Methods in the Art of Taxidermy

by Oliver Davie Published in 1900

Taxidermy Workshop

Individual preference may often regulate the quantity and quality of a collector's outfit, when the size of his purse does not have to be taken into consideration. The extent to which you desire to carryon operations in taxidermy will altogether determine what should constitute your equipment; but, as for the beginner, who is to learn the ABC of the art, the instruments necessary to proceed with are comparatively few and inexpensive. As the amateur proceeds, however, he will gradually discover what is desirable and necessary in his practice, and will provide for his wants accordingly.

In order to attain the fullest success, the taxidermist must provide himself with excellent tools, and all materials requisite for the performance of his work. Tis the shining steel instruments of modern make that become favorites among skilled workmen. Powers could never have executed his" Greek Slave" with a common cold-chisel, and many a battle has been lost for lack of the proper sinews of war. By all means, equip yourself before entering the field. I shall not dwell longer on the importance of providing a first-class outfit, but shall inspect the quarters in which we are to do the work, and the place in which we are to store our specimens, great and small. We shall first examine the workshop, its general appointments, and the materials to be used.

The Workshop.-Unless you are an inspired genius, do not select a gloomy, out-of-the-way room in the cellar or garret, for such environments are seldom congenial to the best kind of work. The alchemists and taxidermists of old made this mistake, but I would advise you not to follow their example, unless circumstances absolutely compel you to do so. Select a well-lighted, airy room in your house, or have one built to suit your purpose, and make its appointments as complete as will suit your own convenience. An ideal workshop, together with a repository or museum hall, the capacity of which will answer any purpose required for work in taxidermy, whether you desire to engage in it for pleasure or for profit, may be described as follows: A room, not less than 18 x20 feet, and one story in height, should occupy the ground floor, with two good-sized windows at one end, a door at the side, made large enough for the egress of your mounted elephants, horses, etc.; a sky-light in the roof should be arranged so that it can be opened for ventilation. Adjoining this, a repository or museum hall should be built, 40 feet long and 15 feet wide, with two sky-lights, made sufficiently large to admit plenty of light. This hall should be furnished with glass wall and aisle cases, made as nearly dust-tight as possible. My private museum hall, at No. 239 Tenth Avenue, is of this same design and proportioned as above. In our workshop, which still demands our attention, a dark closet must be made for the drying of freshly mounted specimens, and another for the storage of materials, such as tow, excelsior, and straw by the bale, plaster of Paris, ~alt, and ground alum by the barrel or hundred weight, and potter's clay by the ton. Make a work table 7 feet long, 3i feet wide, and 2 feet 6 inches high, the top out of 1 i-inch oak plank, dressed; make the table portable, so that you can fasten it to the wall directly in front of the windows, or move it into the center of the room under the sky-light. At one end of the table fix a heavy iron vise. Have sunken into this table, at one end, flush with the top, a piece of plate glass 3 feet square, on which to skin birds. A chopping block, made of a section of a sycamore, is an excellent thing for many purposes. A case with drawers, to contain the necessary tools, should be placed close by. Various sizes of stone, glass and earthen jars should be provided in which to pickle the skins of the smaller mammals. Make a large box-like tank or vat, constructed of oak and lined with sheet lead, to hold the skins of the large subjects. Over this tank, in the ceiling, should be fixed a rope and pulley to facilitate the handling and turning of heavy skins.

The salt and alum solution in which the skins are placed evaporates very rapidly, and it is necessary to tack a thin strip of sheet-rubber round the edge of the lid of the large tank to make it fit tightly. The same construction may be followed in making the lids for the stone jars. In taking the skins of mammals out of the salt and alum bath to place or fit them on the manikin, or when the skins in this position are wrapped ill wet blankets to keep them moist during the process of sewing, the liquid is constantly dripping from them. It is quite necessary, therefore, to provide a water-tight platform, properly drained, on which to stand the manikin. I have here described an ideal workshop, and it is not, by any means, expected that the beginner will prepare so elaborately for a line of work in which he has not attained proficiency. Do not be backward in beginning operations on the dining or kitchen table, and work there, at least, until you have been ejected, specimens and all, by the lady of the house. Do not let a scanty supply of tools stop your progress. I have seen wonderful pieces of taxidermy done with a sharp penknife, some wire, tow, needle and thread, and some arsenic. The qualities which go to make a good 'jack-of-all trades' are brought into requisition in taxidermic art.