To study the anatomy of subarticular bone and cartilage, fresh specimens of cartilage on bone from the human shoulder, hip and knee were treated with bleach or papain, or were fixed and decalcified. All were compared using scanning electron microscopy. Papain digestion selectively removed cartilage to the tidemark. The tidemark contour was highly variable; irregularities were indirectly related to degenerative lesions and were most prominent in peripheral non-weight-bearing areas of joints with central fibrillation. Decalcification exposed the interface between the bone and calcified cartilage. Collagen fibrils in articular cartilage did not interdigitate with those of bone. The subchondral bone was appositional, avascular, smooth and very thin in most areas of human joints. Perforations through subchondral bone or calcified cartilage were rare. Bleach maceration destroyed important details.