How to Choose a Taxidermist
By Greg Gallman
Taxidermy is one of the world’s unique professions. For many years it was a secretive trade practiced by a handful of artisans who were reluctant to share their knowledge with anyone. In recent times, however, knowledge-sharing forums, videos, and widely available instructional materials have transformed taxidermy into a vocation that attracts thousands of hobbyists and part-time artists each year. Most areas of the country now have at least two or three practitioners offering service to local citizens. This growth in the availability of taxidermists can create some tricky choices for the hunter or fisherman who desires to preserve his or her trophy of a lifetime. With that in mind, lets look at some key points to consider when deciding who gets your hard earned dollar.
We have all heard the saying that “you get what you pay for.” In the world of taxidermy this point cannot be emphasized enough. I am often amused at some of the online outdoor forums where some hunters and fishermen boast about their taxidermist’s combination of cheap prices and professional skills. I’ve repeatedly seen situations where, for example, a duck hunter is vigorously defending his waterfowl taxidermist who charges $90.00 for a duck mount while the low-end price of most professionals is $225.00 and up. He remarks that he will post a picture and the work “will speak for itself.” He posts the photo and it shows a pitifully mounted bird that any seasoned waterfowl taxidermist would recognize as inferior work. The fact is that any mount that is priced ridiculously low is going to be of low quality. If the price sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. This also proves that word of mouth is not always a dependable source for selecting a taxidermist
So, you ask, how do I know what is a fair price? I suggest that you call three or four artists in your city, adjoining county, or state to get a range of prices. Two of the prices will usually be reasonably close and you can begin to identify an average range for your area. It is noteworthy that many times the most skilled taxidermists will charge a significantly higher price. Also, full-time studios tend to charge more as they carry more overhead. The plus to full-time studios is that they depend on the income from your mount for their livelihood. This usually means more consistent turnaround which can be another major factor in selecting a taxidermist. As a side note, prices can vary widely from state to state. Once you have established a price range where you are comfortable, the other factors we will discuss can help narrow your choice.
A second key area in selecting a taxidermist is to research the vital characteristics of a good mount. The Internet is a great place to do this. Look at photos of live animals, fish, and birds. Go to taxidermy sites and find out what constitutes a professional work of art. Look at award winning mounts. I am convinced that 90 percent of hunters and fishermen do not really know what quality taxidermy looks like. As an example, most people look at a deer mount only from the antlers up. Most taxidermists, on the other hand, look at a mount from the antlers down. Study live pictures of the specimen you wish to have mounted. If it is a deer, does the taxidermist’s work reflect lifelike detail? Are the eyes open appropriately and shaped as they would be on a live deer? Does the mount have ear butts that show true-to-life muscle structure? Are the edges of the ears thin and tapered? Is the lip line smooth with properly tucked corners? If you are mounting a largemouth bass, does the artist’s paint coloration match that of a live bass? Are there two eyes and are they the correct color? Is the mouth open appropriately or is the bottom of the mouth pushed down excessively? Many mounts are simply not reflective of nature. Some time ago I was on an outdoor forum and a fisherman posted a picture of a crappie he had just gotten back from his taxidermist. He was proud of the mount and was proclaiming what a great job it was. Other fishermen were weighing in and also talking about what a great mount it was until finally, a wise observer noted that crappie do not have baby blue eyes! A taxidermist that produces genuine quality will turn out mounts that are a close reproduction of what is found in nature. They will be anatomically accurate and will match colorations found in the wild.
A third consideration when selecting a taxidermist is to find out how much experience the artist has. Experience is often a critical component in a taxidermist’s ability to turn out quality work. What most hunters and fishermen do not understand is that very few specimens received by taxidermists are in perfect condition. The vast majority have minor to major flaws. Almost all fish have imperfect fins. Most birds have damaged wings, heads, or broken bones. Deer usually have bullet holes, broken tines, and scars from fighting, as well as briskets or other areas that are sometimes split incorrectly or cut short by an inexperienced hunter. Experienced taxidermists are often able to make these repairs flawlessly, whereas the less experienced artist might have a more difficult time or not be able to make the repair at all.
Another important factor is to consider any awards the taxidermist has won. Be certain to ask if the artist has won his/her awards at the professional level or higher. The reason is that most taxidermy shows give every novice entry a ribbon. The idea is to encourage the artist. The unfortunate side of this is that some taxidermists proclaim themselves “award winners” even though they have only received novice ribbons. Awards won at the professional level or higher are earned and indicate a higher level of expertise. I see many taxidermists who proclaim themselves as “master taxidermists.” This is another area that should be examined thoroughly. Taxidermists that carry this legitimate distinction have won awards in the Master of Masters category which is the highest level of taxidermy competition. If your potential artist carries this distinction, you can rest assured that he/she is very capable of producing quality work. Another area that is important is that of certified taxidermist. Many state taxidermy associations now have programs to certify award winning artists. Most require at least a second place ribbon in a professional or higher category. Taxidermists are able to become certified in multiple areas such as game heads, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals.
A fifth key principle is to ask the taxidermist if he/she tans their animal skins. Many taxidermists use dry preservative or an alcohol spray to preserve skins. Although some taxidermists produce good work with these methods, the drawback is that they do not chemically treat the skin in such a way as to permanently stop decomposition. These preserving agents work by drying out the raw skin and preventing bacterial growth. However, in the presence of moisture or excessive humidity, such treated skins will decompose. Tanning, on the other hand, involves a process of salting and pickling that removes all biodegradable material in the skin and then converts the skin to leather through the application of a tanning agent and oil. Tanned skins undergo minimal shrinkage and dry virtually odor free. Dry preserved skins usually retain moderate to high levels of odor and are subject to large amounts of shrinkage over time. Bug-eyed deer are often the result of dry preservative methods, as well as skins that show puckering in the facial area and drumming in the brisket where the skin has pulled away from the form due to shrinkage. Tanning is a slower and more expensive process and usually results in a higher price being charged by the taxidermist. One key thing to look for when looking at an artist’s work is to see whether his/her mounts have a dried-out look to them. This is almost always a sign of dry preservative methods.
Lastly, ask your potential taxidermist if he/she has a website. Websites can provide a vast amount of information that may answer many of your questions. They also allow you to see some of the artist’s work without actually traveling to the studio. Many taxidermists also provide a list of prices on their websites, awards they have won, references, and other pertinent information. Artists who have taken the extra step of establishing a web presence are often a step ahead in terms of providing professional service.
Remember, when you choose a taxidermist, you are choosing an artist to create a lasting memory. If your trophy is worth mounting, it is worth the trouble of finding the right professional to do the job. A good mount will deliver appreciation and lasting memories of your adventure for many years. A bad mount will be a sad reminder of what saving a few dollars can sometimes bring. The best advice I can give is that when choosing a taxidermist, think about quality first!