Taxidermy Tips for Hunters on a Budget

By Dr. Jim and Mary Clary


After spending hours and days in our taxidermist’s shop and watching him work his magic, we have to say that professional taxidermists earn every penny that they charge. Amateurs should never attempt to do a shoulder or head mount with a home taxidermy kit. It is a lot harder than you think and requires a great deal of skill. That said, sometimes, we just don’t have enough money to have our trophies mounted by a professional. A shoulder mount can run from $800 to $1,500. That is in addition to the de-fleshing charge to prepare the skin for tanning. That’s a lot of money under any circumstances, let alone during a recession. However, if you are willing to settle for a European or skull mount, there are ways that you can mount your trophy and save some money by doing it yourself.

Never make a skull mount by simply cutting off the skull cap and letting it air-dry until the skin/hair are hard. You are inviting bugs to eat your horns. The mount may be okay for your shed or barn, but not in the house.

The skull must be boiled after you remove the skin and as much meat as possible by hand. If you don’t have a boiling tank, many taxidermists will boil the skulls for you at a reasonable cost. Ours will do it for as little as $25. The boiling will remove the meat from the surface and all of the crevices in the skull. This is essential in order to prevent a bug infestation of your trophy. If you can’t boil the skull, stop reading right here and give it up.

After boiling, most taxidermists will put the skull in a bleach bath (for European / skull mounts) to whiten them. The bleach also removes the last of the oils. If your taxidermist doesn’t have a bleach bath, or you can’t afford the additional charge, let the skull air dry in the sun for a couple of weeks and then dry brush it with “antique white” or “bone white” acrylic paint, which is available at any hobby store.

If you have to repair cracks in the skull or fix broken horns, you can use Critter Clay with a bit of Tacky Glue mixed in. The glue helps the clay adhere to the horns/skull and prevents cracking. Repairing antlers is a lot harder and requires something like Bondo or epoxy and I don’t recommend you try this unless you have a lot of patience. Antler repair also requires an artist’s skill to paint the repaired area so that it matches the natural color of the antler. Best suggestion: leave antler repairs to the taxidermist. Whereas black antelope/goat horns are easily repaired and colored with a bit of satin black paint from a spray can.

To brighten up deer or elk antlers, make a wash of oil-based Van Dyke brown paint and paint thinner. Wipe it on and then wipe it off. Virtually no waiting time is required. Every set of antlers will come out a bit different. Some will darken, while on others the wash will simply accentuate the natural beauty. However, you always get an improved set of antlers. To brighten up antelope, sheep or goat horns, use old (dirty) motor oil for dark horns, new motor oil for light horns. Liberally wipe it on and allow to soak-in for 24 hours, then wipe off the excess and let “dry” for a couple of days. Your horns will look exquisite.

To draw a template for a plaque, start with a manila folder. Draw the shape of half the plaque, using the fold of the folder as the centerline, then cut along your lines. Open the folder and you have a symmetrical template of your plaque. Trace the pattern on wood stock, cut around the edges with a jig saw, leaving about 1/8”, and sand it down to the template line with a belt or disc sander.

We have tried a lot of different woods for plaques and the two that work the best are oak and poplar (walnut is also great, but expensive). Both woods have consistent grains and take the stain well. We don’t recommend using pine, as it generally does not make a professional looking plaque. Use solid wood, stay away from plywood of any kind.

To wire your trophy to a plaque, use two strands of 16 gauge copper wire about 18 inches long. Put one pair of ends in a vice and the other ends in the chuck of a hand drill. Turn on the drill and slowly twist the wires together until they are evenly twisted overall. This provides a very professional looking wire for mounting your skulls to the plaques. Drill the attachment holes through the skull and plaque, run the wire through and twist it in the back. For extra security, put a dab of solder over the “knot” to insure that it doesn’t come loose. It need be, you can route out a space on the back of the plaque so that the twisted-knot will not protrude.

You are now ready to hang your mount wherever your wife will let you!




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Copyright 2011 by Dr. Jim Clary. All rights reserved.


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