Want to clean and whiten bones or a skull? The first step is to get the soft tissue off the bone.
This is actually one of the trickiest and most time-consuming steps of cleaning bones. I touched on it in my guide to cleaning and whitening bones. Here, I want to get more in-depth specifically on methods for removing tissue.
6 Ways to Clean Tissue Off of Bones
The best way to clean tissue from bones depends on:
- The size of the specimen
- How much tissue is remaining
- How much time you have
Here are the six methods and when you should use them.
Method 1: Burying
This is suitable for cleaning large bones and skulls. When you bury the bones, insects and microorganisms eat away the tissue. They can completely eat away the brain (which you would have had to “scramble” and shoot out with a power washer – gross!).
Microorganisms can also eat away tissue inside the foramina. It’s almost impossible to completely remove this tissue yourself – even after poking with wire and blasting with high-pressure water.
Yes, burying bones takes a LONG time. I get grossed out easily, so I don’t remove any bones for at least 3 months. By then, I am confident that any nasty gunk will be completely gone.
Tip: Bury the bones in a mesh sack so none of them get lost.
Best For: Large animals; specimens with lots of tissue still on them
Method 2: Insects
Professional taxidermists use insects like dermestid beetles to remove tissue from bones. You probably won’t want to raise these yourself, but you can still harness insects.
Leave the corpse or bones outdoors, preferably over an ant hill if you can find one. The insects will do a great job of eating tissue out of those hard-to-reach places on bones and skulls.
Tip: Put the bones in a mesh cage. That will prevent animals from running off with them but still allow insects access.
Best For: Medium-to-large animals; good regardless of the amount of tissue; not to be used with horns!
Method 3: Corpse in a Box Technique
Small bones easily get lost in the dirt when you bury them. A better option for those bones is to put the corpse/bones in a box. Old ice cream containers work well.
Poke some holes in the top of the box so insects can get inside. The insects will enter the box, lay eggs on the corpse, and their larvae will eat the tissue.
Make sure you keep the box out of the rain so it doesn’t get flooded.
Best For: Small animals with lots of tissue on them
Method 4: Maceration (Soaking)
Soaking bones in water will soften the tissue and allow you to scrape it off. This method is VERY disgusting.
You’ll have a bucket filled with stinky tissue. You’ll have to dump/change the water at least once daily.
It still takes a very long time to get the tissue off (can be weeks of soaking). Oh, and don’t forget to remove the brain and any tissue inside foramina!
Best For: Bones without a lot of tissue left on them
Method 5: Steam
One trick that I’ve heard (but never tried) for small bones is to steam them. The steaming loosens the tissue. Since the bones aren’t immersed in the water, they won’t absorb as much fat from the tissues. You can even use a baby-bottle sanitizer to steam smaller bones.
Best For: Smaller bones with lots of tissue remaining
Method 6: Simmering
If you are in a huge hurry and aren’t too worried about ruining a specimen, you could simmer it (NOT BOIL). Some people like to add biological powder to the water to help break down tissue further.
The hot water and simmering action will quickly loosen tissue so you can scrape it off.
It’s important that you don’t let the water boil, and also that you remove as much tissue as possible. You really don’t want to get fat trapped in the bones because it will be a pain in the butt to remove (degrease) later.
Best For: If you are in a hurry
What about Boiling Bones to Clean Them?
In many forums and websites, people recommend boiling bones to remove the tissue. Yes, this works very well. It only takes about 2 hours of boiling for most of the tissue to fall right off.
But boiling is a terrible way of cleaning bones. It can turn them yellow, make them start rotting, and damage fragile bones.
Here’s why you should NEVER clean bones with boiling.
Boiling Traps Fat in Bones
Our bones are very much alive. They have their own blood vessels and nerves. Bones are also little “factories” in that they produce blood cells in their marrow. Guess what marrow contains? Lots of fat!
If you boil bones, the heat will seal the fat into the bones. They will turn a gross shiny yellow color.
Not only does this look terrible, but the fat trapped inside can start to rot. As it deteriorates, it can destroy the solid bone tissue. The bones will end up smell really bad. And, over time, the bone can crack.
*It is possible to remove trapped fat with a process called degreasing, but it’s a major pain and takes forever. The pig skull above took MONTHS to degrease! More on degreasing in my book.
Fat from Tissues Get in the Bone Too
Not only do the bones themselves contain a lot of fat, but there is tons of fat in the hide and tissues of an animal. Brains, for example, are about 29% fat. The human brain is even fattier at about 60% fat.
When preparing bones for cleaning, you should remove the skin, brain (which is a pretty gross process), and as much tissue as possible.
If you skip this step and boil an entire corpse, he fat from tissues will get in the water. This fat then gets absorbed into the bone where it becomes trapped. The bones will end up even more fatty and gross.
Boiling Traps Tissue in Skulls
As bone enthusiasts know, skulls have so many little nooks and crannies. When the animal is alive, these nooks are filled with nerves, blood vessels, and other tissues.
If you boil a skull, all of these tissues will get trapped in the nooks. It is really difficult to remove the tissue afterwards!
It is especially bad in the foramina. A foramen (plural foramina) is a little hole in bones where nerves or blood vessels go through.
You can try to remove the tissue by poking a wire inside the foramina. However, this is actually hard to do. Instead of removing the tissue, the bits of nerve and blood vessels often just get pushed further up inside.
Boiling Damages Fragile Bones
Some bones are particularly fragile and won’t withstand boiling well. One example is juvenile animals. Their skull bones haven’t completely fused together yet.
Boiling will dissolve the connective tissue holding the skull together and ruin your beautiful skull.
After the tissue has been removed, you’ll need to get the grease out of the bones and whiten them. In my ebook, you can read all about how to do it, plus instructions for horns, antlers, bird skulls, fragile bones, and more.
Get the book here. It’s only $4.99 and will teach you how to clean bones without any special equipment.
“Deer bones” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by jive667
“Skull: Head-on” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Travis S.
“Mini Facehugger” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Travis S.