A Throwback to America’s Old West

Preserving the entire head bone with antlers is a throwback to America’s Wild West. It’s a great way to memorialize your hunt. Photo by Steve Sorensen.

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

In my early days of deer hunting, we preserved the memories of the bucks we harvested by sawing off the antlers and fastening them to a board.

The job could be simple, or elaborate. It could be done on a piece of barnboard, or a plaque specially cut and finished for the project—a nice arrowhead or a shield shape. We cut the skull with an ordinary crosscut hand saw using two or three cuts. Removing the scalp was optional, but preferable—otherwise it could attract moths. Wood screws anchored the skull to the board.

We’d cover the skullplate with a piece of velour snatched from mom’s supply of scraps. The fabric was glued on, tucked in, or otherwise tailored to look as good as we could make it. This effort was well-suited for the many small-antlered bucks we used to shoot.

Many of today’s bucks are bigger than the ones we killed 20 years ago, but full, artistic mounts of every buck may not be affordable for many. Fortunately we have the option of skull mounts, also called European mounts or Western mounts.

The reason they’re called “European” mounts is up for debate, but if you grew up on television westerns you know why they’re called “Western” mounts. A horned cow skull or an antlered deer skull appeared on the wall somewhere in nearly every TV show depicting America’s old West.

A more important debate is how a skull mount should be prepared. Mother Nature will do the work if you bury it in the ground (with the antlers above ground), but that method will leave stains on the bone. You can soak it in a bucket of water, a method called “maceration,” and use a pressure washer to complete the job.

Some taxidermists remove the brain and larger pieces of muscle and then boil the skull (not a full boil, but a simmer), but boiling risks excessive heat and a few bones invariably need to be glued back together. Others maintain a colony of flesh-eating beetles (dermestids) that chow down on all the soft tissue. Beetles are less labor-intensive and very thorough because they can wriggle their way into the tiniest crevices within the skull.

Western skull preservation became less common in the early twentieth century when hunters brought trophy animals to the cities and paid local upholsterers to immortalize the animal by tanning the hide and stretching it over a crude form like they saw in museums. Thus taxidermy (the word means the arrangement of skin on a form) started becoming popular in the early twentieth century because it seemed a step above the Wild West’s more basic displays.

You’ve probably had lifelike mounts made by well-trained modern taxidermists who use lasting materials and can produce work that is both science and art. But maybe it’s time to turn the clock back a couple hundred years and get a nice skull mount. Here are seven good reasons.

  1. They don’t take up nearly as much room. You can exhibit two or three skull mounts in the space it takes to hang one lifelike mount.
  2. They can be displayed any number of ways. You can make a wall arrangement, or a tabletop display, or set them on a shelf.
  3. They dramatize the antlers in a way a lifelike mount can’t.
  4. They’re educational. Examining a clean skull offers an inside perspective and opportunity for physiology and anatomy questions to be asked and answered.
  5. They’re nostalgic. They’re like a blast from the past with a connection to the present. Who doesn’t appreciate that?
  6. They’re far less expensive than a lifelike mount. Most taxidermists do skull mounts because some customers either can’t afford a lifelike mount, or don’t have room for one.
  7. They’re a great do-it-yourself project. You can glean plenty of information on how to do it from the Internet.

This season, maybe an idea from the past is in your future.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, writing about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. Contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com, and read more of his thoughts about hunting at www.jamestowngazette.com.