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Bone bleaching

Hello, everybody!

Is there anyone who worked with bone?

I’d like to try and make some haircombs and I thought the bone used
for Art Nouveau combs I’ve seen on the net would be perfect. I read
about boiling and bleaching the bone (I’;m using cow bones) but does
the bleach also give the material that translucent quality I hope to
achieve? Does anyone know if there is a specific bleaching solution
and an adequate bleaching time? I’m using 7/1 bleach and water right
now an I plan to leave it over night.

All the best,

Hi Dana

I have machined cattle bone on a lathe for about twenty years so I
have some experience in handling it.

I cut up the raw material on a band saw and boil it in water and
laundry detergent. I boil the bone in three changes of water for a
couple of hours each change. I don’t find that the bone needs
bleaching after this process. It dries chalky white. I use a chlorine
bleach as a disinfectent when I store prepared bone wet. The bleach
enhances the chalky white effect if anything by attacking the fat/oil
content of the bone. I finish my bone turnings by polishing them on a
buff with Hyfin. They end up smooth and shiny, even reminiscent of
ivory, but not translucent.

As for a translucent appearance, there I think you have a problem.
If you leave enough fat in the bone to make it translucent I would
expect some hygiene issues. I wonder if the examples you are thinking
of have picked up some hair oil while in use.

Chris Smythe

Hi Dana, I currently carve hair combs from cow bone, and love the
creamy white that I get without any kind of treatment. However, I
have recently inquired from a local bone-smith on the proper
treatment of bone and here is what I’ve learned from him: do not
bleach, because it will compromise the structural quality of the
bone (cause it to break down, etc.). Instead, he uses pool-grade
peroxide (do not heat, as it will neuturalize the peroxide), diluted
in water (I believe the ratio was 1 part peroxide to 3 parts water,
but I am not certain about this…), and soaked until you’ve
achieved the desired whiteness. I do not know how to get the
opaqueness that you mention… my guess is that the kind of bone
would be more important than the treatment, such as a hearty piece of
antler with thick walls. If you would like more info., I’d be happy
to contact him and get more specific info.

Hope this helps, Nisa

My preferred bleach for bone is a strong solution of hairdresser’s
peroxide. In my opinion, the bone seems to be less likely to end up
brittle. Chlorine bleach seems to take a little too much out of the

24 to 48 hours in a 40% solution seems to do the trick. If you are
starting with fairly fresh bone, a preliminary boiling in a soda or
lime water solution with a teaspoon of alum per quart seems to help.

Ron Charlotte – Gainesville, FL

Hey all,

Most of the original hair combs that I have ever seen were of
tortoise or turtle shell. I have see whitish ones but they were
ivory (elephant).

The other material would be cow horn. It is translucent and strong if
you can find it.

Just a little in put.
John and Cynthia

Back in my much younger years, I worked preparing skeletons for sale
to scientific supply companies.

Step 1: in bone prep is to boil the bone totally clean…boiling
water for about 1-3 hours dependant on bone quantity.

Step 2: degreasing: soak in Carbon tetrachloride (next to impossible
to get a hold of these days) alternatively soak in a solution of
TSP(tri-sodium phosphate) substitute for 1 hour-3 hours dependent on
fat tissue in the bone and amount of bone…soak until bone removed
from solution is evenly wetted.

Step 3A: Bleach in (Clorox–TM) (sodium hypochlorite solution) for
two - six hours to get bone white…any longer and the mineral
components go into solution. The bone comes out from this soak as
pure white and opaque as possible.

OR Step 3B: soak overnight (8-12 hours) in strong (13%) hydrogen
peroxide. This gives the bone tissue a slight transparency with a
slightly off-white color tending towards yellow slightly.

Step 3-1/2: if the bone structure needs to be altered by bending,
twisting, etc. do this while the bone is still wet for Step 3A or

Step 4: Dry at least 48 hours (clamped in position if form has been
altered) before drilling, assembly, or sealing.


Hi, I have a feeling that the translucent combs you are talking
about could have been made out of horn of some kind, it was used in
the 20s and 30s and even dyed to look like tortishell.

Love the rest of the tips on bleaching and cleaning of bone, I would
like to have a play with carving bone if I ever get through my pile
of opal I have to carve for clients.

Orchid members sure are a very mixed and varied bunch of talented
souls, I have learned so much about photography and a million other
things that don’t spring to mind at the minute.

Christine in the Ridge who should be working and not playing on the

The other material would be cow horn. It is translucent and strong
if you can find it. 

You can make your own cow bone material easily. Just find a butcher
and ask him to save you the fore legs of a BULL when he is butchering
next time. These lower forelegs of a bull are the only part of "cow"
bone that yeilds enough material for your purposes and has enough
calcium to bleach out white. Cows how thinner bones and much less
useable material after all is said and done.

Cut the ends off the bones before you start as you want the marrow to
get cleaned off. Boil the bones to get all the bio-degradable matter
off. Rinse them well and then boil them again with a powedered
laundry detergent. This will bring out the calcium to the surface and
make the bones white.

Once this second step id done you can cut the material with a hacksaw
or a jewelers saw and it carves easily with files or burs.

For further reference try googling Viking artifact recreation links
for more info on how they processed the bone for combs in the day…

Peter Peterson

There is an excellent book that talks about traditional ways of
working ‘skeletal materials’. It is "Bonr, Antler, Horn and Ivory"
by Arthur MacGregor. It talks about recipes to soften bone and how
they effect it’s strength. The large bones, sold in pet stores can be
used for somethings, but they are harder and more brittle than
untreated bones. Another good source for untreated bone, is if you
know anyone that has some acreage and cattle. They will have animal
die (or get shot by carelessa hunters) and will drag the remains to a
fence line, so ‘nature’ can take care of the problems. A lot of the
bones are left and they are great to work with. By the way, a lot of
the bone items, that come from India, comes from this type of a
source. Since many Indians are Hindu, and they don’t eat most type of
meat, but animals are used for work, there is a constant source of
animals that die of natural causes. Apparently, many towns will have
a designated place for disposal. The tanner’s will take the hides,
varmints take care of the flesh, and the bone pickers collect the
bones. Cairenn, who considers MacGregor a ‘bible’ for bone work.