Author Topic: Choosing a Taxidermist  (Read 1445 times)

Offline BlackRiverTaxidermy

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Choosing a Taxidermist
« on: August 04, 2021, 04:55:29 PM »
Long read, sorry, but have been working on something like this for a bit for a bigger project and thought I would post this condensed version being it at the doorstep of a new big game general season.
Hope you find it helpful. 

Animal Artistry- Choosing a Taxidermist
One of the hardest and most detrimental decisions in consideration of trophy preservation is the selection of a taxidermist. The hunting and fishing product market abound with reviews, selection considerations, tips and tactics as well comparable examples. Taxidermists primarily rely on word of mouth, references, and in most recent times, social media. Some of these routes of selection are imperative, however choosing an artist to preserve your trophy must go deeper than mere suggestions and/or references. While it is a good place to start, there are some other tips, suggestions, and considerations to keep in place before taking your animal to potential complete stranger. Let's dive into some options and information regarding taxidermy on a broad scale as well as alleviate some concerns and questions in regards to choosing your taxidermist. For now, let’s talk about selection and a small portion of misnomers and questions that a lot of sportsman have in regards to the taxidermy process.

Understand there are numerous taxidermist who have been longer in the business than myself. Therefore the information in this article revolves around my experiences and observations along with a touch of the enjoyment to help others in both selection and understanding. Continuous additional information and insight could  accompany this 'scratching the surface' of this topic; just understand I am not the voice of every taxidermist.

There are three types of taxidermy. The first being your backyard hobbyist; the friend that has done a deer shoulder mount or two and offers to do your mount as a 'favor'. If you like his work, then go for it, but there are some downsides to this type of choice, which I will dive into later.
The second type is competitive taxidermy. Artists in this realm of the industry focus their work primarily on competitive shows. This is true artistry at its very best and judged on both state, national, and international levels. Typically, the average client would never be able to afford this type of work if the work is based on ‘by the hour’ rates. A serious competitive artist will spend 8 hours, or more, on a single ear of a deer. Veining, iris position, muscle definition and sew lines are to the highest level and critically judged to reflect the smallest details. Competitive taxidermists receive cash awards, notoriety, prizes, and even more business for both form design as well clients who will pay show-work prices for species that are rarely seen in the modern world with hunt price tags in the tens of thousands. The competitive circuit compliments the last and most common category of taxidermists as well. Competing and surrounding yourself with high-grade work gives you an eye for areas of improvement and examples of exemplary artistry to be taken back to their own shops and mount work.
The third, and most common taxidermist is the commercial taxidermist. This compiles roughly 90 percent of all practicing taxidermists. Quality of work is broad ranging from the self-taught artist to an individual that has attended numerous courses, advanced schools and or mentorships, all the while maintaining their own private shop ranging from 20 to 500 contracts a year. Taxidermy work can be as in-house or out-sourced as you desire. However with this decision of that taxidermist, work can vary in quality. This is not to say that an artist that performs both the tanning, stretching, form install, and rug work on your black bear will not do a good job. However to send the final felt rug work of a black bear to a ‘rugger’ that does over a thousand bears of year can produce higher quality due to experience and a higher end of equipment and tools used. This will be the area of focus for this article with primary focus on practices, pricing, timelines and other areas indicative of the
commercial taxidermist.
Let start this with a hypothetical scenario…….You’ve booked a moose hunt to British Columbia after years of dreaming this ‘bucket list’ experience. A sizeable fund has been issued for your hunt, gun, equipment and travel. Plans are to harvest a mature bull and there is no doubt this will be memorable and productive due to success percentage of the guide you’ve reserved. Flash forward months later you’re posing with your 56” bull moments before your guide starts to cut the cape from the bull in preparation for shoulder mount. Two days later you return home and began the unpacking process and you need to get your cape and antlers to taxidermist for processing, however in all you’re planning this step was forgotten.
This scenario is more common than most would like to admit. Your planning should start well before your hunt begins for numerous reasons. Now you’re in the bad spot to find a taxidermist, discover the prices and deposits due and also make a rush decision on a pose/form position without speaking to anyone about available choices, options, and timelines. Finally, you’re still not sure who will do the best job on a memorable hunt with an animal that has some very specific characteristics. Entertaining another hypothetical scenario, think about hunting a spot you’ve continually harvested an average buck in year after year. This year the stars align and you harvest a huge buck. You have never had previous bucks ‘put to a form’ before, therefore no need for a taxidermist. Now you’re holding a trophy of a lifetime with no taxidermist in mind and even worse, no direction on how to skin it for a standard shoulder mount; this is also a common occurrence

First Contact-
What is your selection process for a taxidermist? Let’s start with references. Everyone has a good friend or family member that has deer or elk shoulder mounts on the wall. If you like what you see, start there. Ask who the taxidermist was followed up by if there were happy with the work, timeline, prices, etc. It is safe to say there is a small number of sportsman that truly know what ‘good’ taxidermy work is, however if the owner of the shoulder mount is happy with the work then it’s a good start.  Acquire a name and phone number and make contact. Without going into great depth, each artist has their own interpretation of each species. I have seen taxidermists that can do a tremendous black tail mount, but, in my opinion, lack greatly in the specifics of a mule deer mount. Each species has its own differences. Black tail eye shape differs slightly from a whitetail. Mule deer pre-orbital scent glands differ greatly from a black tail. Even the color of airbrushing used in the finish work differs from artist to artist. Look at a lot of mounts, if possible, even if it is on social media platforms or taxidermists that have online websites. Start to focus on areas or species you like and their characteristics. Comparing examples are paramount; if you can see shoulder mounts side by side from differing artists it can really show differences.

When you make contact with a prospective taxidermist the first question, aside from introductions, is to ask if he/she are taking on new clients. A good taxidermist will be busy. His/her desirable qualities will be known which translates into many clients and projects. Don’t fall into the trap of finding a taxidermist and thinking they will automatically be available for drop-off in the fall. If they are accepting of new clients, ask about visiting the shop to see his or hers’ work. I have a fair amount of people that call to inquire about accepting new clients however I love putting a face to name. When intake of animals is heavy and I get close to a stopping point, remembering a face and name bides well with saying ‘yes’ for mount work vs. ‘no’ when I know I am close to my allotted contracts for the year. Furthermore, arranging to meet the taxidermist leads into our next consideration.

Quality of Work-
Social media and technology creates wondrous opportunities for small business by way of marketing and exposure. However, technology gives use to highly photo-shopped opportunities. I do my best to represent taxidermists on the whole in this article as well as provide advice for clients. I am not going to say that photo-shopping is a common practice with finished mounts, but I have seen it done on levels that are not representable to the project. Therefore a personal visit to an artist’s shop can give you an accurate picture and quality of work. Furthermore, if the artist allows, you can see projects in-process. To the average sportsman or untrained eye details such as form selection, sewing methods, and product choices may not be understood but can certainly prompt discussion and questions.
When I officially opened my business I found an over whelming number of taxidermists to be secretive, illusive, and highly suspicious of others asking questions, especially another individual that may be showing an interest into their field of expertise for fear of a competitor. After years of taxidermy experience I can understand the reluctance to share secrets or even specific techniques with others that may set me apart from other taxidermists, however I have no problem discussing general practices and steps throughout the process with most anyone, but I keep it broad and general. 
With this said, when you visit a taxidermist’s studio or shop don’t be afraid to ask questions and look at his work. However, bear in mind that he or she may not be willing to open this up for discussion for those specific reasons. General other impressions of a taxidermist workspace can give you good or bad vibes towards your choice, which you ultimately have to decide what you’re comfortable with.
Another area to focus on when looking at taxidermist’s work may be species details. As stated earlier, some artists excel in specific area or species. For example, if you are planning a trophy black bear hunt, ask to take a look at his black bear work or inquire about their experience with them. Keep I mind that just because you may not see much ‘bear work’ in the shop at your visit, it does not imply they don’t take on many bear contracts. It’s a business, meaning as soon as the project is done the owner is called for, with hopes, pickup in a short timeline. So bear this (no pun intended) in mind.
I would make the suggestion to always pre-arrange a meeting with a potential prospect. While some studios are acceptance to intakes unannounced, questions and inquiries may require an appointment, depending on the taxidermist you choose.
Quality of a taxidermist’s work can also be dictated by their quality of product, such as forms, they are using. I will go into this a little later in Pricing.

This is a difficult subject to address. Like I stated earlier, I do my best to give a good representation of taxidermists in general, but everyone is different even in their practices. One of the biggest complaints in regards to taxidermy is ‘why does it take so long’. Here is the condensed version. Roughly 75 to 95 percent of a taxidermists contracts (projects) are taken in with a 2-3 month period. Most contracts are scheduled in a timeline of when they came in but even the first animals in line take time. A good taxidermists with skills desired will always be busier than you may realize. Don’t be surprised if an average timeline for even a simple shoulder mount deer contract could be a year or little more for a turn-around. Larger projects and contracts requiring outsourcing can take even longer. Again, a good taxidermist should be able to give you a rough, and I stress rough, timeline for the project. The first line in my invoice client contract is ‘I have not been given a completion date’. This is not to scare clients, it’s to protect my business from unforeseen issues. I always give an approximate date the project will be done, but I also preface it with ‘roughly’, and here is why.
Most taxidermists out-source several tasks in the process. A large majority of taxidermists send hides out for tanning from a professional tannery. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. Advantages can range from less time consuming tasks such as the tanning itself to even the quality of the leather that has been handled by a highly qualified tannery. The disadvantages can be price and again, timelines. Rug work is another example. A lot of studios send their bear, cat, zebra, and other animals to a professional rugger. This process is in-depth, time consuming, and highly desired if done correctly. Therefore, as with taxidermist, a highly skilled rugger will be busy thus creating a lengthened timeline. The taxidermy school I went to taught us everything from tanning, form making, and rugging. However there are tasks that I source out myself for two primary reasons. The first is quality. While I tan most of the ungulate hides for shoulder mounts I send off all my bears, cats, and anything requiring a dry/soft tan. This saves me time and in all honesty, cost to the client. I know how to tan bears, but their process is lengthy and requiring more chemicals, tanning agents, and a process called ‘breaking-in’ which requires bigger equipment. Therefore, in the long run it’s a much better practice for me and the final product’s longevity and quality is superior. The flip side is waiting for the tanneries timeline.
Quality is not always synonymous with quick, but there should be expectations. I have a friend that had a mount into a taxidermist for 7 years. That is ridiculous. Simple projects, such as shoulder mounts or a rug, that take over 2 years could be considered excessive, however communication and explanation should be considered before jumping to conclusion about a client’s ideas of why it may be taking a while. Covid is a HUGE part of slow downs in recent years with product and chemical availability plaguing both the tanneries and supply houses.
Every artist’s advisement of ‘checking-in’ is different. Some will tell you to refrain to call them until they call you after completion. Some, such as myself, will give you a rough timeline with the option to check in on the project if you desire after the allotted timeline. One of my biggest frustrations are clients that have been given a timeline of 6-8 months but start calling at month 3 to “see where we’re at?”. You can quickly sour the taste of your business with a taxidermist by continual inquiries, but you are entitled to at least have a rough idea of the project’s completion. An artist that can’t give you a 6 month timeline window of completion should warrant caution. Form companies can also, from time to time, be in delay. But this also falls into our next category.

Here is another area of frustration with the general sportsman populous. I remember when I was 16 years old I harvested my first bear. A black bear rug with an open-mouth form was around $600 then. This was a lot of money for a teenager and therefore I held off having him rugged, a decision I still regret. However today the prices have increased significantly. An average open-mouth bear rug will run you from $1000 on the lower end up to $2500 towards the higher end for an average 5 foot bear.  There are several major reasons why secondary to the obvious such as general inflation of all commodities. One of the most prominent is products. As I briefly stated in the Quality section, good taxidermy uses good products such as forms, tanning agents, thread and even selective glass for the eyeballs. Good product is more expensive than mediocre or the average comparable. I use a black bear rug shell (the form used in a black bear heads for a rug) that is three-times the expense as the long standing industry standard. The detail is tremendous! The trade-off is the cost. I am also a practicing taxidermist in the Pacific Northwest, home to Roosevelt elk and Columbian Black tail deer. There are only a few supply companies that produce a quality black tail deer form. I once had another local taxidermist tell me he uses a mule deer form for his black tail shoulder mounts because he saves money on the form costs and shipping charges. Even an accomplished sportsman knows there is distinct differences in the physical characteristics of these two species of deer.
Where this is leading is pricing, generally, has direct reflection in regards to quality. While a lot of pricing can be similar it is still higher than taxidermy 10 to 15 years ago. But again, the forms and products used are exponentially better than before.
A taxidermist may have or will compete on the competitive aspect of taxidermy. They may find enjoyment in detail, showcasing their work, or simply to attend to see new ideas and practices. This makes them better in the long run and I have always said competing at that level will make you a better commercial taxidermist. Where I am going with this is following some award winning work, your taxidermist may raise his/hers’ pricing to also reflect his quality and expertise of work. There is nothing wrong with this, but again it’s up to the client to determine if they like what they see in the artists finished product.
Again, good taxidermy work takes time. With time there is labor and labor can be expensive. There was an article a few years ago talking about the actual work and time into each shoulder mount or full mount animal. The author, whose name currently escapes me, stated that if you actually accounted for the amount of hours a taxidermist puts into even a simple shoulder mount and apply an industry prevailing wage per hour, you would be shocked at what most SHOULD be charging you.
Expensive taxidermy work does not always mean good work, and cheap  pricing doesn’t always mean poor outcomes, but a general rule of thumb with taxidermy is ‘you get what you pay for’.
Deposits and contractual agreements in regards to payment differ from one artist to the next. This is always something to inquire about when you speak to your potential taxidermist and fully understand before you sign a contractual agreement.
From the business owner and artist standpoint, I would highly suggest to refrain from using a cheaper price from another taxidermist’s price list as a comparable or negotiating card. I’ve had this done to me on a few occasions and it immediately prompts irritation and to be frank, a refusal to now deal with a respective new client. I have followed up this ‘negotiating’ tactic typically with “well, better take it to him then if you like to pay less”.

Realistic Expectations-
The final topic is exactly as listed. Be realistic with expectations in regards to the animal you brought in as well as with the business side of your agreement.
Bobcats and bears are two areas I have ran into unrealistic expectations from clients before and here is why. Western Washington has a subspecies of bobcats commonly called ‘cedar reds’. They carry more red in their coat, lighter spotting, lanky build, and typically longer necked. A really good western red will weigh in the neighborhood of 30-45 lbs. While common, the average sportsman rarely sees a bobcat, much less gets the opportunity to shoot one. Therefore it is a fairly big event for them to harvest one of these cats. Most opt for a full mount. Here is where the realistic expectations comes in. When speaking to the client in regards to the pose, most bring in a photo of how they want the cat to look. This is good for reference for the pose only. But, the photo is usually a northern cat with a fur-buyers dream of a coat that outweighs the client’s specimen by 30-50 pounds and a head size rivaling a French bulldog. “I want it to look like this” is usually what I hear and that is where I have to tactfully and respectfully pump the proverbially brakes. Similar instances have occurred with black bear mounts. A client shoots either a respectable 5 foot black bear or smaller and brings it by the studio with a photo of a 700lb monster done by another taxidermist and says the similar requests. The pose of either animal can be duplicated in most circumstances, however the ‘look’ cannot. At the risk of sounding a little contentious or sarcastic, you can’t take your average barn cat and produce a cougar mount, rippled with muscles and a perfect hide. Every animal is unique and taxidermist’s job is to produce a mount that is as close to how that trophy was before it was shot or trapped. Excitement of harvesting a rarity or first-time animal can play into some unreasonable requests at times. But, at the end of the day there is no taxidermist that can make your trophy ‘bigger’ or change genetic build or characteristics without introducing outside enhancements not found on your original specimen. A good taxidermist can recognize and accentuate certain features of your animal such as a split in the ear, roman nose, or a swollen neck, but making it bigger or changing basic features from its original shape is not a term most taxidermists will agree to.
Another unrealistic expectation believed by most sportsman is ‘taxidermists can fix anything’.
I once had a young man that brought in a black bear. From the initial check in I could tell the hide was bad by the mere smell. I voiced my concern and it my suspicion was solidified when I grabbed some hair and it easily pulled away from the hide. This term is called ‘slipping’ and one of the first signs of hide degradation with the onset of decomposition. The young man was aware it smelled and was not even surprised when he saw the hair slipping. What surprised me was his expectation that I could fix it. The best mounts I’ve seen started with proper in-field practices and trophy care prior to even coming through the doors of a taxidermy studio. We, as taxidermist, still are bound to basic biological restrictions of organic materials such as hides and flesh. Again, the industry possesses some tricks and chemicals to stop a process such as decomposition, but that is usually effective at the ‘questionable’ stage, not when degradations is already occurring.
I could list more examples, but I believe most understand this concept.

You’ve had a successful hunt, a memory that will last a lifetime. The next step is critical as well for preservation of your memory. You wouldn’t plan to build a house and walk into the first construction company with very little knowledge of their experience and ask them to build a home for you; somewhat of a poor analogy but you get the point. Acquire references, look at their work and experience, compare pricing to quality, and ask questions. When you find a taxidermist that meets your expectations in regards to price, communication, timelines, and quality of work then take good care of them and in return they will do the same. A good friend and tremendous elk hunter once told me, “taxidermists are artists, and with any artists there is a little bit of obsessive compulsive disorder mixed with splash of eccentricity”. I would agree. But these attributes make for some very specific skills that contribute to some incredible work set apart from others on a grand scale. Finding that artist that meets your expectations is something you will not regret in the years to come while you look at your trophy on the wall, reminiscing the hunt.

Joel- BlackRiver Taxidermy
« Last Edit: August 04, 2021, 05:18:16 PM by BlackRiverTaxidermy »
360-789-5056- Joel Swecker-BRT

Offline Sliverslinger

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Re: Choosing a Taxidermist
« Reply #1 on: August 22, 2021, 08:24:41 PM »
Awesome info - thanks!

Offline bornhunter

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Re: Choosing a Taxidermist
« Reply #2 on: August 22, 2021, 09:12:57 PM »
Great write up Joel. :tup:

Offline Westside88

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Re: Choosing a Taxidermist
« Reply #3 on: August 22, 2021, 09:45:57 PM »
Great write up. I've found another advantage to know where you plan to take a potential trophy is you can ask questions beforehand to make sure you bring it in the way they want it.

Offline BlackRiverTaxidermy

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Re: Choosing a Taxidermist
« Reply #4 on: August 22, 2021, 09:55:41 PM »
Great write up. I've found another advantage to know where you plan to take a potential trophy is you can ask questions beforehand to make sure you bring it in the way they want it.
Thanks man. Had a recent podcast with Jim Huntsman of The Western Huntsman and we talk a lot about that! You’re right, for sure. Check out the podcast…he’s a good dude and a lot of fun to talk to.
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