Those who have followed me long enough know that I have a peculiar hobby. Every shelf and decorative nook and cranny of my house is adorned with salvaged animal remains. In recent years, with more and more bone jewelers popping up on Etsy and the success of the show Oddities, bone collecting has become an increasingly popular art form. I’m asked fairly regularly for tips on cleaning bones, and I’ve finally compiled a complete list of the simple steps I follow for bone processing.
Supplies for Cleaning:
1 // Dead specimen 2 // Plastic container 3 // Hydrogen peroxide 4 // Dish soap 5 // Gloves
01. Leave the Specimen to Decompose.
The method for obtaining the bones from the specimen is a matter of preference and available resources. I personally find the process of natural decomposition fascinating and typically allow nature to perform its usual routine in an open area where I can keep an eye on it (my parents live on 5 acres with plenty of land for leaving a decaying carcass without disturbing neighbors with the smell or sight). Depending on the weather and location, the whole cycle could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Be mindful that other animals may come along and take pieces of your project (like they did with this particular skunk). Avoid losing any bones by caging or fencing off the carcass. Other options include burying, skinning and defleshing for immediate masceration, or dermestid beetles. Side note: I frequently get asked about beetles, and I think they mainly gained so much attention because of their mention on Oddities. Beetles are great for companies or individuals that consistently need a fast turnaround on flesh removal, but they’re not very economical for a once-in-a-while bone processor like myself. For some reason people don’t realize dermestid colonies consist of living creatures that need to be fed and maintained even when you don’t have skulls to process. With a little patience, you’ll find that the great outdoors has plenty of naturally occurring stages and other critters and crawlers in the wild that will strip most of the flesh just fine.
02. Gather the Bones.
Use proper sanitation methods when gathering the remaining bones. Wear gloves at all times when handling caracasses, and also protect yourself from breathing in particles from dead organisms by wearing a respiratory mask or covering your face with a bandana.
03. Remove Remaining Tissue.
Depending on how much flesh is still stuck on the bones, you can either pick it off or you may want to opt for maceration. For this particular skunk, I easily washed and gently pulled off any remaining tissue. My earlier coyote I processed was held completely intact by dry hide and fur, so rather than attempt removing all of this by hand, I put the whole thing in a large trash bin filled with water and left it to macerate for several months. Maceration essentially reboots the process of putrefaction and creates a bath of bacteria that eats any flesh, tissue, and cartilage remaining on the bones. Again, use sanitary handling methods and be prepared for the ungodly stench that emerges from the hellish cesspool that is a maceration soup.
Once your bones are flesh free, drop ’em into your container and fill with water and dish soap. Leave the bones soaking in a closed container for about a week or longer. The before and after photos above show the grease that collected at the surface after two weeks of soaking. If the bones are still pretty greasy looking, start a fresh soap bath and soak for longer. Check out Jana’s article on Bonelust for more info about degreasing.
05. Whiten and Sanitize.
Most bone processors will preach about the no-no’s of boiling and bleaching. These methods damage the bone in the long run, if not immediately. (Not to mention they’re more labor intensive than this easier, safer method.) Instead, I whiten and sanitize with a 50/50 bath of hydrogen peroxide and water. Using the same container, fill above the bones with approximately 50% H2O2 and 50% water, and leave the container covered but not air-sealed for another week or longer until your preferred whiteness. Once the bones are white and clean, lay them out to dry completely.
Hope these tips were helpful for some of you! I would love to hear your experiences with this particular method and if there’s any alternate methods you use for processing and cleaning bones. Let me know in the comments!