Preparing Deer and Antelope Hoofs to Use on Rattles, Bandoliers and Decorations

by Ken Smith

Ken Smith in his
braintanned hunting coat

Native Americans have been using game animal hoofs and dewclaws for centuries to make rattles, bandoliers and decorations for countless items. Using these raw materials helps create another tie back to Mother Earth where all these gifts come from. The hoofs and dewclaws of whitetail and mule deer, the hoofs of antelope and the dewclaws from small elk can all be used easily. In this article, I will discuss preparing deer and antelope hoofs for use and touch briefly on preparing deer and elk dewclaws.

The Abundance of Wasted Hoofs (How to Get Them For Free)

Each year, thousands of deer, antelope, and elk are harvested in North America. Usually, the hoofs and dewclaws of these animals are discarded or left on the prairie and in the mountains to go back to the earth. All a person has to do is go hunting, talk to friends who are hunters or visit a local game processing plant to obtain these hoofs and dewclaws. If it is legal in your state, you can get them from road killed animals also. Most hoofs and dewclaws that you get from hunters or processing plants will still be attached to the lower leg of the animal. This is because there is no edible muscle tissue in the lower legs, so they are usually discarded. These lower legs will keep well for several days if kept cool, dry and out of the sun.

Removing Hoofs

An Easier Way

Matt’s Note: A few years back I learned a much easier way to remove the hoofs, from Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder. 

Instead of cutting the toes off, simply take the entire fresh or frozen (not dried out) lower leg (the part nearly everyone throws out) and put in boiling water for five to fifteen minutes. Then use a slight twisting motion to pop the hoof off with a pair of pliers or just your fingers. If its not ready put back in the water.

 If it cooks too long the tendons that hold the toes to the leg will cook and they will seperate. Then you need to resort to the knife method as Ken describes. If you want to save the lower leg sinew, remove it before you do this. This method is extremely reliable, quick, and not as smelly

Your first step is to remove the hoofs and dewclaws from the lower legs. Hoofs can be removed with a saw or by cutting thru the joint with a knife, but a faster way is to use an axe or a hatchet. If you have a good quality axe or hatchet, the fresh small bones you will be cutting thru will slightly dull, but not chip your cutting edge. Dewclaws can be removed with a knife. Once removed from the lower leg, washed of blood and dirt, your hooves and dewclaws can be frozen for future finishing. You do not want to let them dry out at any point, be it on the leg or not, as once dry, it is very hard to rehydrate them for finishing! If you double bag them and put them in the bottom of the freezer, your better half will never know they are there.

Proceeding from this point, it does not matter if your hoofs or dewclaws are fresh or frozen. You can process them in the same way. For the rest of the main part of this article, I will focus on finishing deer and antelope hoofs. The hoofs have a bone and connective tissue inside them. The best way to soften the connective tissue and remove the bone is to slowly boil the hoofs. If this is done correctly, it will not hurt the hoofs. Boiling is best done outside, as hoofs have their own distinctive odor when boiling!

the cuts

Slowly boil the hoofs in lots of water for 2-3 hours, changing the water twice. (hint: if you have limited time each day, boil the hoofs a while, change the water, keep cool and boil some more the next day) After about 3 hours of slow boiling, take a knife and see if the connective tissue (which by now will be soft and sticky—–hoof glue?!) is soft enough that the bone inside the hoof can be pried out easily. For the rest of the finishing, I use a small, thin bladed, sharp pocket knife. Run your knife blade around the inside of the hoof. If your blade does not go easily, the bone is not ready to pop out, and a little more boiling is necessary. Go ahead and pop out the bone from each hoof and scrape out the connective tissue. You can put them in fresh hot water at this point and they will be less sticky and slippery to work with.

Basic Trimming

At this point, you have a hoof like you would get from a trading post, but to make them useable , more work is required. First, the large open end of the hoof needs to be trimmed back square so that all 3 sides of the bell are about equal in length. You can lay the hoof, pad side down on a board and cut down thru the hoof and the pad with a sawing motion of your knife.

basic trimming cuts

The next step is to trim the thickness of the rough, soft, swollen pad. If the pad thickness is not trimmed down, it will dry rough and thicker thus dampening the pretty sound of the finished hoofs rattling together. See fig. 1 again. Starting at the tip of the hoof, bring your knife blade down across the pad and trim flush with the side edges of the hoof material. Slice smoothly all the way to the wide base of the hoof. Inspect the bottom edge of the trimmed pad. About 1/16 inch thickness is good. I emphisize the word “about”. I use a real inch measurement to give you an idea of what works, that is all. If you feel the pad is still too thick, just trim again. If you have trimmed too thin or have gone all the way thru the pad at some spot, don’t worry, I’ll show you some great ways to finish without this section.

The next step is to trim the tip of the hoof to form a flat spot. You want the flat spot fairly big so that once you put a hole thru it (to hang the hoof by), it’ll be strong enough to keep the cordage from breaking through the hole’s rim. Also, the further down you trim, the less distance to drill, burn or awl through. At this point. while the hoof is still soft, you can use an awl with a square shank and with a twisting motion, start a hole down thru the flat spot you have created. You can do the entire hole now or just start one that can be finished (by drilling or burning) once the hoof has dried.You will notice that the hoof now roughly forms a 3 sided bell if hung by the tip.

Various Ways to Shape Hoofs

The following two methods are particularly good to use with small doe and yearling hoofs (fig. 2 &3).

Simple trimming methods

You can finish the hoofs as in fig.2. You can zigzag the bottom edge with your knife or leave the edge plain. If you zigzag the bottom edge you can do the edge of the pad also, but you may have to wait an hour or so to let the pad firm up enough that you can cut into it. The edges of the hoof should be zigzagged now, because in an hour they will be too hard to cut easily.

fancier trimming methods

To finish as in figure 3, simply trim all the pad away except for a 1/4 inch up at the tip of the hoof. Now you have two newly exposed edges you can zigzag if you wish, or leave them smooth. Either way, please note: all the old bandoliers and rattles that I have seen done with hoofs as in figure 3 have the two newly exposed edges trimmed back even further. See fig. 3 for clarity. A whole rattle or bandolier done in this fashion makes a very delicate rattling noise.

two dimensional hoofs

Large buck hoofs can be cut into pieces as shown in fig. 4 by simply cutting away all of the soft and swollen pad. The two remaining triangular sides can be cut into different shapes. Orient the pieces you cut out as shown, so the tip of the finished hoof piece with the hanging hole is the thickest part. Please note: these pieces may curl some as they dry and it is best to clamp them betweem a couple soft smooth boards for a couple of days until dry. If you don’t do this and some pieces do curl, simply imerse them in boiling water for a few minutes untill soft and then clamp untill dry. 

A couple hundred of these flat pieces will make a wonderful traditional bandolier (a belt worn diagonally across the chest). The hoof pieces have a very delicate pleasing sound when they hit together. The State History Museum in Denver, Co. has several bandoliers in storage made with deer and/or antelope hoofs. Two of these bandoliers are made with hoof pieces. One of these is exquisitely done with the pieces being cut into five repeating shapes around the whole bandolier.


There is one last thing you can do, if you so desire, before letting your hoofs dry. You can make up some red earth paint mixed with a little water and sparingly rub it into the pad and inside the hoof. When putting paint inside the hoof, I just dab the end of my little finger in the paint and rub on the inside of the hoof. It does not take much paint and you don’t have to cover the whole inside of the hoof. I say to apply your paint sparingly, because as the hoofs dry, the red color will intensify. I saw an old bandolier at a Native American art store in Boulder, CO. years ago. It had small hoofs done as in fig. 2 with a little red paint on the hoof pads and on the inside of the hoofs. Each hoof was strung on the bandolier strap with two dark purple translucent old italian crow beads. It was beautiful. The red earth paint helps tie us back to the earth where all these wonderful raw materials come from.

After the hoofs have dried for 3-5 days, you can drill, burn or use a square shanked awl to make the holes in the flattened tips for hanging the hoofs. If your hoofs are mule deer from the rocky mountains and surrounding foot hills, most likely they will be scratched up alot. Do not fear. You can scrape down most of the scratches with your pocket knife and then rub them with a little fine steel wool. Try rubbing on a little mineral oil or buffalo tallow on the 2 hoof surfaces only- not on the pad. The hoofs get real pretty when you do that.You are done!

Variation between hoof types

Antelope hoofs in general tend to flatten out as they dry. It’s a fact of life, not a problem. White tail deer hoofs in general have more pretty translucent amber color at the tips and along the hoof edges than mule deer hoofs. Whitetail deer hoof pads tend to be a dark gray in color. Mule deer and antelope hoof pads tend to be a lighter cream color. All three look just as good with the red paint when they are dry.

Notes on dew claws:

You can use deer and small elk dew claws for decorations and the ends of drops as well as other things. When fresh they can be trimmed from the lower legs with a pocket knife. The front dewclaws will tend to be shaped better than the rear ones. All will work. Process the same as hoofs, but they don’t need to boil as long. I haven’t seen any old ones with zigzags around the bottom edge. You don’t need to make a flat spot at the tip for drilling. They are more rounded at the tip, not pointed like hoofs. When making the hole for hanging, work your drill or square shanked awl up from the inside and aim for the center of the tip of the dewclaw.

Have patience and have fun.

the end

The End