How to Become a Taxidermist

To begin with, let’s define taxidermy. First and foremost, it is an art form, and recognized as such on the international level. Taxidermists create animal models using preserved skin then molding them to perfection, so they are most like the animal in nature. Sometimes, they also come up with fantasy creatures, for example a bird with a cat’s body or mythical creatures from literature.

Taxidermy is meticulous work that requires extreme attention to detail, as well as a vision and craft skills that allow you to recreate animals and make the models. At the same time, you need to be resistant to the gorier side of the art, where you have to preserve the skin and deal with dead animals.

Those who become taxidermists often choose to have it as a full-time career, however many use it as a side-business due to the fact that it is a volatile source of income, since the amount of work can be dependent on the hunting season, for example. At the same time, since most taxidermists work for themselves, it is yet another art career that will require you to be business savvy if you would like to make a living from it.

This is definitely not a career for everyone, but those who are in the trade are passionate about their craft, and their artwork is highly valued in certain circles. Check out the infographic below to find out more about taxidermy.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Jason Wizner

Jersey Jays Taxidermy – Owner

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I graduated from Clifton High School in 2004, spent a semester at NJIT, and realized it was not for me. I then attended the Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy for 7.5 months for my diploma in Taxidermy. No schooling is required to become a taxidermist in NJ, but it helps get your feet wet, and in the long run, I think it is worth it.I work construction full time (when the work is available) and do taxidermy late nights, weekends, or on days construction jobs are cancelled. The days I work on taxidermy, my day usually starts with skinning/fleshing/salting on raw hides that need to be addressed before they spoil. Then, depending on what I have completed already, I will either mount my next specimen or complete finish work on a few that are already mounted and dried to get them moving along and back to the clients. Throughout the day I answer plenty of phone calls, meet with clients who are dropping off or picking up specimens, boxing up skins and shipping to the tannery, completing paperwork, ordering supplies, paying bills, photographing my art, updating photos on my webpage/facebook/forums/etc., and more.

The best thing about my job is all the positive feedback I receive from the photos I share online of the finished products, as well as the look on my clients’ faces when they come to pick up the finished mount. Like a little kid on their birthday!

My largest dislike is the risk of Lyme disease. On a daily basis I have dozens of ticks of all sizes crawling around and on me. I need to be extremely careful and keep my eyes open checking constantly for the dangerous insect. It is very unsettling.

Advice

Learn the ins and outs
Go to school, join various state taxidermy organizations and attend their conventions/seminars. Taxidermy takes a ton of practice to master, and as any good taxidermist would say, use of close-up, detailed reference photos is a must. Start collecting them now from magazines and online sources. Don’t just own them or display them – study them, use them. Learn to dissect photos. Break them down into the smallest portions possible to get the most out of your reference. You need to go from seeing a photo of a deer, to seeing the head, then the face, then the eye, then the pupil, then use that as a reference to compare against the front corner of the eye, the rear corner of the eye, the angle of the upper lid, and so on… next move to the ear, nostrils, etc.

Start by learning
Before you get started, the first thing I would recommend is joining your state’s taxidermist association and attending a convention. Meet some people in the industry, learn a few things, and attempt mounting something using what you learn at the seminars. Join, and enter a mount in the competition the next year to receive critiques from amazing taxidermists and learn how to better your work. Go from there.

Continue learning
I would highly recommend the Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy for schooling for a beginner. After attending school, keep up to date with attending state taxidermy conventions, staying subscribed to Breakthrough Magazine and Taxidermy Today. Learn as much as you can from the Taxidermy.net forum. Continue your training with one-on-one classes with award winning taxidermists from all over the globe.

Kevin Clarke

Bug Under Glass – Owner

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I started my education by volunteering at the local natural history museum (California Academy of Sciences) and learned how to pin and preserve insects there. As I gained more experience through volunteering, I was offered a job at a research lab in South Africa. When I came back to the U.S. after a year at the lab, I applied to master’s programs that focused on Conservation Biology. While in my master’s program, I spread, preserved and sold insects to support my education, and this grew into a full-time job.I start the day pinning insects on a spreading board and then move to assembling them into frames. Then I fill orders and maintain my inventory. There are always lots of little things to keep track of, so there is computer time with spread sheets and ordering supplies.

I wake up every day excited for work and love what I do – there is no better feeling than this. One thing I dislike about the job are the long hours. Running your own business involves a lot of your time.

Advice

Begin by volunteering
The best thing you can do is seek out someone already working in the field, and volunteer some time with them. This will create connections and experience to move you forward. Contact a local taxidermist and ask them if they need any help. Many taxidermist are always looking for volunteers and help.

Learn anatomy
Knowing your animal anatomy is very important, and getting experience working with a professional are key.

Sidney Johnson

American Sportsman Taxidermy, Inc.

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I went to school in Gainesville and studied everything under the sun and couldn’t decide on what to do with my life. I wanted to study animals but didn’t want to be in a lab. I wanted to work with my hands, but being an artist is hard and not for me. Taxidermy never really even crossed my mind as a profession. It was just an interest and, at most, a hobby.None of my days are ever the same. Some days I’m on the phone or with clients all day deciding what they want to do with their trophies, and other days I’m making bases for several animals all day. But on an average day I come in and start “finishing’’ whatever trophies are there. Finishing something is when it’s all mounted and dried and you have to fix or touch up things. Essentially, it’s putting makeup on an animal, patching some missing hair, or covering up unwanted scars. Then it’s off to mounting the next trophy. We do a lot of exotic animals or big game like lions, leopards, and bears. Something that big can take almost half a day to sew up and start molding. So when that is done is when it’s time to go home.

I love what I do. I love everything about it, from making the animal form, to mounding the faces into different expressions, to putting the finishing touches on an animal and base and watching it literally come alive. I dislike how many of my clients hunt just for sport and could care less that this used to be a beautiful living animal. They only care about how big and mean we make it look. Some days it really makes me sad, but then you have other clients who walk in that are so excited to have these majestic animals in their houses, and they have these grand ideas of what they want them to be doing. It really makes all the work worth it.

Advice

Be ready for everything
You need to be okay with mess. Not just be okay with blood or something, but be okay with some really yucky work sometimes. It’s not always a set schedule either; you leave when your piece is done; not when the clock hits five.

Know your state laws
Brush up on your taxidermy laws in your state. Certain states really limit what you can mount. So if you only want to mount exotic pieces, then find a state that will let you. Oh, and museum jobs aren’t easy to come by, and when they do appear they don’t pay much. So be prepared to maybe start out at a job where you might be mounting things you don’t necessarily care about (In my case it’s a bunch of White-tail deer heads.).

Get a mixed education
There are a few great taxidermy schools and even online and mail order courses. But my suggestion is find an actual shop or taxidermist that will let you train under them. If you want to mount exotic pieces look at the taxidermists cats; Lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats. That is what separates a run of the mill taxidermist from a great taxidermy artist. If your cats aren’t good, then people will notice. Go to school though and get a degree in something, anything. And take some art classes, if not major in art.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Taxidermist?


Just like many other creative careers, taxidermy doesn’t necessarily require a university degree. You will, however, need some very in-depth training and will have to put in a lot of hours before you are truly good at it.

You have the choice of completing an apprenticeship if you can find someone who will teach you the craft and is willing to give you their time. Often, if you work as an assistant, this might be the arrangement. In this case, make sure that the person you are learning from specializes in what you would like to do in the future. This will be more helpful in the long-run.

On the other hand, you can go to a taxidermy school. Almost every state has one or more of these. Make sure the school you choose is certified, since this will help when you are obtain your own personal taxidermy certification. Also, look closely at the programs to see what they offer. Do they teach you tanning or business? Do you need to learn these for what you would like to do? There are many programs out there, so do your research. Cheaper is also not necessarily better, learn why tuition is higher at some places than others.

Finally, if you would like to get a college degree, you can go with subjects such as biology, environment, business or fine arts. Either one of these will take you a step closer to becoming a taxidermist; however, remember that you will still need to get the craft-specific training elsewhere.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A TAXIDERMIST?

  • Northwood Institute of Taxidermy
    Located in Friedens, PA, the Northwood Institute of Taxidermy provides students with a well-rounded course in taxidermy, which includes 13 weeks of training and does hands-on teaching through mounting a variety of animals. The different courses within the full package can be completed separately as well. Tuition here costs $7,995 plus $1,000 for lodging for the duration of the course.
  • Artistic School of Taxidermy
    This school gives more flexibility to their students by offering per training day rates, which include lodging, but not mounting materials. For $300 per day, students are able to learn what they wish directly from the instructor and choose the length of their stay in Kooskia, Idaho.
  • Montana School of Taxidermy
    This school in Helene, Montana, offers full courses in commercial taxidermy, tanning and habitat preparation. The full-time, 8-week course’s current price is $4,700, including all materials; however, payment for housing is separate and is between $500-900 per month. All the courses can be taken and paid for separately as well.
  • Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy
    Located in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, the school offers a 7-month-long course, integrating everything you need to know about taxidermy. They also offer support on getting financial aid, business-related courses, and lodging. Tuition cost for the entire program is an estimated $22,150 plus around $5,000 for room and board if you choose to stay on campus.
  • Central Texas School of Taxidermy
    This is a shorter option for those who have a little less time to spend on classes. Students have a choice of a 2 or 6-week course, both of which cover all aspects of taxidermy. Tuition for 2 weeks is $2,300, and $6,900 for 6 weeks. The school is located in Snyder, Texas.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

So how does one get started? Well, just like any other business, the best way is probably to work as an assistant for someone else at first. This will ensure that you perfect your craft and that you get your name out there within your community.

Make sure to join the taxidermy and maybe hunting clubs in your area. They will get you invaluable contacts for future clients, as well as learning possibilities. Also, use social media for networking. You can post your creations on Instagram and Facebook letting people know what you can do.

Taxidermy is time-consuming and meticulous, but can be very rewarding once the job is finished. Just have patience with your work and with your potential clients.