View Full Version : Best Way To Clean a Skull?

09-01-2003, 11:19 AM
My daughter just got back from a vacation at a working ranch, and brought home a horse skull that she found. It's a little on the "fresh" side, and I was wondering if amyone had any suggestions on how to clean it up without damaging it.

I was thinking of soaking it in lye to remove the bits of flesh and connective tissues, neutralizing with acid, a good soaking, a second soaking in bleach, more rinsing, and finally letting it dry on the roof for a week or so.

Will this do more harm than good?

Muldoon's Squishiness
09-01-2003, 11:22 AM
Actually if you can get ahold of some maggots they should do a superb job of cleaning the skull of the remaining tissue. You can probably skip the acid and just do the bleach wash.

09-01-2003, 11:49 AM
As Muldoon suggests, insects generally do the best and least damaging job.

Professionals use dermestid beetle colonies (http://www.moacustomskulls.com/). However, you may not want to have these guys around the house, as they will also eat lots of other animal matter. You may be able to find a local taxidermist who could help you out.

Lye will damage some of the connective tissue that holds the skull bones together, and some may fall apart. Likewise bleach can cause damage to the bones.

09-01-2003, 12:02 PM
Do not use lye, it will damage the bone.

I cleaned a really fresh (as in freshly decapitated) goat skull by removing as much surface tissue as possible, then:

*Simmering skull for a couple hours (with allspice to cover odors) to loosen remaining flesh and firm up brain. (Horn sheaths were never submerged, except for the bases. They loosened up very quickly for removal and were scrubbed inside and out. They were then treated to a modified version of the chemical warfare detailed below.)
*Using filet knife to scramble now firm brain. Removal was easily done with modified iced tea spoon and several rinses
*Working over the entire surface with scrubbing pad or fine steel wool to remove adherent bits of tissue
*Soaking in an ammonia solution (1 qt. per gallon of water) for several days to remove oil and fat residue. Change daily. Put the soaking bucket in a far corner of your yard, if possible, the smell is horrendous.
*Rinse, rinse, rinse.
*2 overnight soakings in plain water to remove excess ammonia. Let dry.
*Overnight soaking in isopropyl alcohol to drive off excess water. Do not rinse. Let dry for a week.

Voila! One beautifully cleaned skull that has no detectable odor. Not one bit.

Except for the 2 total hours stripping and scrubbing, this is a pretty easy way to clean. Lots of soaking and waiting. For smaller skulls the soaking times could be halved. With a large skull such as goat (and horse) I'd want to be sure all organic matter was removed. If the horse skull is really rank you can soak it for 15 minutes in a mild bleach solution before you try the above. No chlorine will remain by the time you get to the ammonia soaks. Do not go directly from bleach to ammonia.

09-01-2003, 12:03 PM
I put skulls in fireant's nests. They clean them nicely. Don't know if they are as far north as Boston, though. You can also boil them.

09-01-2003, 12:03 PM
Couple of earlier threads:

good luck!

09-01-2003, 01:39 PM
I typically just put them in a bucket, seal the bucket, and let it sit for 6 months. After that, the rotting meat cleans off pretty easily. Then a wash with soap to degrease, then soak with bleach solution for a few weeks. Then put them out in the sun for another few weeks.

09-01-2003, 01:59 PM
Originally posted by hlanelee
I put skulls in fireant's nests. They clean them nicely. Don't know if they are as far north as Boston, though. You can also boil them.

Yep, fireants'll do it fine and fast too. Just put the skull out for a week or so, on or beside a large ant bed. When you retrieve it, wash it off good, then soak it in a strong bleach bath about 50%for a couple of days, afterwards leave it in the sun to dry another day or two. It'll be clean and white.

BTW I've never had bleach actually harm any bones, it does turn the bone white and remove any "natural" coloration, which is useful in some cases ie: staining to a uniform color, painting, etc.

Although, when using bone for knife handles or other decorative uses where I will be appllying a clear coat. I wouldn't recommend bleach simply because I don't want the bone to be white.

Dewey Finn
09-01-2003, 04:01 PM
There was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 24,2002 about a guy in San Francisco named Raymond Bandar who collects skulls. It said that he simply buries the skulls in his backyard for a few weeks or months, depending on the size of the animal. That sounds simpler than boiling or using chemicals.

He has about 6,000 skulls, so presumably he knows what he's doing. His collection was used in an exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences last year.

09-01-2003, 04:42 PM
A big "Thanks" to all.

I promise to do a search next time.

09-01-2003, 06:19 PM
I read the title of this thread ot loud, and Pepper Mill answered, without skipping a beat, "Use Fab with Borax." I had to as her how she knw the answer this that question.

Now I'm not going to be able to get to sleep tonight.

09-01-2003, 11:32 PM
I generally bury - but check your soil first. Some types of soil can eat bones. Also, bury deep and mark the spot.

09-01-2003, 11:56 PM
This talk reminds me of the movie The Predator II, why is that?... :rolleyes:

09-02-2003, 12:00 AM
Well, that should had been a :P

Bosda Di'Chi of Tricor
09-02-2003, 06:53 AM
How cool. A brainwashing thread....

09-02-2003, 07:05 AM
A thorough boiling in plain old water should do just fine. It may depend on how much soft tissue/ligaments/etc are still on it, but boiling should take most off and leave a nice white set of bones with little of the other "gunk" left.


09-02-2003, 09:01 AM
We cleaned a racoon skull by soaking it in soapy water for a week then in a bleach water. It did a really good job. Except the flavoring must have still been there cause the bleach odor didnt stop the dog from chewing the head!

09-02-2003, 10:23 AM
cheers Iteki, I was going to point in the direction of my previous thread. I boiled mine up, cut the flesh off as best i could, mashed the brains in with a big knife through the back of the skull and blasted it through with a high power hose. I then placed the skulls in a big bucket full of bleach for a week or two. came out nicely.

I was still living at my parents house when I did this BTW. my mother was less than pleased about my little project.

the memory of poking pigs eyes out with a big knife is one that tends to stick with you as well.
at least the end justified the means...

09-19-2003, 01:49 PM
Quickest way I know...

Leave it in our company's lunch room. It'll be picked clean in no time! ;-)

09-19-2003, 04:23 PM
I generally throw my victims in a big tank full of piranhas or occassionally staked out on an ants nest. However, my favorite is the room full of hungry rats

09-19-2003, 08:01 PM
"I put my skulls in fireants nests"

" I boil my skulls"

"I generally bury"

"I usually put mine in a sealed bucket"

I'm just find it amazing and humorous this many replies from people with skull cleaning experience. I had no idea. Carry on.