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April 11, 2010
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I've been asked multiple times how I go about cleaning and preserving the skulls that I find so I've decided to put together a sort of FAQ/how-to regarding this subject.  Please keep in mind that there is more than one "right" way to achieve things in the realm of taxidermy.  This is just the way I do my skulls/bones.  :)


You will need:

Plastic bag for picking up your treasure
A good sized flower pot
An ant hill (if possible)
Disposable plastic gloves
Nice sized metal pot kept solely for boiling skulls/bones
Plastic container for soaking the skull/bones in
Hydrogen peroxide 3%-7%
Small pokey thing for helping remove brain bits and other yuck
Super glue, tacky glue, or Elmer's glue for putting the teeth back in


Hokay.  While out hiking, I've come across many different skulls/bones of animals in various stages of decomposition.  The best ones are when nature has already done most of the work for you and it's already pretty clean.  One of the drawbacks of finding them like this though is that there is a high chance that some of the teeth will have gone missing due to its bouncing around the great outdoors for some time.  

When I find a critter that still has juicy bits attached to the skull/bones, I take it home and place it beneath an overturned flower pot situated strategically near an ant hill.  I then stack several large heavy bricks/rocks on the flower pot to keep scavenging animals from stealing my smelly treasure away from me.  The ant hill is valued because the ants will help the flesh removing process go quicker.  If you can't find an anthill, don't fret.  There will still be other bugs that will help out with this, it just might take a little while longer.

Once you are happy with the amount of flesh that has been eaten away from your bones, collect the bones (wear your plastic gloves!) into your metal boiling pot and GENTLY boil them for 20-40 minutes.  Yes, I am aware that boiling is not good for bones and teeth but I like to be a hundred percent sure that any disease, parasite, or bacteria that these remains could be harboring is not passed onto me by my handling them.  So I boil them albeit at a low boil.  If there are crazy big bubbles happening while boiling, you have the heat TOO high.  You want it at a simmer which is a boil with gentle surface motion on the water.  Once the water has reached the boiling point, start the countdown and make sure there is always enough water in the pot to cover the skull/bones.  A good 30-35 minutes of boiling for a medium sized skull (ie, raccoon, badger, fox) should ensure that even the threat of potential rabies virus is completely nullified.  :)

When boiling, please keep in mind that very young or very small animal skulls/bones are highly likely to come apart.  I do not boil my bird skulls for as long as I boil something like a raccoon skull for this reason.  Other little things like voles and mice can be very tricky too.  I had to completely (and painstakingly) reconstruct a vole skull that I boiled that came apart.  Vole teeth are super small.

Which leads me to another point.  Even if boiling a larger, older animal, you are still most likely going to have all or most of its teeth fall out on you.  Be very careful to keep track of all these teeth during the cleaning process.  You will get to play puzzle later and glue them all back into their rightful places in the skull and jaw.

Once the boiling is done, I take my hot pot of water and boiled bones out to the back porch and drain the water while being very careful to not pour any of the teeth out with the water.  Once most of the water is out and the bones have cooled a little, I reach in and collect them all from the pot to place them in a plastic holding container of water.  Make sure this water is room temperature or, better yet, slightly warm, NOT COLD.  The big temperature change is hard on the bones and teeth and could lead to premature cracking.  Leave them to soak in this water for three days.  They might start getting smelly if you leave them in the plain water for much longer.

After three days, pour out the water out from your plastic holding container (making sure you keep expert track of all those teeth!).  Sometimes I rinse everything here but it is not necessary to do so before pouring in the hydrogen peroxide.  Just make sure you've gotten most if not all the water out.  You can use the same plastic container for this.  I use the bottom half of old milk jugs that have had the top cut off or other small plastic containers that I've fished out of our recycle bin, the key is using the right size container for your project so that you don't waste hydrogen peroxide.

The hydrogen peroxide helps to further disinfect the skull/bones and whitens them considerably.  If you want to try to retain some of that natural bone color, leave them to soak in the hydrogen peroxide for only about three days.  If you want them whiter, I recommend leaving them for 1-2 weeks depending on how dirty the bone was when you started out.  Be sure the hydrogen peroxide completely covers your project so the whitening job is even.  Do not use bleach for this as it is very damaging to the bone.

Once your bones have had their nice whitening soak, carefully rinse them all off with water and lay them out to dry.  I use paper towels for this, just be sure not to leave it in an area where a curious pet might come up and get into them.  Sometimes I even speed up the process by paper toweling each individual bone.  I actually recommend this since it allows you to really make sure that all the dirt and leftover cartilage are properly removed before the drying process is complete.

Do you still have all the teeth?  Once everything is dry (or sometimes before, depending on how impatient you are), you can start playing around with the teeth and finding out which ones fit where.  While you can do this before everything is completely dried, I only recommend gluing things once it really is thoroughly dry and once you are completely sure you know where each tooth goes.  Also, an advantage to using tacky glue or Elmer's glue rather than super glue is that if you mess up, it just takes some hot water to loosen up the teeth enough to pull out and correct your error.

At this point you should now have a nice clean skull or set of bones (or both!) that you can be proud of, learn from, and show off for years to come.  A couple basic tips for skull care is to keep them out of direct/harsh sunlight and to always wash your hands before handling them since the oils from your skin can leech into the bone and discolor it after awhile.

If there's anything I might have missed or if you have additional questions about anything, just ask.  :)
I was asked to upload this as an actual deviation so that it was more easily accessible. Like I state at the beginning of this how-to, there are many ways to reach your objective in taxidermy, this is just my way of doing things and I thought I'd share them with you since I've had many requests for this type of knowledge. :)
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:iconfrozentimefrozeneyes:
FrozentimeFrozeneyes Featured By Owner Oct 19, 2014  Student General Artist
Thanks this helped so much, I found this badger skull today, not sure whether its young or not because its pretty small.
Reply
:iconnikkisixxisalegend:
NikkiSixxIsALegend Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2014  Student Traditional Artist
Cool! I know it's been a while since you uploaded this, but where would you get the hydrogen peroxide from?
Reply
:iconaviscelox:
AvisCelox Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Have you ever done fish skulls, and is there anything you would do differently for them? I have a tripletail I want to preserve.
Reply
:iconflailtail:
FlailTail Featured By Owner May 23, 2014
I'm actually going to try to preserve my axolotl. aha..
Reply
:iconnyght11:
Nyght11 Featured By Owner Feb 19, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Okay, I have a woodpecker, and i was going to bury the poor fellow, but it was too snowy and uch, so i put him in my deep freezer... :/ well he has been there for about a year now... I'm not sure whether I want the whole skeleton, just the wings, or just the skull. Either way, what would be the best way to go about getting everything off of the bones of a frozen small bird? (if you even can without damaging it)
Reply
:iconpheasant-sky:
Pheasant-Sky Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2013  Hobbyist Artist
Yikes! Make sure that's legal in your state/country! In my state, picking up any native songbird will get you in DEEP trouble.
Reply
:iconnyght11:
Nyght11 Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
really? I live kind of in the boonies anyway... but I'll check it out. :)
Reply
:iconkmeeeks1015:
kmeeeks1015 Featured By Owner Nov 13, 2012
Yay! I am OBSESSED with animal skulls! I often find various dead animals while trail riding my horse. I like to bury the heads of these animals underground with mouth closed and pointed up. Also if possible I like to harvest some of the maggots that may be in the carcass and bury them along with the head. They are excellent bone cleaners. Most of the time after three days there is no longer ANY flesh or icky bits left attached! :D this is great though. I never thought of the flower pot thing... That will make things a LOT easier lol thanks for posting this!!
Reply
:icontyto-thylaco42:
Tyto-Thylaco42 Featured By Owner Nov 7, 2012  Student General Artist
I think i'll be referring to this alot!

I have a dead fox that had been hit by a car down the road. the skin has hardened like very thick cardboard all over the body and most of the hair fell off while i carted it back home.
how would i go about removing the skin?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
Soaking it in a water should soften it up for you.
Reply
:icontyto-thylaco42:
Tyto-Thylaco42 Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012  Student General Artist
cool, i'll try that.
Reply
:iconcobean:
Cobean Featured By Owner Oct 16, 2012  Hobbyist Artist
This seems like a great way to study the skeletal structure of an animal (like a chicken since my dogs keep coming home with one) Is hiking the best way in finding the treasure? I hope I can find a fox since there is a lot in the streets of my town :la: (they are not afraid of humans, in fact some come around to play with the kids) All I need to do is to explain my mother because she is the definition of superstitious ^^;
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
Yes, hiking can be a great way to come across dead things. :nod
Reply
:iconcobean:
Cobean Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012  Hobbyist Artist
That's great! I hope I can find some kagaroo mice or some dead kit foxes :la: or maybe even a shrike bird would be an awesome find!
Reply
:iconsearching-4-my-wings:
searching-4-my-wings Featured By Owner Sep 26, 2012  Student Writer
Thanks so much for this! Incredibly helpful.
Just a question: I've got a bandicoot skull soaking in 3% peroxide. I keep hearing about the solution going milky, or foaming, or stinking, and mine is perfectly clear with very little foam, sometimes none. This skull was quite clean when it went in (sun bleached after a couple of months in the sun). Does the amount of flesh = amount of foaming/murkiness/smell?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
Yes, the more dead bits still attached to the bones, the more foam/murk you will get. That is the hydrogen peroxide interacting with the yuck and disinfecting it. Sometimes if I drop something really gross into the peroxide, I need to change the solution every few days or it will stink.

Congrats on the bandicoot by the way. Have any pics? :)
Reply
:iconsearching-4-my-wings:
searching-4-my-wings Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012  Student Writer
Thanks again! I leave my animals out in a cage in the back clearing for a while before soaking them, so it seems I can make one bottle of peroxide go very far as there isn't much yucky to be cleaned off (thank you, fire ants!).
I do have a pic of the first one I tried (while clutching a print out of this tutorial, I should add): [link]
Reply
:iconcolourboots:
colourboots Featured By Owner Sep 12, 2012
this was very helpful.
thank you.
no, I mean it.
really.
very.
really.
super.
indeed.
(I tried it with a snake! I turned out amasingly! the spine was in tact and everything! I sprayed ceramic on it and I could move the vedibrate!)
Reply
:iconaccelia:
Accelia Featured By Owner Jul 29, 2012
A bird was just found victim to my pug,the head was good condition,I think my dog just ripped it off and ate the rest of the body,anyways,I really want to skull of this bird,so this is a good tutorial :D.
Reply
:icondrageline:
Drageline Featured By Owner Apr 13, 2012
Hi there. First, a big thank you for the tutorial, it's really helpful! :)
I just've brought home a frog's hind leg from my biology class. It was used for lab experiments before, so I hope it's mostly sterile, bacteria can occur everywhere tough. I'm afraid of the effects of boiling on it, since those are quite fine bones. Should I give it a try anyway or is the hydrogen peroxide enough?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Aug 6, 2012
The hydrogen peroxide should be enough. :)
Reply
:icondrageline:
Drageline Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2012
Thank you :)
Reply
:iconfoxidermy:
Foxidermy Featured By Owner Mar 30, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
I have three large skulls, two dogs and a deer, that I am trying to get aroung to cleaning soon.
But if it takes 30-35 minutes for a medium skull to boil, how long for a large one?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Aug 6, 2012
I think I boiled my deer skull for about 40 minutes. And 30-35 for the dogs should be fine. :)
Reply
:iconfoxidermy:
Foxidermy Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks for the answer!
Yeah, I boiled them a couple months back, I gave them each around 30 and they turned out fine. :)
Reply
:iconwildspiritwolf:
WildSpiritWolf Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2012
If your pot is large enough to submerge the skulls all the way, 35 minutes should be fine for them.

--WildSpirit
Reply
:iconfoxidermy:
Foxidermy Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Okay, thank you! :D
Reply
:iconmirroreyesserval:
mirroreyesserval Featured By Owner Mar 12, 2012   Digital Artist
I still love this tutorial. ^^

And I have a quick question: I'm about to begin the process of cleaning a bird skull. Have you found that the Hydrogen Peroxide bleaches the natural colors in the beak, or leaves them alone? I'd like the skull to be white but don't know if I should maybe prop it up so the beak isn't in the Peroxide. :)
Reply
:iconwildspiritwolf:
WildSpiritWolf Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2012
It does bleach the beak coverings. After boiling, I can usually carefully remove them and place them in cool water while the rest of the skull soaks in peroxide. I put them back on later after the soaking is done. Sometimes they need a little glue around the edges to hold them in place properly. :)

--WildSpirit
Reply
:iconmirroreyesserval:
mirroreyesserval Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2012   Digital Artist
That's exactly what I was worried about, but it's good to know that part is actually removable. Thank you for your help and saving me a bunch of heartache. I would have hated to accidentally bleach out the beak. :)
Reply
:iconshepaintswithblood:
ShePaintsWithBlood Featured By Owner Oct 27, 2011   Traditional Artist
Thank you for writing this! It was very helpful and easy to understand and I really hope I get a chance to use it one of these days soon! I just need to buy myself a good bone pot that I can keep far away from the food cooking pots. Thank you again!:blackrose:
Reply
:icondragoonfliy:
Dragoonfliy Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
Excellent tutorial! I'll have to try this out on a squirrel skull I've got tucked away in my closet (oh god that's creepy, what IS wrong with me). I've lost most of the teeth because I buried it to get the meat off though...

Uhr. So where would one procure 3% Hydrogen Peroxide? Do they sell that... Somewhere?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Oct 4, 2011
The hydrogen peroxide can be found at just about any store in the pharmacy section. :)
Reply
:icondragoonfliy:
Dragoonfliy Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
Fantastic... Thank you!
Reply
:iconarcky-cano:
Arcky-Cano Featured By Owner Jun 3, 2011  Student Digital Artist
could you use a strainer of sorts when keeping track of the teeth and such?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
That could work. I will have to keep that in mind. :)
Reply
:iconarcky-cano:
Arcky-Cano Featured By Owner Nov 15, 2012  Student Digital Artist
I hope it works out :D
Reply
:iconedenbub:
Edenbub Featured By Owner May 25, 2011  Student Digital Artist
You say "A pot solely for boiling skulls". Is it bad if we use the same pot {washed, of course} to cook food? Do the skulls leave bacteria or something?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Oct 4, 2011
Because boiling kills germs, it would probably be fine to use a pot that is also used for food. I like to be on the safe side, however, and refuse to use food pots for boiling roadkill. :XD:
Reply
:iconpirakarapper:
pirakarapper Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2011
How long do you say It takes for a raccoon skeleton to decompose all the way? I left it under a plastic crate with a huge rock on it and i'm just waiting now. I haven't ever done this before so I don't know how long it will take. Also I have an owl but since it's covered in feathers will it take longer to rot?

Thanks for the info above btw! :)
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
It really depends on the conditions, such as warm/cool and moist/dry weather. Your best bet is just to keep checking on it until the bones look ready for collecting. Don't forget to wear your plastic gloves! :)
Reply
:iconbluefangleader:
BluefangLeader Featured By Owner Apr 14, 2011
Hey, I have an adult mallard duck skull. How should i clean it up?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
You can follow this tutorial for birds too. It doesn't only apply to mammals.
Reply
:iconinvisiblecatfish:
InvisibleCatfish Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
I wouldn't worry about rabies. The rabies virus dies 24 hours (but no more than 50 hours) after its host dies. It also lasts seconds outside the body on clothing and such. I work with rabies vector species. It's when they bite you or you eat them there's really concern. Really good guide though! I take the lazy avenue and just macerate them, lol.
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Oct 15, 2011
That is really useful information. Thank you for the tips. :)
Reply
:icondanmerrell:
DanMerrell Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
How do you get the flesh off of a bird's skull?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
Put it under an overturned flowerpot for a few weeks. It should do the trick.
Reply
:iconhawthornhare:
HawthornHare Featured By Owner Feb 10, 2011
Do you dilute the hydrogen peroxide, or just use it pure?
Reply
:iconfossilfeather:
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
I use 3% hydrogen peroxide and do not dilute it.
Reply
:iconwildspiritwolf:
WildSpiritWolf Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2011
I use 3% hydrogen peroxide. As far as I know pure hydrogen peroxide is illegal and only professionals are allowed to handle it because it is so dangerous. ^^;
Reply
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