I actually render my own beef tallow to use in my soaps.

        Use the soap calculator at to formulate your recipe, Deer Tallow is actually listed in the ingredient choices. Experiment with small batches and a 4-6 week cure, start at around a 3-5% super fat. Find me on FB under Skin Potion Naturals Canada if you need more direction πŸ™‚

        I really appreciate this post because I hope to acquire a bear skin soon to process for making drums πŸ™‚ I’m not daunted by the process and it sounds super easy, but I imagine there will be some funky ass smells coming with it! πŸ˜†

        • Thanks! I’m growing avocadoes on my farm in Ecuador. I was applying those internally though! My neighbors used to make the soap we used for poison ivy with all the fat from the winter’s cooking and some Red Devil lye. It was rough but it worked. When I get home to the US I will try your recipe! Yes, working with fresh skins is stinky, but you can freeze them if you don’t have time immediately so they don’t get stinkier. Working with the brains is nasty too, but women are tough- we don’t even flinch at diapers. The stench of tanneries in the old days was legendary.
          They grow a lot of African oil palm in Ecuador near the coast, in areas that were deforested a really long time ago. It’s a hideous monoculture. Yes, coconut irritates my skin. The price is high here because the green nuts are in high demand for coconut water. Yum. But where I live is not quite hot enough, so my coconut palms probably won’t do anything until I’m very old. Still, they are like big green feathers, or giant green angels when the wind blows.

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