Bleaching the skull of a deer being prepared as a "European'' mount.
I return now as promised to a project discussed in an earlier blog
the preparation of a whitetail skull and antlers for presentation as a "European'' style mount.
You might recall that this was a big buck that was killed by a car this fall near land I hunt near Cook, Minn. The woman driver who collided with the deer didn't want it and gave it to me. I subsequently called a DNR conservation officer, who gave me a possession tag. In the end, I split the animal with another guy who was in the area at the time. He took the meat and I the head and antlers.
I have paid to have European mounts done for me previously. But I had never done one myself. So my two sons, Trevor and Cole, and I decided to give the project a try.
In my first blog about the process, I detailed how we had skinned and de-boned the head, then boiled it for a prolonged time to remove meat, sinew and other particles from it.
A couple of things about the boiling: As one commenter to my previous post suggested, you don't really want to boil it wildly until it comes clean. Rather, you should seek a sort of simmering boil so that the bones don't become too brittle and break, which they might otherwise.
Secondly, it's a good idea to use some Dawn dishwashing liquid in the boiling water, which acts as a de-greaser and general cleaner.
Most surprisingly to me, the skull didn't easily boil clean. Instead, it took quite a bit of detailing with a knife to remove some particles, particularly the brain and more especially matter deep inside the nose. Most people know that professional taxidermists use beetles to eat all of the matter from the skull, which is the preferred method for a number of reasons. Completeness of the undertaking is one. Another is that unless boiling is done carefully the base of the antlers will gather the moisture and turn dark. Which may or may not be a big deal to you. But it's something to be aware of.
When I finally had the skull clean, I sought out multiple sources about how to proceed with the skull bleaching (see photo above.) The Internet is full of stories about how this can be done. But my confidence level in the information was low. So I ended up calling one of the staff taxidermist/specialists at Van Dyke's Taxidermy Supply
in South Dakota.
Van Dyke's is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, such taxidermy outfits in the country.
As it turned out, the guy I spoke to was very helpful and unrushed in his conversation with me. True, he suggested to me products that Van Dyke's sells — suggestions that I eventually followed. That said, I'm glad I made the call.
I chose an angled mounting plaque, which tends to showcase the skull and antlers better than a mounting plaque hanging directly on the wall, in my opinion.
In the end, here's what I ordered from Van Dyke's: One quart of hydrogen peroxide, 40 volume. One container of "Quick White,'' which is used in conjunction with the hydrogen peroxide to make a paste that is "painted'' onto the skull to bleach it.
Also I ordered a European style mounting plaque for the skull.
Following directions on the Quick White to make the paste, I brushed the entire skull with the mixture, wearing rubber gloves as I did. I was a little unsure of the outcome during the process, because the skull wasn't turning as white as I anticipated. But after letting the skull dry little more than a day, the paste broke off — or brushed off — easily, revealing a white skull.
The guy at Van Dyke's who I talked to actually suggested I leave the paste on for three days, and also that I enclose the entire skull and antlers in a black plastic bag during that time. Next time I might try this. But the boys and I were satisfied with the way it turned out, leaving the paste on for about 48 hours.
A detail here: Even after bleaching, there was a small amount of dark matter deep inside the nasal cavity that I wanted to remove. In retrospect, if I had used some sodium carbonate, as Van Dyke's bleaching guide suggests, this wouldn't have happened.
To resolve the issue, I mixed about a 10 percent bleach solution of water and, holding the skull nose-up, poured the bleach into the nose twice, washing the area with fresh water after each time. This gave it a final cleaning I was satisfied with.
The finished mount shown from the front.
Finally, before mounting the skull onto the plaque, we sprayed it lightly twice with a coat of polyurethane. This shined the skull a bit, giving it a polished look (some people prefer the duller, more natural look). Importantly, the coating will allow it to be dusted more easily than might otherwise be the case.
We thought we were pretty close to being done at this time. But mounting the skull to the plaque turned out to be more problematic than advertised.
Van Dyke's sends mounting screws with their plaques, and suggests that, if properly aligned, the screws will hold the skull firmly to the plaque. They didn't in our case, either because there wasn't enough bone for the screws to bite, because the bone was too brittle to hold the screws — or both.
So at my local hardware store I bought a small container of Bondo, which I had used to clean up a few car fenders when I was a kid. This product, made by 3M, requires the mixing of two materials to yield the desired paste-like blend that, once applied, hardens in a few minutes.
Mixing the Bondo, I used a paint stick and pencil to apply it inside the brain cavity, where the screws could bite into it.
After the Bondo hardened, I predrilled it, then drove the screws into the back of the plaque, into the skull and finally into the Bondo, which held everything firmly.
A few thoughts: It was a fun project, and the kids and I learned a lot. I wished I would have used the sodium carbonate while boiling the skull, because I think I would have gotten better results quicker. But in the end, it turned out — once we made the adjustment with the mounting screws to make sure they held the skull firmly.
Next year, give it a try.