Skeleton articulation, or bone building as I call it, is the process of converting a dead animal into a different
cleaning methods ranging from letting the carcass rot above ground to soaking the bones in skeleton and
then assembling that skeleton into a (hopefully) anatomically correct one, using many nasty chemicals. Each
method has its advantages, disadvantages, and  proponents who will strongly favor one method over
another. For school use, some methods work much better than others.

After all flesh is gone, the bones often need to be further prepared by degreasing and bleaching. This gives
the bones a long term, clean, white look as opposed to being, greasy, and dirty looking as some prepared
skeletons look after a bit of time.
Step by step guides for the
preparation and articulation of
animal skeletons.
BY LEE POST (a.k.a. Boneman)
Who can do a skeleton project?
Skeleton articulation is sometimes thought to be only something done in museums by trained professionals. In truth, there are very few skeletons that
get articulated in museums, and even fewer museum professionals that articulate skeletons. Most new skeletons in museums get put together by
enthusiastic volunteers, or as paid projects by museum design that time they very well may have had preparators on staff doing that.

People who articulate skeletons these days range from students in schools, to enthusiasts at home, to taxidermists in shops, to groups in nature centers
- even  next door neighbors. Many of the best skeletons are being done by non-paid enthusiasts who have all the time in the world to get it right.

What kind of animal skeleton can be used?
Anything with bones inside of it - but the major prerequisite is for it to be dead first and cleaned of soft tissue second. The size of the animal is going to
be a determining factor. Small animals come with even smaller bones and at some point the bones are too tiny for most mortals to be patient enough to
get back together. Think foot bones the size of pinheads and ribs the diameter of the pins - like on a hamster or weasel. Animals need to be at least the
size of a house cat or chicken to easily be feasible to reassemble their skeleton, when the bones are totally cleaned and disarticulated.

Smaller animals can be converted to skeletons but these are generally done as ligamentary skeletons (
see the oxidation page as one method of doing
this) in which the flesh and soft stuff is mostly removed, but the ligaments and cartilage are left in place to hold the bones together. It is more a process
of bone cleaning than bone building. The skeletons are posed and dried and even the tiniest skeletons can be prepared this way.

How do you clean the bones?
There are many ways of removing the soft tissue from the bones, all of which have advantages and disadvantages. In spite of claims to the contrary,
any of the methods can work to produce high quality skeletons. These range from composting, to rotting (above or below the ground), to macerating
(rotting in  fresh or salt water), to simmering, to boiling, to using chemicals, to using insect colonies.

Some of the methods are faster than others. Some are too stinky to do inside. Some take careful watching. Some carry more risk of bone damage than
others. What method gets used depends on the animal, the size, the maturity (of the animal - maybe of you too), your circumstances (as in do you live
in a city apartment or do you have a farm in the country for example), and what your time frame is.

How long does it take to clean  the bones?
Times to get the bones clean of flesh can  range from overnight by boiling or simmering, to several months in cold water maceration, to several years if
they were buried deeply. Insects can clean bones within a week in the right conditions and warm water maceration in a container of heated water may
take a few weeks.

Once the bones are clean of flesh on the outside, depending on how that was done, the inside still needs to be cleaned. Fresh bone is full of fats in the
form of oil or marrow, as well as blood, fluids, canals, and cellular tissue. Getting that out without doing destructive things to the mineral part of the bone
is the big challenge.  Some cleaning methods such as composting or long term water maceration can remove the oils at the same time as the flesh on
the outside, but many other methods such as boiling or using beetles to clean, leave the inside of the bones too oily to move on to the next steps.

Getting the inside clean is called degreasing the bones. It can be done naturally with microbes in the soil or the water, or it can be done by soaking the
bones in solvents or detergents. The time factor depends on how oily the bones are, how large the bones are, and what type of fats are in the bones.
Small and not very oily animals may be degreased within a week and other bones may need to be processed for multiple rounds of a week each round,
or with a combination of detergents, heat, or solvents. Some bones, depending on the method used for degreasing, can take months of soaking. They
are clean enough when no more oils leach out.

After the bones are degreased, most  people want them whiter and brighter. They can be bleached in the sun if one has the time and a place to do this
or they can be bleached artificially with chemicals (usually hydrogen peroxide). Most bones can be whitened enough in a matter of days.

Then the bones are dried for usually a few days and only then are you are ready to assemble.

What about small skeletons?
Oh yes, if the animal is too small to rebuild it bone by bone, it can be prepared as a ligamentary skeleton. This is usually done by using  captive colonies
of insects (usually dermestid beetle larvae) to eat the flesh off. This requires having an active hungry colony of beetle babies. A big hungry colony can
clean something in days, or a not so big colony can take weeks to get bones clean. Colonies are often kept in aquarium tanks or old chest freezers,
usually not in the house, however, due to odors.

Otherwise there are various methods of using a combination of chemicals, maceration and  boiling to clean the flesh from a small animal. A time factor
can vary from a week to a couple months of soaking and cleaning - usually followed by more time in degreasing and bleaching agents, and a final round
in bleaching chemicals.

Some skeleton projects can be done on your kitchen counter top or table without too much objection, and others are garage or outside only projects.
After the cleaning and degreasing, the skeleton gets posed and allowed to totally dry. Some bones may need to be glued in place.

What materials and tools will I need?
I'll bet you can guess the beginning of the answer. It depends. Mostly on the size of the animal. Something like a rabbit or chicken doesn't need too
much in the way of materials and tools. It is possible to do it all with products and tools from your local small hardware store. Some wire, a drill (or
dremmel), some glue, a pair of pliers.

A bigger skeleton - a deer or wolf-sized animal - will need a bit more in the tools and materials department. A bigger drill, metal rods, hacksaw, vise,
different sizes of wire,files, calipers, ruler, awl, caulk gun, silicone or epoxy clay, epoxy glues, hot glue, and probably some wood and word-working tools
to make a base.

Some animals can be suspended in a swimming-flying-diving pose without needing a base. Some people put as much time and materials into a display
stand as they do on the skeleton.

How long will it take to assemble a skeleton?
These are generally more than "one weekend" projects. A rabbit or chicken could possibly be done over a long weekend, but for someone who works
carefully and precisely, even a rabbit might be a 30-hour assembly project. A deer or wolf-sized animal - probably 60-80 hours to assemble. The last
whale I did (a 38-foot gray whale) took 49 days to articulate with over 800 hours of volunteers helping. Remember, we can be talking about a lot of
pieces. A wolf has over 40 pieces in each foot, if you count the claws and sesamoid bones. I've seen people spend a whole day just sorting out where
each bone on one foot goes. Once sorted, the bones are held together with a combination of hidden metal rods, wires and glue. The smaller the
skeleton the less metal and the more glue that gets used.

What would it take to do a skeleton in a classroom?
It takes an intersection of two important ingredients. A teacher who really wants to do this and a suitable non-living animal - preferably one that is freshly
dead and mature (the animal not the teacher). The animal is usually divided up into 6-12 sections, and students or teams of students each get one
section from beginning to end of the project. Most classroom skeletons get cleaned, degreased and whitened. Once clean and dry, the bones offer all
kinds of interesting opportunities to study anatomy, comparative  anatomy, scientific illustration, even the physics and mechanics of the human body by
looking how and where muscles attach (levers, fulcrums, pivits), different engineering strategies (domes and different types of joints) for making
something strong and lightweight - and math!

After a pose is decided upon, the groups start assembling their section of skeleton. This takes glue, wires, metal rods, drills and drill bits, and time. It
can be done in the class or as a club outside of class. A small mammal (fox-sized or smaller) can be articulated in 10-15 hours of time by an organized

Sometimes I get called in to help. Other times teachers take this on just using the bone building manuals. These manuals were written with teachers
and students in mind, and they will take someone step by step from the cleaning process to the displaying.

I've worked with classes in schools on skeleton articulations ranging from whales, to bears and moose, to seals and sea lions, to smaller animals like
foxes and otters. I've done them with ages ranging from 5th and 6th graders all the way up to college classes. A universal given, when the project is
done has always been a class full of very proud students who mostly want to know - when will the next skeleton project be? These projects have
hooked students like no other projects they have ever encountered. Students who otherwise had very little interest in school or learning, have been
known to skip lunch or come in after school to be able to keep working on these projects. Students have graduated with memories of these projects
being the most favorite thing they ever did in school. With the no-child-left-behind business, it can be a hard sell for a classroom concerned solely with
test scores, but the satisfaction, self-confidence and the spark for knowledge that these projects ignite, in the big picture, can be way more valuable
than something that shows up on a test score.

What does it cost for materials for these projects?
Most of these projects have been fine-tuned such that they can be done with materials found even in small town hardware stores.  A small animal such
as a rabbit, raccoon or chicken can be cleaned and articulated for less than $30 - if you have the tools.

A medium-sized animal like a wolf or deer might take closer to $300 (with a stand) and a 30-foot whale could probably use up $3,000 worth of materials
and welding.
Then the bones are assembled - or articulated. This process is much like assembling a full-scale model with
bones being fastened to other bones by various means including glues, pins, wires and steel rods. Usually
the skeletons are solidly fastened together but options can include skeletons that are made to bend at the
joints or skeletons that come apart so they can go back into a box after assembly.
Please see the FAQ page for more bone building questions and answers.
The manuals - volumes 1 through 9 - (heavily illustrated with black and white ink drawings) have step by step cleaning and assembly instructions, each according
to specific groups of animals, telling you exactly  how to do all the things mentioned above. (See
About the Books.)

The Bone Builder's Notebook (volume 10) is the companion reference book to any of the other bone building manuals. If you work with bones, or desire to work
with bones, this is the answer book to questions you may have about preparing bones or skeletons for use in collections, or for display.
So how does all this tie in with the Bone Building Books?
going to be a classroom project good for a grade or a museum quality mount good for 100 years? The difference being how much care gets put into preparing the
skeleton and how securely the bones are fastened together.
TheBoneman.com  copyright 2005 by Lee Post                                                      Illustrations copyright  by Lee Post. All Rights Reserved                                                                        Merry Web Designs copyright 2005
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