How to Prepare a Cow Skull for Painting and Remove Odor

This post is all about how to prepare a cow skull for painting and remove odor from the hard to reach cranial cavity. If you’re a beginner and just starting out, my how to paint a cow skull post may be better to start off with!

A  few summers back I stumbled across a rancher that was trying to get rid of two calf skulls that were in horrible shape. And by horrible I mean eye arches that were coming apart at least half an inch, nasal bones that were completely missing and almost no teeth. $5 later, both skulls were mine and labeled as practice dummies.

The real problem I discovered later on (after 3 hours in Texas heat) was the smell. It was absolutely nauseating and putrid. Even after airing them out for eight months, they were still not acceptable to be hung indoors.

So what to do? You can find many articles online about the best way to get rid of the smell in a skull. Many of these talk about boiling, dermestid beetles, etc. These methods are normally very messy and very involved. For the majority of us, we just want to paint a skull – not become experts in taxidermy. My solution is simple; combat the skull odor with paint.

 

Step by Step Instructions On How to Prepare Your Cow Skull for Painting and Remove Odor: 

Shopping List:

  • Primer – I prefer to find an all-purpose outdoor primer, such as Glidden’s. Buying an all-purpose outdoor primer will help both the paint and the skull deal with fluctuations in heat and humidity. I just buy the gallon of Glidden’s white outdoor primer which will run you about $10. If you know you will keep the skull indoors you can opt for the indoor primer.

 

  • Paint Trays – You will also want to buy a paint tray. I like to purchase several of the $2 metal ones.

 

  • Latex Gloves – This can get messy and you will want to make sure your hands are covered. If you’re especially accident prone, be sure to wear some old clothes you don’t mind ruining.

 

  • Paint Stir Sticks – I cannot stress the importance of stirring your primer enough. If you purchase primer and put it off your project for a while,

1. First you will need to clean your skull. I like to grab a paper towel, dampen it with water and wipe down the skull to remove any dust or cobwebs. Do not drench the skull in water unless you’re planning on it drying for 7 or more days. If you just go with a damp paper towel, then put the skull in the sun for a few hours to help dry out any remaining moisture. The goal is to remove the most visible of dust from both the inside and outside cavities.

2. Next you will want to go ahead and shake your unopened primer to ensure that it’s properly mixed. Put on your latex gloves and open the primer.

3. Now time for the fun part; painting the skull. We are going to tackle this with each section of the skull to get the initial base layer coat applied. We’ll start with the snout, progress to the palate / roof of the mouth and then finish with the crown. Honestly, a second pair of hands really helps with this part of the project, but I am stubborn and normally do it by myself. I’ve found that a brick works as a sufficient prop when balancing the skull and the gallon of primer.

  • Take the skull and balance it on the snout, revealing the opening to the cranial cavity at the back of the head. From here, you will want to slowly start to pour the primer inside. I recommend doing it so slow that only a drizzle is coming from the can. This will allow you to have greater control over filling in the holes inside. It is critical that you’re filling these holes, as they contain a majority of the remaining rotting tissue that ends up causing the foul odors. Once you’ve poured a decent amount in, feel free to take the skull and rotate it so that it helps coat the entire inside. Remember to consider all angles, as you will not want any bone showing. When you finish the back of the skull, turn it the other way and pour it in from the nose.
  •  Once you feel that you’ve gotten a majority of the inner skull covered, you will want to turn it over so the roof of the mouth is showing. Your paint tray should have filled up with some excess primer by this point which allows for you to recycle some of it. Just take a handful and start smearing it on. After you do that, finish it off with another pouring of primer. If your skull is missing teeth, be sure to get those filled.
  • After your skull is properly covered in the areas mentioned above, you will want to turn it so that it’s resting on its teeth. Pour a generous coat on the crown. Gravity should take care of smoothing out the primer and little effort will be required on your part. Shift the skull so it’s on the upper part of the paint tray and out of the excess primer. It’s okay if there is a little underneath it. After a few minutes a mass of air bubbles will most likely appear, these will go away and your coat will dry solid.

4. Let it dry. If you know for a fact that you covered the skull in its entirety, then give it 24 hours to try before you start painting. Avoid humidity and heat. If you have both of those like we do in Texas, bring it inside. I highly recommend a second coat. Remember, we’re trying to get rid of odor. The inner skull is a bit of  trick and will probably need you to pour a bit more primer into it to ensure you cover all of the crevices. This should not effect the rest of your base coat.

5. And now you should be all set to paint! Use acrylic, spray paint or even PrismaColor paint pens.

As always, if you have any questions or encounter a crazy situation just leave a comment below and I will try to respond to you within 24 hours or less!

Happy painting.

 

 

55 thoughts on “How to Prepare a Cow Skull for Painting and Remove Odor

  1. Maria cinco Reply

    Your article on how to paint cow skulls is very much appreciated. Thank you.

    My question is do you know why a skull has turned to pink and green hues? My thought is from age, possibly some moisture and/or UV damage. The skull is old and dry without odor so that is not an issue. I had not intended on painting it but wonder if just the primer alone will improve these blemishes? It will be hung indoors on a wall. I believe it is a bison skull and the thick horns are turned down.

    Thanks for any insight or comments you can return to me.

    Maria

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Maria,

      I have encountered the same issue before and these are typically the skulls that I will prime. I don’t know the exact issue, but the common cause does seem to be related to moisture for the most part. Usually when mine are pink or green they have serious odor. I’m glad yours don’t! If you want to hang indoors, I would keep looking for another skull and paint the one you are referencing – but that’s just my two cents!

      Let me know if you have any more questions.

      • Lisa C Reply

        Hi Dave, I’m wondering about the primer for the bare bone. Have you ever used gesso? I’ll be using oil paints for the design.

        • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

          Hey Lisa. Yep! I have used gesso on skulls. Fun stuff. Works fine.

  2. Amy Reply

    so, I am going with my first cow skull and the nasal bone is gone. any suggestions to save it so I can still use it?

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Is the nasal bone completely broken off and missing? Or do you still have it? If you still have it, you can get crafty with some clay and gorilla glue to make a “T” type of stent. Apply clay within the nose to hold a support rod and then put clay on the top of the rod in order to add a perpendicular piece and / or just the nose fragment which results in the “T” shape. Clear as…clay? Let me know if it doesn’t make sense or if it doesn’t work out.

      If you don’t have the nose all together, totally fine. It’s always fun to put organic objects in that space to add another texture or dimension to the skull.

  3. PRISCILLA HOPKINS Reply

    THANKS FOR SHARING YOUR INFORMATION . WHERE CAN I GET SOME SKULLS ? DEER,COW OR HORSE SKULLS TO PAINT.

  4. barb Reply

    My question is would you treat deer skulls and antlers the same as a cow skull? Logically,I think yes, but since I have never painted anything in my life, I wanted to ask. Deer Skulls are more accessible to me.

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hey Barb,

      My apologies for the late reply. Yes, you would treat them the exact same. If you want to keep the antlers natural, then just put a few grocery sacks over them and tape them at the base. Makes any sort of spray painting go much faster.

  5. John Reply

    I read your info ,I have some soup bones I boiled up that I want to paint , just wondering if their is something else I should do so they are prepped properly

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      I don’t recommend boiling bones at all as it can lead to more odor problems. But no, nothing else. Just be sure to prime them.

  6. Rachel Reply

    Hi, I’ve finished my first cow skull a couple weekends ago and am so pleased with my paint job and exploring this new medium! I got my skull from a local butcher who had it professionally cleaned and prepped for me. I did prime the inside cavity per your instructions and used 3 or 4 colors to create a beautiful ombre finish.

    I have run into one issue that I am looking for suggestions on how to prevent: maggots. I was just finishing glueing the rope around the horns when I noticed the shells, and some live, larvae. I’ve had it out in the garage just letting them do their thing and just tonight applied clear silicone caulk around the horn caps.

    Dave, any suggestions on prepping a new skull to prevent this? I thought it was treated pretty well but a fly could have come and invaded while I was painting and priming.

  7. Rachel Reply

    Hi, how can I prevent maggots in a prepped, primed skull?

    I’ve recently finished my first cow skull in a beautiful ombre scheme and am so excited about this new medium! I got my skull from the local butcher, had it professionally cleaned, primed it, then painted. I was wrapping the horns with rope last week when we noticed shells of, and live, larvae. The skull is now out in the garage while they work their way out and I applied clear silicone caulk around the horn caps.

    Dave have you run into this and can I prevent this as I prepare to paint?

  8. paula Reply

    I have my skull hanging on fireplace it has gotten very yellow from the gas. tried to clean with peroxide did not work well. can I prime over that and spray paint after and how do I keep it from getting yellow again.

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hey Paula! Yep. Prime. Paint. And then go to your local craft store and find a sealer. You can get gloss, high gloss, no gloss, etc. Try to find one that has UV protection in it. That’ll work best. Not guaranteeing that it won’t yellow that over time…haven’t exactly had that exact experience, BUT, that’s typically what those sealants are for (yellowing).

  9. Margo Antonio Reply

    Hi Dave!
    My father recently gave me a bison skull that is completely clean & white with no odor.
    I plan on having it painted for him.
    Should I still prime it the way you describe above?
    I wasnt sure since there is no ordor.
    Also, what it the best way to hang it?
    Any suggestions or perhaps you have a nifty How To Guide?
    Thanks a Bunch!

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hey Margo! Sorry for the late reply. That’s incredible you have a good skull like that. Honestly, when I come across really good skulls like that, I don’t paint them. But it’ll be cool either way. I typically like to prime regardless because it gives me a nice clean “canvas” to paint on. I’ll work on a guide to hang it, it’s a little tricky. Basically what you gotta do is use a shirt hanger and loop it through the fused head-neck vertebrae. Just don’t pick the wrong bone!

  10. Amy Reply

    Hi Dave — thank you for straight forward walk-thru. My question is about the particular style you are applying with the primer and paints. You seem to have described just drizzling primer and it evens out itself. Are you supposed brush it thoroughly, especially with the outer surfaces? Also, as far as paints go – I’m going to paint it with a single color in matte finish. Is there a particular type of paint you’ve have success with? And how would you go about applying it? Thanks!

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hey Amy! No brushing on the primer. It does even itself out. Let gravity take its course. And a single color…matte…hmm…really depends what you want. Some spray paints actually work great, the real high quality ones. Don’t be afraid to do the outdoor ones either that have textures – might help you achieve the matte look. You may have to experiment a little bit…a lot of the matte jobs I’ve seen can come out looking dull. I usually spray a high gloss on after to give it shine and to protect it. As far as brushes are concerned, I just like to use the little sponge brushes (black with a wood rod).

  11. Megan Reply

    Hi Dave,

    I just came across your blog while “googling” the question I have, which you may have covered somewhere and I haven’t found yet…anyway, I have a longhorn skull, which I purchased at a flea market and instead of painting it I plan to glue a few pieces of turquoise stone arrows to the bridge. Do you have any experience with adding stones/jewels/lace, etc to the bone? I am trying to figure out what kind of adhesive is best before I get started and ruin a perfectly good skull!

    Thanks in advance!

    Megan

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hi Megan. Glue gun is typically fine. Just be patient, take your time, and use as little glue as possible. Too much and I think it throws off the aesthetic of the skull. I usually paint over the glue after if I painted the skull a base color – it’s a bit of a trick doing that and making it match.

      You can also go to your local craft store and just ask them for the strongest adhesive they have. Nothing is really going to “damage” the skull.

  12. Brittany Reply

    Hi,
    just wondering if I need to remove the web-like bone structures under the nasal cavity in order to pour primer in? And if so, how would I go about this without breaking it?

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      I don’t pay much attention to them. If you can see it hanging, then that’s your discretion as to if you like it or not. If your skull stinks really bad, then the webbing could keep the primer from reaching in deeper to the cavity. Just use your best judgement, but I wouldn’t say it’s completely necessary.

  13. John H. Reply

    Dear Dave,
    I have a client who has asked me to paint indian tribal print on a buffalo skull they own. The buffalo skull was previously cleaned and has been hanging in their house for some time. Would you still suggest priming the entire skull if it was only painting indian patterns in the center? I plan on using acrylic paints.
    Thanks, John.

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hey John,

      If you’re just putting some more “designs” on it, then I’d leave as if. If you’re painting the whole dang thing, I prefer to have a clean “base” of primer and then have at it. Totally up to you. Buffalo skulls are great – they have some fascinating texture to them in their raw form.

      • John H. Reply

        Thanks, and that’s what I was noticing! It’s been a joy working with it- thank you so much!

  14. Rachael Reply

    Hi there!
    My brother bought me a beautiful bison skull at a flea market, dry and perfectly white. I had it about a month when I started to notice some dark areas popping up, and then a bit of a smell. I’ve had it almost a year now and it’s just gotten darker and smellier. I’ve called around and done some research and what I keep hearing is that it was most likely treated originally the “fast” way by just a peroxide soak, and not decreased first. Apparently the oils are coming back to the surface. :-/ I am told to soak it in clear Dawn soapy water for a few weeks, changing the water frequently, and then soak it in a peroxide for an additional few weeks. I have been putting it off because it seems like such an ordeal, and I also don’t have the space for a huge soaking bison skull I’m my apartment for a month! If I painted it in its condition, do you think it would take care of the problem? Or should I bite the bullet and get it treated?
    Thank you!!

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hey Rachael,

      That’s intriguing. I’ve never heard of a skull being so fresh that the oils are coming back to the surface like that. My first thought was that you might have some sort of mold or fungus growing on it. Not sure if you’ve been keeping it indoors / outdoors or what the humidity like is in your location, but that would be my first guess without seeing any pictures. I like to avoid introducing any sort of additional moisture to skulls (soapy water) and especially for extended periods of time. I like treating it like nature does, introduce it to as much sunlight as possible…if it’s an oil issue, it’s going to draw those oils out and eliminate them naturally or it’ll kill any potential mold / fungus on it. Not sure if it’s feasible to do that for a month or two. If it’s not, try to get it outside for at least 5 to 10 days in direct sunlight. At that point, you’d have to make a judgement call based off appearance and odor as to if you’d keep it natural or if you want to paint it. If you intend to paint anyways, just prime the entire thing. Oil / mold will not penentrate at that point. Let me know if you have additional questions or thoughts.

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      I forgot to mention, use an old toothbrush as it dries in the sun. Just do a dry little scrub on it every day or two. It’ll help remove whatever is on the surface.

  15. Rachael Reply

    Ok, thank you for the info. I have had it inside this whole time, and for the last month or so, I’ve had it in a bag in my storage room waiting to be dealt with. I would imagine if it is a mold issue, keeping it sealed up in my basent isn’t helping. I will put it outside and hopefully it helps dry it out. Thanks again 🙂

  16. Kara Macias Reply

    Hi Dave,
    I recently brought back two very large skulls from our friends family ranch in Montana. There was a what only be described as “cow graveyard” that they have from a previous ranch manager with at least 30 head of cattle there. The skulls have been out for at least 5-7 years and they don’t smell at all and seems everything is off. My question is, there is almost like a beehive type looking cartilage if you would in one of the skulls and should I be trying to get all of that out? Also, I can look into the back of the skull and can almost see indents of where brain was or do you think that is still decaying matter? I am just wondering if I need to let it decay further or if I am okay to prime and paint. Your thoughts and advice would be awesome,

    Thanks!!
    Kara

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Beehive cartilage…that’s a new one. If it’s a completely different material than the bone and messing with the the aesthetics, then I’d recommend removing it. If it’s tucked into the cranial structure, just let it be and prime it. And yeah! It’s pretty cool looking at the back, you can definitely see the brain imprint. You are more than good if they are 5-7 years old. It’s just probably a bit dirty. You should be all set to prime 🙂

  17. Sophie Reply

    Hi there!
    Thank you for your detailed instructions! I just purchased my first cow skull and I had one question I didn’t see referenced below. I am missing a few teeth which I see it is important to put primer inside, but I was curious about some loose teeth I have. Do you recommend pulling them out, sealing underneath and then glueing them back in? Or just leave them a little loose? Thanks!

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hey Sophie,

      That’s exciting – congrats on your first skull! Loose teeth are fine. I’ve never really taken the time to pull them out and put them back in. I usually find that when I use the primer that it ends up sealing them in a bit. If you think they are way too loose, then go ahead and pull out and do a hot glue gun, then prime.

      Enjoy 🙂

  18. Valerie Reply

    Hello,
    I am getting my bull skulls fresh from the butcher and still can’t get them to be odourless. I do boil them and then clean them with the hose … But nothing seems to work. Will definetly try your method with the primer .
    Also, maybe you can give me a method to remove the horns. Some are detaching by them selves, but some are still stuck… And seems that it might give an odor as well .
    How can I make the horns look smoother ? Sanding ? Polishing ?
    For the teeth … Some were falling and realized that there was still some flesh under them … Can I remove the other ones amd not put them back ?
    Thanks a lot

  19. Ann Reply

    Hi Dave!

    Thank you for your help with this article. I have a skull that’s been carved but is yellowing, so I want to prime and paint it. Would it be ok to prime it with a paintbrush? Due to the intricacy of the carvings, I want to make sure I don’t miss any spots!

    Thank you,
    Ann

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hi Ann! Sorry for the late reply. That’s neat it’s been carved! Are you sure you the yellowing portrays it in a negative manner? Sounds kinda cool. But if so, then I would lean towards using a brush and taking your time with it. Sponges also work surprisingly well in these situations, just go easy on the paint. It’s nice cause you can sop the paint back out of any intricate grooves. If you feel comfortable with it, you could also use a white can of spray paint and being VERY gentle with it so as not to create any pooling and filling the crevices too much. The can will come in handy if you need to get inside the skull or in hard to reach places.

  20. Bill and Kate Reply

    Hi we are in Australia and have just obtained our firs cow skull with horns attached it has been left out since May last year but it still has a lot of sinew attached what is the best way of removing all the soft tissue still attached

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hi Bill. It’ll have to be a judgement call on your part. Is it attached firmly or loosely? It it larger patches or tiny bits and pieces? Is it literally just some skin or do you have tendons and what not? Options range from chisel / hammer (gently). If I had to guess on your situation, I’d just use a rough grit sand paper on it. Wear a mask when you do it though. Kinda curious though about how it was left out. Did you leave it in a field? Normally ants and beetles will take care of any tissue like that.

  21. Marla Reply

    Hi Dave, I’ve just been given a nice cow skull, with good horns. My friend bought it in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’m in Seattle, and am uncertain about hanging it outdoors with our rain and humidity. I’d rather not paint it at all, but am interested in your experience and advice.
    than you

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hi Marla,

      It’ll do just fine in your humidity. We actually have some of the worst humidity in the country down here in Texas and that combined with the heat can create some pretty unfavorable conditions. Good thing is, I’ve had a bison skull hanging outside for about 5 years now and it’s doing just fine. It obviously has a bit of a dirt dusting on it now, little bit of fungus / mold looking growth to it…the sun kills anything super harmful. On occasion I’ll take a dry toothbrush to it just to freshen it up. Just careful transporting it in the future, it’ll become more brittle with time.

      Good luck!

  22. Marla Reply

    Hi Dave, just been given a cow skull (Mexico stamped inside it) quite clean, good horns. How will it tolerate being hung outside in Seattle? Rain, moisture, etc. Thanks so much

  23. Hailey Reply

    After you put the primer on does the smell go away or do you have to repaint it after awhile??

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      I have not had the smell come back on any of my skulls.

  24. Pingback: How to paint a cow skull - Dave Yeti

  25. Kyla Reply

    Hi Dave, I acquired 10 skulls from a rancher near me who got them from a meat plant and then cleaned them. I’m not sure of the method he used to clean them but the skull caps of all the horns are removable. The skulls themselves were quite clean but I also used hair bleach painted on in the sun to dry them out and clean them up some more. My problem is the skull caps, they stink. They are also not polished or pretty they are pretty rough and flaky looking. Do you know of a way I can deodorize them and shine them up? Can I sand them?
    Thanks!

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hey Kyla,

      Thanks for reaching out. I know exactly what you mean, I am dealing with the same issue with a set of horns on a bison that went to a meat processing plant. I’ve tried a lot of different things and I’m having minimal luck. I’m currently in the process of trying to “seal” the stink in by doing about a dozen coats of a high gloss sealant (typically what I use to finish the actual skull). I’m hoping that this works. Will let you know. I think the key really is trying to secure the horns before the slaughter house. For shining them up, just get some sand paper. 120, 80 and 50 grit will do it. It’s way easier if you’ve got a sand belter.

  26. Tina Swaney Reply

    Hey Dave, So happy I found your site. My mom has about 4 skulls for me to paint. I don’t have a problem with smells since my Uncle finds these out in the desert in Colorado. Most of them are very fragile and seem to be sun rotted. Very porus. Will the primer fill up these “holes” and make it more solid or is there another way to do this? Hopefully I explained that right. Thanks!

    • Dave Yeti Post authorReply

      Hi Tina, thanks for the comment. Depends on the skull, but the primer definitely helps and is probably your best bet. The best result is going to be if you can dip the entire skull into a bucket of primer (not sure of your situation based off horns, etc.). Just make sure you stay cognizant about how you let it dry, otherwise you’ll get some unintended distortions. Good luck!

  27. Jules Reply

    Dave thanks so much. This was really helpful. I’ve just completed painting a horse skull with shellac which gave it a beautiful highly polished finish. I now have a cow skull which is drying. I am going to paint this one with acrylics so now I know how to prime. Thanks.

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