Typically, when someone wants to know how to clean deer antlers, they are actually wanting to learn how to clean and preserve the skull cap that the antlers are attached to. Or, you might actually have an old, dirty set of deer antlers that need cleaning. In this article, we’ll describe how to clean deer antlers in both of these scenarios.
Cleaning Dirty Deer Antlers
Maybe you’ve come across a trophy set of antlers on a dead head, and it’s been there a while. Are the antlers covered in dirt, moss, or maybe even mold or mildew? Chances are, you can get them looking good again with a simple cleaning.
Take some warm water and a mild detergent, like Dawn® dishwashing soap. Using some good old elbow grease, soak the antlers for a few minutes or just start scrubbing them with a wet washcloth and the soap. They should clean up nicely very quickly. Rinse them clean, and let them dry. If the deer antlers are stained, faded, or otherwise have lost their original color in some way, check out our article on coloring deer antlers for help restoring them to their original look.
Cleaning the Skull Cap of Deer Antlers
Now, if you really want to know how to clean and preserve the skull cap (skull plate) that deer antlers are attached to, let’s cover that now. How I approach this depends on how old the skull cap is and if the hide is still attached.
Removing the Hide from Deer Antler Skull Plates
If you have a freshly harvested deer and want to know how to clean deer antlers, start by skinning the hide from the skull. This is done quickly and easily with a sharp knife, flathead screwdriver, and a pair of pliers. Make a couple cuts from the outside edge of the hide to the base (pedicle) of each antler. Then skin the hide back until you have enough skin to grasp with the pliers. Yank the hide with the pliers. This quite often is enough to free the hide from the skull plate, even the burrs. Sometimes, the hide is pretty tough to free from the pedicle so you may need to utilize a flat head screwdriver and pry the skin away from the burr this way.
If your deer’s skull cap is pretty old and the hide is dried on, here’s what you do; let science take its course and be patient. Find a place outside your home (this part tends to smell), and soak the skull plate in water for a few days. It takes time depending on how dried up the hide is, but eventually the hide will be pliable enough to cut and yank off with pliers.
4 Methods for How to Clean a Deer Skull Plate
With the hide free from the skull cap, you have a few options in cleaning the actual deer skull plate (skull cap):
- Clean off excess tissue and apply borax.
- Clean off excess tissue and boil with some sal soda. (what is sal soda, you ask?)
- Clean off tissue and pressure wash. Then apply borax.
- Use dermestid beetles to do all the work (the overkill method).
I’ll cover each of these options briefly:
Remove Tissue from Skull Plate
The main thing you want to do is get any large chunks of meat and tissue off the skull plate. Skin this off with a knife. If it’s slippery, put some 20 Mule Team Borax on it to improve your grip so you can pull and yank it off quicker.
Boiling a Deer Skull Plate to Clean It
My usual method from here is to boil the skull plate in water. I add a small amount of sal soda (aka soda ash or sodium carbonate). This helps clean the bone and break down the tissues quicker. Usually an hour or two at a low simmer is plenty. You may need to add a little water as you do this to keep the water level above the skull plate. Try not to submerse the actual antlers too much as this can remove some coloring if boiled too long. I also find it works better to keep the antlers a little wet as you do this. If there is a harsh line between the boiling water line and the dry rest of the antler, there can develop a harsh color fade line that is harder to fix later. Keeping the antlers wet avoids this problem.
With the skull plate boiled, rinse it briefly in cold water so you can handle it. Scrape off any remaining tissue and let it dry. In a couple days the skull plate will be dry and it’ll last indefinitely, so proceed with whatever you want to do with the antlers from there. Want some antler mounting ideas?
Cleaning Deer Antlers with Just Borax
The quickest option of preserving deer antler skull caps is to clean off the tissue and then simply apply some borax. Let it dry thoroughly. In most cases, this option is plenty adequate for a lifetime of zero issues, but you do need to be careful of humidity levels and exposure to bugs.
Using a Pressure Washer to Clean Deer Antlers
Pressure washing is another way to thoroughly clean a deer skull plate without boiling. I still recommend borax after this, but if you have the equipment handy and have several to do, a pressure washer can make quick work of removing all tissue from a deer skull plate.
Dermestid Beetles for Cleaning Deer Antlers
If you’re familiar with and own a colony of dermestid beetles, there isn’t a much better worker out there than those awesome little meat eaters. A colony of beetles will clean every scrap of meat and tissue off bone in very little time. If you’re just cleaning a skull cap, I would consider this overkill, but if you want to clean an entire deer skull for a European mount (euro mount), this is a great way to go. There are risks associated with owning beetle colonies, but it is absolutely a great option to be aware of.
Learning how to clean deer antlers is important in preserving a lifetime of memories of that cherished hunt, or prized find. By knowing how to effectively remove all meat and tissue from a skull cap, you’ll ensure no future issues with smell or bugs. Pick one of the above methods and give it a try. If you’re looking for something to do with those antlers once you get them clean, give a look at one of our do it yourself European mount kits or antler mounting plaques.