Taxidermy is not dead. Technically speaking, the subjects are, but the art form is blossoming into a modern passion.
According to this article, the majority of hobbyists that turn to taxidermy are women, and they are most interested in anthropomorphic (animals engaging in human activities) pieces. This practice coincides neatly with the increasing interest in vintage forms of art and portrayal of death as something elegant, artistic, full of craftsmanship and splendor.
It can be intimidating at first, though.
If you type in taxidermy supplies in a search engine such as Google, for instance, clicking on the first few results will send you to the websites of McKenzie Taxidermy Supplies or Van Dyke’s Taxidermy Supplies.
If you are venturing into taxidermy for the first time, you might feel bewildered by the many taxidermist supplies categories for tools and consumables such as hide tanning supplies you will find on either site that you don’t know where to start. While you can appreciate so much material and how easy it is to procure supplies, a prudent taxidermist does not waste and makes as few mistakes as possible.
On the other hand, if you are an old hand at taxidermy, these sites are the equivalent to a luxurious indulgence in a passionate hobby!
However, since you are checking out this article, it would be safe to assume that you are a budding taxidermist, in which case we’ll start with the basic tools you will need to get started.
You can preserve any animal you want--from fish to bears, and the techniques vary for each type of animal. However, there are basic tools that every taxidermist needs no matter what kind of animal you are working on.
Before you take out your wallet, though, some things you need you will not find in a store. These are:
The first two you will have to cultivate. It is important to work carefully around a skin to avoid mutilating it, and you can make a really good product if you put some effort into creating a scenario.
The third thing will depend on the animal you are working on. If you know the anatomy, you will find it easier to work with it. Your high school biology books may be adequate if you are going to use common fauna, but for larger animals and rarer finds, a biology class or taxidermy class may be in order.
You may also want to purchase old books on animal biology as these have inspiring and beautiful drawings full of old world detail on anatomy.
You can break down the tools you need into three categories:
It is important to remember that taxidermy is primarily the proper preservation of the skin of your subject so that you can mount it without fear of it rotting.
This means that your main concern is to keep the skin as whole as possible, and to process it so that it will not decompose.
To do this, you will have to take the skin off your subject and to remove as much organic matter (including the eyes) from the skin before disinfecting and preserving the skin. The cutting tools are therefore the first things you have to get together. Fortunately, the list of tools is pretty short.
For cutting, you need:
For preserving, you will need
For styling, you need:
Quite a spread, don’t you think? For obsessive-compulsive individuals and collectors, the sheer thought of organizing these tools may be building quite the anticipation.
All of these supplies, except maybe for artificial taxidermy eyes and foam forms, are available in any hardware or crafts store. To save on costs and pour more funds into better material, you may want to find these items in your home--as they are quite common and you may probably own some already.
You can improvise for many of the tools you need. For example, you do not absolutely need a foam form found at McKenzie Taxidermy Supply. You can use any inert material like dry straw and string to fashion your form. Modern conveniences are just that, conveniences.
If you are just starting out in taxidermy, it is absolutely acceptable to make do while you are experimenting. You may even contribute to the art form by inventing better or unique ways of getting it done.
In most cases, beginners in taxidermy get into it because of pride, nostalgia and necessity. Avid hunters may want to find out how to display their accomplishments. Or perhaps a pet dies and you want to keep them around.
You can send them out to professional taxidermists of course, but the minimum fee they will charge you is $100 for a small mammal, and a significant amount more for a bear.
The amount of savings are significant if your perform the process yourself; since you can be assured that you only pay for materials. You may even offer basic services for small animals to friends and family. Starting with a bear is, obviously, not advisable.
Most experts suggest that choosing a small mammal may be the best way to start and with which to hone your skills. A mouse or a rat may be the most readily available. Pet shops often sell frozen rats and mice for pet snakes, so you can start with those.
Of course, you can bag your own if you want. Just make sure that you do not damage the skin and freeze it as soon as possible after death. Double wrap the animal in newspaper before sealing it in a plastic bag to prevent freezer burn when you store the body.
The process is relatively simple. What you need is a lot of patience and a steady hand. You can watch these two videos for skinning and fleshing a rat, or this video for the complete process for mounting a mouse.
As you will see in the rat videos, the artist emphasizes how important it is to remove every bit of flesh and fat from the hide. The mouse video uses more steps in finishing the subject. However, you will notice that they both use Borax to disinfect the skin.
The artist in the mouse video simply washes the skin thoroughly with clean water and then sets it out to dry slightly before carefully applying Borax on every millimeter of the flesh. This is called a dry preserve, and usually works well for small animals.
In the rat video, however, the artist puts the hide in a blue solution. This is denatured alcohol (a.k.a. methylated spirits) mixed with equal parts of water.
The artist had begun a process called curing, which will eventually lead to tanning. This involves quite a few more steps and a few additional leather tanning supplies you need before the hide is ready for mounting. If you want to tan your hide, you will need the following fur tanning supplies:
Disinfectant (i.e. Lysol)
Heavy rubber gloves
Basin or pail
Formic or acetic acid
Soda ash or baking soda (for basification)
pH testing strips
Aqueous degreaser (for greasy animals such as bears)
Non-iodized salt (NEVER rock salt)
Fleshing the skin of larger animals also requires more time and patience. As you can see from this video, you will need:
Fleshing beam (any flat surface will do, actually, you just need to stretch the skin a little)
Palette knife (any thin, pliable, flat blade will work, or even a scalpel, but be very careful)
You can religiously adhere to this manual method all the way, or you can save some time especially with larger hides (cape if you refer to deer skin) by doing the bulk of the fleshing using a:
Fleshing machine (this mini flesher is similar or the same as the one in the video)
It is important to note that while some taxidermists believe that dry preserving a hide will work with all types of hide, the majority think otherwise.
According to these taxidermists, the dry preservation method does not let you penetrate all the way through the hide, which in larger animals with thicker skin can lead to hair loss and shrinkage over a short time after mounting.
If you plan to make a living out of large animal taxidermy, you should check out taxidermy supplies wholesale. You can expect a considerable amount of savings.
Mammals are one matter, but mounting fish is a bit more challenging artistic-wise.
For one thing, fish skin loses its color once the fish dies, so you have to paint it. For another, you have to preserve the head and gills as well, unlike mammals where you discard almost everything but the hide (and maybe the antlers and hooves).
This video shows how it is fleshed and skinned. You may be perplexed as to why the artist is making a sketch of the fish prior to skinning. This is to carve a foam form of the fish for mounting, as will be shown in this video.
For prepping the skin of fish, you will need:
Tweezers (to get the eyes out)
Fish cheek scraper
Fish skinning knife
Fish skinning shears
Fish skin scraper
As noted earlier, you can make use of anything you have handy around the house or readily available at the hardware store and close enough for government work. The artist in the video uses a teaspoon and a razor blade for some of the work. It does make it easier if you have the right tools, however.
In preserving the fish skin, you only need to use a Borax-water solution of equal parts water and Borax then soak it overnight. Fish skin does not have hair, so there is nothing to lock in.
Mounting the fish requires:
Mache (to lock in the fins, tail, and head parts and fill in cheeks and eyeholes)
Foam for carving
Hide adhesive or paste
Staple gun (numerous T-pins may be substituted)
Cardboard (to spread the fins and tail)
Large paper clips
The real artistic challenge, however, is reproducing the colors of the original fish once the fish has been mounted.
You should photograph the animal with all its colors intact before skinning it. If you neglected to do that, you can always use a reference photo for the typical color combination of your particular fish.
You will need:
Water-based acrylic paint
You can get a starter kit for the paint from sites like Van Dykes taxidermy or Wasco taxidermy for your first few attempts. This will minimize the costs when you first start out. It takes quite a bit of practice learning to control an airbrush, so it may be a good idea to practice first before getting down to the one that did not get away.
If birds are your preference for preserving, you will have to deal with the additional concern of keeping the feathers and plumes intact. They fall off easily if they are not handled right, so proper field dressing is crucial.
However, the process is very similar to that used for small mammals, so you don’t need special tools. You may want to touch up the beak and feet with paint, though. You also have more leeway in terms of mounting the bird in dynamic poses. To plump up and prevent shrinkage of the feet and wings, you do need:
In a static pose, i.e. sitting duck, you will not need anything else by way of taxidermy supply. However, if you want to mount your bird with the wings outstretched, you will need to treat the wing bones so that you can insert a wire and pose it on taxidermy mounts. You will need:
Heavy gauge wire
To finish it off, you need
Caulking (to seal the spaces between the skin and foam form)
Bird tweezers (to fix the feathers)
It is not the intention of this article to teach you how, but merely to tell you what tools, supplies, and equipment you need to get started with taxidermy. The costs of beginner taxidermy materials can range from a few dollars to as much as $2,000, depending on your level, dedication to the craft and your budget.
As mentioned earlier, you can make do with what you already have, or find cheaper substitutes to taxidermy forms or supplies in general purpose establishments. You can go online and find taxidermy supplies catalog at specialty stores such as Rinehart Taxidermy Supplies that have ready to use starter kits if you have a mind to. However, you can flex your DIY muscles and improvise. It all depends on what you want. The essential practice is to find out the basic steps and experiment with what works for you.
A tenet of taxidermy is that it is very old, and the best taxidermists have honed their craft in unique ways over time. Their techniques vary in so many layers and nuances and some swear by one technique over the other. Experience is something that can hone your skills and develop your intuition for the best materials and techniques.
Don’t be afraid to fail and experiment--you won’t learn unless you don’t see the results yourself. Good luck, beginning taxidermist!
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