-Photo by Big Grey Mare
If you’ve made a taiko base from scratch and you want to add taiko heads, or if you’re planning to replace the skins on an existing taiko drum, you’ll need to acquire new cow hides. There’s two ways to do this. One is to buy them from a tanning store. This is quick and convenient because the tanned hides are ready-for-use.
The second method, which I’ll talk about here, is to buy raw cow skin from a butcher shop. This is the crazy way to go. If you want to really learn about the taiko-building process, this is going to be an educational experience.
Note: This process is closely-guarded secret amongst taiko-building professionals. What I’ll explain here is what’s worked for me, but by no means may it be the best method.
1. A slaughter house or a butcher shop will have raw skins of entire cows. In my experience they sell them for a very affordable price. The useable parts of the skin (for taiko purposes) are along the shoulder, back and stomach of the cow. Ask for a skin that doesn’t have holes or scars on these parts. (I’m warning you now, but if they let you in the room where they do all the chopping, you’re going to be grossed out. Vegetarians and animal-rights activists might find this all very objectionable, and even if you do eat meat, it might gross you out enough to go vegetarian.)
2. After you’ve got the skin the first thing to do is to remove all of the excess fat and meat that remains on the inner surface of the skin. Spread out the skin on a tarp to prevent dirt and damage. Use a knife to chop off chunks, and use a grinder with a rounded disc to remove thinner layers. Cow skins are strong so a grinder shouldn’t damage them as long as you aren’t literally cutting into the skin with the edge of the grinder. Use the broad surface of the grinder disc to stroke across the fat/meat. Once the fat/meat has been removed, the yellowish surface of the skin should be visible.
3. Next it’s time to remove the hair. To make this process easier, you want to soak the skin in a tub of water and lye. The lye helps loosen the hairs. You can buy lye at a DIY or garden store. This step is key. Too little lye will make it difficult to remove the hairs. Too much lye can be damaging to the skins. If the fat/meat has been completely removed from the skins, you won’t have to worry about rotting for several days. Hence, it’ll give you some time to experiment with lye concentrations.
With higher amounts of lye 24-48 hours of soaking should be sufficient. If the hairs are still too hard to pluck by hand, however, you’ll probably want to soak the skin for a little longer.
4. If the hairs are loose enough to pluck out by hand you’re ready to take the skin back out of the water. Spread the skin back out onto the tarp. It’s time to remove a lot of hair. Quite frankly, this can be a pain-staking process, but to quicken the hair removal process, a flat, metal edge (like a sturdy metal ruler or a rectangular metal bar) can be very useful. Firmly push the edge across the surface of the skin (like a comb). This should pull out the hairs. Spoons, surprisingly, can be used to the same affect as well.
5. Once the hair has been removed, you should now have a clean, hairless and fat free sheet of raw cow skin. Don’t worry if there’s still a few hairs left, they can be removed later. At this point, it may be necessary to re-soak the skin in lye. Skin naturally contains oil, and lye helps to remove it. An oily skin, like a moist skin, can result in poor quality sound. That said, you don’t want to remove too much oil from the skin either, as this results in flaking. If you play on a taiko with an excessively dry skin, layers of skin will start flaking off. This is obviously undesirable.
The balance between oily and dry is difficult, and is dependent on the concentration of lye and the duration of soaking. This in particularly is a secret amongst professionals, and as I’m no professional, I can’t recommend anything specific. I have found though, that two days of soaking in a tub with several cups of lye seems to work fine enough. If anyone knows better, I’d love to know.
6. After all the soaking is over, rinse the skins in water to remove traces of lye. The skins are now ready to be added to a taiko base, but if you aren’t ready for that yet, no problem. If you dry the skins, they can be stored for the long-term. If you live in a sunny, dry area, hang the skins up in the open air and they should dry out in a couple of days. If you live in a wet place or the weather simply isn’t right, you can hang the skins up next to a bucket of burning coals and they should dry out in no time (be careful not to put the coals too close, don’t want to burn the skin).
Once the skin is completely dry, store them in a dark, dry area. If they’re protected from moisture you can pretty much store them forever. When you want to use them again, all you have to do is soak them in water for 2-3 days and they’ll be good to go.
**Addendum: I found a great video on youtube about preparing cow skins for tanning. These guys clearly know what they're doing. Take a look.