Whiten Animal Bones for display is actually fairly simple. Below I’ll get into the details of what to do in each step of the bone cleaning process.
How to Clean and Whiten Bones
Cleaning small bones is pretty easy. However, it may take some time -especially if the animal is fresh and has lots of soft tissue on it still.
Step 1: Whiten Animal Bones – Supplies
In order to clean animal bones, you will need the following supplies:
- Buckets or trash cans that can hold the bones being cleaned
- Dish soap
- Scrub brushes
- Hydrogen peroxide
Depending on the type of bones and their condition, you might need some other supplies too, such as as a power washer, muslin sack, pliers for removing teeth, and ammonia for degreasing.
Never Use Bleach for Whitening Bones
A lot of articles online about how to whiten bones say to “bleach” the bones. You should NEVER use bleach to get bones white. Why? Bleach will destroy the structural integrity of the bones.
Likewise, you don’t want to use any laundry detergents for cleaning or degreasing the bones. These detergents often contain bleach or other harsh chemicals which can destroy the bone.
Use Hydrogen Peroxide to Whiten Bones
Hydrogen peroxide (H2o2) is the safest and most effective way to whiten bones. This is what taxidermists use, including the ones at the Smithsonian and other prestigious institutions.
You can use the 3% hydrogen peroxide found in drug stores to whiten bones. The problem is that this peroxide is very weak. You’ll either need to buy a zillion bottles of it or do multiple soaks to get the bones clean and white. To get good results, you want 12% hydrogen peroxide.
Hair Developer As an Alternative to Hydrogen Peroxide
Unfortunately, not many pharmacies stock concentrated hydrogen peroxide in that concentration. If you can’t find 12% or higher hydrogen peroxide, you can use hair developer instead.
There are two types of hair developer:
- Clear Developer: This is the exact same thing as the hydrogen peroxide you’d get in a pharmacy. It will bubble up nicely and works great for cleaning bones. Get 40 volume clear developer here.
- Cream Developer: This has some emulsifiers added so it is creamy and thick. Some hardcore taxidermists won’t use it, saying the emulsifiers could mess up the bones. It also won’t bubble up like clear H202, so it isn’t as good at getting stains out from deep within bones. However, because cream developer is thick, it can be painted directly onto bones for spot whitening or for whitening skulls with antlers. Get 40 volume cream developer here.
Hair Developer Strengths:
Hair developer is listed in strengths by volume. Don’t think that 10v equals 10% though. The actual concentrations are as follows:
- 10 volume =3% hydrogen peroxide. Don’t get this. It’s too weak for good results!
- 20 volume =6% hydrogen peroxide.
- 30 volume =9% hydrogen peroxide.
- 40 volume =12% hydrogen peroxide.
Step 2: Whiten Animal Bones – Remove soft tissue
If you found a bone that has been sitting in nature for a long time, then it won’t have any soft tissue on it. You’ll be able to skip this step. But, if you are dealing with fresh kills or roadkill, you’ll have to remove all the tissue before proceeding to whitening.
There are 6 main ways of doing this. I’ll go over them briefly here. For more detailed instructions, read this post on how to remove soft tissue from bones.
Method 1: Maceration (Soaking)
This invovles soaking the bones in water for weeks or even months. The water softens tissue and microbes in the water eat away at tissue. It’s very effective at removing hidden tissue in skulls without damaging them.
Method 2: Burying
When you bury bones, microbes in the dirt will eat away all the tissue. This is great for rotting carcasses, or if you are squeemish and don’t want to deal with stinky, gross tissue. The only main problem is that you can easily lose bones in the dirt, especially from small animals .
Method 3: Insects/Leave in the Open
You can just put the carcass outside and insects will eat away the tissue. You have to put the carcass in some sort of cage to protect it from scavengers.
Method 4: Corpse in a Box
With this method, you put a small corpse in a box that has holes in it. Insects will get to the carcass and eat away the tissue.
Method 5: Simmering
If you have a fresh kill with all of its tissue on it, simmering (not boiling) will loosen tissue so you can scrape it off.
Method 5: Steaming
Small carcasses can be put in a steamer. The steam will loosen tissue without damaging the bones.
Boiling: NOT Recommended
Despite what a lot of websites say, you shouldn’t boil bones to remove tissue. Boiling can damage bones and trap fat inside of them.
Step 3: Pre-clean the bones
This applies to bones you have found which do not have any soft tissue on them, but are caked with dirt and maybe have moss growing on them.
Use soapy water and the toothbrush to SCRUB the bones clean. The cleaner they are when you start, the better the hydrogen peroxide will work.
Step 4: Whiten Animal Bones – Degreasing
Degreasing is one of the most confusing steps in cleaning animal bones. It involves soaking bones in a solvent (like dish soap) to remove fat.
How do you know the bones need to be degreased? You’ll need to degrease if:
- The bones are yellow, clear, or shiny
- The bones stink, even after all tissue has been removed
- If the bones are from certain animals like: bears, pigs, boars, possoms, or seals.
It can take months for all the grease to get out of bones. If you skip this step though, the fat can slowly leach out of the bones and turn them yellow over time. They might even start to rot!
Whiten with Hydrogen Peroxide – FAQS
Once the bones are completely free of tissue and have been degreased, you are ready to whiten them. You’ll need hydrogen peroxide for this. As I said before, never use bleach for whitening bones. It will destroy them by making them flaky and brittle.
Here’s how to do it:
- Put the bones in your bucket.
- Pour in your hydrogen peroxide.
- Then top it with water.
- The bones will start foaming, which means the hydrogen peroxide is working. Hydrogen peroxide also heats up when it is working.
- Loosely cover the bones while they soak. The H202 will stay active longer this way.
- Let the bones whiten for about 24 hours. Repeat if necessary.
How much hydrogen peroxide to use?
I usually use a ratio of 1:3 hydrogen peroxide to water. However, the higher the concentration of hydrogen, the faster and whiter your bones will be.
Tip: Try to find a container which fits your bones exactly. Then you won’t have to use as much H202 to cover the bones. If you can’t find a suitable container, you can use this pro trick:
- Line the container with a heavy-duty trash bag
- Put the bone in the trash bag
- Fill the container with water. The water will fill the space around the bone in the bag.
- Now pour the hydrogen peroxide into the trash bag.
Remember that hair developer works just the same as hydrogen peroxide.