By Tom Kuglin
With the recent cold snap, hunter success is expected to pick up in the coming days and weeks, and that means taxidermists are gearing up to receive the bulk of their yearly workload. But just how do they take skin and antlers or horns and make it look alive?
It starts in the field, said Jeff Welch, owner of Trails West Taxidermy in Helena, as many hunters are learning to make the proper cuts on an animal to allow a taxidermist to use the skin called a “cape” for a mount. Two decades ago, 80 percent of hunters made cuts that rendered capes useless, and that meant having to buy another cape to make a mount, he said.
“People have learned to take care of them -- to not drag them or cut the brisket -- but I’d guess 30 percent still ruin their capes,” Jeff said.
The proper way to cape an animal for taxidermy is to cut straight down the spine from the back of the head midway through the body. From that cut, cut straight down to the belly from both sides, and skin forward to the shoulder and neck. Then cut around the knees and up the back of the leg but not into the brisket.
If a hunter is worried about making the wrong cut on the leg, Jeff said another option is to “case” the leg by taking it off at the knee, but not making any cuts up the back of the leg. Then skin it out and push it through to leave a tube, he said.
The face can then be left on for the taxidermist to complete, or skinned out by those hunters skilled with a knife. Of course, a taxidermist can skin out animals if hunters bring them in whole, and totally different cuts must be made for a full body mount.
Jeff added that he is always buying capes from hunters to use on mounts or in his taxidermy school.
Most older mounts only include the neck and head rather than including the shoulder common in mounts today, he said. That was due to where hunters commonly made their cuts, and the old paper forms that made up the mounts, Jeff said.
Trails West is one of the few taxidermy shops in the nation that both tans its own skins and makes its own forms by pouring foam into molds, co-owner Jody Welch said.
When the shop receives an animal, she prefers that hunters leave the face on to get measurements before skinning it out. Once it is skinned, all the large chunks of meat must be removed with a knife in a process called fleshing, she said.
“A lot of times hunters put salt on the hides before they’re fleshed thinking they’re trying to help,” Jody said. “That actually ends up making the meat adhere to the skin and ends up causing me a lot more work. It becomes almost impossible to get off.”
The most difficult part of preparing a cape is splitting the eyes and lips, and skinning out the ears, she said. A small layer of fat and flesh sits inside the lips and eyes, and that must be removed with precision cuts beyond the skills of most hunters.
Once fleshing is complete, the capes go into the salt room for at least eight hours and then are hung up to continue drying.
“Moisture is the enemy,” Jeff said. “Bacteria can get into the hair follicles and pretty soon that hair can start to slip.”
Slipping refers to the industry term when the hide has spoiled from bacteria, and hair falls out in large chunks. At that point, there’s nothing a taxidermist can do, Jody said.
After the salting phase, the skins go into an acidic solution to soften and remove the last of the materials that cannot be preserved through tanning.
Next, the skins go into the tanning solution of water, salt and aluminum sulfate in a rotating tub. Tanning lasts around five to six hours.
“There’s a real art in tanning,” Jeff said. “There’s the science part in mixing the formulas, but then you have to know how thin to shave the skin. It’s just a totally different ball game from putting the cape on the form.”
After tanning, the skins go into a tumbler mixed with sawdust to remove the last bit of moisture.
Jeff makes his own forms, and with more than 100 to choose from, each can be modified to get the exact pose he or the customer is looking for. That means cutting and shaping the foam and adding putty to give the face expression and detail. Getting a form right can make for a time-consuming process.
“I remember doing a life-size bear mount once, and that took me three days just to get the form right,” he said.
Once the horns or antlers are attached to the form and actual mounting begins, the skins get rehydrated, sewn onto the form and pinned in place. Eyes are set, and after drying, finishing touches with paint give the mount its lifelike appearance.
Jody figures that bear rugs are the most time consuming work she does, with not only mounting the head, but also sewing felt and touching up the hide. She could mount five deer in the time it takes for one bear rug, she said.
Hunters also frequently make incorrect cuts when skinning out their bears, and that can mean cutting and reattaching fur in the right places.
“We can fix just about anything, but the more time it takes means the more time it costs,” Jody said.
While Jeff enjoys doing fish, they are the hardest mounts he does as most species come in multiple color phases, he said.
A taxidermist can mount around two deer per day, while an elk could take two-thirds of a day, Jeff said. When it comes to life-size mounts, the sky is the limit on habitat and poses, he said.
“Going from paper forms to polyurethane foam forms has been the biggest advancement in taxidermy since I’ve been doing it,” said Jeff, who noted he’d been a taxidermist for around 40 years. “But the biggest trend now is with habitat.”
Habitat was once an afterthought for taxidermists, but today a simple mount on the wall can become a wildlife scene down to the very smallest detail, he said.
“There’s just so much more science and art to it than a lot of people understand,” Jeff said. “We really have crossed over from taxidermists to wildlife artists.”