How To Clean And Preserve Animal Skulls

Cleaning animal skulls can be a challenging process. It may take you years of training and experience to properly learn how to make the bones spotless without damaging their details. In some cases, skull cleaning services are offered to help teachers and students get the model skulls and bones they want to study. But cleaning animal skulls to prepare them for display is a common practice for hunters.

Cleaned Animal Skull
Mature bearded hunter in hat holding a big deer skull while standing next to a table with equipment and trophys. Studio photo against a dark wall background

If you’re planning to get into hunting as a hobby, you may want to learn about the process of cleaning animal skulls, since these are trophies that most hunters take pride in having. This article is meant to help you learn about the rigorous and meticulous process.

1. Choose The Method

Cleaning an animal skull requires patience and specific skills for you to have a skull worth featuring. Before you prepare the needed materials and take the initial steps in the cleaning process, you should first choose a method that suits your needs, skills, and the condition of the animal head you have. Here are two of the most common procedures in skull cleaning.

  • Dermestid Beetles

This method is used by professionals who specialize in flesh removal and skull cleaning, as it doesn’t cause any damage to the structure of the bones. Dermestid beetles, a species of insect known to feed on dead animals’ flesh and hides, are able to leave skulls intact, as they don’t consume any type of bone. They also don’t cause discoloration, so you can get a natural-looking skull this way.

If you want to use this method, you should do thorough research on how to grow a colony of dermestid beetles, as you will need a considerably large population if you plan on collecting skulls. However, if you’ll only need to use them once, the cheaper option is to look for a reliable skull cleaning service that uses them, such as Boneyard Beetle Works and others.

  • Maceration

This method is ideal for beginner hunters who want to learn how to do basic skull cleaning. Although there are different ways to go about it, maceration essentially involves boiling and soaking the animal head in chemicals. Though it carries the risk of damaging the skull if done wrong or left to boil too long, it’s one of the more affordable ways to clean an animal skull.

2. Prepare The Materials

In dermestid beetle skull cleaning, the animal head is placed in a space where the insects thrive. In many cases, a colony of dermestid beetles needs a day or two to entirely consume the flesh and hide of an average-sized head. If you already have your beetle population, you may need the following for this cleaning process:

  • Stainless steel trays
  • Storage bin
  • Thermoplastic resin sealant

As mentioned, maceration can be done in several different ways, but these are the essential materials you’ll need if you decide to go that route:

  • Tweezers
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • A barrel or bucket
  • Detergent solution
Cleaning Skulls
working on cleaning the penguin’s skull.

3. Scrape The Flesh

If you’re going to use dermestid beetles after cleaning a deer or any other animal you hunt, you will need to skin the animal’s head as soon as you can. Make sure to remove the organs as well, such as the ears, tongue, eyes, and brain. Then keep the head in a freezer to preserve the quality of the skull and bones.

For maceration, you will also need to remove all the meat and tissue of the head. You could use a scalpel, knife, or tweezer to scrape the skin and flesh off. As you get rid of the tissue and other parts, avoid pressing on the bones too much, as you might cause cracks or damage. Some animal heads may be more brittle than others, so it would be best to practice caution.

4. Boil The Skull

This step only applies to the maceration method, though there are types of maceration that go directly to soaking. Boiling is important because it helps get rid of bacteria and grease. However, you should take care not to boil the skull too long, as it could cause the skull to break apart easily.

In addition, placing the skull in hot water for too long may result in bone shrinkage, and you might end up with a smaller skull than you were hoping for. For best results, you should be sure to conduct thorough research on skulls that may need boiling and the best duration for it. After boiling, you can proceed to remove any leftover flesh, as it may have been loosened in the process.

5. Soak The Skull In Hydrogen Peroxide

Do not use regular household bleach, as it could damage the bones. If you use dermestid beetles to clean the skull, there’s generally a special bleaching process that helps to whiten it. In many cases, the bleach materials are spread all over the skull’s surface. In maceration, on the other hand, the head is soaked in 5% hydrogen peroxide solution.

This is a good way to disinfect and clean the skull thoroughly. Small skulls typically need 12 hours of hydrogen peroxide saturation. For average sizes, one day is sufficient. For larger ones, it may take two to three days. Be careful not to oversoak the skull, as it might affect its structure and integrity.

6. Rinse And Dry

Rinse the skull after the chemical cleaning or soaking. You may want to use running water to ensure that all surfaces are thoroughly cleaned.

If you find that some bones have detached from the skull, you could use wood glue to join them back. The adhesive is transparent when dry, so it won’t affect the appearance of the skull. Once this is done, set the skull aside to dry completely.

7. Add Finish And Preserve

Once the skull is dry, you could apply clear polyurethane if you want it to have a good finish. You could also use a clear lacquer to apply a protective coating. For a thicker layer and cheaper protection, you could combine ordinary white glue and water. Make sure to brush the solution evenly on all surfaces.
If you want the skull to look its best, you should ensure that the upper and lower jaws are still attached. These parts are likely to detach in the process, so you should be careful. This way, the lacquer or polyurethane can be evenly and properly applied.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’d like to display animal skulls or use it for other purposes, such as for art pieces, it would help for you to know the proper way to clean and preserve them. With the tips above, you now have basic knowledge of the common methods available to you and what they entail. However, it would be best to also do further research and build on the basics so you can identify which method works for you and allows you to produce better-looking skulls.