Recently, Rowen wrote a wonderful post on ways to ethically obtain bones for your craft. This post is a follow-up to that one, talking about how to clean the bones you have obtained. Please be aware that this post contains talk of bones and animal bodies in a factual manner. If this sort of talk grosses you out, you might want to skip this post.
Also, if you are out in the woods and randomly find a bone, please try to ID what it is and if it is safe to touch before you go picking it up. If you have any reason to believe the bone is from a human, do not touch it. Call the authorities to come take a look. We’re here to clean up animal bones, not crime scenes.
So, you went out scavenging and you’ve found yourself some animal bones! Nice! Found bones do tend to come with some muck and grime, either from the environment they were left in or from whatever they came from. Let’s go over how to get those bones nice and clean.
First off, some things to keep in mind:
- Sometimes all a bone needs is some soap and water. If the bone was out in the open, has no soft tissue on it, and no nasty smell, then the bone is nearly ready to go. Give it a nice bubble bath with warm water, the same as washing your hands.
- Don’t bleach bones with actual bleach! This damages the bone itself and can cause it to deteriorate.
- Don’t put bones in boiling water! It makes the fat on the bones thinner. This causes it to soak into the bone itself and come out later. This leaves you with a really gross smell and the bones themselves looking very bad.
- Cleaning bones takes time. This goes double if you have a whole animal or a lot of tissue to remove. While determination, a sharp knife, and a lot of gross elbow grease will get the job done faster, the entirety of the animal has to be removed from the skeleton. It can’t be reduced to just bone in the span of one night.
- After any cleaning method, let your bones air dry outside for several days. Trust us, this is going to help a lot.
- Mummified flesh is rare, but you might encounter it. It feels fragile, but it is extremely difficult to remove. Attempting to keep it is difficult because it will absorb moisture from the environment and start to decompose. To remove such tissue, you have to rehydrate it by soaking it for a few days. This smells terrible, but afterwards you will be able to use one of the other cleaning methods to get the flesh off.
- Please remember basic chemical safety! If a cleaner can strip fat and tissue off of bone, it’s not going to do pleasant things to you or your carpet. Wear goggles, gloves, and closed toe shoes when handling these chemicals. Make sure the area you are doing this in is well ventilated. While we are giving you some options, you will want to read all instructions or do your own research to make sure you are using these cleaners properly.
You have your bone and whatever is attached to it ready to go. Fantastic. Now you’re going to need to pick a way to clean it.
Biological Washing Powder
If there’s little to no soft tissue left on the bone, you might use is soaking the bones in warm water and Biological Washing Powder. This is a detergent with enzymes that break down fat. This cleaner works over the course of a few days. Ideally you will keep the water warm this entire time. Many sources I’ve found suggest using a slow cooker on the lowest setting. Once your bones are cleaned, rinse and dry them so the cleaning enzymes can’t continue to eat away at the bone itself.
The next method is Hydrogen Peroxide. It’s the safest method for bleaching and sterilizing bones. It won’t remove soft tissue or fat, so it’s good for cleaning bones that are already fairly clean. Put your bones in a plastic container that comes with a lid, pour over the peroxide, and top it up with water. Make sure there are no air bubbles in your bones or those spots won’t bleach or sterilize properly! Seal the container so the peroxide can’t evaporate, and leave it for several days to a week.
Afterwards, rinse the bones well in cold water or they will gain a white powdery residue. A single tub of peroxide bath is good for 3-4 uses. It does it’s best work when it doesn’t have much air exposure and the bath is warm.
This method is a little extreme unless you are going to be making a regular habit of cleaning bones. If you are, you might invest in a colony of Dermestid Beetles. This is a live insect colony that will reduce whole, fresh animal carcasses down to bare bones. They have to be kept warm and fed, making them hard to keep unless you have a regular supply of bones to clean. They’re excellent at reducing flesh down to bone, but only if it’s fresh and not yet rotting. This is one of the more “straight out of a murder mystery” options, but if you have a friend who keeps insects, you might see if they keep a Dermestid Beetle colony. Can’t hurt to ask…
More Natural Methods
One of the most natural methods for getting flesh off of bones is burial. It seems obvious to bury a carcass. Leave the bones out in warm weather for a few days so that flies can provide maggots. (Gross, but it’s natural. What are you going to do?) Wrap the bone in some kind of fabric or wire netting so that it can’t be dug up and hauled away by scavengers. Then, bury the bone in soil. The spot needs to be just right, as dry sand or wet dirt can preserve the flesh instead. However, if you do your research, nature can do all the work for you.
Unfortunately, this method takes several months to a year to work. With it in the ground, you can’t see when it’s time to un-bury the bones. You can, instead, leave the bone somewhere to decompose above ground, but this does come with some nasty side effects. A whole deer carcass can take about three months to decompose, during which time it is vulnerable to things like scavengers or other bone collectors. Small bones or smaller carcasses can be stored in things like overturned flowerpots, keeping them safe while also leaving a way for flies to get in. This is a smelly process, though, so you will likely want to keep your bones a fair distance from your home. If everything goes well, you should be left with clean, naturally bleached bones. If not, you might end up needing to help nature along with one of the other methods here.
Smellier Cleaning is Sadly Faster
Now we get to the faster methods, the first of which is maceration. This one is very, very gross. Maceration is soaking the bones in cold water. Rotting tissue in cold water is very, very smelly. This is one of those things you do outside, far away from civilization and complaining neighbors. It is, however, particularly useful for when you have a skeletonized body with tendons still attached. It softens the tendons and makes them easier to cut and remove.
Where there is cold water soaking, there is also hot water soaking. This is also very gross and smelly, but comes with the benefit of being the fastest. Remove as much of the tissue as you can, then put the bone in a pot or a slow cooker to simmer (not boil!) for several hours. This can be an all day or an overnight thing; slow cookers come in handy here. Leave it long enough and the tissue will just fall off. You can also add in some of the aforementioned Biological Washing Powder to assist in the process. The most knowledgeable source I’ve found cites leaving them in a slow cooker, on high, with the washing powder overnight. Again, the smell is not good – so ideally do this outside on the porch or in a shed instead of in the house.
And there you have it – the nasty business of cleaning bones. Go forth and collect your bones responsibly!