Taxidermy: The stuff of artistry

PORT CLINTON A lot of people think they can be a taxidermist. But can they paint? It'
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

PORT CLINTON

A lot of people think they can be a taxidermist. But can they paint?

It's the first question Jim Wendt asks of anyone interested in the craft.

Wendt is the owner of Jim's Taxidermy in Port Clinton. He's been a taxidermist for 28 years, mounting animal hides and fish onto molds for people as far south as Georgia.

Preparation must go into the skins, but it's the finishing that makes the animals realistic. The fleshy parts of an animal dry out during the tanning process, so lips, eyes and the insides of the ears have to be painted.

Wendt also paints the rocks or the soil an animal will be displayed on to match its natural surroundings.

In his shop stands a massive Siberian tiger on its back legs. Another lies on a table.

He has mounted the hides of everything from exotic animals such as zebras, polar bears and sables to deer and many species of fish. But he doesn't do pets. The final results tend to be a disappointment for the owner, no matter how well done the work.

"Everything has a personality and once gone, it's not going to be the same," Wendt said.

The first step in the process is to prepare the skin for the tanner.

Salt is placed on the hide to help keep bacteria from growing. It also helps set the hair.

Once the hide comes back from the tannery, the skin is bulked up, so a taxidermist has to go around the lips, ears and eyes to thin the hide.

This makes it easier to place and adjust the skin on a mold.

"You have to be a sculptor because you have to adapt everything," Wendt said.

The final positioning sometimes requires engineering foam, wire and rods to help support the animal.

Wendt said he uses reference materials and photographs to help capture the look of natural movement.

Sometimes the skin gets conditioned. Realistic-looking eyes and tongues are placed.

Then comes the painting.

Animals have the fleshy parts painted.

Fish have the entire body painted to replicate the colors they had while alive. The red gills are spray painted from behind. Wendt puts a paper towel inside to keep the paint from spreading.

It can take Wendt up to eight months to complete a deer and up to 10 months to finish a fish. In the meantime, he might have projects going for as many as 400 customers who need his help.