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Bone links

Ok kids- Here’s one that has me stumped.

A client brought me a carved bone link bracelet with carved panels.
It’s missing some links. My client found some extras in a pawn shop
scrap box.

Here’s the fun part. The links all have small slits cut at an angle
in them. It looks like somehow the bone was softened and then the
links added. We’ve tested them and they are bone.

So I have the extras to put in but no idea how to soften this stuff
up. We tried a small amount of steam but no luck. I don’t have enough
to sacrifice with experimentation so I’m counting on all yall to help
me out here. Anybody got any good info or crack pot ideas?

After 42 years in the trade I STILL run into interesting challenges
and learn something new every day.

Have fun and make lots of jewelry
Jo Haemer

I have worked bone for years and have never found anything that
softens it like rubber. Saturated with water it becomes a little more
flexible and it machines more freely. I doubt it would be enough.

There is a woodcarver’s novelty that involves whittling a chain out
of a single piece of wood; the last operation is to separate the
links and let them move freely. Have you got a version of one of
those? An ivory carver could make a bracelet like that.

Chris Smythe

Hi Jo,

I used to soften bone by dipping it in boiling water. When the bone
cools and dries it’s hard again.

Get a cow bone from the butcher, and practice first to build your
confidence before you attempt the technique on the replacement

Regards Charles A.

i would get some other bits of bone similar to the type of bone you
have and experiment by soaking in an alkaline soloution ( LYE ) if
you have success then make an attempt with one of the good ones -


Hi Jo,

When I have worked with bone and black coral I boil it in water to
soften. I use binding wire to pull it open on a small metal frame,
when open far enough put the link on then again with binding wire
boil and tighten wire. Remove tighten more let dry. It has worked
for me.


So I have the extras to put in but no idea how to soften this
stuff up. We tried a small amount of steam but no luck. 

If by bone you mean horn, than soak in hot water. Can take half an
hour or longer. Depends how old the stuff is. Some adding lye to
water, but in my opinion it is risky, when working on repairs. For
stock prep it could be fine. For final manipulation, use old style
tea kettle. When it comes to boil, it would give very consistent
steam source.

if it is ivory, than prepare solution of phosphoric acid and water. I
do not remember the proportion, maybe someone has it on hand and will
post it. Ivory should be soaked until it becomes translucent. It
could be surprisingly soft, so care is required.

Tortoise shell is worked like a horn. I was taught to add salt to
water, when softening tortoise shell. Tortoise shall is mostly
keratin and hot water partially damages it. Salt helps to minimize
this damage. Think about blanching vegetables. To preserve the
flavor, cooks use salted water.

Leonid Surpin

Hello Jo, Put the links in boiling hot water and then work very
quickly, before they cool. You don’t have much time so plan out each
move. You’ll be fine.

Have fun.
Tom Arnold

I think if you soak the piece in vinegar it becomes malleable. I’ve
been told that’s how a lot of puzzle balls are created.

Good luck!

After 42 years in the trade I STILL run into interesting
challenges and learn something new every day.

Dontcha just love this business, Jo? You can say a lot of negative
things about it, but one thing positive is that it’s seldom boring.
Something new to learn every day!

I have no firm “this is what will work” info for you, but I do have
a couple of crack-pot ideas (speaking of softening super-hard bone
and crack-pot ideas, both fall well within my realm of expertise,
just ask my wife/business partner. She can tell you all about how
someone with a rock-hard skull can come up with some really
soft-headed ideas).

How about boiling them? (the links, not my hard skull or crack-pot
ideas, they’re both already half-baked) I’ve never tried it, but I
know just-cooked chicken bones are really flexible. It may be that
the piece was made while the bone was still “fresh” and it hardened
after assembly. Boiling sure works well for softening up hardwood
stringers in boat and airplane building. I can’t tell you why, but
adding a little vinegar definitely helps with the wood softening
process and may help with bone. Salt and pepper to taste.

You might also cut or file “V” shaped ends on the already-existing
cuts so that they barely fit into each other, kind of like a two-ring
clasp. I think that would only be a good option if the cuts will stay
in a place other than where they would be next to each other when the
necklace is being worn.

Whatever you end up doing, keep us posted. Enquiring minds want to

Dave Phelps


You’ve been so helpful to me in the past, it’s nice to return the
favor! Here goes…

Soaking bone in vinegar will soften it to the point where it becomes
like rubber - give it about a week or more depending on the bone
thickness. The acid separates out the calcium and carbon in the
bone, but leaves behind the physical structure of the bone so that
the shape stays intact. You can reform it any way you like to change
it’s shape or push it through the slit while in this state, and then
simply expose it to the air to re-harden. It’s a very cool process
I’ve experimented with in a science class I teach. You can actually
tie knots in chicken bones! I would still consider having the
customer sign a note of understanding to hold you harmless against
anything going wrong (just in case), although this is a safe and
fairly foolproof process.

Have fun and amaze your customer!


Hello Jo,

Bones can be softened by immersing them in nitric acid. You will
need to take great care to get the right degree of ‘softness’ by
experimenting with time of immersion and concentration of the acid.
As a senior school science demonstration, leg bones from sheep which
had been left in a 50% nitric acid solution overnight lost all
strength but maintained their structure allowing them to wobble as if
they had been moulded from a soft plastic.

Best wishes
Charles Allenden

Vinegar? My dad used to soften bones in it and bend them as part of
a gag.

Good day, Jo,

If I remember correctly, vinegar softens bone…

Ken Weston

Hi folks, Dont know if it works on bone, but i soften ivory by
soaking it in vinegar, then after in a solution of baking soda to
neutralize, May want to try it on a piece of soup bone or something

good luck

Soaking bone in vinegar long enough causes the bone to behave just
like rubber. If you want it brittle, bake it in the oven.

As a child I remember putting a chicken bone into a jar of vinegar
overnight and watching in amazement that it would bend easily in the
morning. I have no idea if that flexibility is permanent but kind of
suspect it’s not.

Good luck.