What is a Carbon Skeleton?

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Protein Molecules: Functions, Structure & Examples

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Compounds Have a Skeleton?
  • 1:52 How to Draw a Carbon Skeleton
  • 3:48 Importance of Carbon Skeletons
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed Audio mode

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

Have you ever seen a chemical formula that looks like an awesome stick drawing? If you have ever wondered what those sticks mean in chemistry, continuing reading to learn more about carbon skeletons.

Compounds Have a Skeleton?

Would it be absurd to say that you can take a chemical compound and strip it down to its skeleton? While this may sound a little strange, it is more than possible! Carbon skeletons are chains of carbon atoms that make organic compounds. Simply put, carbon skeletons are diagrams drawn to show the backbone of any organic compound. You may be wondering what a carbon skeleton looks like. Well, I am one step ahead of you; check out this diagram for carbon skeletons of common organic compounds.

There are three different characteristics that affect what a carbon skeleton looks like. The first characteristic is shape. For example, you can have a straight chain, branched, or ring skeleton, depending on what organic compound you're drawing.

The second characteristic is length, which becomes more evident when you're looking at straight chain carbon skeletons. Sometimes you might need to draw a chain that is three carbon atoms in length or 500 carbon atoms in length. Okay, 500 atoms may be a slight exaggeration, but you get the point.

The third characteristic is the location and amount of double bonds. Carbon skeletons will be different depending on where the double bonds are located. Depending on how many double bonds are present, this difference can be quite noticeable. For instance, this diagram here shows that an alkene is quite different from a diene because of the number of double bonds present in the carbon skeleton.

Diagram 2: Carbon Skeleton of the Organic Compounds (a) Alkene and (b) Diene
cs ex 2

Before we dive into construction of a skeleton, it's important to keep in mind that it is not uncommon to see carbon skeletons written in different ways. Depending on your mood, you may want to leave out all the letters and just draw with lines. This is perfectly fine. Actually, it is a very common way chemists use to write out equations. The next section will show you two ways of drawing a carbon skeleton.

How to Draw a Carbon Skeleton

The best way to learn how to draw a carbon skeleton is to follow this series of steps. Once you get comfortable drawing skeletons, toss the steps out the window and sketch away! For each step, I will be using the organic compounds ethane (straight chain), 2-methyl-1-butanol (branched), and trimethylbenzene (ring) as examples.

Step 1: Understand to which functional group the molecular formula of the organic compound you're working with belongs. For example, if you were working with butane, the molecular formula would be C4H10 and belong to the alkane functional group. Now, let's apply this first step to our three examples:

Ethane: Molecular formula - C2H6 (functional group: alkane)

2-methyl-1-butanol: Molecular formula - C6H12O (functional group: alcohol)

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account