From time to time, Ken’s Corner will offer taxidermy tips and techniques to help you produce better results in your studio. In this week’s installment, I will offer one of my favorite tips for anyone who mounts squirrels. Making this one simple change in procedure will make a world of difference in the appearance of your finished product.
If you look at enough squirrel mounts, you will see that they come in all levels of quality. Beginners have trouble with shrinkage in toes and ears, while professionals may have trouble with finishing and the finer anatomical details. But there is one important area on squirrel mounts which makes an immediate impression and can elevate a bad mount or improve a great mount, and that is the shape of the tail.
A well-groomed and properly shaped squirrel tail will display a round and soft puffiness which is accented by the hair color highlights extending equally in all directions. This will help make any squirrel mount look appealing. On the other hand, a misshapen tail with flat spots and gaps in the fur will make a poor impression, even if the rest of the squirrel is rendered correctly.
There is an easy way to make sure your squirrels have beautiful tails, especially if they are specimens you collected yourself. This tip was told to me over twenty years ago by master taxidermist Ed Thompson of Georgia. The trick is to mount and groom the tail immediately, preferably within hours of taking the squirrel. This will insure that the hair does not begin to lock into any unnatural positions during the freezing process.
The tail is the thinnest appendage on the animal, so it is much more susceptible to dehydration. The thin tail skin is more delicate, so even a short time in a freezer will tend to set the hair in unnatural patterns which are hard to overcome later. Mounting the tail is an easy process and only takes a few minutes. Here is how Ed Thompson does it:
Part the hair at the base of the tail and make an incision completely around the tail, cutting the skin only. Peel back about two inches of the skin to act as a handle between your thumb and forefinger. You should be able to pull the tail skin off completely in one smooth motion. A tail skinning tool can aid in this procedure if you are having trouble pulling the skin off.
Using the tail carcass as a guide, choose a flexible urethane tail mannikin and cut it down to the proper length. Sand the end of the wire to dull the tip of the tail so it won’t poke through the skin when you insert it. The rest of the squirrel can now be bagged and frozen if desired for skinning and mounting at a later date.
The tail skin is thin enough that it should not require any fleshing or tanning. There is no need to split the skin, which would require sewing to repair. You can simply sprinkle a dry preservative or borax powder into the tail skin and push it to the tip with a light gauge wire. Dump any excess powder out of the tail skin so it does not fill up the skin at the tip.
Cover the tail mannikin with hide paste and slide it into the tail skin. Make sure the flexible tail is inserted correctly in the skin without twisting. Most artificial tail mannikins are flatter on the bottom (ventral) side and rounded on the upper (dorsal) side. Anchor the tail into a foam block and adjust the curve of the tail to match your pose. Once groomed, the tail will remain in the styrofoam block until you are ready to attach it to a finished mount.
Now comes the fun part. Using a soft toothbrush, lightly stroke the hair in the tail, grooming them into place. When you start, the tail will look flat and lifeless, but within a matter of minutes, it will explode into a beautiful round symmetrical puff-ball. You can also use an air hose set to very low pressure to groom the hair. The air hose will help move each hair back into the position it is supposed to be in. The toothbrush will help you coax hair into the position that you want it to go. The hair should radiate from the tail in all directions to achieve a full, 3D effect. Between the two methods, within about ten minutes of grooming, you should have an impressive, fluffy tail. If you have never used this method before, it will probably result in the nicest squirrel tail you have ever done.
As with any mount, you will want to spend a few minutes grooming on the second and third day to make sure the skin dries with the hairs lock into their proper positions. Once the tail is dry, you must take care to keep the tail supported from here on out. You must never let the tail touch another surface. If it were to fall over on its side and stay that way for a few minutes, it would create a flat spot that would ruin your fuzzy plume.
Later, when the rest of your squirrel has been mounted, you can attach the tail by inserting the tail wire into your mannikin and anchoring it with a spot of hot glue. Hide paste and insect pins can hold everything together until dry.
If you always make sure you have an assortment of Accu-Flex squirrel tail mannikins on hand in your studio, you will be able to take advantage of this technique. TL07 is the code number for a grey squirrel tail, and TL06 will fit a fox squirrel. Link: http://www.mckenziesp.com/Catalog37/Page.aspx?page=638