Out of the wild
Dean and Josh Lengacher, award-winning taxidermists out of Washington, are creating lifelike animal mounts for hunters and outdoorsmen around Southern Indiana.
Dean Lengacher and his son Josh work side by side in their taxidermy shop just off East 150 South in Washington. As Dean presses the soft skin around the glass eye of a deer, Josh quietly straightens the shiny feathers on a turkey. In a shop full of prize-winning animals, the two taxidermists breathe life into these once free-ranging creatures.
"I want you to think that deer could blink if I put it in the woods and you saw it," Dean says.
Lengachers Taxidermy is one of over 600 taxidermy businesses in the state of Indiana and one of 10 in Daviess County. Brad Jones, president of the Association of Indiana Taxidermists, says there are more taxidermists in Indiana today because of the economy. It's easy to obtain a $15.00 license from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources; people think that it's a fast turn around and that they'll make a quick buck. But, says Jones, they don't have longevity. The Lengachers are different because they don't shortcut themselves, they do quality work, and they continue their education in taxidermy, says Jones.
The Lengachers mount about 125 deer, 50 ducks and 25 foxes, coyotes and other oddball pieces a year. They have a steady flow of business but can still make time to hunt for themselves a couple of times a week. And their work has won top awards in regional and national competitions. Jones says the Lengachers' work stands out because they want to show the animal respect and make it look like it's alive.
The history of taxidermy stretches back to the primitive days of hunter-gatherers, when animal skins were used for clothing and shelter. Over thousands of years, tanning techniques developed and hunters began to preserve their prizes as trophies. But even as late as the 1800s, the results were often crude. The common practice was to sew up a hide and fill it with rags and cotton, which led to the term "stuffed animal." Taxidermists in the 1900s changed the craft to an art, producing detailed mannikins with realistic muscle and tendon details. Today's taxidermists prefer the word mounted to stuffed. And they devote hours to creating lifelike animals like the ones you'll find in the Lengachers' workshop.
Raised in the rural area between Oden and Washington, Dean grew up hunting and fishing with his father and brother. The first animal Dean shot was a quail when he was about 14. When he looked at the bird closely, he didn't see just a dead animal, but a beautiful creaturecreated by God. That's one of the reasons Dean says he mounts animals today - because they are beautiful, and he wants to preserve what God has made.
Dean learned taxidermy when he was about 15. His older brother Don ordered a learn-at-home taxidermy pamphlet for $10, and they tested their skills on small game birds. Dean says those first few mounts didn't turn out so well. "They looked like they had bug eyes, and the mouths weren't tucked in," he says. "They looked about 50 years old, like the mounts in saloons in old western movies."
Over the years, Dean worked as a copy repairman, ran a photography business with his wife and directed a teen youth center. He dabbled with taxidermy and taught his son how to hunt. Josh shot his first deer when he was in first grade and remembers skipping school on the first day of hunting season. Josh always had an artist's eye though, as evidenced by his finely crafted turkey and duck pieces.
It wasn't until the last few years that the men really started getting serious about the art as a career. Three years ago, a fire destroyed the family home. Up until then, they had worked out of their basement, but after the fire, they decided to move to the shop where they currently work. "It allowed us to take a break and take lessons, too," Dean says. "If we were going to move into a shop and invest more money in it, we were going to learn how to do it right."
And a career they have made for themselves. Dean and Josh each have a specialty area; Dean is better at deer, while Josh is better with turkeys. This is fortunate because these two animals are very popular in Southern Indiana. Their average prices are $450 for a deer shoulder mount, $250 for a small game bird like a duck, $200per foot for alligators, and $300 per foot for bears. They critique each others' work, and Dean's brother Don gives them tips, too. Josh calls him "Quality Control."
Both strive for excellence and devote an average of 10 hours to each piece. All of their work is done in their shop off a quiet country road in Washington. It's not a fancy place but it's decked out with mounted animals. Along the left wall is a long workbench; Josh's station on the left, Dean's on the right. Shelves full of tools go up almost to the ceiling. It's like a library, but instead of books there's taxidermy equipment, a few keepsake skulls, white Merriam hackle feathers, and turkey tail feather mounts that look like paper fans.
In the show room, you'll find two black bears, two alligators, deer heads, an elk, an antelope, a bobcat, and turkeys, including Josh's Best of Show bird. Silky soft to the touch and impeccably manicured, the turkey's feathers shimmer in the fluorescent light. Next to the turkey is Dean's prize-winning whitetail deer. If the air is quiet, you can hear seven wild turkeys gobbling and trotting around the pasture just outside the door. They keep them so they can walk outside and look at the animals for inspiration.
The process itself isn't exactly appetizing, but once the dirty work is done, the art form flourishes.
When a hunter makes a kill, he or she takes it to the processor where the insides and most of the skin are removed. Dean receives a relatively clean piece of hide, but the skull is still inside the head - contents and all.
After making an incision in the skin, Dean peels the skin off the skull and saws the horns off. "It is nasty," he says. "My wife doesn't like it."
The horns are set aside, and he scrapes the excess skin off the hide and turns it inside out. Now, the flesh side is out and the hair side in.
After that, it's time to salt the hide. Just out of the back door of their workshop, the Lengachers have a small shed that not only houses grain for Don's two thoroughbred horses but also the salts for their hides. The oats and salt create an earthy, warm aroma that you can almost taste. In a corner of the shed stands a tall table with salt piled a foot and a half up. The chunky salt looks like snow on the side of road, clumpy and imperfectly white. Hides bask in the salt for a day or so, which helps the hair to set into the hide.
After the salting, the hide is put into a pickle solution made of citric acid, salt and water for 48 hours, which they agitate every 12 hours. Then, the hide is run on a fleshing machine, which Dean compares to a saw blade. This is called shaving the hide. Running the hide over the circular blade-like mechanism stretches it and makes it more malleable. Dean says this can take the hide from a quarter of an inch thick to an eighth of an inch thin. Liqua-Tan is applied to the hide to minimize shrinkage and seal the tan. Then, the hide is washed out with water. Dean's special touch: he puts Downy fabric softener on the hide to make it smell good. The hide is now ready to be mounted.
So now, the big question: What's actually inside of a mounted animal? They are called "mannikins" or "forms." Made of polyurethane foam, forms are manufactured in several sizes, and then purchased by individual taxidermists. Forms are not reusable -- the hide is pasted to the form and that's what gives the pieces their shape.
Gene Smith, who gave Dean and Josh lessons just over a year ago, is a taxidermist who has his hands in several facets on the business. He produces sculptures for Head Quarters Taxidermy Supply out of Raleigh, North Carolina, gives taxidermy lessons and judges taxidermy competitions. After a friend introduced them, Gene decided to make the trip from his home in Louisville, Georgia, to Washington to give the father and son duo lessons. Gene's help gave Dean and Josh just the edge they needed to perform better in competitions.
Dean says Gene knew just what the judges were looking for and what makes an animal look more real and alive. One specific tip Gene had was to shave the skin around the eye thin. If the skin is thin enough, it won't shrink, and if it doesn't shrink, it won't pull away from the glass eye. "If you have a crack between the skin and the eye, the judges will knock a point or two off," Dean says.
But before you get to the competition, you have to finish your prize mount.
After selecting a form that has the correct size and measurements, Dean attaches it to a swivel post on his workbench. To begin the actual mounting process, Dean first pours Bondo, a pasty substance, into the ears of the deer hide. Pouring Bondo into the ear sockets is a little like putting an umbrella back into its case, always a little challenging but if done properly it's a perfect fit. Dean uses his fingers to push the creamy Bondo into all the nooks and crannies of the ear, until it's perky, just like in real life.
With the form in place and Bondo in the ears, Dean can begin to put the deer hide on the form. He slathers hide paste, a thick glue the color of hummus, onto the form. Then he stretches the hide over the form, using his fingers and a claw-like tool to pull the hide down to the shoulders. The flimsy material is like a sock, Josh says. Once the hide is on the form, he straightens it here and there to make sure it's in just the right spot.
Then, he staples the loose ends on the back flat side of the form, screws the horns back into the mold, and sews up the slit he made to clear out the skull. He is so precise that you can't even see where the hide was cut.
As the piece slowly comes to life, he uses various tools, like the "ultimate lip-tucking tool," and finely presses in the skin around the mouth and glass eyes. He tucks in all of the loose ends, like tucking sheets in tightly around a bed. The deer head is complete.
While 10 hours of work on one single piece might seem like a lot, it's nothing compared to the 40 to 50 hours the Lengachers put into their competition pieces. Both have won awards at the state, national and world levels. At the 2011 World Taxidermy Championships, the Lengachers' turkeys won two second-place bird awards, one first-place bird award, and "Best of Category" in the bird division. A highlight from the 2012 National Wild Turkey Federation Taxidermy Competition was Josh's "Best of Show" in the professional division. Altogether, the team has almost 40 other titles and awards in the deer, turkey and birds divisions.
Competition judging is tough. In the bird division, a judge will look at the head, neck, body and wings. They check to see if the bill is the correct color, the eyelids properly aligned, the wings symmetrical. In the deer division, judges put on magnifying glasses and shine a flashlight in the eyes and nostrils. Josh says it's a humbling experience to put so much time and effort into a piece and then have someone look for faults.
Dean makes a point to chat with everyone who comes into their shop. Jordan Hasler of Bloomfield has had Josh mount 16 birds for him. His favorite piece is two birds mounted onto an old wooden ammo box that his grandpa passed on to him as a keepsake. "You can't buy a box like that. It's one of kind," he says.
Jordan says he appreciates the Lengachers' attitude. "They meet you at the door with a smile and say, 'How's hunting going?'" Jordan says. "It's not a business where they want your money and kick you back out."
Last year, a boy in a wheelchair had been hunting with his dad, who wanted to get one of his turkeys mounted for him. He told his son that he was just going to get the tail feathers mounted, but instead, he got the entire turkey mounted. The boy showed up with his dad, grandpa and a couple of friends and saw the entire turkey mounted. It got Dean a little choked up to see the young boy so happy. "That's what we do it for," says Dean.
Taxidermy takes time and patience is key. "I'm learning how to be an artist. I can't draw, and I wouldn't consider myself an artist, but this an art," Dean says.
After several hours of preparing and mounting a hide this afternoon, the two men work on the more meticulous features. Dean gently pokes an upholstery needle around the eyes and the nose of the deer. Just a few feet away, Josh gently positions each and every feather with a pair of oversized tweezers on his turkey. The two work methodically. As their hands work on the details of their mounts, it's almost hard to tell who's breathing, the men or the animals.