Prepare Bone for Carving




Introduction: Prepare Bone for Carving

A previous 'Ible called for a piece of "cleaned bone" in the list of things needed.

I later had a look at the site and could not find an 'Ible explaining how to get from dead animal to carvable substance, hence this one.

The principal aim of preparing bone is to remove all of the fat, tendon, muscle and other tissue which can leach into the bone, and leave a single piece of bone from which work-pieces can be selected. It really needs to be done on an uncooked bone.

When selecting a bone from the butchers, the best piece is a beef cannon bone. They are load-bearing which means that the bone structure is very dense, and they are one of the large bones which means that it is possible to get a decent sized piece of usable cleaned bone.

Some butchers will cut the bone in half lengthwise if asked. This will make the process of cleaning easier, but does limit your ability to select where the cut will be made.

While preparing the bone is pretty safe, you will be using a saw, a sharp knife and bleach, so use appropriate care.


A bone from the butchers
A hacksaw
A small, sharp knife
A bucket
A round rasp
Laundry powder
Hot water

Optional:- If you have a bottle-brush, that is useful, but a paper towel can be used.

Step 1: Removing the Epiphyses

It's amazing what exciting words you can learn from Wikipedia. I would have called these the "knobbly bits" but they actually have a real name.

To remove the knobbly bits, place the bone on a suitably firm surface. It might be necessary to try a few orientations until you find one where the bone feels stable.

Tension the hacksaw blade up good and tight, pick a point where the knobbly bit transitions to the straight bit and go for it. A fine-tooth hacksaw will go through the bone pretty easily, so there's no need to hurry. As long as you are making sawdust, you are cutting.

Once one knobbly bit is off, attack the other end. Again, it is worth trying various orientations of the bone on the cutting surface to find one where it is stable.

After you've got the ends off, you can dismantle the hacksaw and give it a wash in hot water with washing-up liquid. If your saw is entirely metal, then it should be OK in the dishwasher (no guarantees though). Remember to dry it thoroughly as soon as it is clean.

If your saw and blade were clean before you started, then you can use the knobbly bits for stock. Otherwise a passing dog will enjoy them.

Step 2: Removing the Periosteum. and the Marrow

Another new word, the periosteum is the fibrous membrane covering the bone. Like all non-bone components, it must be removed.

Stand the bone on its end on a chopping board and scrape the a small knife with a non-serrated blade down the surface. This should remove the last vestiges of meat from the bone, and with a little care you will get the membrane as well. You do not need to get everything, as we will be coming back to this task again later.

Once the outside of the bone is clean-ish, remove the bone marrow. This is fairly soft and squidgy, and can be dug out with the point of a knife. Once you've got a decent size hole right the way through the bone, you're done with this step.

If you're making stock, the marrow and other scraps can go in as well, and you will get a huge amount of beef fat out of the other end.

Step 3: First Wash

Take a bucket which is big enough to hold the bone and half-fill it with hot water from the tap. You don't want boiling water as that will encourage the fat left in the marrow to stain the bone, so hot, not boiling!

Add one scoop of soap powder (or whatever you would give to a load of laundry in your local water) and one cup of bleach.

Lay the bone in the mixture, making sure that the void in the middle is filled (i.e. lower it gently in).

Now leave it in a quiet place for twenty-four hours. I would recommend a garage/shed as the mixture of bleach and raw meat which emanates from the bucket is not the nicest. I would recommend against leaving it outside where an animal could engage with it.

Step 4: Second Scrape

Once the bone has soaked for a day, drain the liquid and rinse the bone in cold water.

The periosteum will be much softer after its relaxing bath and so you should be able to get all of it off the bone at this point.

There is an artery which supplies blood to the inside of the bone and this has to be found and removed. That is shown in photographs 4, 5 and 6 above. The blood vessel can be teased out of its hole with a knife point and a bit of care. It is important to get all of the artery as it will stain the bone if left in. If it breaks when you are removing it, then try probing the hole with a flexible piece of wire to clear it.

This is now the time to have another go at anything still stuck to the outside of the bone. Since the bone has been in bleach for a day, you should throw the scrapings away rather than making soup or a happy dog.

Step 5: Remove the Trabecula

The trabecula (not to be confused with Tribeca, nor with Benbecula) is the spongy bone towards the end of the inside of the piece. It is called "spongy" because it is full of holes: it is actually quite crunchy.

It holds a lot of fat which would stain the final piece, so it needs to come out.

Attacking from each end, chop down with a solid knife into the trabecula going as far as you can. You will probably need to sharpen your knife after this exercise.

Once you've got as much of the crunchy sponge out as you can, clean the inside of the bone with a bottle-brush or else just jam a few paper towels through it.

Step 6: Second Wash

As they say in the shampoo commercials:- rinse and repeat. See "First Wash" for detailed instructions.

Again, leave the bone soaking for a day.

Step 7: Removing the Metaphysis

The part of the bone where the spongy bone ends and the solid bone begins is called the metaphysis (TIL).

It is important that the bone is left to dry thoroughly before this step, so that the different components of it show clearly.

Once dry, it should be possible to see exactly where the spongy bone ends. It is always hard to throw away material at this point, but you have to be strong. Any spongy bone left will mar whatever you are making, so cut away the pieces of bone where it looks as if more than a tiny amount of the wall thickness is spongy.

Once you've thrown that bit away, get into the ends of the bone and get rid of the last of the spongy bone. I show a file and a rotary rasp bit doing the job. Keep at it until there is nothing which is not bone-coloured in view. Even a tiny patch of darker material needs to be abraded away, and that needs to happen inside and out.

Step 8: Ready to Carve

Now the bone is nothing but endosteum, it's time to decide what you want to make. Since bone is a natural material every one is different. It may even be that you can rely on a quirk of the initial shape to inspire whatever you create.

You can try different shapes and orientations by drawing on the bone with a B or BB pencil. That won't stain, and can be easily removed by a pencil eraser when you want to change it.

Good luck and good carving :-)

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    9 months ago

    Good instructable. Quite helpful. I will be trying this out myself once I get a fresh bone from the butcher. I looked this up because I had a large dog bone I was interested in carving, but now will do it the right way, using a new fresh bone, from scratch.

    Alex in NZ
    Alex in NZ

    Reply 9 months ago

    Good luck! Let me know how you get on :-)


    Question 1 year ago on Introduction

    Hi, can you use the ball joint part of the bone for carving ? And is the preparation the same . .
    Thank you .

    Alex in NZ
    Alex in NZ

    Answer 1 year ago

    Hi (and welcome to the site).
    tl;dr:- no.
    You _can_ use the ball-part of the bone to carve, _BUT_...
    The ends of the bone have all sorts of tissue inside as well as the mineralisation. These just cannot be cleaned perfectly. If you clean and use a bit of bone which isn't from the "compact bone" middle section, then the other tissues will start to leach into the bone as soon as you've finished cleaning, and that will end up staining and possibly smelling. I've never found anyone with a method to prepare the porous bone ends which did not leave this problem.
    If you took the ball end and shaved all the cartilage from the outside, and then removed all the other bits from the inside, then the result might be stable enough, but it would be an insane amount of work.
    If you want a piece of bone to practice a detailed carve on, then sure: use a bit from the end, but be aware that once you've done your practice the result will decay (and smell) quite quickly.
    The wikipedia article on "bone", and in particular the image is useful. Basically, if it's not "compact bone" from the "diphysis" then it will discolour and smell, no matter how you treat it.
    Sorry :-(. But the bone ends do make great stock for soup.


    Question 1 year ago

    All I was able to get from my local meat department was the "knobby bits" packaged as soup bones. They were raw and cleaning them was difficult, but do you think there will be too much tribecula/metaphysis to work with them?

    Alex in NZ
    Alex in NZ

    Answer 1 year ago

    Without seeing, I can't say for sure but I'm afraid that I think the answer is "probably". Every time I've tried to use just a _little_ more of the bone than I think I should it has come back to bite me.
    Any porous areas in the final bone will always leach fat over time and that will stain the piece and also possibly smell.
    That said, give it a try. If you give the bone a proper soak in the bleach/soap and scrape off _all_ of the meat then it shouldn't become too smelly and horrible. The fat leaching and staining the bone will definitely be noticeable, but depending on use that might not be too bad.
    If you have the bones, then experiment with one piece and see how it goes.
    All the very best of luck, and send a question or a PM if there's anything I can help you with :-)


    2 years ago

    I have never tried this. But, I have heard of people cleaning bone by putting it next to an ant nest. They will clean it from EVERYTHING that you don't want.

    Alex in NZ
    Alex in NZ

    Reply 2 years ago

    As we say in NZ, yeah, nah. While ants will probably remove all the pieces of "meat", I would expect that they will probably not do much for pulling the embedded oils out of the more porous areas of bone which will leave the bone stained, even if takes a while for the stain to become apparent.
    I have heard of people cleaning bones by submerging them in seawater for a fairly long period of time, but in that circumstance there will be tiny crustacea to eat the big bits and also bacteria which will get deeper into the structure. I've never tried that method though.
    If you have a go with ants (or indeed ocean), then good luck and please post your results :-)


    3 years ago

    I was told that bleach can make the bone brittle and destroy it after a time. I put a deer skull in bleach and water and it became worryingly fragile in appearance. I think I heard someone say that museums have had trouble with this in the past. I was told to use ammonia instead. In this tutorial washing powder is added. This makes the water feel soft and slimy. Does that counteract the destructive properties of the bleach?

    Alex in NZ
    Alex in NZ

    Reply 3 years ago

    Bleach can reduce the strength of the bone. It's a trade-off to get a whiter colour which I think looks better. Bone that's been over-bleached can have a "chalky" aspect to it which isn't nice. Not using too much bleach and not leaving the bone soaking in it for multiple days means that the bone is whitened slightly but doesn't suffer too much loss of physical integrity.
    I don't think that the washing powder counteracts the bleach. It's more used to remove the fat from the bone which would otherwise cause staining later.
    I've found that the combination of bleach and detergent gives a good combination of cleaning and whitening and leaves the bone in good shape for whatever happens next.
    The cannon bone used here is a load-bearing one from a big, heavy animal (cow) and so is very dense. I'd imagine that a skull would have a lot of very fine delicate bones (especially around the sinuses?) which would be much more susceptible to damage from the bleach.
    I've not found that bleach causes ongoing damage to the bone after the preparation work has completed (assuming it's been properly rinsed).
    Ammonia:- I've never tried using that, but if you've got experience then I'd be keen to know how it turned out.
    Thanks for your comment, and good luck :-)


    3 years ago

    Thanks for the detailed Instructable. I've been thinking about trying bone carving and I've heard that fresh bone is easier to use than a dried-out pet store bone.

    Alex in NZ
    Alex in NZ

    Reply 3 years ago

    It's not so much that it's "easier", it's just that using a dried (or cooked) bone will mean that the grease and fat has soaked into the structure of the bone. This means that even though you can clean and bleach it, eventually the fat will migrate back to the surface and your carving will end up a) stained and b) smelly.
    I have heard of people who leave the bone in a bag or lobster pot in the sea for a week or so in order that crustaceans and zooplankton can eat all of the fatty/greasy stuff, but I live up a hill and can't offer first-hand experience of the practice.
    Thank you very much for your comment, and good luck if you do decide to try your hand :-)