In this blog article, we’re going to take a look at the phenomenon of deer shedding their antlers and how to restore those old, shed antlers back to their original beauty.
For those who are unfamiliar with the phenomenon of shed antlers, here’s a little overview for you: deer species of all sizes, from whitetails all the way up to moose, all lose, or “shed” their antlers every year during the late fall or winter months and then grow them back the next year when spring and summer arrive. It’s an amazing process! When the antlers begin to emerge and grow, they’re first covered in a soft, velvet-like material that supplies blood to the rapidly developing tissue. When the antlers have reached their maximum growth for the year, which happens in just a few short months, the velvet material is then shed and rubbed off, leaving the antlers either bone white or slightly red from the bloody velvet. Soon after, the antlers begin to get darkened up as a result of being rubbed on a variety of trees and vegetation and being exposed to the natural elements in the area. Antlers are one of the fastest-growing bodily tissues on earth and in recent years, scientists have been studying this phenomenon as a means of researching possible treatments for cancer patients, especially for bone caner patients.
If you’re lucky enough to find a shed antler out in the woods, in many cases they’ll be discolored or bleached out from laying around on the forest floor for many months, or even years and they’ll usually be chewed up quite a bit from mice, squirrels, porcupines, and other rodents, as well as wolves, coyotes, bears and other large animals who all nibble away on the antlers, which are a rich source of calcium.
For the example in this article, I’m using an antler I found from a Roosevelt elk on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. A hunting buddy and I actually found the matching set of antler sheds from this bull elk, which was a rare and exciting find indeed. However, as if often the case, the sheds were greatly discolored, had some moss and fungus growing on them, and they were badly chewed up by a variety of critters. So when I recently decided to finally make something with this particular elk antler, it first needed a serious makeover.
The first step to restoring this antler to its former beauty was to eliminate all the damage from the chew marks as much as possible. To do this, a Dremel Tool with a small drum sanding bit works great. I used a fairly coarse sanding bit at medium-high speed and simply smoothed out the chew marks, or at least tried to blend them in as much as possible, especially around the tips of the antlers. By the way, anytime you’re cutting or grinding on antlers with a power tool, make sure you do it outside or in a well-ventilated place because it makes a heck of a mess and stinks really bad!
Elk antlers typically have white or light-colored tips with the rest of the antlers being various shades of brown, depending on where they live. So for this example, after getting the chew marks out as much as possible and whitening the tips, I then blended in my sanding marks with the rest of the antler tines. After that, I continued to blend in and work over the entire length of the antler all the way to the base by lightly sanding and highlighting the small ridges along the antlers.
After sanding down and blending everything in as best as I could, I then scrubbed and wiped the antler down with some paint thinner to get it ready for the next step, which is staining the antler.
For staining antlers, you can buy commercial antler stain from a taxidermy supply store, which works great, but if you’re only going to be doing one or two antlers, you won’t need much. I’ve found that plain old wood stain from your local hardware store works just as good, is much cheaper, and you can get it in small quantities for small projects. I personally like the Special Walnut color of stain which I use on all my antler projects. So after wiping down the antler with some paint thinner and letting it dry toughly, I started applying the stain in even, light coats.
For this example, since elk have white antler tips, after applying the stain I wipe the tips down immediately with my paint thinner rag before the stain had a chance to set in and darken. As a general rule for staining antlers, after applying a light, even coat of stain, let the antlers dry overnight, as it takes time for the stain to work in and darken, and then if you want to go darker, you can apply additional light coats of stain. For deer species with generally lighter colored antlers such as whitetails and caribou, make sure you apply the stain very, very lightly at first, as you can always go darker later if need be.
After the stain dries completely for a day or two, wipe the antler down thoroughly with a dry rag to remove any dried residue, and you’re ready to go. I’m going to be making a rustic, antler hat and or clothes rack with this particular antler which I’ll be writing an article and making a video about, so stay tuned.