It never fails. Talk to any deer hunter and the conversation always goes back to a big buck. Big bucks are what a deer hunter’s memories are made of. Those memories are comprised of embellished tales of the hunt, photos of the prize and often a trophy on the wall.
I can’t think of a single deer hunter I know who does not have a mounted deer head. Most have several, and each mount represents a special moment in the life of a hunter. They serve as proof of an unforgettable encounter between hunter and hunted. I have been a hunter and big buck fanatic for more years than I care to admit. Over the decades, I have had my share of success. The need to conserve space, save money and still showcase special bucks led me to European mounted heads.
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European or skull mounts have a rugged, classic look, allowing them to last a lifetime. They take up less space and can be finished in a matter of days. A shoulder mount from a taxidermist can take months to reach your wall. A taxidermist may charge as much as $500 for a shoulder-mounted whitetail. In contrast, a skull or European mount costs around $100. If you learn to European mount your own heads, the cost is cut to $20 or less.
There are several ways to accomplish the goal of a skull totally clean of flesh, connective tissue and oil in the bone. One way to prepare a skull is the use of Dermestid beetles. These beetles are amazingly efficient and can clean a skull of all flesh and tissue in a matter of days. The problem is they must be maintained in a controlled environment of proper food, moisture, fat and temperature. Another way is to use boiling water, a pressure washer and common tools around your house. Here’s how.
To remove the head, cut to the bone behind the ears with a sharp knife. Cut around the neck to just behind the jawbone. Finish the cut by circling to the origin of the cut behind the ears. Make certain the cut goes all the way to the neck bone.
Next, locate the first cervical vertebrae. This joint is the first neck joint behind the ears. Moving the head will help reveal the location of this joint. Once the joint is located, insert the point of your knife into the joint on the top and bottom side. Cut any connective tissue holding the head to the neck. Once the joint is revealed and all connective tissue has been cut, twist the head until the head breaks free of the neck.
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To skin the head, cut a line to the bone from the back of the skull over the top of the nose to the mouth. Cut to the bone around each antler. Cut a line joining the cut from each antler to the cut between them. Begin skinning the head by gripping the edge of one cut with a pair of pliers or forceps. Cut connective tissue between the skull and the skin with a sharp knife. Cut the ears off as close to the skull as possible. While skinning the skull, remove as much meat and tissue as possible. Continue until all hide is removed from the skull.
Skull Cleaning 101
The perfect European or skull mount consists of a clean, bleached-white skull and naturally colored antlers. To get to this point, you have to remove any and all tissue inside and outside the skull.
The lower jaw is attached to the skull by tendons and muscle. Remove the lower jaw by opening the mouth as far as possible and identifying the joint. Cut the muscle and connective tissue on the outside of that joint on each side of the skull. Apply pressure to the lower jaw, further opening the mouth. Cut any connective tissue revealed by opening the mouth. When enough tissue has been cut, the jaw will loosen allowing you to remove it from the skull.
Remove the eyes by gripping the connective tissue around the eye with pliers or forceps. Use a sharp-pointed knife to cut around the inside of the orbital lobe while pulling on the eyeball with the forceps or pliers. Continue until the eye is cut free of the skull. Repeat for the other eye.
To remove the brain, insert a stiff piece of wire with a bend at one end into the spinal cord opening at the back of the skull. Use the wire to break down the brain into a mush. Periodically invert the skull and shake out any loose brain material. Continue until most of the brain matter has been removed.
Place the skull in a large, deep-sided pot. Add enough water to cover the skull. Add a half cup of dishwashing liquid. Place the pot on a burner and bring water to a boil. Once the water boils, lower the temperature to maintain a gentle boil for 30 minutes. After boiling the skull for 30 minutes, cut the fire and leave the skull in the water for another 30 minutes. This process does two things—it softens remaining tissue on the skull and removes a lot of the natural oil in the bone of the skull.
After the skull cools enough to handle, it is time to begin removing remaining muscle, fat and tissue. I use a pressure washer to hasten this process. Secure the skull to a pallet or fence panel to prevent movement. Use the high-pressure nozzle to cut through remaining tissue on the skull. Be careful with the fine bones around the nose because the pressure could break or dislodge these tiny bones. This is a dirty job. Wear rubber boots and a waterproof apron to prevent water from soaking you. You will be glad you did.
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After the pressure washer has removed as much material as possible, place the skull back in the pot and bring back to a boil for 15 minutes. Let it cool and use a knife or scraper to remove the rest of the tissue inside and outside the skull. Use forceps to remove sinus material inside the nose. Repeat this process as many times as necessary to get all the tissue off the skull, being aware that you can boil the skull to the point that the fine bones in the nose become loose and fall off. Should this happen, they can be glued back to the skull when completely dry.
Place the skull in a plastic pan large enough to hold liquid deep enough to cover the skull. Wrap medical gauze around the skull at the base of the antlers, covering the skull between the antlers. Pour enough hydrogen peroxide into the pan to cover the skull but not the antlers. Dribble hydrogen peroxide on the gauze until it is soaked. This will bleach parts of the skull not submerged in the liquid. Apply more liquid to the gauze on a daily basis until the skull is bleached snow white. This normally takes five days with over-the-counter hydrogen peroxide. More concentrated hydrogen peroxide is available and will take less time to bleach the skull.
Seal The Deal
When the skull is bleached white, remove it from the liquid and remove the gauze. Let it dry for at least a week. After that time, locate the two holes in the rear of the skull and insert a 5-inch length of wire. Center the skull on the wire and twist the ends, forming a loop. This serves as a hanger for the mount.
Remove any residue accumulated on the antler bases with a small wire or stiff plastic brush. If a portion of the antlers has been bleached by the peroxide, use black and brown shoe wax to stain that portion of the antlers.
To seal the skull, hang it by the loop at eye level. Generously spray the antlers and skull with a clear polyurethane spray on one side. Allow that side to dry and then turn the skull and spray the other side. Apply at least two coats. When the varnish is completely dry you are ready to hang your trophy.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.