How to Clean Bones and Articulate Skeletons
Q. Do you sell skeletons?
A. No. I don't even articulate skeletons for myself. However, 15 years ago I articulated an alligator and an emu for the living room. If you are looking for skeletons to purchase you might want to check eBay, Skulls Unlimited, or The Bone Room.
Q. Can I hire you to put a skeleton together?
A. Yes. . . if you are a museum or a science center or a school or a university. These are the entities for which I usually do bone-building for a fee. For more information please see the About the Author page.
Q. Why would anyone want to mess around with dead bones?
A. Oh come now, don't you remember when you were young how fascinated you were with things like dinosaurs? Didn't you ever put models together Were you ever interested in your own body or anatomy? Have the shapes and forms of nature never fascinated you? Most kids before they reach an age of artificially stifled curiosity, are fascinated by bones and skeletons, even more so if the bones are real. Skeleton projects have enthused students like few other hands-on projects I have ever seen.
Q. So how do I go about getting an animal?
A. Often it is the tail that wags the dog. Someone comes across a dead animal and this leads to a desire to do a skeleton project. For those that are starting with the idea of a project and need an animal, there are many sources, depending upon where you live. With the right attitude and the backing of a school or institution, animals can sometimes be acquired from a zoo, game farm, animal shelter, hunter, Fish and Game Department, farm, meat processing plant, taxidermist, or even collected off the road as road-kill.
Q. What animal should I try to get?
A. Almost any large bird, mammal, or reptile can work for a skeleton project. A mature skeleton works much better than one from a young, still growing animal. Something rabbit-sized or larger is easier to put back together than a small animal due to the tiny-ness of some of the bones, especially in the feet. There are ways of making skeletons out of smaller animals if that is the desire, however, by not taking the animal all the way apart and doing what is called a ligamentary skeleton. This is where the ligaments are left in place and they hold the bones together.
Q. What animals can I legally work on?
A. Depends on who you are and where you are. Generally, there will be few problems if the animal is huntable or domestic. Marine mammals and many birds often come with so many layers of regulations that only a museum or a federal agency will be able to legally process the animal.
Q. Can I catch diseases doing this?
A. Yes. For that reason, you should wear rubber gloves, but in twenty-five years of bone-work, I've heard from two people who were infected from cuts and an eye splash while processing animal skeletons. You are still much more likely to catch something from your best friend than from a dead animal.
Q. How do I clean the skeleton?
A. There are many ways of cleaning animal skeletons. Depending on the size, age, and species of the animal. Many bone specialists have a favorite method. For classroom use, some methods are better than others. Some methods work much faster than other methods. Bones can be rotted, macerated, boiled, cleaned with chemicals, enzymes or bugs. Details are given in the bone manuals for the different methods.
Q. How do I whiten animal bones?
A. The easiest way is to put the bones out in the sun for a year. The problem is that someone or something might find them before you get back to them. To safely bleach the bones artificially, drop them in 3% hydrogen peroxide (in a plastic container with a lid) for several days. The hydrogen peroxide used is the kind you can buy in the brown bottle at the drugstore. The bones should come out very nice looking. Let them dry. If they start looking oily and greasy, they will need to be de-greased some more. This should really be done first before bleaching.
Q. Can I use household bleach (Clorox) for whitening bones?
A. Yes--and it will bleach the bones quickly and cheaply--BUT! It is also very destructive to the bone cells and will likely cause the bones to get soft and chalky over time, if not immediately. For this reason, household bleach or bleach-type products are never used for whitening bones by those who know better. Hydrogen peroxide is a much safer whitener for bones.
Q. So how do I get the oils out?
A. Soak the bones in 50% clear ammonia solution, using a plastic container, for a week. Rinse them and if they are very oily they may need to be soaked again in fresh ammonia solution. some bones are much more oily than others. After rinsing, they can be bleached.
Q. What's the best way to clean bones for a classroom?
A. There probably is no best way, but there are clearly some methods that you don't want to do. Most classroom projects I've worked on have done their bone cleaning by boiling the skeletons outside over an electric hotplate or, for big skeletons, over a propane burner. This is often a weekend project or, for small skeletons it can happen over a long day. It often takes eight hours of boiling for many skeletons. Small or young animals can take a lot less time.
Q. How long will a skeleton project take?
A. This depends mostly on what method you use to clean the bones, as methods can range from a week to a year or more for cleaning. Assuming the skeleton is ready to assemble, a skeleton can take from 40 to well over 100 hours to articulate. A classroom organized into groups can get a bear or wolf-sized skeleton finished mostly in a week if everything goes smoothly.
Q. How many people can work on a skeleton at once?
A. This depends on how big the skeleton is. For something the size of a rabbit or chicken, probably not more than two people. For an animal the size of a wolf or bear, a whole class can work on it by dividing the animal up into sections and having pairs of students clean and later articulate their own section. As the sections are combined into a whole skeleton, fewer people can work on it at one time.
Q. If I do a skeleton project with my class, how much money will I need to raise?
A. This depends on how much money you already have. It also depends on the size and type of animal and how you intend to clean it. A mature moose skeleton was cleaned and articulated and put on a base with wheels for $120. A wolf skeleton came to about $80 worth of materials. (These were 1995 prices. Figure double these numbers now.)
Q. Why don't you have a manual for a horse skeleton?
A. I was hoping that the moose manual would suffice for a horse. They are about the same size. The main difference is in the feet. There are many well-done sources of information about horse skeletons such as "An Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists" by Ellenberger and Baum. We are now selling a digital book done by Matt Crockett who was so enthused about building a horse skeleton that he did a photographic eManual detailing how he put a horse skeleton together using The Moose Manual. Proceeds from sales of this digital book go to the Pratt Museum in Homer. To purchase click here.
Q. How did you get started with bones?
A. I was one of those nerdy science obsessed kids who would rather be labeling my butterfly collection than going to the party down the street. My interest in science carried through adulthood and I was in the right place at the right time and volunteered to help at the local natural history museum with a whale skeleton.
Q. What is the biggest skeleton you've ever done?
A. A sperm whale skeleton at 41-feet long.
Q. What is the smallest skeleton you've ever done?
A. I did a little brown bat once as a project with my daughter when she was in Jr. High.
Q. Do you have or have you considered doing a manual on human skeletons?
A. The skeletons I work on have been animals that were found dead, usually as road-kill, or animals that have washed up on local beaches. I've never found a dead human, besides, somehow I think the locals would take a dim view if they thought I was working on human remains in my garage. Besides, there is no shortage of books that describe the workings of the human skeleton. I understand there is a small demand for information on repairing articulated human skeletons, but this is not something I have ever worked with. Most human skeletons are loosely articulated so that the joints have mobility to them. This requires fasteners that are made specifically for this purpose. There are places that articulate human skeletons and these would be a likely source to acquire the fasteners.
Q. What is this about a new technique for cleaning skeletons using hydrogen peroxide?
A. I haven't done much more experimentation with it after my first burst of enthusiasm. I had good luck with it on a few things and then got overconfident and ruined a series of small skeletons (I was trying to get a vole skeleton to come out fully articulated). I think it can be done this way but the timing has to be just right. There is a brief write-up about this method in the Small Mammals Manual, and a more complete write-up in the Bone Builder's Notebook. Essentially, small skeletons (or sections of skeletons) are soaked in ammonia for a week or so, and then in 15% hydrogen peroxide for a couple weeks, then in a fresh batch of 15% hydrogen peroxide. If the timing and the concentrations are right, it is possible to get a fully articulated skeleton out of the solution with no obnoxious smells in the process. -----It is also easy to get a skeleton that is totally dis-articulated with severe bone damage. UPDATE! New details about this method can be found here.
Q. I really like working on skeletons what are my options for being able to do this for a living?
A. I frequently get a particular type of inquiry. It usually goes something like: "My daughter or son has recently become totally passionate about doing bone work and building skeletons. Where can she or he go from here to pursue this interest for a career?" In more direct letters it may be in the first person, "I have recently had an opportunity to articulate a skeleton (or two or three) and I want to do this for a living. What classes and what schools should I take to make this my career?" In some cases, I have had people contact me to say, "Can I come to help you on whatever skeleton you are working on next? I'll go anywhere. I want to do what you do. I want to help and learn everything you can teach me about how to do such skeletons." Or sometimes it is a more reasonable, "I'm passionate about bones. What careers are there in which I can work with bones? What classes should I be taking?" This is an attempt to answer those questions. The ugly truth is - There are no career opportunities to do what I do for a living. There are no museums that you could work for in which your job would be to assemble skeletons. No schools that you can go to, to learn this. No classes you can take on skeleton articulation. Museums assembling skeletons these days are few and far between. In big museums, the skeletons are often done by museum design firms who may subcontract someone like me to do one or may just as likely have fabricators on staff who would be assigned to getting that part of the exhibit done. Other skeletons in museums these days are done by somebody on staff or by some docents or volunteers that may be known by the staff. Many skeletons in museums were done way before I was even alive and have been on display ever since. The fantasy of - 'I'll just work in a museum and assemble skeletons" probably won't happen because very few museums are assembling skeletons these days. That being said, being a curator or a preparator at a natural history museum can at least get you doing hands-on bone stuff, usually working with the cleaning and preparing of bones for reference collections. Usually, these bones go into boxes and are individually numbered and used by researchers. And someone has to clean and number and label these bones. Often this is done by volunteers or students or docents. This was how I got my start. I volunteered for 15 years in a small town natural history museum and helped build up their osteology collection. Other directions one can take to work with bones would include zooarchaeology, which is a subcategory of archaeology that has to do with working with animal bones. There are universities that have very good programs in this. Possibly paleontology, (the study of prehistoric life, which can lead to working with dinosaur bones if one follows this path passionately enough and long enough. Various museums, nature centers, parks, and visitor centers have bones and osteology related treasures and often have staff or volunteers that use these collections for public education, sometimes at the organization and sometimes by doing outreach by going to schools. Preparing the bones they use is often done by staff or volunteers. Various taxidermy shops are getting more and more into articulating skeletons or cleaning and displaying bones and skulls as a branch of their taxidermy business.There are a handful of commercial bone preparation companies in the world, some of which may occasionally hire someone to clean bones. Occasionally these companies will articulate the bones into skeletons for a customer. A lucky staff person can be the designated bone articulator. To see what working at such a place might be like please click on this link www.youtube.com/watch? Occasionally, somewhere in the world there will be a museum or a display going up that is on bones or skeletons and if someone is in the right place at the right time with the right attitude and the right skills, they maybe can slide into a temporary position of working with bones for that exhibit.But the bottom line is if you are passionate about working with bones, your best bet is to keep doing that. Do it on your own. Get good at it. Start volunteering to go into classrooms with those bones. Find a museum or nature center where you can volunteer. Connect with other people with a similar interest. Get yourself known as being passionate about bones. The classic quote that applies to this is "do what you love and the money will follow." In the case of skeleton builders, we all chased our passion and some of us were able to turn this into something that paid once in a while, but virtually all of us kept our day jobs and occasionally are fortunate enough to be paid to do something involving bones. Even me. I have a day job at a bookstore and when I'm lucky I get to take a break to do a skeleton project. Occasionally I even get paid for such but mostly I'm doing what I love to do - with or without being paid in real money. That being said, I have heard of a couple opportunities for classes. There are occasional college teachers who encourage or require that students put a skeleton together. Usually for a comparative anatomy class or paleontology or mammology or bird anatomy-type class. I've been known to teach college classes on skeleton articulation in small towns in Alaska. There may be a class taught in Juneau, Alaska, from time to time on marine mammal bones.But these are all very localized and unique opportunities. The normal path to getting to work on a skeleton is to just make a leap and do it on your own. For instructions and inspiration, my website may be able to open those doors.
Q. I have been using just water, maceration. My question is that sometimes the bones turn black in the water? From searching the net it seems to be plant debris (my skulls are outside). Have you come across this and is it a problem?
A. If it were light brown or tea-colored I'd say it would be from plant stains or soil stains, but black is a whole different thing. Black is what happens when the water goes anaerobic. Anaerobic is what happens when the normal bacteria and microbes multiply so fast they use up all the oxygen in the water and die. Then a different set of bacteria comes along that lives in oxygen-starved water and deposits black on the bone. The good news is the black will bleach off in hydrogen peroxide. It might even do so in strong sunlight. I haven't tried that yet. To prevent the water from going anaerobic, people either change it frequently (every 4-7 days) or change most of it - or they put an aquarium bubbler hose in the water to bring more oxygen into the water. If the bones are oily - all it takes is a bit of oil film on top of the water to keep any new oxygen from getting in and now you have a guaranteed recipe for black bones.