For the hunter (like dustyvarmint) on a modest income the European skull mount, done tastefully, can preserve your trophy and memories in a low cost, classy manner. Whether you have the fortitude to do this in the house (both preparing and displaying) or not is between you and your significant other…
1) After harvest care – I usually bring my harvested critter’s head back and put it in the freezer in a trash bag until I get time to deal with it. Antler and horn size can be a problem and may dictate that you deal with the skull sooner rather than later. Letting it lay out is not good. Natural decomposition can begin to break down structures such as the bones surrounding the nose. When I know I’ll have time I lay it out to thaw and then get to work.
dv’s Time Out Corner: Label your bag! While cleaning some carp from my freezer I accidentally threw out my very first boar harvest skull. Every time I look at the sow skull that eventually replaced it I look down in disappointment.
2) Remove skin and excess tissue – Using a sharp knife get as much of the tissue off as you can. If the skull is rather odiferous I’ll use a paper respirator with a few drops of vanilla or perfume to manage the gag reflex. I also like to wear rubber gloves while handling the skull.
3) Wrap antlers or horns – The water can change antler color and soften horns so use plastic bags and tape to wrap them. A stick tied across antlers and horns in the right location and rested against the pot rim will keep them out of the water.
3) Simmer the skull – Add one cup +or- of sal soda to a large pot of water. Sal soda is also known as Borax and available in the laundry soap section of your local everything store. Heat until the water is just at a simmer. I do this over a camp stove in the garage. Judicious use of heat is important. It is possible to boil the fat into the skull. This yellowish off-color can be nearly impossible to remove. After one hour of simmering remove the skull from the water and let cool. Then use a thin blade knife to remove as much of the remaining tissue as possible and to “scramble” the contents of the cranial cavity. A hook made from a coat hanger helps clean the cranial cavity. Use pliers to remove as much as possible inside the nasal cavity. Separate the jaws from the skull.
Change the water and be sure to add another cup +or- of sal soda. Simmer the skull for one hour longer. Remove and let cool. The majority of all remaining tissue should come off and out at this point. Some will require a little more elbow grease than others. If something really persists a hosing off with a high pressure hose at your local car wash will do the trick. However, I recommend timing your visit for their “off” hours. Also, be careful not to lose any teeth from the skull.
Alternate method 1, “maceration” – Rather than boiling the skull you may want to use the maceration method which involves soaking the skull in water for a long period of time allowing bacteria to break down the bond between the tissues. The advantage of this method is that it is unlikely to cook the fat into the bone. The disadvantage is that it can be quite smelly and disgusting. Visit the Skulls and Skeletons forum at Taxidermy.net for more information.
Alternate method 2, “bugs” – Dermestid beetles do a great job cleaning skulls and are what museums typically use, but maintenance of a colony may be beyond the casual home skull processor.
4) Degrease the skull – Put the skull in a plastic bucket or pan and cover with a sufficient quantity of household ammonia. As an alternative use a heavy mixture of dish detergent (Dawn) and water. Let soak at least 48 hours or longer for trouble-some grease spots. Sometimes, unfortunately, they just won’t come out, but in my experience this is more common with fatty critters like swine than leaner ones like deer. When ready rinse clean and allow the skull to dry thoroughly.
5) Bleaching the skull – Obtain 40 volume peroxide and (product name Basic White) from your local beauty supply (aka Sally). The smallest quantities for sale are enough to do multiple deer sized skulls. Some will say the 3% peroxide available at your local everything store is sufficient. I disagree and usually have too many irons in the fire to do something more than once. Note that the use of chlorine bleach will lead to later regret as it breaks down bone structure and eventually yellows. I remember a savvy lady lecturing me in my youth that I had, “killed the spirit,” of a particular batch of coyote skulls with bleach.
Mixing the 40 volume peroxide and fixer according to the package directions will result in a thick paste that can be applied with an old paint brush. Apply heavily in a location with sufficient ventilation. Allow to dry 24-48 hours. Rinse off. Once again, allow the skull to dry in the sun for at least 72 hours.
6) Remove any hair around antlers and horns – Sometimes there will be hair left at the base of antlers and horns. I use a small torch, moving quickly, to “trim” this hair off.
7) Seal – If desired, seal the skull. Currently I like to leave my skulls unfinished or unsealed. Just my preference. It can be dipped in a fifty-fifty mix of white glue (Elmer’s) or sprayed with a clear acrylic available in spray cans from your local everything store.
At this point you should have a beautiful, blindingly white skull ready to be displayed on a pedestal or plaque or displayed on a table. I’ve experimented with different woods for pedestal mounts and very much prefer the contrast of darker woods such as walnut over that of lighter options such as cherry or gum.
A recently completed javelina skull.
This whitetail skull was one of the first I did after really learning how to do it right. I think it turned out well.
This pronghorn skull also turned out well.
I inadvertentnly boiled the fat into this sow skull. I have yet to attempt degreasing it with ammonia.
happy hunting, dv
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