How to Make Leaf Skeletons

This ancient craft is easy to love but difficult to master.

multiple leaf skeletons reveal veins with soft light glowing

Andrey Danilovich / Getty Images

When I first heard about leaf skeletons, I thought they were some kind of kitschy Halloween-inspired decor in which creepy skeletons were created using fallen leaves. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Leaf skeletons are elegant and intricate designs created by distilling a leaf down to its very essence—the hollow veins that provide food and water to its living cells. The outer green layer is removed to reveal the vein network within, creating a ghostly yet striking appearance.

The art of creating leaf skeletons has been around for centuries, as far back as the Ming Dynasty period in China. The book "The Phantom Bouquet: A Popular Treatise on the Art of Skeletonizing Leaves," published in 1863, details several methods used to produce skeleton leaves.

Today, there are a number of ways you can make these delicate designs, all of which require patience, trial and error, and maybe even a little luck. But once the technique is mastered, the results are absolutely amazing. Here's how to get started.

1. Gather Your Supplies

  • 1/2 cup washing soda (aka sodium carbonate—this is NOT baking soda)
  • Leaves (glossy leaves like those from a magnolia or gardenia work best)
  • Metal pot or saucepan
  • Tweezers
  • Spatula or tongs
  • Small paint brush or soft toothbrush
  • Latex gloves
  • Water
  • Bleach (optional)

2. Mix and Boil

Leaf skeleton
The intricate design of a leaf skeleton.

Johan Larson / Shutterstock

Add your leaves to the pot along with the washing soda and enough water to completely cover the leaves. Bring everything to a boil and allow the mix to simmer for 90 minutes to two hours. Add water as necessary so that the leaves don't dry out. And be careful of the fumes coming off the pot!

3. Remove From the Water

After about two hours, carefully remove the leaves from the water using tongs or a spatula. Make sure your gloves are on from this point forward.

4. Brush Gently

Using tweezers to hold the stem and the soft paint brush or toothbrush, very gently brush away the pulpy part of the leaf. Flip the leaf over and repeat the brushing and pulp removal on the opposite side.

5. Rinse and Bleach

Tinted leaf skeleton
Add color to your leaf skeleton designs by soaking them in food color-tinted water instead of bleach. (Photo: Irina Burakova/Shutterstock)

Gently dip the leaf in water to rinse. If you want it to be really white, soak the leaf in bleach for 20 minutes.

6. Time to Dry

Dry the leaf skeletons between two napkins so that they lie flat.

7. Enjoy Your Creations

Once you have a collection of leaf skeletons, you can use them for a range of things—decorating cards or candles, making garlands or table arrangements, crafting Christmas tree ornaments, covering a paper lampshade, or adhering with lacquer to a glass jar or vase. See Pinterest for lots of lovely ideas.

The following video can walk you through the creation process even more. But be warned—there is a little bit of bleeped out salty language. Also, the method used in the video doesn't exactly work. But it's pretty fun to watch, and it gives you a good idea how much practice, patience, and persistence you might need to get the job done. Take a look:

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is a leaf skeleton?

    A leaf skeleton is the structure of a leaf—its veins only—with the outer green layer and pulpy part of the leaf removed.

  • Which leaves are best for making leaf skeletons?

    You want to pick leaves with strong skeletons, such as oak and maple. The more delicate the leaf, the more likely it'll be to fall apart during the washing and brushing stages.

  • How do you use leaf skeletons?

    You can make all sorts of crafts out of skeleton leaves, including homemade cards and notepaper, natural garland, decoupaged glass, and candle decoration.

  • Should you bleach leaf skeletons?

    Bleaching your leaf skeletons isn't an essential step, but it helps the leaf skeleton become really white—primed for decorating.