DIY Skull-Mounting: Just Passing Time
New Archery Nation Field Staff member, Jeff Trisler, passes time in the off-season by doing custom skull-mounting. This bear skull is a recent project Jeff completed. The added "camo dip" made for a unique finish to this project.
What’s a hunter to do between the end of the Fall deer season, and the kick-off of the Spring Turkey season? For me, I knew I had to find “something” to do to fill the void. What started as a simply “test”, grew quickly into a hobby, and turned into a full-blown passion for me personally. Skull-mounting is not only a great way to preserve memories from successful hunts, when the cost of full taxidermy might not be realistic—but, it’s also a great “hobby” for folks like myself who just enjoy D-I-Y projects!
Since starting JT’s Skullworks, I get asked all the time the steps I use when skull mounting a deer, hog or just about any critter. There are several different ways to accomplish this from start to finish and I thought I would share a few for anyone wanting to try this on their own. I am not an expert by any means, but this is the process and tips that have worked for me. I will explain things using a whitetail as example but there are some things that are a little different when skull mounting a hog, coyote or bobcat. I can normally have a skull clean in 10-14 days using my “rot tank” which keeps the temperature around 85 degrees.
I have boiled many skulls and hate it! It is time consuming because you have to be attentive to the skull when boiling and it takes a lot of time to cut and scrape the skull clean. Boiling is also more expensive since you have to supply fuel to get that water boiling! I began macerating (rotting) after a friend brought me a ten point that he had hung on the fence for about a week. The only thing I could do was macerate since it was well on its way to being rotten.
I begin by cutting all the hide of off the deer. I use a scalpel and start by making an incision down the middle of the nose, between the eyes and all the way to the end of the hide on the neck. Be careful not to cut into the skull with the scalpel or knife and scar the bone. I then strip the hide from the nose and then go around the horns to the back of the head. Once the hide is removed I clean the skull of as much tissue as possible. I leave the lower jaw bone on until after the maceration because it is much easier to remove at that point.
Once the skull has been prepped, I then submerge the skull in water up to the base of the antlers. I have found that the blue tupperware bins at Wal-Mart work wonders for this or you can use an old crawfish pot, five gallon bucket—or just about anything that is large enough to soak the skull in. I have been told to pour a bit of yeast or beer in the water and it will speed up the growth of the bacteria. I have used both—but I've also "macerated" without adding either—and could not tell the difference. Also make sure the you have this set up away from the house or at least downwind cause trust me...it will stink...and the wife won't be happy!
It is a waiting game at this point. You should check on the skull about every 3-4 days and replace the nasty water with fresh water. When draining the water, leave about half or a quarter of the water in the container. This will keep the colony of bacteria you have grown in the container and speed up the process. The bacteria need warm water to grow and feed so during the winter I place aquarium heaters on the side of the container to aid in the process. Aquarium heaters from Wal-Mart work well but the best I have found are Elite Glass Heaters (internet). The maceration process normally takes about 10-14 days depending on the water temperature. I place my bins in an old chest freezer and run the extension cords in there to keep the heat contained. By doing this I cut my maceration time down dramatically, especially during the winter months when it is cold outside.
This is where it gets hairy for those with a weak stomach! Once the maceration process is complete I use a scalpel and pair of long needle-nose pliers to any leftover meat/tissue from the skull. The rotten meat will easily pull off the bone leaving a nice clean skull. Be sure to remove the cartilage out of the nasal cavity and you might have to do some scraping on the back of the skull to detach some of those tough pieces of tissue. Once all the meat and tissue is removed I then spray the skull down with a water hose and be sure to completely clean out the brain cavity. Be careful with the tips of the nose. The nasal pieces might detach but can be glued back in place once the skull is dry. Also, check for loose or missing teeth that may need to be glued back into their sockets.
The next step is the most important in the entire process of skull-mounting an animal. DEGREASING! I have learned this lesson the hard way. If all the grease isn't drawn out of the bone then it will begin turning yellow or have dark yellow spots throughout the skull. I degrease by using the same tupperware container as above. Place the skull in the container and fill with water up to the burr of the antler. I use the clear Dawn Dishwashing Detergent (Bleach Alternative on the label) mixed with ammonia (clear). Again, an aquarium heater will speed up this process but is not required. I normally change the water/mixture about every 2 days. Each skull is different and the change can be determined by the cloudiness of the water, which is actually fat deposits. When changing the degrease solution be sure and rinse off the skull and container completely. Repeat this process for about 2-3 weeks, or until the water is beginning to stay clear. Let the skull dry and if there is dark spots still present then repeat the degreasing process again. The longer you degrease—the whiter the skull you will have in the end.
Whitening the Skull
The last step is whitening the skull. DO NOT USE BLEACH! Bleach will break down the bone and eventually turn the skull yellow. I whiten with 30% peroxide and Basic White (both found at any beauty supply store).
I make a paste by combining the peroxide and BW, and use a small paintbrush to cover the skull. Do not get the paste on the antlers! It WILL stain them! Let the skull sit over night and wash the paste off with a water hose. Place the skull in the sun for a couple of days and you should have a finished skull mount. If there are any dark or dull spots on the skull you can repeat the whitening process again.
Good luck to those who decide to try these techniques, and feel free to contact me if you have questions. Send any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Trisler is a member of NAP's "New Archery Nation" Field Staff and the owner of JT’s Skullworks in Jonesville, Louisiana. More of his work can be seen at www.jtskullworks.com.