Mounting a Deer Head SO THAT IT DOESN’T LOOK STUFFED (Nov, 1933)
Leonard F. Merrill, woodsman and guide, reveals the secret of
Mounting a Deer Head SO THAT IT DOESN’T LOOK STUFFED
A WELL-MOUNTED deer head is a source of continual satisfaction to the sportsman who bagged the animal, and if he mounts the head himself his pleasure is increased a hundredfold.
Even the professional taxidermist has no secret formula by which he can take a poorly prepared, burned, or rotted skin and make a perfect mounted specimen of it. At best it will have a stuffed and lifeless look. It is obvious therefore that some thought and care must be given to the preparation of the trophy when the animal is first killed and without delay.
Tools. Only two or three tools are necessary for skinning and preparing the headâ€”a tape measure, skinning knife with a short curved blade, cartilage knife or scalpel, a pair of sharp-pointed scissors, and plenty of fine salt. To mount the head there must be added the usual assortment of woodworking tools necessary to make a panel or shield and for fastening the head to the shield. The special tools necessary are: a good skin scraper for thinning the skin; three needles of different sizes for sewing up the cuts made in skinning, repairing possible fractures, and sewing through the manikin; a steel thimble, and a small wooden modeling tool to be used in fixing the eyes and shaping the nostrils.
Materials. Three pieces of wood are needed: one hardwood panel, one piece of pine about 9 in. square and 3/4 in. thick for a neck piece, and one piece about 1-1/2 in. thick, 3 in. wide, and about 20 in. long for the standard. Some strong and well-waxed linen thread, plaster of Paris, long fibered manila tow, potter’s clay, excelsior, a pair of glass eyes, tubes of Vandyke brown and black oil colors, a piece of sheet lead for the ear forms, and various nails, screws, and tacks should be on hand. The materials for poisoning and preserving the skin are listed at the end of this article.
Field Work. To skin the head, make an incision on the back of the neck at the point where the neck joins the shoulders. With the blade of the knife turned so that the cutting edge is up, run the point of the knife down one side of the neck to the underside. Keep well in toward the shoulders with the knife just under the skin and not pressed into the flesh. Do the same on the other side of the neck and join the two cuts. Now, starting at the first point, slit the skin straight up the back of the neck to a point halfway between the ears. From this point branch off right and left, and slit straight up to the base of each antler, forming a Y-shaped cut.
Start at the base of the neck and skin down, first one side and then the other, until the ears are reached. To do this skinning, hold the edge of the skin in one hand and take short even strokes with the knife held as you do a pencil. When the ears are reached, cut the cartilage off close to the skull and proceed as far as possible onto the cheeks and throat, leaving the cartilage in the ear for the present.
Begin now at the apex of the Y-cut and skin forward over the head between the antlers. Be very careful to get all the skin off around the base of the antlers. Just above the eye there is a depression that is quite deep and has no flesh between the skin and bone; be very careful here as the skin must all be removed and no cuts made in it. Keep close to the bony orbit and insert one finger in the eye from the outside, to cut against, when cutting the thin membrane that surrounds the eyeball.
Cut the nostrils so far back from the end of the nose that the cut will not show on the finished head. The cartilage that divides the nostrils must be cut through edgewise down to the very end of the nose in order that the flesh there can be removed.
Cut the lips from the jaw close to the bone. These will later have to be cut open on the inside and all flesh removed. The skin of both lips and nose will have to be pared down later to prevent shrinkage, but just now the next job is to remove the cartilage of the ears.
Start at the base of the ear, on the back, and with the fingers and scalpel cut, push, and pull the skin and cartilage apart until the outer and top edges are reached. Gradually turn the ear inside out until all the skin is off the back of the ear. Start at the tip of the ear and work back on the inside, being very careful lest the skin be fractured, until the cartilage is entirely free of the skin. Do this to both ears and save the cartilage of at least one ear to be used in making lead dummies for the ears. The cartilage maybe preserved by putting it in a saturated salt solution made by dissolving as much salt in hot water as possible and then letting it cool.
Clean all parts of the skin thoroughly. Be sure not a trace of the flesh or fat remains. Do not soak in fresh water or the hair will probably slip and spoil the skin. If there is some blood on the hair, wash it out before it has time to dry and then wipe the hair as dry as possible.
The last step in preparing the skin is to preserve it with fine salt. Be sure to rub plenty of salt into all parts of the skin (flesh side only), and when you think it has had enough, then give it three or four handfuls more! Hang it up to dry in a cool shady place, spreading it so that the air can reach all parts, but do not hang by the nose.
With the tape measure, take measurements of the neck at the base, at the middle, and where the neck joins the head. Put these records where they will not get lost.
Cut the ligaments at the base of the skull on one side and then on the other, and give the skull a good wrench to separate it from the neck. Find a tough stick that will fit into the hole at the base of the skull and pound the end of it until it is somewhat frayed. The brain can be removed by using this stick to dig it out with while washing the skull frequently. Remove all flesh from both the upper and lower jaws, tongue, eyes, cheeks, and the like, and wash and scrape as clean as possible. Boiling will help this process somewhat and will not hurt the skull. In case you happen to have a cold chisel with you, the brain may be removed a bit easier if a hole l-1/2 in. wide and 3 in. long be cut in the base of the skull. This hole must be cut lengthwise of the skull and will later be used to receive the standard that holds the head.
Mounting. First cure the skin by putting it in a salt and alum bath and leaving it there until it becomes soft and pliable. A deer-head skin, as it is removed from the animal, is far too thick to mount well, so it must be pared down thin. The skin scraper and knife are the tools, and plenty of elbow grease is the medium that does the job. Scrape the whole skin as thin as you can get it without cutting the roots of the hair. The skin of the eyelids, lips, and nose must be pared especially thin. While the skin is in the bath, anoint the whole skull with arsenical soap and set aside to dry. Get out your measurements and make a neck board, somewhat egg shaped, with a circumference equal to the size of the neck base measurement. Use the 3/4-in. board for this and bevel the top and bottom of the piece on opposite sides to conform with the slope of the neck.
When the skull is dry, cut the hole for the standard if it has not been done before. Place the skull on the table top with the forehead level and insert the standard. Mix up some plaster of Paris and, while holding the standard in a vertical position and the lower jaw in place, fill the brain cavity with the plaster. The lower jaw may be tied in position before pouring the plaster, but be sure to remove the cord before going any further with the work. Pile the plaster up in the base of the skull so that when it hardens the standard and the lower jaw will both be fixtures. Let it set until hard and then mark the standard to the proper length and angle. To do this, hold the standard up against a perpendicular object, such as a door frame, and after getting it the correct length and angle, have someone mark it for you. Cut it off on the line and attach the neck piece to it with screws.
Build up the neck by taking some excelsior, placing it around the standard, and winding it down with twine. The windpipe can be shown by sewing through the neck from side to side, starting at the lower jaw and continuing on down to the neck board. Test the size as you progress with the tape measure. Avoid getting it too large, as the beginner is always likely to do.
When the neck is the correct size, mix up some potter’s clay and tow, at least half a pailful, and give the whole head a coating about 1/8 in- thick. Work it out perfectly smooth with the hands. The clay should be thick enough to stand without sagging, but thin enough to adhere to the excelsior like glue.
Put enough clay on each side of the skull to form the cheeks and enough on the nose to replace the flesh and skin that were removed. Do not put any excelsior on the nose at all as it will usually show after the head is a few months old.
Make the ear cartilages next. Cut the sheet lead to the proper size and shape and thin it down toward the edges. Put a thin coating of clay on the lead and insert them in their proper places as soon as the skin has been properly poisoned. Take the skin out of the bath and anoint freely with arsenical soap, not forgetting the lips, nose, and ears. Allow the skin time to absorb the poison and then put the leads in place. Adjust the whole on the form carefully. Fit the eyelids and eyebrows in their proper places and put a tack or two through the skin of the forehead. Sew the skin tightly around each antler and down each side of the “Y.” Before sewing up the long part of the neck, put enough clay at the base of each ear and at the back of the skull to form these parts correctly.
Sew the long cut and then tack the edges to the neck board, trimming off whatever excess skin there is after it is tacked. Screw the head to a rough board so that it will stand while you are putting on the finishing touches.
Finishing. The real beauty of the head is in the finishing. Try to get the expression as it should be and not to make any part unnatural. First shape the cheeks, adding more clay if necessary or removing some as the case may be. Form the eyebrows next and shape the lids. A small brad will serve to hold the skin down into the depression over the eyes. Press the skin down on the muzzle and fill in the nose as needed. Fill the lips and close them together in a natural position. Be sure to give the nostrils good depthâ€”so deep that you can’t see the end of them. Insert the glass eyes and work them into position. Three fourths of the expression is in the eyes, so be very careful and do not stop until it is exactly right.
Pin the ears in place till they are dry and then wash away all traces of clay or other dirt. Comb the hair until it lies naturally in place and then hang the whole head up to dry. If possible, leave the head alone for a month, but in any event leave it as long as you can.
Paint the end of the nose, edges of the eyelids and the lips, if they have parted at all in drying, with Vandyke brown and black oil colors. Mix the colors with turpentine to remove the unnatural gloss. Lightly oil the antlers and fasten the whole to a rich-looking shield. The shield is not necessary, but if not used the neck board must have some sort of hook attached to it by which the head may be hung on the wall.
Formulas. Salt and alum bath : water, 1 gal.; alum, 3/4 lb. (1 pt.); salt, 1-3/4 lb. (1 qt.). Heat to boiling point, stir occasionally, and keep in wooden, earthen, or glass container.
Arsenical soap (Hornaday) : white bar soap, 1 lb.; powdered arsenic, 1 lb.; camphor, 2-1/2 oz.; crude potassium carbonate (pearlash), 3 oz.; alcohol, 4 oz. Slice and melt soap in a little water over a slow fire. Then add potash and stir in arsenic. Dissolve camphor in alcohol and add to mixture. Stir and boil down till the consistency of thick molasses. Pour into wooden or earthen jar to cool. While cooling, stir once in a while to prevent arsenic settling. To use, mix small quantity with enough water to make it the consistency of buttermilk and apply with a paintbrush.