Keep Your Head

You’ve put all that effort into finally getting that trophy of a lifetime, so now you want it to last a lifetime. Mark Brackstone advises on the best methods of preparing prize heads

You’ve put all that effort into finally getting that trophy of a lifetime, so now you want it to last a lifetime. So how do you properly prepare that prize head at home? Although this is not a definitive guide to the preparation of your hard-earned trophy, I have found this to be a reasonably efficient method, which produces the desired result. My instructions are for roe and muntjac, but the same applies for the larger deer – except that you will need a larger saw and boiling pot.

 

1. Now that you have your trophy, the first job is to skin the head carefully.

2. Years ago we used to saw the skull with a wood saw by eye, but it left lots of room for error and we had our share of mistakes. We now use a purpose-made jig and saw, which is adjustable and readily available from any of the shooting supply people who advertise in this magazine.

 

3. I like to see the full eye sockets and the full nose on my skulls when they are on a shield, but the jig is fully adjustable. I put the skull in the jig and set the same distance each side. I set mine from the ear hole to the end of the nose. (For muntjac, cut from the ear holes to about 0.5in back from the tusks. This will keep the tusk sockets intact, and allows you to glue them back in before mounting the skull on your shield.)

Every skull sits differently in the jig so you need to adjust it for each. It is helpful to have an assistant at this stage; one holds the jig and one cuts with the saw. When you are almost through, make sure you support the section you are cutting off. If it falls away, you will snap the end of the nose bones.

Note that a warm, recently shot skull is infinitely easier to saw than one that is a few days old or has been frozen and thawed out. Not being a scientist, I don’t know the reason, but some transformation must occur that changes the bone composition.

4. Now comes the smelly bit. You must Submerge the skull, although preferably not the antlers, in a pot of boiling water. In the past, we used to use an old boil-type washing machine – just like your granny had. We have since invested in a Burco water boiler, which is ideal.

We then add some washing-up liquid. The purpose of this is to disperse the grease that is produced in the process, and makes it easier to remove any scum from the antlers when it’s finished.

The next thing to do is to boil the skull for around 20 minutes. The skulls of old bucks probably need an extra 10 or so minutes, whereas a young buck (roe or muntjac) requires about five minutes fewer than the original time. It is important to be very careful with this step, as if you overcook a young skull it can easily fall apart. Then you will need to be good with a jig saw and have some superglue to hand!

 

5. Once boiled, the ideal method is to use a power washer to blast all of the flesh, gristle and brains from the skull. We have an old vice set on a sleeper, but you can easily put your welly on one antler and do it like that. A set of wet gear is ideal, as you can get covered in various bits of waste matter if you’re not careful.

Do not power wash the antlers themselves, as you will remove all of their natural colours. If the antlers are covered in scum just hold them under the tap and give them a light scrub with a washing-up brush.

Take care with the end of the nose as it is easy to shatter it with a powerful jet wash and, believe me, it takes some time to find the small bits of nose bone when they fly off at Mach four in a shower of spray!

You may find that you need to do a bit of scraping with a knife to finish the job, and a long-nosed pair of pliers is useful to remove the brain membrane.

If there’s still a lot of meat and gristle remaining after the power wash, loosen it up a bit with a knife and pop it back in the boiler for another five minutes then try again.

6. Your skull is now a grey-brown patchy colour. To make it white, you will need hydrogen peroxide, which you can buy from any chemist. Better still, if you know a hairdresser they should be able to get a discount through the trade (purchase the liquid, not the cream, if possible). Use a solution of as strong a percentage as you can buy.

Take care not to get any onto the antlers or your skin – peroxide burns and turns the skin white. Allow your skull to dry partially and scrub off any scum from the antlers. Pour the peroxide solution into a Tupperware or similar dish and use a tablespoon to ladle the solution carefully onto and into the skull.

If you do accidentally get the solution on the antlers, wash it off immediately. Many years ago I accidentally got a good amount on the palm of a fallow antler, and the next morning there was a hole almost the size of a 50p piece through it.

Leave the solution on the skull for 20-30 minutes and then wash it off carefully with cold water.

 

7. Prop your skull up and leave it to dry completely. The skull will go white as it dries and, once dry, it is ready to fix to a shield.

8. If your head had velvet on the antlers or was still in velvet early on in the season, the antlers will now be white. You can colour them with potassium permanganate, which you can buy in the form of a small pot of crystals from the chemist.

Mix  a quarter-teaspoon of crystals with two teaspoons of warm water and mix well (the resulting liquid will be mauve). Using a small paintbrush you can then colour the antlers. Within minutes they will start going brown (as will anything else you get the mixture on, so be warned, as wives and partners take a dim view of a multi-coloured sink and the dye is not easily removed).

It’s a good idea to practise on a scrap antler first as you can dip the brush in clear water and dilute the mix as you get close to the antler’s correct tones, which feather out to an almost white colour on the tips.

If you intend to have the head trophy measured for a medal, don’t stain it first, as the measurer will almost certainly be experienced enough to recognise that it’s been coloured. If coloured well, however, it looks fine afterwards when on the wall.

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