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A Guide to choosing the right taxidermist

For those who are new to the subject, choosing a taxidermist is not always a straightforward matter. If one has never had contact with a taxidermist, then obviously one can have little realistic idea of what to expect in terms of either price or quality of work. In an ideal world, the decision would surely be based on the ability and reputation of the taxidermist being considered, not just the cost and being conveniently local.

Understandably, for those who have no educated notion what a piece of good quality taxidermy actually looks like, the first question is invariably “how much to stuff my (whatever it is)?” followed rapidly by “…and where are you?”  Few will probe deeper to find out just exactly how good that taxidermist actually is at providing the service they are offering. Consequently, if the price is cheap and local the first taxidermist found will often get the work, irrespective of any proven ability.

N.B.  I am referring here only to charges for commissioned work, where the customer provides the specimen  to be mounted. I am not referring to the retail sale of already mounted pieces, or to dealers in finished mounts. Many of the same points apply generally, but this is a very different subject to commission based taxidermy work.

Low expectations

As a consequence of the emergence and huge popularity of simplified taxidermy courses in the UK, there has been a huge rise in the numbers of people taking it up as a paying hobby or job. The impression given is that taxidermy is a simple craft, easily learned, quickly executed and therefore cheap. The wider public do not realise that in UK taxidermy; quality and standards fluctuate from the jaw droppingly brilliant to the frankly appalling. Potential clients are bewildered by the range of prices quoted by all these taxidermists, for what appears to be, the very same job.  The lack of an understanding of what is possible generates low expectations of  both cost and quality.

Almost all taxidermists seeking your business will confidently tell you they are the best around and offer a great deal. Accordingly, if low price and convenience are the priority (irrespective of quality) such taxidermists are easily found, especially on social media. In fact, the sheer numbers there now make it very confusing for anyone trying to decide who to go to.  Of course, not everyone can pay top end prices for a service and taxidermy is no different to any other service business in that respect.
For those who are more discerning and looking for higher quality work, then it may prove helpful to research the subject of taxidermy in more depth, to help decide whom they choose to do their taxidermy.

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What is a taxidermist?

If we define taxidermy from the Latin origins of the word, it translates basically as follows: Taxis derma.
Taxis means to arrange, move or manipulate.  Dermameaning skin. Taxidermy then, by this definition, is nothing more than manipulating a skin. The term does not even define animal or bird and speaks nothing of anatomical accuracy, standards, quality or ability.  By the definition of the word then, anyone who can manipulate the skin of an animal or bird, can legitimately claim to be a taxidermist, irrespective of the fact that a finished mount may well look like some hideous caricature that was beaten into shape in the dark with a cricket bat.
Clearly then, to establish good taxidermy from bad, we need to drill down further than the definition of the word.

Who is a taxidermist?

As we have said; anyone, from any walk of life or social demographic, can declare themselves to be a taxidermist. It is not like commissioning a plumber, electrician or joiner. For whom charging a costed minimum daily, or hourly rate, is not flexible or optional, but necessary to earn a living wage. How many plumbers do you know who will do a full days’ work for £50 or do it as a hobby or a part time as a “top up”? I do not know of any, but with the situation with taxidermy is very different.

There are essentially four categories of practitioners doing taxidermy. Looking at these four categories will not necessarily give a clear guidance on whom to choose as your taxidermist, however, it will give an insight into the reasons why prices and quality vary so widely and this knowledge will at least help you to make a better informed choice.

  • Amateurs and pure hobbyists:
    These are people who usually do taxidermy for themselves or friends, but do not seek any financial gain from it. They are probably in the minority of those doing taxidermy, as they will invariably move into one of the following categories very quickly, once they realise money can be made. There are some very talented amateur and hobby taxidermists who take great pride in their work and take the necessary time to study the subject well, so a hobbyist or an amateur does not necessarily produce “unprofessional” work.
  • Subsidised, and part time:
    This is basically anyone who does taxidermy and charges a fee, but also has other forms of private income, financial support or backing, apart from the taxidermy. The term “Hobby Job” is sometimes used to describe it. It is in this section of taxidermists where charges for work range most widely, as the number of taxidermists is highest, and competition for work is at its very keenest.  Pricing for a hobby job taxidermist does not need to be based on a fully costed business model, because they do not need to factor in the real costs of running a business that will support a household. Few taxidermists in this category do the maths on what it actually costs to mount a bird or animal for a client. They may purchase glass eyes, chemicals, forms and a few other basic sundries and charge to cover the costs, but the bigger numbers; such as rent, rates, mortgages and utility bills will have been covered elsewhere, so they are taken out of the equation, and the clients’ bill. This, if you are the lucky client, is obviously a bonus.

There are a large number of hobby job taxidermists in the UK, who can produce very good quality taxidermy, but instead choose to devalue their work and ability by effectively subsidising their clients’ pockets with heavily discounted taxidermy.  As stated above, this is obviously excellent news for the clients` who use their services, but is most certainly not very clever as a business idea, and does nothing to encourage the development of high quality taxidermy work.  Fear of losing the order to another taxidermist, and an oddly misplaced pride, in stealing the order from “the other guy (or girl)” drives prices and quality down.  Competition in business is a good thing and to be encouraged, but for highly capable taxidermists to be subsidising their own clients with unrealistic prices that in a real world business scenario would not produce a living for them is patently self defeating stupidity.

There is also a cohort in the hobby job category who have the passion for doing taxidermy, but lack both experience and ability. They are often desperate to “get into taxidermy” and are prepared to work for very little money. I have seen prices quoted that are so low they are effectively working for nothing and barely covering the costs to do the work.

There is certainly a very noticeable downwards pressure on both prices and standards in this section of taxidermists. More and more taxidermists fighting for work at the bottom end of the market can only send the quality of that work lower, because the less they charge, the less time they can spend on doing that work and this cut throat pricing drives client expectations (pricewise) down as well. The net effect of this is that very few of these taxidermists can ever expect to earn a reasonable living wage for their work. They are doomed to stay on the fringes of earning capacity, knocking out quick cheap work.

  • Sole trader and full time
    There are a small number in the UK, for whom taxidermy is their sole profession and business. These are full time professional taxidermists, who earn their living from doing only taxidermy. There are probably less than a hundred in this category in the UK today. These individuals must work to a solid, costed business model. They should also consider quality, in every piece they do, as their business will rely on their reputation for good quality work, in order to get sufficient repeat work to generate an income long term. The very reason there are so few is because many struggle to escape from category 2.
  • Taxidermy company
    These are larger concerns, businesses, which will usually be working from a commercial premises, not a house, flat, shed or an outbuilding at home. They may employ full time staff to do much of the work that comes in, and will probably also charge VAT. They too must work to a very tight and fully costed business model. As you are paying a professional business you will be paying for the real costs of a piece of taxidermy, not a price made up by the “back of a fag packet” school of pricing. Taxidermy companies (Studios) can vary from bespoke high quality to discounted quantity. There are a few in the UK at this level, but large studios will require very large volumes of work to survive long term.

 

Quality and standards in taxidermy

There are easily over 3,500 people in the UK, who are practicing taxidermy in one form or another.  Only about 3% of them; about 60 or so, have any form of qualification at all. Usually from the UK guild of taxidermists, via the accreditation system they run. Others have entered mounts in international and European competitions to gain recognition amongst their peers. This is not to say that anyone who is not recognised or “qualified” via the Guild or who has not entered and won in various shows is automatically bad at taxidermy, far from it. Not everyone has the time or money to spend on preparing mounts for judging and competitions. There are no official (government level) industry standards or qualifications required to set up as a taxidermist … quite literally any Tom, Dick or Harriet can decide on Friday that the following Monday they are now a “professional taxidermist” whatever that means. Taxidermy, like portrait painting, is not about the individual subject, but about the ability of the artist to interpret the animal accurately as a taxidermist.  A taxidermist may have mounted hundreds of a given animal species, and say “I have 25 years experience” however, if they are an inherently bad taxidermist it means absolutely nothing.

All of the above demonstrates that anyone looking for decent quality taxidermy needs to do a lot more homework that just asking how much is it to the nearest self proclaimed taxidermist they find.

How then, do you choose a taxidermist?

First and foremost, decide what is important to you, quality or price. If it is price alone, then we have already covered that above; you will have no problems. However, if quality is important to you, you need to do some research to understand things better.

 

Research your specimen…

Look it up on the internet and look at good quality close up photos of living examples.  Study it in detail and you will begin to appreciate how it looks and behaves. You might also learn more about it generally. Save the images to compare against the work you view later. Study the images closely; look at character, pose, mood, demeanour, balance, poise, even behaviour. This is how you will begin appreciating what good taxidermy is about.  Looking up “stuffed magpie” or “taxidermy magpie”, will teach you only what a badly mounted magpie looks like. Looking up “magpie” and clicking images in your internet browser, will immediately show you ‘live’ magpies, the character of the bird and exactly how it looks and moves when alive. It is this that should be your benchmark for a well mounted magpie. Compare a live one to any mounted one, up close, and you will very soon appreciate the point. 

 

Research taxidermy itself…

Get to understand the process and how it is done. Learn to appreciate the skill, art and craft of it. You cannot have too much information, the internet can show you just how good and bad taxidermy can be. The more you see, the more you will become familiar with what is involved and what is technically and artistically possible. Typing “best taxidermist” in a search engine is not research. All taxidermists will say they are the best around. You need to look into it far more than that. 

 

Research your taxidermist…

Dig a lot deeper than “how much is it?” and “where are you?”  Have they got a long standing reputation for high quality work? There are some very good taxidermists who utilise social media, but you need to look way past a page on social media. Four hundred “likes” and two dozen scrappy phonecam snaps on “Friendface” or similar platforms, does not constitute a long standing reputation for good work. Most pages are very recent and disappear as fast as they appear.  Ask to see their portfolio of work and compare it with the images of live animals we mentioned earlier.

 

What is good quality taxidermy then?

Judging or assessing a piece of taxidermy is highly subjective and can be broken down into a many arguable factors. Those who have been tasked with judging their peers at taxidermy meetings, conferences and competitions will argue endlessly on all manner of minute details, angles of eye pupils, centres of gravity, anatomy, pose, feather dressing and a host of other factors, but at its most basic, the main point is surely this:

How does the mounted specimen compare to its natural living counterpart?
Anybody can “stuff” a bird or a mammal badly. The “process”,  in its most basic interpretation, is relatively straightforward, so a badly “stuffed” magpie will obviously look something like a real magpie because the skin and feathers of a magpie have been used.  But does it really look like a living magpie? Does it exhibit character and personality? Is the pose carefully thought out?
Making a “stuffed” magpie look plausibly real, alive and anatomically correct is a very different matter, requiring practiced skill, a good knowledge of bird anatomy and feather groups, meticulous attention to detail, but above all those technical skills. The taxidermist must have an ability to interpret a real live bird using a dead birds` skin.  Looking at a stuffed or a live magpie is easy; assessing what you are actually seeing is only possible if you look at, study and understand the live magpie.

The more deeply you study your subject animal (your specimen), the more you begin to appreciate it and understand it. You can then use this accumulated knowledge to assess what a taxidermist is really capable of.  A conscientious taxidermist will spend many hours studying a subject species in life to better understand its behaviour and living anatomy. They will also take many detailed measurements of it when dead and yet more after skinning, before they even think about starting work on mounting it.  This study of photos and measurements is known as reference. A good taxidermist will have limitless amounts of reference to hand as they work, as it is singly the most vitally important start point for any mount they do if they have any hope of getting even half way decent. Without the study and collection of reference, they are quite literally guessing. Good taxidermy, when viewed against the above criteria, becomes obvious. Likewise bad taxidermy stands out a mile for what it really is. Badly executed taxidermy is no more than rough guesswork and a bad caricature of its former living self.

 In the final analysis it is you as the client who must judge the balance between how much you wish to pay, versus how closely you want or expect the mount will look compared to its living self.
The better the taxidermy, the more you should expect to pay a professional taxidermist for his or her skills, because he or she will spend a good deal of their time doing it.It takes two hours to mount a bird badly, or ten hours to mount it well. Few people work for free, and a skilled professional will rightly require and deserve a rate worthy of their ability.

 

Money; how much should I pay?

I have seen commission rates for a humble magpie as low as £40.00 and north of £350.00. Value for money is relative to income and depends on “disposable income”. Clearly the £40.00 is ludicrous and whoever does a magpie for £40.00 must surely  be a raw beginner who is looking to cover only basic costs and labouring for free. The very fastest taxidermist would need to dedicate the better part of a full working day to complete a magpie (assuming of course that they are doing that bird using the correct process and not cutting corners on preparation). The bird must be skinned. The skin carefully cleaned, degreased and washed then dried. The form or manikin needs to be made, the skin then wired. The head is prepared and the skin then arranged back on to the form and the bird stitched up. Only after that “process” does the skill and work begin. The taxidermist should then spend a long time arranging feathers and skin on the bird to get it to look genuinely alive and real.  It must then go on a suitable base or mount, which also takes time (and materials) to design and create. If that bird is done well, then 6 to 8 hours can be spent to do the above. This is not to discuss or include glass cases, elaborate scenic creations and other additions.

Quick checklist:

  • Do not rush into it. Freeze the specimen A frozen specimen buys you the time to research your options. A frozen animal or bird can remain so for many years. Freezing also allows you time to consider the financial part of the matter more carefully and for high cost full mounts you can plan financially (if you have a big enough freezer).
  • Your finished mount should be proudly on display for a long time, possibly decades, so the initial investment in good quality taxidermy is well worth it. Why would anyone want to invest in, and display, a sub standard attempt at taxidermy for posterity?
  • Research your specimen to know and understand it better.
  • Research the taxidermists – Cost alone is no indicator of anything.  If your first question is how much?  You must be assuming that every taxidermists work is the same standard, just as if you are buying a tin of branded baked beans. Enquire more widely about their reputation.
  • Showrooms – A room full of mounts is always very impressive at first glance, or in a picture, but look very closely at the mounts individually with a critical eye.
  • A low quote and a short delivery time They probably have no work in. This is not necessarily and indicator of poor workmanship. Some very good taxidermists are not very “tech savvy” at self promotion on the keyboard or social media, whilst some truly appalling ones have a prolific online presence and pop up an every platform there is.
  • “That taxidermist is my mate and he/she is brilliant” is not a recommendation, it is a biased opinion. Of course friends make recommendations. You need far better recommendations than twenty eight “likes” on “Facefriend!”
  • Talk is cheap Most taxidermists will tell you with confidence that they are the best around (and why wouldn’t they?) You want to see a substantial portfolio of high quality work, to prove that they are actually capable and not just good at the chat.
  • Winning “The 2008 best international stuffed squirrel prize” is no indicator of anybody’s day to day workmanship; it simply shows that they have the talent and the ability when it suits. Look at the regular work.
  • “I`ve done loads of those in my 20 yearsTaxidermy is like portrait panting in some ways. It is not about the subject but about the ability of the artist to interpret that subject accurately. A taxidermist may have mounted hundreds of a given animal species, however, if they are an inherently bad taxidermist numbers and years are irrelevant.

I hope the above proves to be enlightening rather than confusing. It is not intended to provide any definitive solution to the question, but rather, to discuss and explain a little of why choosing a taxidermist requires a little more consideration than just how much, and where are you?  The final decision rests with you as the client and on what you consider is acceptable based on your own personal position and circumstances.