My First Taxidermy Attempt
Although I had been married to a taxidermist for 20 plus years, helping him off and on, mostly with what I call the 'unskilled labor' part of the business, and working for another 6 years for another taxidermist after my divorce, (one friend told me she was the only person she knew to have relationships with two taxidermist, but that is another story), I never tried to mount a deer head by myself.
I don't even know when and where and why I got the urge to try it. But one day I asked my boss if he would help me to mount a head. I had a set of old horns, and a cape given to me by my son. We ordered the form and one day when it was sorta slow I began work.
I had done a lot working for my boss, Greg, so I knew the basis. He showed me how to make the ears, (we used the bondo method, squishing warm bondo in the ear, and shaping it around a mold. It wasn' too hard, and they looked like mule deer ears.
“The eyes are the hardest,” Greg told me. “And, they have to look right.” He showed me how to set the eyes in clay, and to build the clay up around them to simulate the eye sockets. Greg did one and I copied it on the other side.
Then, I took clay and squished it inside the ear to form the ear butt, and the clay helps to hold the ear against the form.
Then it was time to put the hide paste on the form, and throw the hide on. The tricky part here is to keep the hide past from getting in the hair. I did okay, only a little paste sticking to the fur. Next was making sure the eyes lined up, and the nose and mouth were in the proper places.
“Always put a little nail behind the eye to hold it in place, so when you get the hide on the deer doesn't look Chinese,” Greg told me. “And, put a nail behind the ear to hold it in place.”
You have a nice trophy, the best you’ve ever taken, or it was the most memorable hunt you’ve ever been on. You decide that this year you’ll give yourself a present and mount the head to hang on the wall to remember the hunt.
Note: Mandy (owner of Atalanta) is a member of our WH Club and also you can find her on our BB if you would like to talk to her. Her work is beautiful and unique. Be sure to check out her web site. Atalanta Taxidermy
On a crisp fall afternoon while leaving the Denver Zoo, my husband Jerry turned to me and announced “I want to go to Taxidermy School” Nervous but trying to keep the panic out of my voice I said, “Jerry we have a baby and a mortgage and you want to quit your job to become a taxidermist?” “Are you crazy?” “We are going to starve!”
I had never given any thought to taxidermy as anything other than dusty old heads in Grandpa’s dark musty basement. I had a lot to learn about taxidermy and the amazing strides being made to improve and advance an ancient craft.
I proudly say I took a deep breath and went on to encourage Jerry to pursue his passion to become a Master Taxidermist. In the almost 20-years we have been in this business I have been fortunate to see my husband along with many other visionary artists strengthen and positively enhance the world of taxidermy. Never have I regretted taking the step of faith, both in God and my husband to change from a career with great pay and full benefits, one which his entire family had been deeply involved in for generations, to a career we weren’t entirely sure we could feed our growing family on.
When a person is able to earn a living while surrounded by people and pursuits he is passionate about, then he is successful in more ways than simply financially. This business is one of artistic creativity as well as a comradeship among people of like interests. Days go fast when you are engrossed in tales of the hunt. While preserving beautiful memories for customers or friends, you get to help them relive some of the greatest days of their lives.
In this article I will address some issues, as well as share some experiences we have had along our taxidermy journey. Consider carefully your choice to enter into a career of taxidermy. It is not always easy and will take some degree of sacrifice initially, but it can be incredibly rewarding and satisfying to be in a business you and your whole family can participate in and be proud of.
Taxidermy as a business can keep you very busy all year or for a few weeks as a hobby. For example, many times men and women have come to our school to take our Gamehead course to mount the elk they harvested that year. After going home with the animals they mount in class, word spreads to the community and soon they have heads to work on for all of their friends. Another common scenario is a student taking an individual course such as the Fish course and coming back to take the rest of the program because they are asked to mount other animals or birds. Customers who find a good taxidermist usually want a full service professional to mount all of their trophies, but if you want to specialize in only one area, other taxidermists may send their clients to you for that species. A hobby can turn into a career quickly depending on how much work you want to take in or how many friends you have!
Start up costs can be minimal with the purchase of necessary tools and supplies for working in your garage or workshop. Expenses can also be elaborate with the construction of a new building, all of the bells and whistles, or somewhere in between. It is reasonable to start slowly with only what you need for your initial projects and build your business investment over time.
Training for taxidermy comes in various forms such as books, videos, and taxidermy schools. There are pros and cons to each method, so careful thought needs to go into your choice. Several books and videos are on the market, but taxidermy is a craft in which hands-on training is best. Suppose you are trying to learn how to mount a fish from a book or video and your fish has a problem that is not addressed. Ruining a beautiful mount would frustrate many people into never trying something they may very well have been good at with proper training. Would you trust the engine of your car to someone who has only seen one fixed watching a video? Why would your customers trust their precious and expensive mounts to the same?
Some taxidermy schools offer on-site housing while you stay. Students, exchange notes, hunting stories or go fishing on the weekends. We love to take our students hunting and fishing while they are here. It is great to share our beautiful state with them. Frequently we hear students say they don’t want to go home because they have grown so close to each other and our instructors. That is the kind of atmosphere to look for in a taxidermy school.
How your instructors teach is also a very important consideration. In our mind’s eye we may know what an apple looks like. If asked to, we will draw exactly what is in our mind’s eye.
How long a school has been in business, are they as good standing with their state school regulatory board? If the school has been in business for a time, the state board will also know them well and will require them to meet certain standards. In Colorado for instance our school is required to meet strict guidelines. This insures our customers that we are not just a fly by night school.
Is your school approved for Veterans Education Benefits? The Veterans Administration is also very strict about the schools they are willing to approve. The Veterans Administration is a great place to get funding if you are either a veteran or a family member of a veteran. Make sure you give them a call to see if you are eligible and to find out how the process works. We work with several veterans each year but the paperwork process can take a little time to get worked out.
Is your potential school able to work with vocational rehabilitation agencies? We train many men and women who have been disabled in other occupations. Taxidermy is well suited to people who have been hurt and who want to renew their lives. If you are in a situation such as this, please contact a voc/rehab counselor to help you with your benefits. Many times they will pay for your school tuition entirely as well as tools, supplies and housing.
Taxidermy has been a large part of my life for many years now. I went from wanting nothing “dead” hanging in my home to designing an entire home around the proud moments my family shares together from the hunting trips clear through to hanging their mounts in the house. Each child in our home has their own trophies in their bedroom and our teenage girls especially love to show new boyfriends the many animals they have shot! Daddy loves that the boys who come over to meet us know our girls can shoot straight and well!
For centuries hunters have worked to preserve their trophies. Castle walls held skulls and horns of the spoils of the Lord's hunts, and taxidermists learned to preserve the hides of the animals to mount the entire head, instead of just the horns and skulls.
Today, shoulder mounts and horn plaques are only a small part of what many taxidermists do and most clients expect. Today, taxidermy is becoming not just a way to preserve a set of horns on a head, but a way to preserve the entire hunting experience.
At one time, life-size mounts were mainly seen in museums, but today many hunters are investing in a life-size mount complete with a habitat base.
I recently attended the Wyoming Taxidermy Artists show in Sheridan, Wyoming. Some of the mounts not only recreated the animal, but were artistic as well.
Greg Hartman, a Sheridan, Wyoming taxidermist, said of the new taxidermy, "Many clients bring back photos of the animals natural surroundings, wanting a similar scene on the mount. These photos help the taxidermist to re-create the exact environment that the animal lived in. These photos help to make the mount and the base as realistic as possible. Taxidermy is a visual art, and a way of recreating nature."
To re-create the living animal, a taxidermist has more options now that ever before. New forms, new eyes, detailed jaw sets and artifical noses add life-like looks to the mounts. Natural-looking habitat materials are now readily available from many supply houses throughout the country. "Taxidermy has come a long way," says Herb Kretschman, a 20-year veteran of the taxidermy business. "Taxidermists used to take the skull and attach it to an upright stick and a back board, which was then wrapped with excelsior and clay to form some semblance of the animal’s muscle and bone structure. Today, new innovations have helped to make the mounts more life-life than ever..”
Not only are life-sized mounts with habitat becoming more in demand by hunters, the pedestal mounts are a new direction in shoulder mounts.
"Taking a shoulder mount and adding a habitat and a finely constructed pedestal greatly enhances the mount," Hartman said. "It becomes not just a mounted head, but a work of art, or a functional piece of furniture."
The pedestal mounts are also a 3-D piece of art, that can be walked around and viewed from all four sides, unlike the average shoulder mount. Pedestals can be made to suit the decor of the clients house, in almost any wood and any style. They take up less room than a full-body mount, yet habitat can be added to enhance the mount.
"I think the taxidermy profession is shifting away from the generic shoulder mounts, people want more artistic mounts, such as the life-size and the pedestals," Hartman said. "Hunters today focus on custom taxidermy work. People who go to Africa and Asia for exotic trophies look for more creative ways to enhance the trophy. Most people want good quality, and they are willing to pay more for it. They want that one-of-a-kind mount that no one else has."
At the taxidermy show, many of the taxidermists who displayed mounts would have agreed. One mount was attached to a large tree limb, the knarled wood looking like a part of the mount. One that caught my eye was two whitetail heads, mounted together as a pedestal mount, and the backing was a forest scene. More and more creativity is apparent everyday in the taxidermy world.
Kretschman added, "Some animals just deserve a life-size mount. Sheep are hard to get and expensive, and they look better life-sized. Big cats, mountain goats and other animals lend themselves to full body mounts."
Hartman stated that hunters also want artistic scenes with two or more animals, such as a bear and wolverine or a lion taking down an impala. At the taxidermy show, one mount was a bear that was trying to dig a frozen deer out of a snow bank. The mount told a story in itself.
"A good taxidermist should be artistically inclined," Hartman said. "He or she must have an 'eye' for the natural world when recreating it for the client. Taxidermists who excel look on it as an art form.
In choosing a taxidermist, the hunter should choose a taxidermist who is experienced in all phases of the taxidermy work. Hartman continued, "Taxidermy is a craft, but also an art. Today's taxidermist looks upon his craft as an art form, and wants to portray the natural world in life-size artwork, incorporating as much of nature as possible."
Cynthia J. Vannoy-Rhoades
(So Your Taxidermist Can Help you Tell your Story)
It may be a child's first four inch Crappie caught from Grandpa's pond or a once in a lifetime "monster" Northern Pike landed on that dream vacation. Suddenly you have a trophy fish and you want to have it mounted. Each trophy fish is special and exciting to the angler and care should be taken to ensure that it will last for many years to come. Most of us do not go fishing with the thought of having our catch mounted, but when that "big one" is in your net it's a good idea to have a plan.
When having your trophy preserved, choose a taxidermist carefully. Not all wildlife artists can or will mount fish due to the difficulty in sculpting and re-creating the actual anatomy and color. There are several factors to consider when searching for the right taxidermist to mount your fish. Everyone likes a bargain, but quality taxidermy is an art and later you may regret having price determine your taxidermist.
When evaluating a taxidermist it is best to visit their studio to see how their fish actually look. There are several qualities that distinguish a well mounted fish. Do the fish in the studio seem to come alive on the wall or do they look like they should be in the garage behind dusty flower pots and old tires? Do the fish mounts drip oil and have an odor from not being properly cleaned and prepared by the taxidermist prior to mounting?
Knowing the right questions and what characteristics to look for in your taxidermists mounts is helpful. Many people realize only after catching their dream fish, that they have never really studied a mounted fish.
Among the questions to ask your potential taxidermist are:
Do you hand carve the body or use a stock form from a manufacturer? Hand carving the form assures the length and girth measurements are true to your fish and also the shape of your fish is what you want. There are several manufacturers of quality fish forms, but with pre-made forms it is harder to get the Acustom look@ and size of your actual fish.
Do you sew or staple the back (or non-show side) of the fish? A good fish artist will sew the skin tightly and make a perfect fit. If there are gaps and puckers, then the fish you are getting back is not the actual size of the fish you caught.
Are both eyes affixed and are both sides of the fish painted? You caught a whole fish and when you display your trophy don't you want people to see the whole thing? Finishing both sides of the fish may take a little longer, but the result is worth the effort.
Do you paint your fish from actual customer photos or from a paint schedule? Each fish is different as each person is different. Your rainbow trout may come from the high mountains in Colorado in July. Do you want your taxidermist to paint it the same as a rainbow trout from a California hatchery caught in February? An artist knows how to paint your fish as in your photo, not as a paint by number kit.
Is the mouth of the fish sculpted as well as the gills and the vent? Hand sculpting the anatomical parts of the fish correctly takes more time, but makes the fish appear alive. You wouldn't want a portrait of your child painted without his nose would you?
Once you have selected your taxidermist, you should know what to do to make their job a little easier. Some simple supplies to keep in your tackle box just in case are a camera, cloth measuring tape, 20 Mule Team Borax (which can be found at most grocery stores), newspaper and a plastic bag.
When you have removed the hook from your fish, if possible, refrain from putting it on a stringer as it can be damaged. Take a number of photos of your fish in good light. Your pictures should be of both sides of the fish as well as one or two with you holding it. In addition to being a great way to remember your trip, it's another way to track your fish for identification purposes.
Weigh and measure your fish from the nose to the tail and then take the girth measurement at the widest part around the fish. Next dust your fish liberally with the borax this helps preserve the color of the fish wrap it in newspaper and put it into a plastic bag. Store your fish in a clean, dry cooler or a refrigerator. Moisture will rapidly make your fish lose it's color so keep it dry. Freeze the fish if it will be several days or longer before you can get it to the taxidermist.
Many "catch and release" fisherman do not know that they also can have their trophies mounted. Reproduction fish are becoming more and more popular as the catch and release water areas are growing.
If you are in "catch and release" waters a few strategies will help you get a nice replicate fish mount and also help the fish you catch to return to the water with less stress. As soon as you know you want to have the fish you hooked replicated, wet your hands before handling your fish being careful to avoid touching the lateral line of the fish as little as possible. This line is located along each side of the fish and is the nerve center for the fish. Rough, or dry contact greatly adds to the stress of the fish. Take your measurements and photos quickly as the fish shouldn't be removed from the water for more than a few seconds.
When reintroducing a fish back into the water never throw it into the water. Gently hold the fish by it's tail facing the current to let water flow through it's mouth and through the gills. The more time you fought the fish the more lactic acid is in the fish's system and the more time you need to spend giving the fish the best possible chance to safely return back to the water. The fish will let you know when it is ready by swimming away.
There are many wonderful wildlife artists in our country who have taken the time to study the craft of taxidermy who genuinely and passionately wish to further the positive image and growth taxidermy has seen in the last several years. Being careful to choose men and women who take care of the details and who produce mounts in a manner which is both respectful to the animal and the customer is vital to both the hunting and fishing industry as well as to the art of taxidermy. When you do your part to make things go well for your taxidermist, you are not only able to place a thing of beauty on your wall or table, you are able to help further an art form which was threatened in years past.
Anne Vinnola is a freelance writer and along with her husband owns The Colorado Institute of Taxidermy Training Inc. and Big Timber South Taxidermy, in Canon City Colorado. Visit them at cotaxidermy.net or www.coloradotaxidermyschool.com 1-800-733-6936