Dedicated to a Heady Craft

Special to the Valley News
Saturday, October 29, 2016

Enfield — When Enfield resident John Martin, 25, decided to study the art of taxidermy, he approached the process methodically.

For three years, Martin researched the different venues for pursuing a dream that first surfaced when he was in his teens. He visited three taxidermy schools, evaluating them for their artisan philosophy, financial requirements and housing opportunities.

Martin finally decided on Northwood Institute of Taxidermy in Friedans, Pa., about two hours south of Pittsburgh. He chose Northwood because the tuition involved a flat rate that did not require him to for pay extra charges, such as materials fees, that would have been assessed at some of the other schools.

Martin also loved the mounts he observed at Northwood. His instructor, Joel North Zimmerman, emphasized the craft of painting, especially on fish. Zimmerman specialized in creating natural scenes like the one in Martin’s shop that features a male and female pheasant in a wild setting.

In April, Martin took a hiatus from the family business, Martin’s Mechanical Plumbing and Heating, to pursue his ambition. His father, Jamie Martin, humorously takes responsibility for his son’s decision.

“It’s all my fault,” Jamie Martin said. “I got him started shooting when he was 5 years old. He shot his first deer during Youth Weekend when he was 12. He’s grown up hunting and fishing.”

With his family’s blessing, Martin set off for Pennsylvania. He studied for three months, returning home in July to start his business, Furs to Fins Taxidermy. The final cost for the schooling, including travel, tuition and housing, came to around $10,000. Martin hopes to eventually recoup some of that money from his customers, but right now his craft is mostly a labor of love.

Early human attempts at taxidermy weren’t always successful. Specimens were often stuffed with sawdust and rags, altering the natural lines of the animal. Even as late as the mid-20th century, taxidermy science had not evolved into the sophisticated process existing today.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, they were still using paper mache inside the mount,” Josh Martin explained. “Now we can order block foam from a catalog. I can shape the foam to the exact measurements of the animal. It makes for a more realistic mount.”

I was surprised to find out how many manmade elements go into a trophy that ends up in the den. A mallard duck hanging on the wall of Martin’s studio retains only the feathers and the feet of the bird. Everything else is artificial, including the eyes and bill.

I was also surprised to see several fish on colorful display in Martin’s collection, including a Palomino/Golden trout he’d caught while in Pennsylvania. Because of the intricate work involved, some taxidermists are reluctant to “skin mount” fish, preferring to create an artificial representation from photos and measurements.

Martin isn’t averse to tackling the real thing: “I don’t mind doing fish. The heads are from molds, but the skin is real. I enjoy painting and airbrushing. That’s what I learned from Joel. When you get through with a fish, it’s mostly paint.”

The process of mounting a trophy buck begins with hunter. After the animal is harvested, the hide must be preserved in a freezer until the taxidermist can get to the work.

“Wrap the hide in a contractor’s bag,” Martin urged. “You want to make sure that no air gets to it. If it’s exposed, the fur and skin can become freezer-burned, but if it’s airtight, the hide can be frozen for a couple of years.”

Martin also does “European mounts,” which display antlers on the bare skull of the deer.

Because he doesn’t have a lot of room for storage right now, Martin farms out hides to a tannery. They come back to him ready for mounting. He stretches the hide over a form, then uses paint and artificial ingredients to complete the process.

In New Hampshire, taxidermists are required to be licensed by the state, but there is no requirement they attend a professional school. In other words, Granite State taxidermists can be self-taught.

Martin, however, opted to go to school to avoid too much of a trial-and-error approach to what he hopes will be a career. With rifle and shotgun season starting up in November, many hunters will be looking to preserve their trophies for a wall mount. Because of demand, taxidermists often have a backlog of work. Even though he has only been in operation since July, Martin already has several specimens in his freezer, including a 25-inch brown trout, a 20-inch brookie, a coyote and a whole black bear.

It can take up to a year for a mount to be completed, so any hunter looking to preserve a trophy buck should follow his advice and make sure the hide is frozen in airtight wrapping.

To contact Josh Martin, send an email to furstofinstaxidermynh@gmail.com.

Coleman Stokes can be reached at stokecoles@gmail.com.