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Submitted on
March 23, 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 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.  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.  :O

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 :D), 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.  :)
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SoccerStrider01 Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2014
Hello, i have recently found the top half of a relatively small skull. There seems to be no flesh left, only dirt and the tiniest bit of mold (?) All i have at the moment is rubbing alcohol, and i was wondering if it would be ok to clean it. Also is it ok to modge podge it afterward? Sorry if im rambling -_-'
oliviamarrese Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013
Hey just curious, what would happen if i were to try and preserve a small skull in 91% rubbing alcohol ? will it deteriorate like in water? 
robsesseddd Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2013
does wrapping animal bones in moist leaves, newspapers or plastic bags help to let it last longer?
pelts4u Featured By Owner Mar 12, 2013
I will be buying a coyote skull soon. Can I use rubbing alcohol instead of hydrogen peroxide? If not, is there a good place to buy some?
Little-Ms-Spooky Featured By Owner Feb 15, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
I have skull that smells awful and has some white stuff on it, would this work for my problem?
BananaSnail Featured By Owner Dec 29, 2012
I found a very old bone that appears to be from the spinal cord of cattle.
It is completely dried out, with tiny holes here and there.
Should I just go ahead with preserving/cleaning it or is it already too late for that?
Frilled-Aten Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Do you know if I should use peroxide on my small snake bones?

Thank you!
FossilFeather Featured By Owner Aug 6, 2012
Peroxide would be perfectly safe for small bones. It is effective and gentle. You shouldn't have to leave them in the peroxide for more than a week or two. Probably closer to one week. :)
Frilled-Aten Featured By Owner Aug 6, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you!
I will go ahead and soak them <3
StrongBear Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2011
I have just resantly found what I think is a robin,,old long dead no eyes,, very wet from resant storms. There is very little flesh left but some feathers left, bad quality. How do I clean such a small head( about half the size of my fist) that is so old?
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