This step-by-step tutorial for how to clean bones, specifically bleaching and whitening, walks you through the basic process for preparing degreased animal bones for display. A trained professional could demonstrate this process to home-schoolers if all safety precautions are followed.
For more posts on this topic, also see What To Do if You Find Bones in Your Garden and 7 Incredible Backyard Bone Finds.
How to Clean Animal Bones for Display
by Hallie Tennant, M.A.
Preparing animal bones for display is a multi-step process that takes a considerable amount of time.
- Soft-tissue removal.
- Bone degreasing.
- Bone whitening and bleaching.
This article shows Step 3 which comes at the very end of the process where clean, degreased bones (free of soft tissue) are cosmetically improved with whitening for educational purposes or display.
The first two steps, soft-tissue removal and degreasing, are not suitable for hobbyists at home.
To remove soft-tissue, the carcass must go through either natural decomposition or a human-controlled method (there are several) of removing all the soft tissue from the bones.
We cannot emphasize enough how gross, stinky, time-consuming and potentially dangerous this process can be. It is not for DIYers.
When that’s done, the bones are degreased, removing any remaining natural oils.
Both processes will somewhat degrade the quality of the bones but are absolutely necessary for long-term preservation and your safety.
The bones we show in our demonstration are free of soft tissue (as you can see) and have already been degreased in a lab.
SAFETY NOTE: This article is for general information only.
Animal carcasses can contain zoonotic diseases that spread via bodily fluids and should not be handled.
Benefits of Cleaning Bones
- Cleaning helps preserve the bones.
- They will look nicer (whiter, smoother surface).
- They are less greasy and therefore grow less bacteria.
- They feel and smell better than uncleaned ones.
How to Clean Animal Bones
Want to Display Some Animal bones? In love with spooky skeletons? This quick and easy tutorial will show you how to lighten and clean found animal bones for safe storage and display.
1) Rubber gloves -I find that hairdressing gloves work best, but any rubber or latex gloves are fine.
2) A plastic* container
3) A plastic* spoon
4) Cream developer (peroxide) -I used 30 Vol., but any volume 30 or lower will work.
5) A cup or two of water -I used 1 ½ cups, but the amount will vary depending on the size of the bone. Make sure you have enough water to cover the bone completely in the container.
6) An old toothbrush
7) Animal bones – free of any soft-tissue and degreased.
I used a falcon for this project, but you can use any critter you happen to find. I would recommend starting out with a small mammal (e.g. a squirrel, raccoon or fox) rather than a bird or rodent which are more fragile and prone to breakage.
*Pro Tip: Make sure never to use metal tools when working with peroxide. I reused an old takeout container and spoon, but any plastic container and utensils will work. Also be sure you are wearing old clothes that you don’t mind staining, and work on a surface that can be quickly wiped if you happen to spill.
Wash your animal bones with slightly soapy warm water, rinse, and set it aside.
2Add Water to Container
Fill the plastic container with enough water to submerge the bone, but leave enough room that you can put your hands in without spilling.
3Add Cream Peroxide
Pour a small spoonful of cream developer (peroxide) into the water. The amount you need will depend on how large an animal you’re working with and how much water you used, but generally aim for a 1:10 ratio of peroxide to water.
Stir the peroxide and water until it is well mixed. Make sure the peroxide is evenly distributed but don’t worry if it doesn’t dissolve completely in the water.
Place the bone in the water and allow it to soak for 2-5 minutes. If your bones are very dry (e.g. sun bleached), just a quick soak will be fine.
Greasier bones will need longer, but be careful not to leave them in longer than 5 minutes or they may become brittle.
Also note that bird bones are more fragile than mammals, and may require less time to soak.
Dip the toothbrush in the water and lightly buff the entire surface of the bone.
No need to scrub!
Just a very light amount of pressure is enough.
Concentrate especially toward the bone ends as they tend to hold the most grease and be the most stained.
Remove the bone from the water and place it on a paper towel in a sunny spot. Allow it to dry completely (mine took about half an hour, but larger bones may take a little longer).
And you’re done! Once the bones have completely dried, they should be noticeably lighter in color and have a smooth, non-greasy finish.
The results of this process will vary depending on the state of the bones prior to lightening.
The dog skull shown (above, left) was found in a garden and has a darker, more rustic natural finish to it after cleaning, whereas the raccoon (center) was found on the surface and sun bleached, leaving it with a bright white matte finish.
Finally, the falcon (right) was cleaned using an enzyme solution and cooked prior to lightening (under professional supervision in a lab), making it ideal for frequent handling or use in teaching.
I like to display my bone collection alongside other natural treasures like plants, stones, feathers, fall leaves, shells, and tree bark. Make sure to dust regularly and keep them out of reach of pets.
I hope this has provided a good overview of the bone cleaning process. If it’s something you’re interested in, be sure to research best practices for safely handling bones (or carcasses) and which method to use depending on what you have found.
- Cleaning and Preserving Animal Skulls | The University of Arizona (PDF format)
- How to Clean Animal Bones so you May Proudly Display Them in Your Home
How to Clean Animal Bones for Display
- Plastic tub
- Plastic spoon
Supplies & Materials
- 1 Cream developer (peroxide) peroxide, 30 vol or lower
- 1 Animal bones skeleton only, degreased
- Wash bones in soapy water and set aside.
- Fill plastic container with enough peroxide (1-part) and water (10-parts) to submerge one bone at a time.
- Stir until well mixed. Peroxide may not dissolve completely.
- Soak bone for 2 to 5 minutes: the greasier the bone, the longer you soak.
- Gently brush entire bone surface with toothbrush.
- Allow bone to air dry on paper towel.
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