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Picture of Taxidermy Skull Preparation
Learn how to clean and prepare animal skulls for display or study. WARNING: Veiwer disgreshion advised. Includes photos of raw skulls. Not for those with a weak stomache. Please do not leave comments about how "gross" this is. If you think it's gross, don't read it.
 
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Step 1: Aquire your skull

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Of course you will first need to find a nice skull for this project. I highly recommend finding a predator skull; I find they are more interesting because of the sharp teeth. There are several places where you can find skulls.

1. Check your local taxidermist. Many times they will have small animal skulls in the freezer, such as coyote, beaver, fox, raccoon, bobcat ect. depending on where you live. They may charge you a few bucks for one, or they may even just give you a skull or two at no charge.

2. You can occasionally find raw skulls on eBay. This has the potential to get a little pricey and possibly a bit smelly, because the skull will have to be shipped to you. When searching for a specimen on eBay, type in "taxidermy skull" and search in "all categories".

3. Road kill. Use this as a last resort, as the skull will most likely be rotten and very possibly damaged.

Step 2: De-Fleshing your skull with beetles

1. Dermestid beetles. This is the way many museums prepare skulls. Dermestids are small, black, flesh eating beetles. They are much less messy than other flesh eating bugs such as maggots, and they are fairly easy to contain because they cannot fly in temperatures below about 85 degrees. You can buy dermestid starter kits on eBay fairly cheap. This method is best if you plan to make cleaning skulls a hobby.

a. Set up your dermestids in a large Rubbermaid tub, preferably in and out-door heated shed (it is best to keep the room temp just at eighty degrees if possible). They will need a cotton or pine shaving bedding. Use ONLY cotton batting or cotton balls that are 100% natural cotton or use pine shavings. Do NOT use cedar shavings.

b. It is best to let your starter colony grow a bit before placing your skull in (keep the skull frozen so it does not rot or dry out). Feed you beetles raw hamburger and let them multiply for about two to three weeks. Check every few days to make sure they still have food, and also lightly mist their container with water every other day.

c. Once your colony has grown for several weeks, it is time to thaw out you skull. Make sure it is completely thawed before you place it in with the beetles. You may want to set your skull on a piece of card board instead of placing it directly on the bedding, as sometimes the bedding (especially cotton) will stick to your skull. The dermestids prefer to be somewhat hidden, so you can place a small cardboard box over the skull to provide cover for them as they eat.

d. Check on your skull about every 12 to 18 hours. make sure it stays slightly damp by misting it slightly now and again. Total cleaning time will vary. The larger and hungrier your colony is, the better. I have heard that a good strong colony can clean an entire buffalo skull in about 48 hours, but don't be disappointed if yours takes a few extra days. Make sure you do not place more than one skull in at a time, and make sure you remove the skull quickly after all of the flesh is gone, because the dermestids will begin to eat the bone.

e. Finally, when you remove the skull from your beetle tank, there will still be beetles on it. Place your skull into a plastic zip-lock bag and set it in the freezer. If you simply want to slow your beetles down, leave it in for about 15 minutes, then shake and brush the beetles back into your bug-tub. If you want to kill the beetles, leave the skull in the freezer for 24 + hours, then shake and brush the bugs off outside. Be aware: you may not be able to get all of the bugs off, so don't stress if there's one or two left inside. They will eventually break down & you should be able to wash then out down the road sometime.

Step 3: De-Fleshing with boiling or soaking

Picture of De-Fleshing with boiling or soaking
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2. Boiling your skull. You should do this outside as it WILL make your house stink. Most outdoor grills these days have a stove burner, which works perfect. I have a freestanding propane burner (purchased from Wal-Mart) that work GREAT because I can move it away from the house. You will want to designate a pot specifically for cleaning skulls; you can buy a used pot at almost any local thrift store.

a. Start your water boiling. Reduce it to a low simmer and place your skull in. Cover with a lid if possible.

b. Check your skull as often as possible, about every 10-15 minutes. If you boil it for too long or at too high a temp, the bone may begin to separate along the joints. Once the flesh is soft and easily falls away from the bone, grab a pair of tongs and remove the skull from the pot. Allow it to cool slightly, but not all the way. Make sure you collect any teeth that may have fallen out from the bottom of the pot; you can glue these back in later.

c. Remove the remaining flesh by hand, either with gloves or without (I stopped using gloves because they get in the way too much). To remove what is left of the brain, use a bottle brush under running water; push the brush up into the skull cavity and basically brush & clean just as you would a bottle or tall glass. Keep rinsing, scraping & peeling until 90% of all the flesh is removed.

3. Soaking the flesh off of your skull. This takes a long time and STINKS but it has good results. Simply fill a Rubbermaid tub with water and place your skull in. It is best if the tub is placed in a warm shed, far from your house and from your neighbors house. Change the water every four to seven days as needed. The flesh will rot right off of the bone in the water. Some teeth may fall out but they can be glued in later. Time varies based on water temp and skull size, but expect this to last at least a month. Once you can see that all the flesh is gone, rinse under running water to remove small particles, and allow the skull to dry. I recently cleaned a deer skull in this fashion, and it can out with virtually no damage to the bone.

Step 4: Whitening and De-Greasing your skull

Now that the worst part is behind you, the rest should be easy. For this step you will need a small plastic tub or container as well as several bottles of 3% hydrogen peroxide ($0.99 per bottle at your local drug store).

1. Place your skull into the tub and pour in the bottles of hydrogen peroxide. You will want to make sure you use enough peroxide to completely cover the skull. Do NOT dilute the peroxide. 3% is very low strength but it is the cheapest and easiest to to get your hands on.

2. The peroxide will fizz like crazy. Allow the skull to soak over night, and the check to see the progress. You skull should begin to whiten nicely. Leave it in the solution until you reach you desired whiteness, but I would not leave it in for more than about 48 hours, as the peroxide will eventually begin to weaken the bone just enough so that it gets a few hairline cracks.

3. Once your skull has whitened nicely, remove it and wash it thoroughly under running water. If there are still small bits of flesh or cartilage on it, they should have turned a light yellow color by now and should come off easily during the final rinse. Allow your skull to dry for 24-48 hours.

4. If your skull develops any greasy dark stains, contact a taxidermist to purchase a professional de-greaser. I have herd that ammonia can be used, but I have never used it myself. The peroxide works as a de-greaser as well as a whitener, but some species have greasier bones than others.

*** I NEVER recommend using a bleach mix for whitening. This can seriously damage a skull. If you wish to use something stronger than drug-store peroxide, you can purchase 40% peroxide from a taxidermist supplier. Follow the instructions on the bottle.

Step 5: Finishing your skull

1. Glue in any teeth that fell out during the process using Krazy Glue super glue. Don't use a glue gun. The teeth may stick out funny or crooked, and hot glue does not last. It can also look tacky if it oozes out.

2. Buy plain, clear nail polish and paint it on both sides of all of the skull's teeth. This will help to prevent the teeth from splitting in the future.

3. I like to spray my skulls with a clear semi-gloss wood finish. This may take several coats. This is not necessary, but I like the added gloss. You can also glue the lower jaw onto the upper part of the skull if you wish to & pose it so the mouth is open in a snarl.

YOU'RE FINISHED!
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You can go to sally's beauty supplies and get large gallons of the peroxide that they use on hair. It is a 30% solution I believe and I got mine on sale for $4.99/gallon The creme version they use for hair is also a great way to whiten right around the base of antlers so you don't risk bleaching them in the liquid

HELP!!!..I am absolutely a novice. Just simmered 2 beautiful Longhorn skulls for hours on Saturday, with arm and hammer, then high-pressure rinsed them afterwards. As they lay to dry there was alot of blood running out although I'm sure we got everything out. Someone suggested it iis coming from under the horns? They will not loosen. Now we were told to NOT boil the horns, so they were, well... steamed I guess. Any suggestions as to how to remove them? For they are stuck fast.Will I damage the skulls if I re-boil them? And how long should it take for the horns to loosen? There are lots of videos about antlers but NOT horns! Everything is dry now and hard as rock, but alot of dried blood on the back of the one skull. Thank-you for any words of experience!

pvkeeton7 months ago

How do you remove the fat, hair and other residue from the pot once you've cooked the deer head? The pot is aluminum.

RonnieC29 months ago

The cleaned skull is beautiful thing but whats the least grossest way to transmute or turn an animals skull from road kill (strictly roadkill for me) to a nice clean skull? Quickest,cleanest and least grossest way.

When simmering the skull add arm and hammer super washing soda ( sodium carbinate ) and some dawn dish soap . degreased and clean.

ElleP10 months ago

Boiling over a long period or at too high temperature can really damage the bone and make it flake with a dull rough surface rather than a nice smooth one. These things take time and patience! Cannot recommend enough! remove as much flesh as possible with a knife, then soak in an air tight container of water. It will take up to a month (maybe more) but the results are far superior.

hherzog2 years ago
Dawn dish detergent works well for de-greasing bone, but don't even try it on any skins you are tanning: you just wind up with a greasy mess.
hherzog2 years ago
The soaking method can be sped up a bit by adding an aquarium heater. Just makes the bacteria a little happier.
paqrat3 years ago
I have been wanting to gold leaf a skull ( not real gold leaf, too expensive) but have had problems getting and keeping a skull. A large possum was obliging enough to get run over by a car on the road beside the house. I got the carcass and placed it in the yard under a tree to let nature takes its course. I kept watch on it from time to time and all was going well until I went out one day and found my possum skull AWOL. The rest of the carcass was still there but something had liberated my skull. I also had two raccoon skulls vanish from the fenced in back yard in similar fashion. Only thing I can figure got the skulls in the backyard would be either possums or raccoons. No dogs in the neighborhood could get in and out of the yard. Your instructable will be most helpful if I can manage to hold onto a skull long enough to use it. I am somewhat anxious about either boiling or water method as my house is pretty close to others next door and I don't want to be a bad neighbor.
I did this with a woodpecker a little while ago. I made a dome out of 1/4" wire mesh and staked it down with a couple of 6 inch nails that I had stashed away and it work like a perfectly.
pyromanic3 years ago
Cool nice job
Kiteman7 years ago
Can the squeamish amongst us de-flesh by burial?

I was given some whale vertebrae, and (after I'd laboriously scrubbed them clean) I was told I should have just left them buried in the garden (for a couple of months?) to let the ants clean them.

I imagine that you could bury the skull in a pot of sand (so soil didn't stain the bones) next to an ant nest and let them discover several thousand free lunches.
yeah, worms, rodents, and all manner of small beasts will ceaselessly clean any trace of meat from any type of bone, just make sure its buried, because if it can move, some larger animal will move it. so is the way of the world.
I read that mice and squirrels enjoy eating the antlers because of the calcium. So leaving them outside for the ants to eat the meat may not be a great idea unless you can protect everything, (ie. large bucket). But then, do you really want a huge massive ant colony in your backyard?
paintedskull.com (author)  albetcha7 years ago
A bucket may work, perhaps cover it with a fine mesh screen. Even still you will probably get more than just ants. Parasites such as round worms will probably get into the carcas, especially if it takes a while for all of the meat to be removed by the ants. Make certain that if you do this you keep your pets and children away from the area where the bones are set up. Several months before our family adopted a puppy, I had burried some scraps (a few neck bones and a piece of hide from a deer) from one of my buckets in what was then a very un-used fenced garden. When we got out puppy I turrned the garden into a dog run, and she developed several very strong cases of round worm. My vet informed me that the culprit was probably and animal carcas, and that's when I remembered my burried scraps. Sure enough, the pup had dug them up. I asked my vet if there was any way to sanatize the area and kill the round worms so my dog would be safe, he said no, as long as there was still even a bit of hide or bone left the round worms wouls stay. Needless to say I had to spend several days completely strip-cleaning to dog run to remove any and all bits of bone and hide that were still burried. As long as you keep the bones very well contained in a bucket, this type of mass area and soil contamination shouldn't happen, just be sure to take every precaution of keeping children and pets away from the bucket (children can pick up the parasites through small cut & scrapes or (very young children) by eating dirt or putting their hands in their mouth after playing with dirt. Dogs and cats can pick up the parasites by eating or chewing on bits of carcas or bone). Round worms are much much more likely to infest dogs, but they are more dangerous in humans. Because they are primarily a dog parasite, they tend to "get lost" in the human body and often end up in the eye, causeing damage and even blindness. Here is one of the webpages I used for information when I found out my dog had gotton roundworms: http://www.marvistavet.com/html/roundworms_in_dogs___puppies.html
ou'd be surprised how many nests are in any back garden. Our side lawn, about 6x15 feet, has at least 5 separate nests.
paintedskull.com (author)  Kiteman7 years ago
Personally I wouldn't do it this way. For one, more bugs (not just ants) would find their way in some way or another. Second, the bone would be at risk of becomming rotten or damaged becuse of trapped moisture under the sand or soil. I get squeamish sometimes when I clean a skull (even though I've done it time and time again). Boiling is the most stomach-turrning method, followed by soaking (you don't really have to touch the flesh, but it STINKS). In my opinion, I'd say go with beetles. You don't have to touch the skull to clean it and the beetles have a milder smell than the soak tubs. They are not nearly as gross as fly maggots. In fact, if you're not grossed out by beetles in general, these guys are even kinda cute. And no, even though they are flesh eating bugs, they will not try to eat you :P lol
I was looking into trying this with Dermestid beetles once. I read that if they get loose they can invade your home taking over your carpet, food, woodwork, etc. Have you seen issues with that or is the setup you have in a separate shed? Thanks.
paintedskull.com (author)  albetcha7 years ago
I have my dermestids outside in a separate, semi-climate controlled shed. When I first got them last winter, I kept them in a ten-gal fish tank. They were able to get out because the lid did not fit tight enough. I now have them in a rubbermaid tub with a super-tight fitting lid. I cut the center area out of the lid and used hot glue and duct tape to install a screen, so that they could get plenty of ventalation. When they escaped in my shed last winter, they got into everything. I had to take all of my deer hides and legs (for crafting) and burry them in the snow to kill the beetles before they did any damage. Also, you want to make certain that NO FLIES can get into your dermestid container. A few flies will kill off your entire colony within weeks. If you get beetles, it would be best to have them outside in a shed or in their own, beetle-proofed room in your basement. Wherever you have them, try to keep them warm durring the winter, as they do not like cold weather and too low of a temp will kill them. When you don't have any bones for them to clean, feed them ground beef, liver or (only as a last resort) high-protien dog food. I have been wanting to make a detailed instructable on beetle care, but there is a glitch and this site will not let me create a new instructable. As soon as the glitch is fixed, I will post beetle care instructions in detail.
diablocurry3 years ago
Yay! I did a mole! H. peroxide is hard to get here but I hunted some down, from Boots! Only thing, it's teeth fell out, gonna superglue them before dipping and fizzing next time as they are really small and impossible to put back in. I superglued one to my finger, ew!
Jimbok34 years ago
Another way to clean it off is to bury the skull and wait a month or two. It takes a little longer but it gets the job done.
also if you live relatively close to streams or rivers you can just put the carcus into a crawdad trap. The little buggers are gentile enough to leave snake's rib bones intact. then you can mold it how you want and let dry. it will stay how it dries.
njdjs5 years ago
I found a coyote road kill. I got the head and put it in a bucket with some of the water from my pond for about a week or so. I dumped the water out a few times and put more fresh pond water in it. Today I just took the cleaned off skull out of the bucket and put it in 3% peroxide for a few hours. The skull looks great. I am now waiting for it to dry so I can glue the teeth back in. Was driving down the road and found another coyote so I got my bucket ready and put the skull in. This time I put 2 tablespoons of powdered laundry detergent to each gallon of water with it. I heard it takes the oils out. My first skull looks great and now I am a skull freak. I carry garbage bags with me so when I find a road kill thats in good shape I can get it. I always carry a shovel with me too. Some people think I'm crazy..lol..well ok maybe I am but I'm having fun.
jesuscrist5 years ago
i am doing a russing bore it is soking no hide now the guy wants the jaw open how do i keep the jaw open???
lstaley5 years ago
Other sites recommend  using fingernail polish remover to degrease.
flamesami5 years ago
I have some small pork bones (no joints)do you think overboiling would be a problem?
THank you !  I've been wondering how I was going to go about doing this, as I have a buffalo skull that needs whitening..  as well as a hog and a couple of severed deer heads out in the snow..  Which sounds kinda weird.  But this is vermont, and deer season just passed.  and my boyfriends got bacon smoking in his newly built smoke house.  you get the idea right?  Anyhow, thank you, this is surely going to be of use!
An Villain6 years ago
i do not think spike deer snarl, but i may be wrong.
NikonDork7 years ago
Actually, if you want to use Peroxide stronger then the 3% you get at the drug store, you can go to a beauty supply store and get Clairol Clairoxide 40 or the equivalent. Its 40% H2O2 by volume and the rest is water and a small amount of stabilizer to keep it fresh. They also have it in 10%, 20% and 30% strengths. Be warned though, these are very strong and will burn your skin almost on contact. Also its a good idea to make sure the tub you use to whiten your skulls with peroxide is not clear plastic, but something dark so light can not be transmitted to the peroxide. UV light will actually weaken peroxide over time and if your only using the 3% to start with, it will weaken quite quickly.
paintedskull.com (author)  NikonDork7 years ago
Thank you for the added info NikonDork. I was not aware that UV breaks down the peroxide. I usually have the peroxide tubs in a dark shed, but now I will know never to leave them in direct sunlight. Also, thank you for the tip on higher strength peroxide, that will come in handy.
No Prob. Ive never done any taxidermy before, but your post piqued my interest. Co-incidence also that I just watched the epidode of Dirty Jobs with Mike visiting a taxidermy shop specializing in bones.
paintedskull.com (author)  NikonDork7 years ago
I caught part of that episode a few months ago. That's where I picked up the soak method. I flipped it on just as they were removing a complete skeleton from a soak tub. That's my next project- skeleton articulation. I don't know if I'll be any good at it, but if it works I'll post a detailed Instructable.
Couldn't you boil out the water and use even higher concentrations?
little mo6 years ago
very helpfull thankyou all
minerug6 years ago
Does anyone here know a site that says how to cure an eel skin?
knarx7 years ago
Good Instructable, when I had to prepare a skull, to be exact I got to remove the flesh of the skull, I thrown it in an anthill. Next step is to wait. Finished.
yukoimada7 years ago
I buy my 40vol peroxide from a beauty supply store! Sales are usually always going so I can get a large 32 oz for about 3 bucks. I try not to go lower than 30vol, but I do dilute it. I get whatever is on sale - works wonders, just don't let the ladies working at the shop know you're cleaning skulls - I've found that most get spooked easily.!
Very helpful!! Thanks!
canida7 years ago
Cool! I can't wait to try this.

When I worked in the necropsy dept. of an aquarium, I got to pressure-cook rotting seal jaws- let's just say I always had a seat to myself on the subway home!
how can i do HUMAN SKULLS?!?!?HAHAHAHAHAHA THE SKULL SHALL TELL ME ALL!!!!HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!!!!!!! I SHALL RULE THE WORLD!!
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