MILTON - As a pungent smell wafts in the air, it's obvious something is happening in Cody Short's workshop at Steam Valley Outdoors Products.
"It's not that bad in here today," Short says as he opens the door to a cool day in early September.
Steam Valley Outdoor Products - a subsidiary of Brookside Game Calls and Hydrofx - specializes in skull cleaning.
Short has cleaned the skulls of all kinds of animals, including boars, monkeys, baboons, rams and other species of deer. This year, he has done about 1,300 skulls.
Right now, in the height of alligator season, he is cleaning some alligator skulls harvested in Florida.
Short's picnic table holds examples of some of the skulls he has cleaned. The ones for European mounts are a clean, bright white, while others have a pattern adhered to them.
Short's workshop contains glass aquariums that are filled with the skulls of harvested animals, such as white-tailed deer or bear. The bones still have meat and fatty tissue attached, but, at a closer inspection, visitors see that it's a smorgasbord for beetles.
The insects are Dermestes beetles, commonly called carpet beetles. They make quick work of the flesh, leaving Short to collect smooth skulls.
European mounts - which essentially are clean skulls - mounted or unmounted, are very popular options for hunters seeking to preserve their harvests.
Better than boiling
Short has been cleaning skulls virtually since he was a kid and is an avid hunter himself.
"I used to boil skulls or leave them hanging out in a tree," he said.
Short started his business 3 1/2 years ago, but then he was sending the skulls out to have them cleaned.
"When we got the bugs (in 2009), things really took off," he said. "I got them so when we received skulls that needed dipped that were not cleaned, we didn't have to send them out to someone else to get cleaned."
In its lifetime, the beetle goes through a few stages of growth, but the larvae is what does the most eating, he said.
Skulls are brought to Short in what he calls a raw form, with most of the hide and meat still attached to the head.
"What we do first is we skin it out, take off the lower jaw and take the eyes and brains out," he said.
Even though the beetles will eat the meat that is left, Short said it's still important to get as much as of it off as possible.
"You can clean about five to six an hour," he said.
Then the skull must freeze for about 72 hours "to kill any other bugs that may be on it, like fly larvae," Short said.
After 72 hours in the freezer, the skulls are thawed and given to the beetles.
"(They) take about a day or a day-and-a-half to clean them up," he said.
Short orders his beetles from a game warden in Alaska, although the same species can be found in Pennsylvania.
"The beetles from Alaska are less likely to have other bugs in with them and the guy from Alaska has a very good reputation in the skull cleaning industry," he said.
Each skull must be put through a degreasing process in which it soaks in tanks of very warm water. Degreasing the mount will allow the vivid white color of the skull to come through for a European mount
After the skull is thawed out, it starts the degreaser process.
"To clean a properly prepared deer skull and have it ready to go into the degreasing tank, it takes about 30 hours," Short said, for the bugs to do their work.
Short said it takes about a week or two to get all the grease off the skull of a white-tail, which is the most popular game animal he handles.
Bears take a little longer, because a bear has more fat on its body.
Degreasing allows the skull to be dipped into a pattern, another business in which Short has a partnership.
Short and his business partner, Joe Shoop, also own Hydrofx, which is based in Tower City, Schuylkill County. That is where the skulls Short cleans go to have a patterned adhered onto them for customers. The process commonly is called dipping.
"I would say about 75 percent is Euro mounts and 25 percent is dipped," Short said.
The dipping takes place in a shop that shares its space with a wholesale game call business - Brookside Game Calls.
Dipping takes place in a 800-gallon tank of heated, circulated water.
"You bring the water to a standstill," Short said, describing one of the first steps before dipping can begin.
Hydrofx and Brookside employee Mike Fetterhoff recently demonstrated how to prepare a skull to be dipped.
At his work bench, Fetterhoff taped off the antlers, which usually are not dipped, of a five-point white-tail, then he cut a rectangle of camouflage film, sealing the edges with painter's tape.
The film was lifted and placed carefully atop the stilled water.
"You spray a film of activator on the top that turns the film to a liquid," Short said.
Fetterhoff then took the demo buck skull, faced it antlers-down and dipped the top onto the now liquified film. The pattern transferred flawlessly to the skull.
In the next step, Fetterhoff put the skull into a rinsing tank, where it was showered in water.
The skull must dry and be evaluated. It may take a few dips to get everything covered, such as the bottom or sides, depending on the shape of what is being dipped.
A completely dry skull then is sprayed with clear coat, a high-end automobile paint, with a pressurized gun to keep the covering pattern safe.
The whole process of dipping can take six to seven weeks because of the wait time in between all the steps.
"In a perfect world, you could do everything back to back," Short said.
Skulls and then some
With archery season already in progress in parts of the state, Short is getting ready for harvests to come in.
"Then we get into spring bears out of Canada and Alaska," he said.
The skull cleaning and dipping businesses get skulls from all over the country.
"I am still getting deer from taxidermists. They will wait until they have 30 deer or get a big shipment of spring bears all at once," Short said.
The dipping process can be applied to more than just animals. Short said he and his crew can dip bows, guns, automobile and ATV accessories or parts, and urns.
There are various patterns to choose from, but registered trademark camo patterns are not available. Short said many alternates exists that are just as good.
He said he has cleaned and dipped skulls for the staff of "The Bone Collector," Michael Waddell, T-Bone, Nick Mundt, famously known for the popular televised hunting show.
They were in the state last year, harvested some does on a hunt and made use of the two businesses.
Short had skulls cleaned and dipped that later were signed by Ted Nugent and donated for an auction for the Wounded Warriors Foundation.
Across the street from Short's workshop is the Bethesda Group Home. When it comes time for biology class, he invites the students to do some learning there.
"They come over and see the beetles and look at small animal skulls, looking at the anatomy of them," he said.