Michael Billington who has a background in art (actually we are talking a bachelor's degree in art from the University of Texas, as well as about 30 years experience as a custom jeweler doing casting and sculpting), came up with this project after shooting a buck during the deer season a few years back.
He wanted to do something different with it than just having a cleaned white skull hanging on the wall.
After I had cleaned the skull for him, using the maceration method described in the Skull Cleaning article, he painted it. After it had dried, he started to scratch designs into the top of the skull using his pocket knife. Even though I thought the skull looked fantastic, he wasn't happy with it.
The skull didn't have the dyed look to it he was looking for, and the paint also chipped during the scratching process. After some thinking, he opted to use asphaltum varnish to create the desired look of the skull.
Asphaltum, which is a by product of oil, is readily available in nature. The Native Americans used it themselves on their products. They also used the small beads of purple dye, which form on the outside of the prickly pear cactus, to dye their textiles. The juice of the prickly pear cactus fruit is also suitable as a dye and is reddish purple in color.
Most of the designs on his skulls are inspired by Native American designs and artwork.
Asphalt (asphaltum varnish) can be purchased in any jeweler supply store. Prickly pear dye comes from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, as well as the beads that form on the outside of the cactus. The beads and the fruits form in late summer and early fall from September into early November.
Steps for doing these types of skulls:
First the skull needs to be cleaned. It can be cleaned by using any method described in the Skull Cleaning article.
Once the skull is cleaned, you have to seal the skull. If the skull is not sealed, the asphaltum will penetrate the bone too deeply, especially around the antler burrs and eyes sockets where the bone is more porous. Too deep of penetration of the asphaltum will make it close to impossible to scratch out visible designs since you'd have to scratch deep into the bone.
You can seal the skull with any kind of sealer. We usually use Deft matt finish wood sealer.
Once the sealer has dried on the skull, use a paintbrush to apply the asphaltum to the skull. Do not stain the teeth. Keep them natural. It is recommended to wear latex gloves to prevent staining your hands. Let the asphaltum dry.
If you want to have some color other than the white of the bone in your designs, before you stain the skull with the asphaltum, apply some prickly pear dye to the areas of the skull you would like to have some purple color show.
The success of the next step depends solely on your own artistic abilities. This step is the hardest one, artistically as well as physically.
You will have to use a pocket knife to scratch the designs into the skull. A dremel tool will not work. It won't let you do the fine detail work of the designs. Scratching designs into the bone is very hard on your hands and wrists, as it can cause tendonitis as well as carpal tunnel syndrome if done excessively. Mike can vouch for that.
The hardest areas will be around the antler burrs, as well as the eye sockets, as the bone is more porous in those areas. Harder and deeper scratching is required in those areas to bring out the design.
Now the rest is all up to you and your imagination.
Once you are happy with the designs you have scratched into the skull no further sealing is required. Put a hanger on the back of the skull or put it on a panel.