Walt Fulps, Taxidermist, Fishing guide, and outdoorsman gets JobShadowed about what it’s like doing Taxidermy.  You can find Walt at www.missouritrouthunter.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.

What do you do for a living?

I’m a fishing guide, a fly-fishing instructor, a taxidermist, and a freelance writer, but taxidermy is the focus on this interview, so we’ll stick with that.

How would you describe what you do?
A general mix of customer service, butcher, tanner, carpenter, and artist.

What does your work entail?
The actual project work varies depending on the animal in question, but let’s say we’re doing a deer mount:
(1) Customer paperwork & bookkeeping
(2) Skinning and measuring the specimen, preserving the antlers
(3) Ordering supplies
(4) Tanning the skin
(5) Mounting the specimen
(6) Detail work to repair/replace damaged shrunken tissue areas
(7) Airbrush work, painting soft tissues like nose, eye lids, lips, etc. to return natural “live” colorations
(8) Returning mount to customer

            In addition:
* Marketing
* Bookkeeping
* Dealing with irrational customers who like griping
* Dealing with the state conservation department

What’s a typical work week like?

I’m in the workshop as much as I can be.  That means 7 days a week sometimes.  I try to keep business hours fairly tight, so I don’t have customers dropping by at all hours, but anytime I can get work done without being interrupted, I’m in the shop working on projects.

How did you get started?

I started with a book on taxidermy published by Outdoor Life Magazine about 20 years ago or so.  At that point, taxidermy was nothing more than a hobby.  When I decided to do this professionally, I went to taxidermy school.

What do you like about what you do?

I like working alone, because I’m not what you’d call a social butterfly.  I also enjoy the artistic part of each project, which is generally the end stage.  That’s where I put in the most time and effort.  I really enjoy seeing a project suddenly change from a dead animal to a “live” one.  And, of course, I really enjoy putting a completed mount into a customer’s hands.

What do you dislike?

Trophies are a very emotional issue for people, and that leads them to be irrational.  I’ve had several customers beg me to accept their animal, even though they can’t afford the down-payment.  In the past, I’ve accepted those projects if the customer agrees to send payments.  Without payments, you can’t afford to buy supplies, so your ability to get your work done gets slower and slower.  Those customers are extremely grateful that you’re willing to work with them when money is tight, but as soon as they are able to get their bill paid down, they forget how nice you were to them and start demanding that you finish their mount immediately.  Many folks turn out to be downright awful people.  That was one aspect of this business I had not considered when I first started.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I charge by the job.

How much money do Taxidermists make? 

It varies widely, depending on how you set your prices, how many hours you work, how efficient you can be with your time, and (big one) how strict you are on requiring down-payments.  I will never accept another animal without a down-payment that will cover at least the cost of materials + the time I’ll put into accepting the mount.  

That said, if you set your prices accordingly and everything goes smoothly, you should be able to achieve a gross profit of $350 per mount on average, depending on the animal in question.  If you can complete 10 mounts per month, that’s a gross profit of $42,000 per year, but that’s before you pay your overhead like web site, business telephone, utilities, trash service, etc.  This is not a business where you’ll get rich.  This is self-employment, so think of it like a job.  You can also add to your income in other ways – selling antler mount kits, home tanning kits, hunting or fishing supplies, etc.  Regardless, if you want to survive, do NOT compete with other taxidermists on price.  Practice until you’re putting out terrific work, show it off, and charge the highest price in your area.  Trust me.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

It depends!  If I had it to do over again, I’d keep my day job.  I’d complete about a dozen mounts of each species I want to specialize in, and I’d arrange to display those mounts all over town in restaurants, tackle shops, feed stores, sporting goods stores, barber shops, and local Walmart, Kmart, Target, etc., if possible – any place that would accept them.  Each mount that I displayed would have a little sign next to it with my business name, marketing tag line, website and phone number.  Talk to every business owner in town that has a business that might bring in hunters and fishermen.  Regardless of whether they’ll let you hang up a mount or not, always ask if they’ll let you leave business cards and price lists for their customers to pick up.  And I’d want to have everything done and on display by mid-summer.  Then, just prior to deer season, I’d start my advertising campaign – a couple of weeks of saturation in the local newspaper and free throw-aways would probably suffice.  

Assuming you’re doing good  quality work, that’s probably all the advertising you’ll ever have to do.  Your first deer season, you’ll probably only bring in 15-20 deer.  In some parts of the country, you might sprinkle in a pronghorn or two, maybe an elk.  Depending on where you live, you might bring in a few ducks, bobcats, etc. over the winter.  Other than that, you’re waiting until spring.  Your first year in business, I wouldn’t plan to take in more than 40 animals total — $14,000 gross income before overhead, assuming $350 average profit per animal.  Not bad for a part-time evening/weekend gig. 

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

You might be able to talk an old taxidermist into taking you on as an apprentice, but in this field, that generally means you’re volunteering to help him out for free and hoping to learn as much as possible while you’re there.  If you can afford it, go to  taxidermy school.  I went to the Missouri Taxidermy Institute. 

What is most challenging about what you do?

By far, it’s the customers.  They’re excited to drop off their animal, and they’re excited to pick up their animal.  The rest of the time, they generally just give you a bunch of grief.  You can avoid that problem by WAAAY underpromising.  If you think you can get 10 mounts done per month, and you’ve got 30 animals in your freezer, do not tell a customer that it will probably be 3-4 months.  He’ll start calling or dropping by at two months and give you hard time, because you haven’t started on his mount yet.  Cut your expectations of productivity in half, and then add two extra months.  For example, you think you can get 10 mounts done a month, and you have 30 animals in the freezer.  Cut 10 per month down to 5 per month.  That means it will take 6 months to start the 30th animal, so add two extra months as a cushion, and tell him “at least 8 months.”  If all goes well, you’ll be surprising him with good news in three months, and he’ll tell all his friends how awesome you are.

What is most rewarding?

Returning a completed mount to a kid.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

To remember that it’s not really a business.  It’s a job.  If you get tired of doing this, you can’t sell the business, because it’s you that the customers are buying into, not a brand name.  You won’t get rich.  You’ll earn a living.  If that’s not for you, then never quit your day job.  Keep taxidermy as a sideline evening/weekend gig, but nothing more.

How much time off do you get/take?

Being self-employed means you can take off as much time as you want, which is a nice perk.  The downside is that your customers will expect you to be in the shop during hunting season, so taking time off to go hunting yourself is an unrealistic expectation.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

That it’s over-priced.  Most taxidermists price themselves so low, they’d earn a better living flipping burgers 40 hours per week, and most customers still think they’re too expensive.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I’ve been working for a long time at restructuring the taxidermy part of the business so it dovetails more effectively with the trout fishing side of the business.  Ultimately, I’ll be specializing almost entirely in reproduction fish mounts (although, I’ll probably always do deer and turkey for established customers), and I hope to have a small fly shop on site as well.  As a writer, I also hope to expand into publishing outdoor recreation books written by other guides and outfitters in the wilderness field.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

It’s hard and often terribly frustrating, but I’m still glad I did it!