Taxidermy, which comes from the Greek words “taxis” (movement) and “derma” (skin) for “moving the skin”, involves the mounting or arranging of dead animals for display. Essentially, taxidermy involves skinning the animal to be mounted, tanning it or preserving it with chemicals and then arranging the skin around a form, mold or shape made of wood, wool, wire or polyurethane. Only the skin or a few parts such as antlers (in the case of deer) are used. All other parts are man-made. It can be done with any vertebrate animal large or small. Taxidermists use bears, dogs, fish, birds, snakes and even rats. Taxidermy is practiced professionally by those who mount animals for museums or institutes of learning, as a hobby, or commercially with hunters and fishermen as customers.
An art which requires knowledge of anatomy, sculpture, painting, woodworking, molding and tanning, taxidermy started to develop into its present state in the 18th and 19th centuries, hand in hand with the growth of the tanning industry. Demand for quality leather rose and the supply of hides increased. Hunters started by bringing trophies to upholstery shops until more sophisticated techniques were developed. Fish are the most popular objects of taxidermy because they are caught in greater abundance than, say, lions, tigers or bears.
Inasmuch as a dead animal loses some of its natural color quickly, the color must be painted on the animal to be mounted to make it look alive and real. The ideal tool for applying the paint in taxidermy is the airbrush. Compared with its other uses, however, the airbrush plays a relatively smaller role in taxidermy.
The taxidermist may choose a Single-Action Siphon Feed airbrush with a bottom mount and tip sizes of 1, 3 and 5 to describe how fine the paint flows through the tip. The size 1 or tan tip is for a smooth flow, using paint that has been diluted, and is needed for fine detail work; the size 3 or gray tip produces a medium paint flow for general purpose work; and the 5 or blue tip is for heavier work with paint that hasn't been thinned down.
Or, the taxidermist may opt for a Double-Action Siphon Feed airbrush (preferably one that is side mounted) or a Gravity Feed airbrush. For a compressor, one that gives at least 60 psi and a minimum airflow of 0.64 cfm is required.
The paint to be used depends upon the animal to be mounted. Dyes and inks are not used in taxidermy, and the available types are water-based and lacquer-based acrylic paints. Acrylic paints have the advantage of brighter, more vibrant colors, less need for dilution and minimal clogging of the tip of the airbrush. On the other hand, this type of paint can cause health hazards and proper respiratory protection is needed. Water-based paints are safer but a bit more difficult to use. They are also prone to cause tip clogging. However, with more experience, mixing a transparent water-based paint with regular opaque paints can give you greater color depth.
For fish, a high gloss finish is often needed. A gloss will usually come in an aerosol can and is available at hardware stores or taxidermy shops.