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Monday, August 4, 2014

That Doesn't Look Like My Deer

In past tutorials, we have written about the handling of skulls.  I will try to explain more about how important the skull is to achieving a more accurate mount.  Let me say, not all taxidermist will be in favor of having more skull to work with.  Some taxidermist do not use the skull the way we do.  They are not wrong in there methods, they have chosen a different path.

In every country I have hunted, the outfitter/Guide has always provided the hunters with the full skull.  This is so we (taxidermist) have all the accurate measurements needed to recreate the animal as close to life like as possible.  The skull is the key to the skin fitting the mannikin correctly. There is no substitute for the real skull.

This tutorial is not for those who know what they are doing, and have a process they follow.  If it is working for you, do not change a thing.  If you are a hunter who keeps receiving poor quality work;  or a taxidermist/hobbyist that always has trouble fitting the skin to the mannikin, then maybe this can help.

After years of stretching skins on mannikins and realizing nothing ever fit good, I began to do research.  I called a Taxidermist up in Canada that had been doing some outstanding work.  I had dialed the phone hoping he would tell me some secrets to his success. Bingo, it was my lucky day.  He began talking about the length between the first digit and the second digit.  Listening closely;  I was trying to understand how this was important.  The mannikins I am purchasing has already done all that for me.  As I listened more, it became very clear that all mannikins were just something to start with.  He ordered all Life Size without rods.  This he did;  so he could change the length and the circumference to fit the skin he had.  He said he also uses this method to correct the head shape and size on his shoulder mounts.  His Deer and Elk mounts were some of the most beautiful heads that I have ever seen. I now realized why hunters paid him a premium price to do their mounts.  He began explaining to me that once the mannikins were altered, the skins would go on the mannikins and begin to take on a life of there own.  They actually looked like they were alive.  He did not have to stretch and distort the skin.

This would be a difficult skull to get any info from.
The photo above shows a skull with much of the bone cut away.  The back of the skull is missing, along with the bridge of the nose.  Capturing the skull width is not an option here.  With the bridge of the nose missing,  means we have to guess the the angle of the antlers.  Another issue that comes into play is the stability of the antlers once attached.  With the lack of bone, the skull could eventually be cracked and be a floppy mess.  This can all be eliminated with the use of more skull.

Again, this is not for you that have a method in place.  This is to shed light on an option for those who struggle with the fitting of skins, or hunters receiving poor quality mounts back from a taxidermist.

From the front, photo shows the eye sockets and bridge of nose is missing.

The photo below shows the mannikins we purchase straight from the supply companies.  The mannikins come with the eye socket sculpted in place.  For the last 25 years, mannikins have all been made in this same manner.  The presumption was to cut all the eye sockets off the skull and use the form as is.  This is so far from the truth.  This was intended to give the taxidermist the width of the mannikins head.  Then the taxidermist was to measure the skull on the deer he was mounting.  At that time, the taxidermist would make the necessary adjustments to the mannikins width before removing the top plate from the mannikin.  Now he could line up the bridge of the nose,eye sockets, and the back of the head for a perfect fit.


Then the supply companies got a great idea!  They would begin to market there product as a perfect fit form.  All that would be needed was to purchase preset eyes, some professional made ear liners, and anyone can mount there own deer with perfect results.  The perfect result part is a non truth.  Then new taxidermist just starting out begin to believe that this method was in fact the dream they were hoping for.

Now that the industry begin using the mannikins in this way, it set in to motion the elimination of the importance of the skull measurements all together.  Now the taxidermist just measure the width of the neck, and order a form to fit the neck size.  The width of the head no longer comes into play.  By now you should see this is a major problem.  The taxidermist found this method speeds up his production.  He does realize that the quality of the mount has decreased, but he has less time in the mount meaning more profit for him.  It does seem to work for some taxidermist.  This is only because the hunter is excepting the type of work.

Again, if this works for the taxidermist and works for the hunter, don't change a thing.  If a taxidermist is struggling with the skins fitting good, or the hunter is receiving poor quality mounts, look at this practice a little closer.

When ordering a mannikin from a catalog, here is what you will find.  All mannikins come in gradated sizes.  They start with the small and work up.  A small deer would have a 16 inch neck and a head size to match.  A larger deer with a 20 inch neck also has one head size.

As all hunters know when a deer is taken in the pre-rut the neck is not swelled yet and would be around 18 inches.  That same buck 30 days later in the rut will be 21-22 inches.  You can see that when I order the mannikin with an 18 inch neck the head is proportioned to fit that deer body.  We now take a deer during the rut his neck is larger, but his head size remains the same.  When I order the mannikin to fit his neck size, the mannikin comes in with a much larger head.  You can see nothing will fit correctly.  Here is where the altering of the mannikin is so important.  Altering a mannikin means more time to the taxidermist, and he has not planned for that.  There now is only one solution;  stretch the skin on.  This is where the deer begins to lose its life like look. I once had a taxidermist on the internet tell me that today mannikins are much more high tech, and alteration is no longer required.  That is so far from the truth.  What he should have said, is today's hunters are lacking the knowledge to see poor quality work when it is staring them in the face.  This is just a lazy statement from a lazy taxidermist.  The same taxidermist will not have enough work and blame it on the economy.

By now you should understand more about the roll the skull plays in a shoulder mount.  Preparing the skull as if it was to be a European skull mount,  stops all these issues.  Only the hunter being involved with his trophy will produce a great mount in the end.

This is a perfectly handled skin and skull.  This trophy mule deer was taken by a youth hunter  last season. 
The photo below shows a skull cut leaving very little bone.  Now the repair starts to recreate the skull needed to mount this shoulder mount and have great results.  This repair is around $250.00. At this price it only covers the time spent reconstructing the skull back to workable product.
This hunter is removing 80% of the flesh and all the brain. He will then apply salt and be ready to transport.

This antler will be embedded into the artificial skull base. 
Until this deer season, when I would see a skull cut like the one above, I would be very upset.  Now I see more work that pays great money per hour. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

To the common eye, this may not show signs of a disaster,  but you would be wrong.

In this tutorial I will be addressing the on going problem with skins coming from Africa. Regardless of the country in Africa, hair slippage and skin rot has always been an issue but never has been addressed. I hope to be able to shed light on the salting and curing procedure that is so important to a finish trophy. Culture plays another part of poor skin handling in the field. I will explain how different cultures look at the wildlife in their own country and how that contributes to mishandling of skins.

Field care and handling techniques determine the quality of skins once tanned. These skins that have been presented to my facility demonstrate how important proper salting and skinning directly affect the finished trophy. This is the salting method I have found to be best for handling of trophies world wide.

First Day; Step One:
After the trophy has been skinned and all flesh has been removed, a thin layer of salt is laid down on the floor where skins are to be salted. The skin is salted, being sure that all edges and hidden areas are covered completely in a layer of salt. At this time the skin will begin to discharge moisture at a very fast rate. It does not take long before the salt on the skin is loaded and can not hold any extra moisture. This is fine for the first 12 hours while the salty brine is CURING the skin. We are not trying to dry the skin; we are curing the skin.

Second Day; Step Two:
Within 12 hours of the first salting the salt will now be removed and the skin should be scraped down removing any remaining salt. The scraping will open the pores in the skin, allowing the next salting to penetrate even deeper. Allow the second salting to remain on the skin for 24 hours. By now there is no moisture accumulating around the edges of the skin.

Third Day; Step Three:
This is the third salting. Resalt the skin one more time. This salt will stay on the skin for 24 hours. The skin will have a nice blue color to it once this salt is removed on the fourth day. The salt has cured the skin all the way to the hair follicle. Now at this time the skin should be cured completely though. If the skin is thick as in a Cape Buffalo, Giraffe, ect, one more day should complete the curing process. At this time skins can now be hung to dry. There should be no dripping of moisture at this stage. The skins should be dry to the touch when they are being hung. If skins are wet, the salt used was old and not able to perform its duty.

These are the proper steps needed to cure skins for taxidermy purposes. In my opinion, this is the proper way to handle skins, and any other method will prove to be unsuccessful.

You may ask, why are all skins not handled this way. It comes down to culture. In Europe, Wildlife is more than just a renewable resource. There is a stronger connection between the people and wildlife. The wildlife is revered as a sacred gift given to them to look after. The killing of wildlife is something to celebrate and honor the animal death. In Germany, the clothing that the hunters wear is all part of the respect given to the wildlife. I recently had a friend hunt Roe Deer in Germany. It was mandatory to wear the proper hunting clothes before, during and after the hunt. Once the trophy was taken, offerings back to the animal and the land was highly important and part of the hunt. There is a great heart felt connection between the European culture and wildlife. I did fine a connection in Cameroon (West Africa) between the people and the wildlife. The Boca people have lived in the forest for thousands of years. They believe that there are spirits in the forest both good and bad. They believe that if they do not give back to the spirits, they will not be protected from evil. They never waste any part of the animal, in fact they use ever last piece including the bones. So you can see with a deeper connection to wildlife, these hunters, put there heart into persevering ever last part.

Hunting Africa since the early 90's, I have hunted with many different cultures. I have hunted with the very spiritual Boca people where the animal is highly respected and never wasted. I have also hunted the Northern Transvaal in South Africa where the animal is just a commodity. I found that in countries with this believe field care and trophy preparation was at its poorest. Hunters will never change a culture. We can see in history where many times we have tried to change how others live and what they believe. That has never worked out yet. Changing how skins are handled in places like South Africa's Northern Transvaal will never take place. The hunter has two options. He can allow the outfitter to handle the skins and hope for the best; or take care of the skins himself. I have learned to take care of my own skins.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Preparing skulls for shoulder mounts

Though out our tutorials, we have made reference to skull placement and correct alignment.  Back in the 70's and 80's cutting the throat was a common occurrence.  As taxidermist we spend endless hours trying to educate the hunter in proper field care.  Nothing worked at all.  We had photos and descriptions of proper skinning techniques but it fell on deaf ears.  It was not until we started charging for the extra work and time,  that things began to change.

We are now at another cross road.  Since the finding of  Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD);  we now have uneducated people in the field cutting skulls and skinning trophies with the worst results in handling that I have ever seen in 36 years of being in business.  So you might ask; how can this be turned around.  There is only one way to get the hunter to want to stop and learn proper field care.  We will now begin to charge for the extra work it takes to fix these problems.  This will change the action and  attitude of the industry.  In the following photos, notice how skulls are cut and how they relate to the mannikin.  Most Taxidermists and guys doing taxidermy (and there is a difference) do not pay enough attention to the usage of skull measurements and placement.
Here is an example of a full time taxidermist who has cut this skull.  Our client harvested this Mule Deer in Colorado.  He took it to a local taxidermy shop where he found this full time professional taxidermist.  I find it hard to believe that this taxidermist cuts his own skulls in this manner.  This would make his job so hard to do, and do correctly.  Only thing I can say is that the taxidermist was mad that the hunter was taking his trophy back home to have mounted in his home state.  This is just an example of poor handling at its finest.

Here is what a skull cut in this manner gives you.  There is no skull to reference to the angle of the antlers.  Eye sockets are missing, so getting the correct skull width is also not an option. Attaching this skull to the mannikin is another problem.  As you see, skulls cut in this manner makes no sense.  This would be like trying to build a house on one prier block.  This is very unstable and everything is a guess.    

Notice here how the skull has been cut.  I have the bridge of the nose in tack to align up with the slope of the nose on the mannikin.  This will set the antlers at the correct angle.  There is no guessing here.  Next;  notice I have the eye sockets in place on the skull.  This is going to give me the correct width.

 The width of the skull is most important measurement to have when mounting any big game.  The eye to nose;  nose to the back of the head and neck measurement are second to skull width.  Most all mannikins are to wide in the head.  I am estimating over 95 %.  Believe it or not, this is the one measurement that most  taxidermist do not pay attention to. This limits there ability to produce high end quality mounts.  This will open the door for a new taxidermist to move in town and take over an area.  With this knowledge, he will be more accurate.  Now his prices can also be 30% higher, and he will still take the majority of the work.

 Here are the way skulls come from Africa.  Do you ever wonder why they send the whole skull.  This is to get all the measurements need to perform the job.  The width of the skull is there, along with length, depth and shape. This is very important on African game.  Well mounted African game will bring in the good clients.
Notice here, everything lines up.  There is no guessing.  We will end up with a natural looking deer.  Perfect these techniques and you will surpass your competition.  These techniques also bring in more profit and build a better client base.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Notice to all hunters hunting South Africa's northern Transvaal.  We will no longer be accepting trophies harvested in the Limpopo region due to the on going mishandling of skins.  This area of South  Africa is well known for it Water Based tipping procedures.  Trophies coming from the northern regions of South Africa all need to go though a Water Based dip before exportation.  This procedure is 98% responsible for trophies slipping hair.  The other 2% is poor handling in the field.  I have been writing and giving talks about this procedure since 1992 when I first experienced it for my self.  The average hunter will collect 8-10 trophies while hunting in this region.  He will experience a 40 % loss of skins due to the Water Based Dipping process.  The skins shown here are an example of the ongoing practice in South Africa today.  If a hunter has plans on going into these regions, just know that it is not the outfitters fault for the poor handling of trophies that causes the slippage.  It is the Water Based Dipping procedure still practiced today.  I have posted a link to the details of the dipping process. 

The process is a government mandated process.  The only fault that I place on the outfitter, is his acceptance in which his clients skins are being handled.  The South African Professional Hunters Association is fully aware of the problems with the re-hydration of trophies once they have been salted and dried.  Looking at the Cape Buffalo skin shown here is an example of the epidermis slipping do to the dipping process.     

This is a photo of an Eland cape.  Here again the epidermis has slipped due to the re-hydration of the skin.  In my opinion, this is want and waste and should not be tolerated.  I mentioned a 40% loss on skins.  I need the mention that the loss is 40%; on 100% of the hunters.  If a hunter hunts in these regions, he or she will have trophies damage.

  Slippage like this is avoidable with a little involvement by the hunter.  Most hunters send time going to the range, and buying the perfect hunting clothes for photo ops. If this is more important than receiving high quality handle skins, than no research is needed.  Just go hunting have great time and the skinners will take care of the rest.
This hunter paid daily rates, trophy fees, shipping, dipping, clearing, gave tips, and other connected cost, and ended up with this as his trophy.  In the end;  the hunter is responsible for the outcome.  With some research, he or she can avoid this by just hunting in Africa where the Water Based Dipping Procedure is NOT being used.

 I mentioned 2% was do to poor handling.  It is more possible that is 50-60%.  This photo here would look normal to most hunters.  Most guys that call themselves taxidermist would not see a problem either.  When I seen this;   I went crazy.  Stop and look closely at the wet dark area around the edge of the skins.  This is all the moisture that the salt has pulled out.  These skins are soaking wet under;  on the hair side.  The salt did a great job, but can not hold that volume of moisture.  This is where resalting the skin comes into play.  The professional hunter has not been checking on the skinners to be sure they are changing the salt.  All salt needed to be removed from the skin after the first 24 hours.  That salt would be put in a pile to drain.  The skins are then re salted in a second pile.  Again 24 hours later, the salt is removed and the skins salted for the third time.  Following these steps allows the skins to CURE.  We are not trying to dry the skins before they CURED.  It takes 3 full days to CURE any skin correctly.  A skin can be dried in one day, but it will not be CURED.  Understanding the salting process will insure quality skins at the end of the hunt.  ALL hunters should talk with their taxidermist BEFORE they go on the hunt.  This will save skins from being damaged, and at that time the taxidermist may want to purchase from the hunter, skins he will not be using.  This helps with the taxidermy bill.

Like always, the hunters is responsible for any skins that come back mishandled.  The hunter himself has to be involved in the process.  All taxidermist spend time educating their hunters on skin handling.  Locate a good qualified taxidermist, and begin understanding the value of wildlife.