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Learn the Basics of Taxidermy

Taxidermy is an art form where the practitioner preserves dead animals by crafting models from their preserved skin. Many taxidermists work to create models that are similar to the animals in nature, while others create hybrid or fantasy creatures made from different animals’ parts. Taxidermy is a meticulous craft that requires attention to detail as well as an artistic vision. 

Taxidermists must also be familiar with animal anatomy and have skills in carpentry, woodworking, tanning, molding, drawing, sculpting, and casting. In addition, this field allows individuals to take their artistic skills and vision to preserve animals for art and educational purposes.  You will need to be familiar with fur and feather texture and coloring and must have strong hand-eye coordination. However, taxidermy is not for the squeamish. Taxidermists must be okay with getting a little messy, as this career involves dealing with dead animals and preserving the skin. 

Taxidermists are not required to have a formal degree. However, like most artistic career paths, taxidermy requires in-depth training and hours of practice to become skilled. If you want to work as a taxidermist in the US, you will also be required to obtain a license and/or federal permit (although regulations vary by state).  Some states require taxidermists pass an exam detailing regulations in various categories, such as mammals or birds.  Consult your state’s department of natural resources to verify licensure requirements and obtain information prior to starting out.  It should also be noted that taxidermists who plan to work on migratory birds must apply for a federal permit through the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in addition to obtaining a state license.  In addition, although professional certification isn’t necessary to work as a taxidermist, professional certification through the National Taxidermist Association (NTA) can help you get a job or show your commitment to the field. 

Many taxidermists complete an apprenticeship to learn the craft from someone who specializes in the various types of taxidermy. Those who want to become taxidermists may also benefit from earning a college degree in biology, business, or fine arts before working on their craft-specific training with a professional taxidermist. 

Like many other artistic professionals, taxidermists can work in a variety of different environments such as established taxidermy shops or museums and other scientific establishments. Many taxidermists work full-time, while others may choose to pursue their interests on a part-time basis, as the amount of work is often dependent on the season. For those who want to make taxidermy a full-time career, it is helpful to have some business experience or knowledge, especially if you plan to open your own shop. 

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not list salary information specifically related to taxidermy. However, it does list salary information for fine artists (which includes painters, sculptors, and illustrators).  On average fine artists earned about $25.00 per hour or just over $50,000 per year.  The BLS also lists Leather and Hide Tanning and Finishing Industry wages of $14.14 to $17.30 per hour.

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Master the Process

Knowledge of Anatomy & Attention to Detail Are Essential Components

A knowledge of animal anatomy is important to the taxidermy profession. For the most part, taxidermists work to create realistic models of animals. For this reason, a taxidermist must have in-depth knowledge and understanding of the anatomy of the species of animals they may choose to specialize in; like birds or fish. An understanding of animal anatomy allows a taxidermist to successfully recreate the look and feel of a natural animal. 

The taxidermy process typically involves four or five major steps. First, the taxidermist will skin the dead animal and preserve its skin by tanning or by chemical processing. Then, the taxidermist mounts the skin on a grid, molding it to look like the animal in its natural form. Afterward, the taxidermist will install any artificial pieces like glass eyes to create the desired effect. The taxidermist may then label the work with any other important information if necessary, like if a fin is missing on a fish, or other oddity. 

Before the taxidermist can begin the process and start working on the piece, he or she must consider the purpose of the piece. It is vital to understand where the piece is going after it is finished and what the client hopes to get from the piece. For instance, if a piece is going to be placed in an educational institution or a museum, it will most likely need to look as it would in nature. On the other hand, a piece completed for a person’s home or an art gallery provides a little more flexibility and room for creative license. 

One of the most important skills that a successful taxidermist must possess is attention to detail. Taxidermy is a meticulous art that requires painstakingly detailed work. When it comes to taxidermy elements such as seam work, realistic features, or lifelike poses, clients want to know that their taxidermist is paying attention to any and all features that make the piece successful.

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Build Experience & Seek Professional Development

No formal education is needed to become a taxidermist. That said, there are certificate and diploma programs available through some community colleges and trade schools.  These programs offer students training in artistic and technical areas of taxidermy and provide opportunities to work with professionals on authentic projects. Coursework may include learning the tools and techniques of taxidermy related to different types of animals, such as birds, small and large game and fish, state regulations, airbrushing and painting techniques. 

But, like any other artistic endeavor, taxidermy takes practice. Those who want to pursue a career as a taxidermist must seek out craft-specific training from an experienced professional taxidermist. Whether you volunteer your services to learn the trade, study under a professional in a formal program, or work as an apprentice at a taxidermist’s shop, you will want to have considerable training before you get your license and start seeking employment. 

A strong portfolio is another important element for the taxidermist. Not all taxidermists are created equal. For instance, some taxidermists specialize in exotic animals like lions, tigers, and leopards, while others may focus on birds or insects. A portfolio of your work allows you to show potential employers or clients your quality of work while showcasing your specialty. 

Networking is an important part of expanding your career opportunities, as well as getting the chance to learn from others in the profession. Join your state’s taxidermy association and attend taxidermy conventions when you can. At these events, you can learn new techniques, stay up-to-date with trends and issues in the industry, and meet other taxidermists who are working in the field. This is a great way to not only meet colleagues but also find mentors and potential employers.

Get to Know Our Experts

Jason Wizner

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Jersey Jays Taxidermy
  • Where:
    Clifton, NJ
  • Experience:
    8 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Bug Under Glass
  • Where:
    Petaluma, CA
  • Experience:
    12 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    N/A
  • Company:
    American Sportsman Taxidermy, Inc.
  • Where:
    Havana, FL
  • Experience:
    1 year in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Taxidermist Infographic