How to Clean Elk Ivories

Regularly referred to as whistlers or buglers, the eyeteeth of elk are actually vestigial tusks—a throwback to their ancient ancestors. Cervids of old would use these tusks to battle during the rut and defend themselves against predators, but as evolution selected for bigger antlers, those canines started to recede.

In modern-day elk, the ivories have shrunk to be thumb tip-sized nubs. They’re found in bulls and cows, and form in calves at about a year of age. Hunters often credit the ivories for elk’s musical sounds, but that’s just an old wives’ tale.

Fashionable sportsmen never leave the ivories behind, regularly turning them into rings, necklaces, hatbands, pendants, watches, cufflinks, belt buckles, tie tacks, and more. Or, if you’re like me and lack the confidence to pull off an ivory earring or bolo tie, they reside in a display case next to fossils, arrowheads, and other natural wonders.

If you’re also like me, your ivories sat in a backpack for a year and had dried flesh welded onto them. Cleaning them up seemed like a daunting task, but all I needed was a few household items to reveal those buttery cream colors underneath and make the ivories display-case ready.

To start, simmer the ivories in a pot of water for a few hours. Don’t let the water come to a boil, as you’re just trying to loosen the tissue on the canines. After that, you’ll be able to scrape away the flesh with your fingernails.

Next, create a hydrogen peroxide and baking soda cocktail to whiten the ivories. Since my ivories sat uncleaned for a year, I soaked them in the mix for 24 hours. However, if your ivories are fresh out the skull, you can probably have them looking polished in just a couple hours.

Once they’ve had their hydrogen peroxide baptism, they’ll be ready to show off, whether that means rocking them in a hatband or hanging one from your rearview mirror.