Mom Goes Camping

How to Whiten Animal Bones for Display (Step by Step with Pictures)

how to clean bones using hydrogen peroxide and baking soda

My strange and wonderful daughter has an obsession with bones since she was three years old. She even asked me if she could have my bones when I die.  I said yes, but since we aren’t at that point yet, right now we are gathering all sorts of animal bones and cleaning them. 🙂

Cleaning and whitening animal bones for display is actually fairly simple.  Below I’ll get into the details of what to do in each step of the bone cleaning process.

 


Guess what? I wrote an entire eBook about cleaning bones.  It covers a lot more than I could fit in this article, including lots of expert tips and hacks that amateurs can use.  You can buy it here (instant PDF download) for $4.99!

how to clean bones book

Get the eBook here


Jump to:

 

How to Clean and Whiten Bones

Cleaning small bones is pretty easy.  However, it may take some time -especially if the animal is fresh and has lots of soft tissue on it still.

 

Step 1: Supplies

In order to clean animal bones, you will need the following supplies:

  • Gloves
  • Buckets or trash cans that can hold the bones being cleaned
  • Dish soap
  • Scrub brushes
  • Hydrogen peroxide

Depending on the type of bones and their condition, you might need some other supplies too, such as as power washer, muslin sack, pliers for removing teeth, and ammonia for degreasing.

 

Never Use Bleach for Whitening Bones

A lot of articles online about how to whiten bones say to “bleach” the bones.  You should NEVER use bleach to get bones white.  Why?  Bleach will destroy the structural integrity of the bones.

Likewise, you don’t want to use any laundry detergents for cleaning or degreasing the bones.  These detergents often contain bleach or other harsh chemicals which can destroy the bone.

 

Use Hydrogen Peroxide to Whiten Bones

Hydrogen peroxide (H2o2) is the safest and most effective way to whiten bones.  This is what taxidermists use, including the ones at the Smithsonian and other prestigious institutions.

You can use the 3% hydrogen peroxide found in drug stores to whiten bones.  The problem is that this peroxide is very weak.  You’ll either need to buy a zillion bottles of it or do multiple soaks to get the bones clean and white. To get good results, you want 12% hydrogen peroxide. 

 

Hair Developer As an Alternative to Hydrogen Peroxide

Unfortunately, not many pharmacies stock concentrated hydrogen peroxide in that concentration. If you can’t find 12% or higher hydrogen peroxide, you can use hair developer instead.

There are two types of hair developer:

  • Clear Developer: This is the exact same thing as the hydrogen peroxide you’d get in a pharmacy. It will bubble up nicely and works great for cleaning bones. Get 40 volume clear developer here.
  • Cream Developer: This has some emulsifiers added so it is creamy and thick.  Some hardcore taxidermists won’t use it, saying the emulsifiers could mess up the bones.  It also won’t bubble up like clear H202, so it isn’t as good at getting stains out from deep within bones. However, because cream developer is thick, it can be painted directly onto bones for spot whitening or for whitening skulls with antlers. Get 40 volume cream developer here. 

Hair Developer Strengths:

Hair developer is listed in strengths by volume. Don’t think that 10v equals 10% though.  The actual concentrations are as follows:

  • 10 volume =3% hydrogen peroxide. Don’t get this.  It’s too weak for good results!
  • 20 volume =6% hydrogen peroxide. 
  • 30 volume =9% hydrogen peroxide.
  • 40 volume =12% hydrogen peroxide. 

You can buy 12% hydrogen hair developer (40v) on Amazon here. It’s the cheapest I’ve found and the strongest hydrogen peroxide you’ll likely find unless you happen to have a hookup at a pharmacy.

hydrogen peroxide 40%

This giant bottle of hair developer (hydrogen peroxide) is 12% and is really affordable for a gallon. Buy it here.


Step 2: Remove soft tissue

If you found a bone that has been sitting in nature for a long time, then it won’t have any soft tissue on it. You’ll be able to skip this step.  But, if you are dealing with fresh kills or roadkill, you’ll have to remove all the tissue before proceeding to whitening.

There are 6 main ways of doing this.  I’ll go over them briefly here.  For more detailed instructions, read this post on how to remove soft tissue from bones.

Method 1: Maceration (Soaking)

This invovles soaking the bones in water for weeks or even months.  The water softens tissue and microbes in the water eat away at tissue.  It’s very effective at removing hidden tissue in skulls without damaging them.

Method 2: Burying

When you bury bones, microbes in the dirt will eat away all the tissue.  This is great for rotting carcasses, or if you are squeemish and don’t want to deal with stinky, gross tissue.  The only main problem is that you can easily lose bones in the dirt, especially from small animals .

Method 3: Insects/Leave in the Open

You can just put the carcass outside and insects will eat away the tissue.  You have to put the carcass in some sort of cage to protect it from scavengers.

Method 4: Corpse in a Box

With this method, you put a small corpse in a box that has holes in it.  Insects will get to the carcass and eat away the tissue.

Method 5: Simmering

If you have a fresh kill with all of its tissue on it, simmering (not boiling) will loosen tissue so you can scrape it off.

Method 5: Steaming

Small carcasses can be put in a steamer.  The steam will loosen tissue without damaging the bones.

Boiling: NOT Recommended

Despite what a lot of websites say, you shouldn’t boil bones to remove tissue. Boiling can damage bones and trap fat inside of them.

boiled pig skull

Isabel got this pig skull as a gift. It was boiled so got all gross, yellow and shiny from the fat that got trapped in it. It was HELL to degrease!!!! Lesson? DON’T BOIL BONES!


Step 3: Pre-clean the bones

This applies to bones you have found which do not have any soft tissue on them, but are caked with dirt and maybe have moss growing on them.

Use soapy water and the toothbrush to SCRUB the bones clean.  The cleaner they are when you start, the better the hydrogen peroxide will work.

step one in cleaning animal bones

This gives a new definition to brushing your teeth!


Step 4: Degreasing

Degreasing is one of the most confusing steps in cleaning animal bones.  It involves soaking bones in a solvent (like dish soap) to remove fat.

How do you know the bones need to be degreased? You’ll need to degrease if:

  • The bones are yellow, clear, or shiny
  • The bones stink, even after all tissue has been removed
  • If the bones are from certain animals like: bears, pigs, boars, possoms, or seals.

It can take months for all the grease to get out of bones.  If you skip this step though, the fat can slowly leach out of the bones and turn them yellow over time.  They might even start to rot!

For more detailed instructions, read this post on How to Degrease Animal Bones.

Check out how greasy this possom skull is! It had to be thrown away because the fats started rotting the bone. 


Step 5: Whiten with Hydrogen Peroxide

Once the bones are completely free of tissue and have been degreased, you are ready to whiten them.  You’ll need hydrogen peroxide for this.  As I said before, never use bleach for whitening bones.  It will destroy them by making them flaky and brittle.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Put the bones in your bucket.
  2. Pour in your hydrogen peroxide.
  3. Then top it with water.
  4. The bones will start foaming, which means the hydrogen peroxide is working.  Hydrogen peroxide also heats up when it is working.
  5. Loosely cover the bones while they soak. The H202 will stay active longer this way.
  6. Let the bones whiten for about 24 hours.  Repeat if necessary.

How much hydrogen peroxide to use?

I usually use a ratio of 1:3 hydrogen peroxide to water.  However, the higher the concentration of hydrogen, the faster and whiter your bones will be.

Tip: Try to find a container which fits your bones exactly.  Then you won’t have to use as much H202 to cover the bones.  If you can’t find a suitable container, you can use this pro trick:

  • Line the container with a heavy-duty trash bag
  • Put the bone in the trash bag
  • Fill the container with water.  The water will fill the space around the bone in the bag.
  • Now pour the hydrogen peroxide into the trash bag.

Remember that hair developer works just the same as hydrogen peroxide. You can buy it in bulk here.

cleaning animal bones - adding hydrogen

Adding peroxide to the bones

Hydrogen for cleaning bones - starting to foam

The peroxide is starting to foam!

 

How long to let bones whiten?

In general, I soak bones in hydrogen peroxide for 24 hours. This is usually long enough to get them white to my liking.

It’s important to note that I’m not going for pure white. If you want your bone specimens to be realllly white, then you’ll have to do several rounds.

 

*Note about Cleaning Very Dirty Bones

I once made the mistake of not adequately cleaning a very dirty bone. The hydrogen peroxide went crazy on it!  It started steaming and got HOT. I thought it was going to melt the plastic bag it was in!!! You can see in the picture all of the steam coming off the bone.

The message? Make sure you do a really good job of scrubbing dirt off the bones before soaking in hydrogen peroxide!

steaming bone in hydrogen

Check out the steam coming off this dirty bone!


Before/After Pictures

These pictures should give you an idea of what realistic results you can expect when whitening bones with hydrogen peroxide.  As I mentioned, you can do multiple soaks in H202 to get them whiter.

Dog Skull

Here’s a giant dog skull that a friend found for me.  It had been sitting in the woods for a long time and was very dirty.  I did one soak in 40v hair developer to get it whitened.


Greasy Pig Skull

This pig skull was given to us as a present.  It had been boiled to remove the tissue (which is a bad idea!) so there was tons of fat trapped in the skull.  I had to degrease it for 2 months and then whiten it before it got to this state.

degreased pig skull


A Very Dirty Hip Bone

This hip bone was found in a river and was covered with dirt and moss.  Considering how dirty it was when I found it, the bone came out nice and clean.

bone before and after


Cat Skull

This old cat skull was found in the woods and soaked in 40v hair developer for 24 hours.

before after cat skull cleaned


Vertebrae:

This vertebrae stunk like crazy from all the fat trapped in it (notice the shiny parts on the before photo).  I degreased it in acetone and then did a hydrogen peroxide soak.  It came out nice and white.

degreased vertebrae


Tips for Very Large Skulls or Bones

One of the first large skulls I cleaned and whitened was a cow skull.  Isabel’s friend found it for her (what other 6 year old is lucky enough to have a friend who saves bones for her?).  The skull was free of soft tissue, but was still really dirty and stunk badly.  I didn’t realize it smelled so badly until halfway home on the bus.  Sorry to all the people who had to put up with the rotting smell on the 30 minute bus ride! 😮

Cleaning such a large skull presented some problems:

  • I literally could not find a plastic container large enough for soaking the skull. Not even laundry baskets were wide enough to fit it.
  • I would have had to use TONS of hydrogen to immerse the bone. I’m not a rich person and wasn’t thrilled about spending $50+ on peroxide for a skull.

Luckily, there are some solutions for these issues.

 

Trash Bag Trick

Here’s a pro trick to use less hydrogen peroxide when whitening large skulls:

  • Fill a trash can with water
  • Then put the skull in a sturdy plastic bag into the water.
  • Pour your hydrogen peroxide/water solution into the trash bag.
  • Since the water fills the empty space around the skull and pushes on the bag, you won’t need as much hydrogen peroxide to emerse the skull.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know about this trick or have a trash can large enough to hold my cow skull. So,  I put the skull into a big trash bag, poured in some hydrogen and water, and then tied off the bag. I kind of propped everything up in a plastic drawer.

Of course the trash bag sprung a leak.  The peroxide pooled at the bottom, so only part of the skull got whitened.  You can see a line on the skull from the part which was sitting in the most hydrogen solution.  It looks terrible!

cleaning a cow skull

Notice the whiter line from my first attempt at cleaning the skull.  

 

Baking Soda + Hydrogen Peroxide Paste

Baking soda is a natural cleaning agent, right?  Could I mix it with hydrogen peroxide to form a paste, and then spread the paste on the bone?

I did a small test batch. The baking soda and hydrogen foamed a bit when mixed up, but still formed a paste that could be spread onto the skull. *You can buy cheap hydrogen peroxide here.

This is the paste I made from baking soda and hydrogen peroxide

This is the paste I made from baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. It was about as thick as toothpaste.

The great thing about the paste method is that you don’t have to use lots of hydrogen peroxide and it can be spread in all those weird nooks and crannies skulls have.   The only annoying thing is that you will have to do at least two rounds – one for the top of the skull and another for the bottom.

Applying the paste to the skull. It started foaming quickly, but the paste didn't fall off.

Applying the paste to the skull. It started foaming quickly, but the paste didn’t fall off.

Here you can see what it looked like afterwards. A huge difference!

whitened cow skull

 

Paint On Cream Hair Developer

As I mentioned before, cream hair developer has emulsifiers added to thicken it.  What’s cool about this is that you can paint it directly onto bones.  There’s no need to mix it with baking soda to thicken it! After applying, cover the bones with plastic wrap.  Otherwise the cream developer will dry out too quickly.

Like with the baking soda paste, this method also won’t clean the interior of the skull.  Make sure your skull is completely clean of tissue before you try to whiten it by painting on cream developer.

whitening bones with hair developer

Pig skull with cream hair developer painted on it.

 

Want more tips on how to clean bones?

Have questions about antlers, horns, beaks? 

Want to know how to glue together bones?  

These are all things I talk about in my eBook.  Get it here for $4.99how to clean bones book

 

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About the author /


Diane Vukovic grew up camping and backpacking in upstate New York. Now, she takes her own daughters on wilderness adventures so they can connect with nature and learn resiliency. With dozens of trips under her belt, Diane is an expert in minimalist camping, going lightweight, planning, and keeping her kids entertained without screens.

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58 Comments

  1. Bethany

    With the paste method, how long did you leave it on? Did you scrub it with the toothbrush, or just apply and let it sit? After soaking or past methods, do you just rinse with water? Thanks!!

    • Diane

      I used a toothbrush to apply the paste. No scrubbing needed. I had planned on leaving the paste on at least overnight… but then it started to rain. So, it ended up being just about 5 hours or so. The rain rinsed it off! If it hadn’t rained though, I definitely would have rinsed it with water. Note that the baking soda and hydrogen peroxide solution will bubble up when you make the paste, but it still works well. I have since switched to using hair developer instead of normal hydrogen peroxide. The hair developer doesn’t bubble so works better for making a paste. (I’m going to write a post on that method soon!) *If your bone is small, it’s probably better to just soak it in hydrogen + water. That ensures the solution gets into all the nooks and crannies. Otherwise, you’ll have to apply the paste more than once, since you can really only do either the top or bottom at a time with the paste.

  2. Rachel

    What ratio of baking soda to hydrogen peroxide did you use?

    • Diane

      It is probably around half/half, but I don’t measure. I just add enough of each to make a paste which was about as thick as toothpaste. If you are using hydrogen peroxide (and not hair developer), it will bubble when you mix them. Just spread it as it bubbles. Good luck!

  3. Robsaint

    Here’s another great way to save on peroxide for large skulls;
    Put the skull in a bin bag.
    Place the bin bag inside a bin or other large container.
    Fill bin/container with water. This pushes air out of the bag making a snug fit around the skull.
    Fill remaining space inside bag with 50/50 peroxide/ water. Thus using far less peroxide and getting great results.

    Discovered this method from fellow skull collectors on Facebook groups.

    • Diane

      That’s a great trick! With the cow skull shown in the article, I tried putting it just in a bag and the bag broke (which is why there was a white line around it from where the h2o2 accumulated at the bottom of the bag). Putting it in a bin and filling it with water would have prevented the bag from breaking. Thanks! 🙂

  4. Alona V.

    Hey guys! There is no way for me to get a good amount of hydrogen peroxide in my country. In case the bones don’t have any tissue on them would soaking them for a few days in hot (but not boiling) water with laundry detergent, replacing the solution every 24 hours and occasionally brushing it with baking soda\toothpaste and tooth brush be good enough?
    I am not very interested in whitening the bones, maybe just a little bit.
    Thanks.

    • Diane

      Most laundry detergent has bleach in it. It will clean and whiten the bones… but bleach will make the bones turn flaky after a while. Even if you can’t find hydrogen peroxide in big bottles where you live, you probably can find hair developer (that’s what I use now). Just go to a beauty supply store and get it. Use it + some water for soaking the bones. They will be clean and whiter. 🙂 For a large skull, you can get by with just 1 liter of hair developer (costs about 10-15 euros in beauty stores). To save on it but still get the skull clean everywhere (including inside all those foramina holes), I first soak the skull in water with just a bit of the hair developer. After a day or two, I dump that solution. Then I’ll apply a paste made from the rest of the hair developer and baking soda.

  5. Kaylin Brodzki

    Are these methods safe to use on bird bones? I’m a little worried about weakening or breaking the bones of this beautiful specimen I found while cleaning my patio for spring. The remains are already mostly clean, however there is a bit of tissue I still need to clean off…

    • Diane

      Yes, bird bones are super fragile. Macerating (soaking in water) is probably the best solution. Be warned that soaking will make the beak sheath crack and warp. Even many professionals don’t even bother trying to save the beak sheath because it is so fragile.

      If the beak sheath is still intact, you can let the bird bones sit in the open (or in a box with holes poked in it). Every few days, give the beak sheath a tug to pull it off the bone. The sheath then gets stored in Borax until the bones are clean. Then you glue the sheath back on.

      As for whitening the bird bones, hydrogen peroxide is fine. The only issue you might come across is the beak or certain areas of the skull coming apart, since the skulls are actually several pieces held together by connective tissue. This is often the case with young animals. I use a plastic tea strainer to catch tiny bones when dumping the H202.

  6. Name *

    Hello I Have A dog skull i’ve dryied the skull and i cleaned it but it still have some bad smell can you lead me please what to do Thank’s

    • Diane

      Sometimes bones get a weird smell when they are still wet, but it goes away when they are dry. However, if the bones are dry and still stink, then it is probably because there is still lots of grease in the bones. You’ll need to:
      -try degreasing (soaking in soapy water) again. You might see some nasty tissue you missed float up too! Yellow spots on the skull are a sign that there is grease trapped inside.
      -Consider removing the teeth (carefully – they crack easily). There could be some nerve endings or other tissue stuck under them. Reinsert the teeth while the skull is still wet or they might not fit back in.
      -Use a wire to poke into any holes in the skull. There could be tissue lurking in there – especially if the skull was boiled to clean tissue off.

      After soaking/degreasing again, do another round of hydrogen peroxide. Put it outside to thoroughly dry. You can also soak it in rubbing alcohol to force water out of the skull, but this is probably not necessary.

  7. Name *

    Hi there! Just wondering, what if you have just a turtle shell? Could you just clean with soapy water? Or is there a way to disinfect it without changing the color? Thanks!

    • Diane

      The colorful part of turtle shells is actually a sheath made out of keratin (much like fingernails and also animal horns). Unfortunately, keratin is really fragile. Don’t soak the turtle shell or the sheath will come off and warp.

      Your best bet is to let the tissue rot off of the turtle shell in an open space. Unfortunately, the sheath might still separate from the bone. If this happens, you’ll need to store the sheath in Borax until the rest of the shell/bone is clean. Then you can glue the sheath back on, possibly letting it get a bit wet so it softens and fits back on nicelly.

      If you want to whiten the underside of the turtle shell (the bone part), you could paint some hydrogen peroxide onto it. I talk more about this in my ebook – https://gumroad.com/l/cleanbones

      Hope that this helps!

  8. Dawen

    Hi, I’m mostly concerned with sanitization. I found bones on the beach which are completely stripped of flesh. Right now the color is amazing and I don’t really want to whiten them. Currently I’ve got them in water and Dawn dish soap for degreasing (I’ll see if that affects the color at all, I guess). Would that be enough to sanitize them? Or do I still need some hydrogen peroxide, and if so, what’s the minimum I could get away with?

    • Diane

      If they’ve been on the beach for a long time, the exposure to sun and salt water should be more than adequate to sanitize them. If you like the color, then don’t do anything at all 😀

  9. Laurie

    I am selling my home so I dug up my dog in order to take him with me. We buried him about 4 years ago and we live in a pretty hot/dry climate and there are only bones left with some tiny bits of fur. I don’t want to damage his bones but I want them to look nice and possibly even try to put his skeleton back together. I already put them in 2% peroxide to disinfect them. Will I also want to degrease them? They are very yellow, but I don’t mind the color at all.

    • Diane

      Yellow usually means that there is oil left in the bones. However, when an animal is buried, microbes will usually eat a lot of the oil out of the bones. That’s why buried bones usually turn out nice and clean but bones which were boiled will get gross (boiling will trap the oil in them!).

      Over time (which could be a very long time), oil left in the bones will start to go rancid and destroy the bones. And stink in the process. So, degreasing is necessary if the bones are yellow. But degreasing is also a very long, tedious, and often frustrating process (I’m working on a post about it now. The post is taking forever because degreasing takes forever!!!!).

      I would recommend this: Get some stronger hydrogen peroxide (there’s a link in the article for hair developer which is 12% hydrogen peroxide. You can also get it in some beauty shops – ideally get the “clear” kind and not “cream”). Do another round with the stronger hydrogen peroxide. It not only disinfects but whitens the bones. Then see how yellow the bones are. The yellow might just be discoloration from dirt. If the bones are still yellow, then you’ll need to soak in warm water with lots of dish soap until the oils come out.

      BTW, I’d love to see photos of the articulated bones if you succeed. I have yet to get a complete skeleton of an animal large enough to articulate. 🙂

      • Laurie

        Thank you for your reply! I will go get some hair developer and give that a shot! I will definitely send you pictures if I am successful putting his skeleton back together. I also want to paint his skull in a Día de Muertos style even if I can’t articulate his skeleton. 🙂

  10. Clair Nelson

    Hi I have just today burried a Heron skull in a damp dark woody area of my garden right way up in bewteen a layer of sawdust. The soft tissue was already very decomposed, eyes missing etc. I have cleaned off as much skin as I could. How long do you think I should leave it in the ground for? Also do you have any tips on preserving the beak/keratin?
    many thanks

    • Diane

      Updated: Beaks are really hard to preserve on birds. Even a lot of professionals don’t bother to preserve them because they are so fragile.

      To save the beak, you’ll need to keep the dead bird above ground to let the tissue rot off. Every day or so, give the beak a little tug. The sheath should come off as it loosens from the rotting. You can then store the sheath in Borax powder until the rest of the bones are clean. Afterwards, you reapply the beak sheath over the core with a bit of glue to hold it on. Unfortunately, it’s a really tricky process. 🙁 I talk about this more in my ebook – https://gum.co/cleanbones

  11. Jane

    First of all, I love how you are fully embracing and empowering your daughter’s passion! And thank you for this thorough help! This is the best resource I’ve seen so far and I’m grateful. Hoping you can help me with something specific: I am currently degreasing some “nature cleaned” seal bones found on the beach. They seemed dry but of course are super greasy and stink to high heaven!! I’m wondering if you have any recommendations (or if it’s just to have patience with this process..?) for extracting the gunk. There are a few spinal bones which are fascinating. The cord was gone but the connective tissue between the vertebrae. As they’ve been soaking (dawn and water, out in the sun, changed every 24 hours), the vertebrae are starting to look gummy where they used to connect, and some white bits are coming to the surface as well. How can I effectively degrease and get rid of this stink as quickly and efficiently as possible? Like you, my apartment living is limiting my options here. Thank you for your advice!

    • Diane

      Seal bones! That’s awesome!! I’m looking at a picture of their skeleton now. It makes sense that they are greasy since sea mammals have so much blubber on them. Ammonia is an effective degreaser and is easy enough to work with.

      I also found it beneficial to cycle between degreasing (with warm, soapy water) and hydrogen peroxide. Even though H202 doesn’t actually degrease, it does seem to help push the fat out from the center of the bones. Otherwise, the fat just kind of dissolves and sits in the bones. It also really helps to use very warm water for degreasing. A lot of people buy aquarium heaters to keep the water warm so they don’t have to keep changing it out as the water gets cold.

      I wrote more in detail about all these methods in my ebook https://gumroad.com/l/cleanbones It’s just $5 if you want to buy it 😀

      Just be prepared for a long battle. Degreasing is a pain in the butt.

      • Jane

        This is immensely helpful. Thank you for this thorough help and reassurance. Having launched headfirst into this project without fully knowing what to expect, I can’t tell you what a relief it is to have your site and thoughtful comments as resources.

        How do you know when to stop degreasing? Do the bones need to dry out in between the water and H202 or can they just switch baths?

        On the vertebrae, will the gummy/gooey/tacky surfaces stop looking that way with enough soaking, or is it a judgement call on when to call it quits?

        Thank you again so much. Really appreciate your help with this project.

        • Diane

          It will lose its yellow color and translucency when degreasing is done. Again, it can take a REALLY long time. Can you see the water getting gross and murky, maybe even with globs of fatty stuff floating to the top?

          You don’t have to let it dry out between baths. However, if you want to cycle between H202 (hydrogen peroxide) and degreasing, you should let it dry out. Bones absorb H202 much better when they are dry.

          I wonder if the tackiness is from grease or not. If there’s a lot, then it might be some tissue left over. The discs and connective tissue on vertebrae can be tough to get off. In that case, drying it out will probably help. Once it’s dry, then you can scrape it away with a scalpel. See this post: https://www.taxidermy.net/threads/353341/#post-2406694

          Also check out this thread: https://www.taxidermy.net/threads/395577/ It’s a crocodile in question, but you can see how much tissue is stuck on the bones.

          And I’m glad to be of help. I love knowing that there are so many other “bone ladies” out there, haha! 😀

          • Jane

            Truly a life saver thank you!!
            there definitely isn’t visible tissue left- the bones were very picked clean, but maybe the connective tissue is different? I’m definitely learning a lot about anatomy here! Can’t find a great picture but in this link, the part that I’m talking about is the “body” http://www.askabiologist.org.uk/answers/viewtopic.php?id=8757 – and on that body is a tacky spot in that solid part, in a oval shape, on both sides of the bones where they connected to other vertebrae. The spot is a creamy yellow color where the rest of the bones are white. Could that be some kind of tissue, or is that marrow or something? After the first soak there were little bits of feathery white matter coming off of those spots too.

            After the first soak (48 hours, Dawn), the water ran yellow, but with consequent soaks it was lighter and lighter and never had anything floating. The smell continued to be horrible, though a little lighter each time.

            I put them in baking soda to dry and try to transport without horrible smells… I’ll finish drying them and will see if those softer spots can be scraped at all, and will then try the H202 soak to see if anything can be further drawn out. Stay tuned!!

  12. Elizabeth M MacNaughton

    I’ve recently started collecting road killed white tail deer bones from the gravel pit where the county dumps them. They have been mostly cleaned of tissue by bugs and scavengers. I would like to clean them up to use as decorations in my tarantula’s tanks. What percentage of H2O2 to H2O do you use? I bought the 12% 40V you recommended above. Thank you for your time and expertise!

    • Diane

      The more H202 you put in, the whiter they will come out. But it also means you’ll blow through H202 quickly. I’m not too scientific about it at all. About 50/50 is a good ratio. When the bones aren’t too dirty, I’ll use even less H202. If I want them even whiter, then I’ll do another round of H202. Really, don’t obsess about ratios. 🙂

      The county has a specific place only for animal remains??? God that has to look creepy and cool!

  13. Katrina Brown

    Any suggestions on how to remove plant matter (roots / moss) from tight places? Between teeth, inside skull cavity, etc. Also, any suggestions on how to get rid of impacted mud? Thank ou!!

    • Diane

      Pipe cleaners work well for pushing dirt/plants/etc out of tight places. Usually (on skulls) the debris is stuck in the nasal cavity. That sucks because I love how the nasal cavity looks, and you can’t really push anything into it without destroying its delicate structure. So, you can soak the bone to loosen/soften the debris. Then use a hose to blast out the debris. Depending on where the debris is located, you can aim the hose from the nose or from the hole in the back of the skull.

      As for mud, soaking is the way to go. It will loosen mud and then you can use an old toothbrush to brush it off. If there’s still mud stuck, then you can just let the hydrogen peroxide do its magic. Its bubbling will push the dirt out. May take several soaks though.

  14. Name *

    Hey Diane, this helped me so much! I found a pretty clean rabbit skull recently and it’s sitting in the whitening bath right now. Unfortunately I only got cream developer, but at least the 12%-kind. I’m very excited how it’ll turn out – thanks for sharing all of your valuable experience with us!

    • Diane

      I’m glad to be of help. I have a rabbit jawbone. It’s fun to pull the teeth (incisors) out of the skull to show people how far into the skull they go! Cheers. 😀

  15. Kristie

    Wonderful information! Thank you so much! I’m curious if the burying method for step one can be used for a deer skull with antlers. Will the bugs and soil bacteria eat the antlers? I live in Seattle where we are currently entering the rainy season. Will soil wetness be a detriment to the process? Thanks again!

    • Diane

      Antlers are actually bone, so they won’t be eaten by bugs etc as horns will (horns are made of keratin like our fingernails). That’s why you can sometimes find antlers just laying around in nature. So, it’s perfectly fine to leave antlered skulls out for insects to clean. The antlers might get a bit stained if you bury them though. I talk about this in my book in case you need more detail. 😀

  16. Alice Dudoich

    Thanks so much for the book you wrote. I’ve been collecting bones from my sister’s property in Alabama for years but am just now trying to do something with them. I am working with a dog skull and got carried away with a red Sharpie decorating the skull with native American motifs. Didn’t like it and when I tried to remove it, I wound up with a breast cancer pink skull. Any ideas about getting it back to white? Thanks again!!

    • Diane

      Hmmm… that’s a tough one. I guess I’d try using hydrogen peroxide to remove it (maybe that’s what you already tried). If that doesn’t work, then I’d work with the pink color. Think of it as a challenge to make something cool with a pink skull! 😀 As a last resort, you could always paint over it.

  17. Melissa Myers

    How did you fix the cow skull that was stinking? If it’s stinking does that mean it still has fat in it? I found a seal flipper (I think) at the coast and I’ve soaked it and soaked it in dawn and water and it still smells horrible. Could I try to use baking soda to deal with the smell?

    • Diane

      The cow skull only stunk because of the rotting plants/debris inside of it. My pig skull, however, stunk because of all the grease in it. Seals (as well as bears and possums) are really greasy too.

      Degreasing is a serious pain in the ass. It literally took over a month of soaking the skull before the fat came completely out. There are things you can do to make it go faster, like keeping the water warm with an aquarium heater or cycling between degreasing and hydrogen peroxide. Or, instead of soaking in dish soap, you could try soaking in ammonia or acetone — but that must be done outside because of the fumes. Also, the acetone has to be completely evaporated from the bones before you try hydrogen peroxide again because the two are explosive together! 😮

      The best advice I can give to you is to be patient with degreasing. Baking soda might help with some of the smell temporarily but, because the grease is inside the bone, it will start to rot and stink.

      • Jane

        Hi! Me again from July seal bones! I have been soaking the vertebrae and rib bones for coming up on 12 weeks now. I was changing the water weekly but since it’s such a gross and stinky project have been letting them soak for 2-3 weeks between changes now. The water has gotten progressively lighter but they’re still a bit smelly. It went from a dark yellow brown color to more of a pale brown, mostly clear. The smell is more tolerable now (no more gagging, at least!) but definitely still feel like I’m miles away from a point where I will feel comfortable bringing these inside the house. Will try hydrogen peroxide this week for the next soaking, and hope that takes it up a notch. How do you know when you’re finally done with the soaking and can begin the actual whitening with the peroxide and eventually drying and displaying? Thank you again for all your help and support!

        With the flipper I’d imagine it will need a similarly long soak, depending on the size of the bones.

        • Diane

          You’ll know you are done when the bone doesn’t have a translucent look to it anymore. Definitely try doing a hydrogen peroxide bath. H202 doesn’t cut through grease, but it does help you see where there is still fat lurking and helps push some of the fat out from deep inside. I’ve never had to deal with a bone that greasy (it seems like seals are exceptional when it comes to grease) but I have heard of people soaking bear skulls (also greasy) for months before getting them done. 🙁

          *The bones will stink less when they are completely dry. But there may still be fat inside the bones that can rot and over time destroy the bones. I know this is frustrating. I feel you!!!!

          Btw, I’d love to see photos. You can send them to momgoescamping@gmail.com if you wish. 😀

  18. Name *

    I’m trying to get some chicken bones cleaned and whitened to use for decorations on a Halloween Witch doctor costume.

    I managed to get hydrogen peroxide at 6% here in Malaysia and was wondering if its ok to use on bones i boiled and cleaned using soap water. 🙂

    • Diane

      It depends on how long you want the decorations to last. If you boiled the bones, then there might be lot of fat trapped inside of them (if the bones are clear looking or shiny, then there’s fat in them). Over time, the fat might start rotting and the bones will stink. That could be a year from now, or 10 years… Since these are just chicken bones, I guess it won’t be that big of a deal to throw them away later.

      Yes, you can use the 6% hydrogen peroxide on the bones. They should get nice and white (at least whiter) and make for some cool decorations. 😀

  19. Cori

    Hi, just wondering about the trash bags. If you use a black one, will it discolor the skull?

    • Diane

      No, the plastic won’t discolor anything so you can use any color trash bag you want. The only issue I could think of *maybe* occurring is ink from something on a trash bag getting into the skull. But that would only be if you used the ink-side inwards.

  20. Raub

    I think you’re probably a great mom…

    • Diane

      Haha, thanks! 😀

  21. Kris

    Do you have any tips for really small bones? I have a mummified mouse I wanted to clean up, but due to how tiny it is I don’t know where to start.

    • Diane

      If it’s mummified, you need to start by soaking it in water to loosen the tissue. Then try to remove as much of the tissue you can. Then soak again until all the tissue has dissolved. You’ll need a tea strainer or cheesecloth for straining the soak water so you don’t lose any bones. Yes, it will be a major pain to get the tiny bones, like vertebrae, toes, etc. Like a major pain! Fur and tissue will get stuck on them. When you strain the water, pieces of tissue will get stuck to the bones. Alternatively, after the initial soak to soften the tissue, you can use the ‘bones in a box’ method. With this method, insects eat up the tissue so you get clean bones. This method is also a bit of a pain because fur gets tangled with the bones and the connective tissue doesn’t always get eaten so quickly. https://momgoescamping.com/remove-tissue-cleaning-animal-bones/

      Once you get the bones free of the tissue, then you can just soak in hydrogen peroxide. Use a tea strainer or cloth when dumping the hydrogen peroxide so you don’t lose any bones.

      I don’t want to discourage you, but don’t be surprised if you give up on retrieving all of the bones. It takes a LOT of patience to get all of them clean! I am in awe whenever I see a perfectly articulated rodent skeleton now.

  22. Dave

    Hey, thanks for the article and for all the great replies here in the comments.

    I’m cleaning some bovine bones I found almost two years ago, following your guide.
    Some of them have slight yellow patches, and though I’m doubtful it’s fat, I thought I’d degrease them anyway.
    How long, do you think, oil would show up in the solution I’ve soaked them in if it were fat?
    In other words, how long before I can take them out, confident that the yellowish bits are not fat?

    Thanks a lot!

    • Diane

      You are right: the spots probably aren’t fat. One easy way to check is to do a hydrogen peroxide bath to whiten. If the spots are from stains, they will be gone (or mostly gone) after whitening. If the spots are from fat,then they will still be there. You can switch back and forth between degreasing/whitening without any issues.

  23. Nanette

    I’m working with found bones to make jewelry. Have you had any success with using a tumblr (like a rock tumbler) to polish bone? I’m not sure if it will be too harsh.

    • Diane

      I had a rock tumbler when I was a kid and desperately want one again (too heavy to ship to where I live and I’ve been too lazy to make one myself). I also think it would be too harsh on bone. But it might also expose the spongy bone structure in a really cool way. Maybe test it with a chicken wing bone or some other bone you don’t care about – and let me know about the results. I’m curious!

  24. Chris Green

    Hi just found a dolphin washed up on a beach in NZ. It died giving berth so baby still with it ?.I would like to start bone carving ?which bones would be the best to start with? would the tail bones be good? or the jaw bones. it is complete as of today I have spoken to DOC they are not interested and would like it to just wash out to sea? It is going to be a mission to cut this carcus up ? so would it a be a good mission or not? THX Chris

    • Diane

      Wow! That sounds like an awesome find. I don’t have any personal experience with dolphins. However, I do know that sea mammals tend to be VERY fatty. The bones might need a lot of degreasing. The vertebrae bones and tail bones are going to be the greasiest and probably take the longest to degrease. The ribs and shoulder blades should be the easiest to clean. In any case, if you are new to bone carving, start with some bones that you don’t like as much and practice on those before you move to the cooler bones like the skull or jaw (I particularly love scapuli, but that’s me 🙂 ). Good luck!

  25. Clay Bonnyman Evans

    Hi, Diane.

    Thanks for all this good advice. I feel I’ve been able to do a pretty good job of cleaning up and whitening (or at least lightening) a large dog skull I found a few weeks ago.

    Years ago, I painted a deer skull with one antler in sort of a Southwest color scheme. With this dog skull, I’m considering doing the same, but maybe more of a Dia de Muertos color scheme.

    My question: If I’m going to paint the skull, do you have any recommendations on whether I should use something like Killz or lacquer, anything like that, before I start painting?

    I realize this may not be something you’ve considered, but I thought I’d ask.

    Thank you kindly.

    • Diane

      People usually only use lacquer to protect the bone from getting dirty/absorbing dust, etc. So, there really isn’t any point to put on a lacquer before painting it since the paint will also protect it. Plus, bones are absorbent so the paint might not stick as well if you lacquer it first. On the flip side, if the skull is really old and extra porous, it might soak up a lot of paint or soak it up in a weird way. The texture might also end up looking weird because of all the pores showing through. In this case, it *might* be worth doing a lacquer before painting, but I’d still say it probably isn’t worth it.

      And, for best results, make sure the skull is completely dry before you start painting. Good luck!

  26. Clay Bonnyman Evans

    Thank you, Diane. I’ve been drying the skull in sunlight for a couple of days and probably won’t get around to painting it for awhile yet. It looks very similar to the skull in your piece above.

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