A Visit to Baker’s Oak Bark Tannery

25. September 2016 Leather 0
A Visit to Baker’s Oak Bark Tannery

In August I was lucky enough to visit Britain’s last oak-bark tannery. They produce top quality leather from Devon’s finest cows using the ancient technique of soaking the hides in oak bark and water. And the great thing is, I peel oak bark with the Coppice Association NW and then sell it to the tannery. So some of that bark was peeled by me!

Outside the tannery's rabbit warren of rooms.
Outside the tannery’s rabbit warren of rooms.

Andrew Parr, the owner, very kindly gave his time to guide me (and my family) around the tannery, showing all the different stages. The first room is where they process the oak bark by breaking it up into smaller sections. These pieces are then poured into pits and water is added. This is then left to allow the tannins to be absorbed into the water.

Andrew Parr with some oak bark
Andrew Parr with some oak bark
A mountain of oak bark - some of this came from the wood near me!.
A mountain of oak bark – some of this came from a wood near me!.
Oak bark soaking in water
Oak bark soaking in water – you can see how long these tanks have been used by the build up of debri.
One of the many rooms at the tannery.
One of the many rooms at the tannery.
Hides ready to go into the lime bath
Hides ready to go into the lime bath

The hair is removed from the skin by soaking it in a lime bath.

Cowhides in the lime bath
Cowhides in the lime bath

After the lime treatment the hide needs to be scraped to remove all of the hair.

Scraping the hair from the skin after its been in the lime bath.
Scraping the hair from the skin after its been in the lime bath.

The hides are now ready to be suspended in the oak bark solution. There are many pits with different strength solutions. When the tanning solution is made it is too strong for the skin – the outer surface would tan too quickly, preventing the inside to tan. But after a solution has been used it becomes weaker so the raw skin can be initially tanned in the weakest solution. Then, over a period of a year the hide is moved into the gradually stronger solutions.

Hide being turned into leather with the oak bark solution.
Hide being turned into leather with the oak bark solution.

After tanning, which can take about 18 months, the hides are air dried.

Leather drying after having been tanned.
Leather drying after having been tanned.

Fish oil is then added and the surface scraped again.

Oiling the leather before it completely dries out.
Oiling the leather before it completely dries out.

The result is a lovely russet colour, much darker and tougher compared with other veg-tanned leather.

Here’s the first thing I made with the oak bark tanned leather – a belt for one of my mailing list winners!

Leather belt made from the russet oak bark tanned leather.
Leather belt made from the russet oak bark tanned leather.

More details about the tannery can be found on their website: www.jfjbaker.co.uk