Taxidermy: Tools & Techniques
Last Saturday, about a dozen people filed into River Bend Nature Center to learn an ancient art—taxidermy.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack
For centuries, people have developed ways in which to preserve animals: however, whether you’re doing taxidermy to learn a new skill, to show off a trophy, or record scientific data, specific steps must be taken in order for the specimen to remain in life-like condition. This blog post is dedicated to outlining several common techniques used both in the past and the present to preserve animals.
Taxidermy may be performed on all vertebrate species, including all mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. And though the steps taken to preserve these different species varies slightly, the tools required are all fairly similar, and depending on your skill level and the purpose of the mount, can be quite easy to procure. Any project will require at the very least, the following items:
- Protective Equipment (Gloves, safety glasses, etc), if done correctly taxidermy is fairly clean, but steps should still be taken to keep yourself safe
- Sharp scissors or scalpel
- Medical probe
- Cardboard or foam
- Buckets/plastic containers
- A drying agent such as borax or cornmeal OR a tanning agent
- Needle & thread
These are the basic supplies that will be required for almost any type of mount you are attempting, but as different animals and different techniques will vary, so will the materials required. As you gain experience, you may also find that you prefer specific brands, or specific tools over others.
Taxidermy is a mix of science and art that has been developed since the mid-1700s, and possibly even earlier. And though the number of methods and purposes are limited only by imagination, this blog post will cover those that are considered “tried and true” by taxidermy specialists, and are by far the most common.
- Mounted skin on manikin
This is the most common method of preserving a trophy animal and is what you’d expect for such projects as mounting deer heads, or creating life-size mounts of bears, cougars, and other large animals. In short, the animal must be skinned (the skin preserved by either drying or tanning) and then placed over a sculpted manikin of the specific species. These manikins are painstakingly created by wildlife experts in order to be as anatomically accurate as possible, but once created, they can then be mass produced. In the early years of taxidermy this would not have been possible, and even today there are some taxidermists who choose to sculpt their own models (in order to use the specific animal as a comparison) or create a model using the Victorian-era method of winding the body shape out of string as depicted in this image of William Hornaday.
William Hornaday. the father of modern taxidermy, creating a lion mannequin by winding string around a wood base.
Once the skin is placed over the manikin, finishing touches must be made, such as repairing shrunken sections, restoring natural colors, placing eyes and teeth, etc.
But like any taxidermy method, the process will vary by specimen, the taxidermist’s skill, and materials available and a taxidermist may even use multiple methods on the same specimen to achieve the best results.
2. Preserving Skulls and Bones
Depending on the purpose for preserving the animal, the most interesting piece might actually be inside—ie, bones, skulls, and teeth. The methods for preserving these parts are in some ways much easier than attempting to preserve other softer parts (bone is far more forgiving than delicate skin, hair, or feathers), but care must still be taken to avoid damaging them. The first step in this method, is to skin the animal (the technique will vary depending on whether you would also like to preserve the skin in addition to the bones), and then to de-flesh it. There are many ways in which to clean the bones of flesh, including: burying in the soil, macerating in water, treatment with chemicals, exposing to flesh-eating insects/bacteria, boiling, or by hand. No one of these techniques will work one hundred percent of the time for every specimen, and often, best results come from using a combination of several. But regardless of the methods used, once the skull/bones have been cleaned of all flesh, they will need to be dried thoroughly before being whitened by letting it soak in hydrogen peroxide (never bleach!) and sprayed with a clear acrylic to protect the surface from dirt and oils.
The steps of cleaning a skull as performed on a red fox skull. In this case, de-fleshing was performed with a combination of by-hand removal, and simmering in hot water.
Photo and taxidermy credit: Stephanie Rathsack
3. Tanning Pelts
One of the earliest methods of preserving an animal: In 19th century England, there was an increased demand for leather, which meant tanning (turning an animal’s skin into preserved leather) became commonplace. The methods for doing so have changed throughout the years (you won’t find many taxidermists relying on pig or horse brains to turn skins into leather anymore), but the practice is still variable, and depending on your experience and abilities, there are several different methods:
- Tree Bark
- Brain (both brain and bark are more natural, but very difficult),
- Purchasing a ready-made tanning solution
By far, the easiest and most reliable method is purchasing a tanning solution, but taxidermists have had great success with all of the above methods and more. Basically, the tanning solution is meant to preserve the hide and prevent it from decomposing.
To prepare a hide for tanning, the animal must be skinned, either as a flat cape (think bear skin rug) or a tube (think hand-puppet), and all flesh/fat must be removed. The use of a sharp knife or de-flesher is a must, and great care must be taken to avoid puncturing the skin itself. It is also essential that the hide is de-fleshed quickly before bacteria have a chance to grow, especially if you intend to keep the fur on, rather than making leather.
Once all the flesh is removed, the hide has to be completely dried out. The easiest way to do this is to salt it by placing a generous layer of non-iodized salt over the flesh side of the hide, replacing frequently until all moisture has been drawn out. At this point, you would apply a lime solution to remove the hair if your goal is to make leather, but this step may be skipped otherwise. Afterwards, the hide must be ‘’thinned’, which means more scraping with the knife or de-flesher to make an even and easier to manage skin, removing all pieces that were missed the first time it was fleshed. Once the hide is thinned, it must be soaked in an acidic solution (pH of 2 or lower), then neutralized completely before the tan is applied. Depending on the method of tanning to be used, the process will vary, but generally the hide must be either soaked in the solution, or it must be brushed on in an even coating for several days. Once the hide is tanned, it is considered a stable hide and can be left indefinitely. But to finish the process, the hide must be ‘’broken’’, in which the fibers in the leather are pulled apart, leaving it soft and flexible. There are machines available for this process, but firmly stretching the hide or scraping it works well for small hides, and takes relatively little time. Once finished, the leather will have a lighter white appearance, and will remain pliable.
4. Study Skins
This final method is almost entirely used by museums and collectors interested in preserving as much scientific data on the specimen as possible, while also saving space. Generally used for birds and small mammals, the specimens are worked into a round tube shape in order to more easily fit side by side in drawers, although they can be worked into other shapes as well.
In order to perform this technique, the animal must first be skinned, by creating a small vertical ventral incision and then carefully teasing the hide away. If done correctly, the casing containing the internal organs will remain in one piece and thus keep the entire process relatively clean. If the visceral mass is punctured, or bleeding occurs, you may use a drying agent such as borax to keep your work station clean as well as protect the skin from staining. Once the hide has been removed, it can either be pinned flat as a ‘’rug’’, or stuffed with medical cotton and sewed back together before being pinned into the desired shape. After the animal has been pinned, it must be left to dry for several weeks, up to several months depending on the size, though once dried it will remain fixed in this position.
A participant in Saturday’s class works patiently to pose her mouse in just the right shape.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack
Over centuries of improvement and experimentation, taxidermy is an art and a science that has truly come into its own. Where once even the most skilled taxidermist struggled to preserve small animals, today both experts and amateurs alike can create beautiful and long-lasting specimens. It is a rewarding process, whether you’re looking to save a trophy, or simply to acquire a new skill. If you do plan to try taxidermy on your own, it is important to keep in mind that many species are protected under law, and possession of any parts of those species is illegal, regardless of how they were collected.
Patience pays off in taxidermy, as participants in Saturday’s class found out after their mice were completed in about three hours.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack
Interested in learning more or trying it out for yourself? River Bend Nature Center will potentially be offering more courses on taxidermy! Stay-tuned for announcements on our facebook page, website, and newsletter.