by Evelyn Mills
                    Sponsored by
Billington Ranch Taxidermy
     Georgetown, Texas
Specimen selection:

As with any animal used for mounting, the condition of the skin is of utmost importance to produce a quality mount. When it comes to snakes, or any reptile for that matter, it is good to know how long ago the animal had shed it's skin.

For best results you would want a snake or lizard which has shed its skin approximately a week to two weeks prior to being dispatched.  A fresh skin will have vivid colors and a nice sheen to it.

Reptiles close to shedding will appear dull in color with no sheen to the skin. On rattlesnakes, a blue tint will cover the eyes approximately one week prior to the actual shedding.

The best way to dispatch a reptile is to simply freeze it. It is considered to be the most humane way for reptiles as their body temperature simply drops and puts them in a stasis from which they will not wake up. Before you freeze your snake, measure it's head.

You need two measurements: one is the width of the head, and the other is the total length of the head. You need those measurements to either order your head from the supply company or carve your own. You also need them to order the right size eyes.
           by Evelyn Mills
Preparation and skinning of the snake:

The day before you plan to skin and tan your snake, you want to take it out of the freezer and let it thaw out in the refrigerator overnight. Don't thaw the snake out wrapped in a plastic bag as this could damage the skin. Take it out of the bag and just place it on a towel in the fridge.

Once the snake is thawed out, you will have to skin it. For the mount we are doing, it is not so critical how far up the belly you are going to split, as this will have to be adjusted later during the mounting process. Before you even take the snake out of the refrigerator, make sure you have all your tools laid out on the workbench.

tools needed:

latex gloves
large scissors
manicure or nail scissors
fish fleshing tool/scraper
large towel
bowl or bucket for meat disposal
scalpel or single edge razor blade

Before you start to skin your snake, take the snake and position it on the antlers in the pose you want. You may want to take a photo of it, or a sketch for later on.

Lay your snake out on the workbench bellyside up. Start cutting with your large scissors starting at the vent (anus) of the snake. Cut up towards the head to about halfway up the belly. As mentioned earlier, with this type of mount it is not at all critical how far up the belly you cut, but don't cut any farther than about halfway of the length of the snake.

Now take your scalpel or razor blade and carefully cut the skin away from the vent. Work your way towards the tail of the snake without splitting the skin. You are just going to tube this section all the way to the rattles.

Use your fingers to pull the skin off the body. Snakes have a fairly tough skin and won't tear easy, but you still have to be careful. It is best to take your time with this section as you don't want any tears or holes in it. Just keep working your way towards the rattles.

Once you get to the rattles, you need to cut away some meat tissue which is attached to the top rattler. This tissue is called the blood rattler. Cut through the body of the snake right in front of the rattle. Your tail is now free. You may have to scrape or cut out some more of the tissue. Now you can work towards the head.

To skin out the body, it's best to use your fingers, as this part of the skin will seperate from the body fairly easy. Even on the back where it is attached somewhat tighter, you can pry it off with your fingers.  This way you won't cut any holes into the skin. The skin is pretty tough and the chance to tear it is minimal. Keep working your way towards the head. Once you get to the neck, stop. Now it is time to skin out the head.

The head can be a bit tricky, if this is the first time for you skinning one out. With rattlesnakes being poisonous snakes, there is a certain element of danger involved too.

Rattlesnakes can have up to 6 or 7 pairs of fangs. Each pair lays back in the head on top of each other. It is advisable to remove the fangs first, before doing any skinning on the head.

This is where your pliers come in handy. Clip each fang off with your pliers. Be careful not to get your fingers hung up on one of the fangs, as even dead, frozen snakes can be still poisonous to a degree. The venom stays potent for several years in frozen snakes. Just keep that in mind and don't become careless.

Once all the fangs have been removed, you can start to snip away the lower jaw skin. With the fingers on one hand, pull the skin away from the jawbone, and with the other, use your manicure scissors to snip through the tissue right along the bone. It will seperate very easy. Do the same on the top jaw.

When you get to the nose part, it will get tougher. The nose is all cartilage and needs to be seperated from the bone. Use the manicure scissors to cut right between the front of the upper jawbone and the nose cartilage. It is actually very similar to the skinning of a deer nose.

Once the nose is freed, be careful to remove the rest of the skin on the head, especially around the eyes. This is where it is very easy to cut holes or tear the skin. Just gently lift the skin up with one hand, and use your manicure scissors upside down (so the curved part of the scissor faces towards the skull bone and not the skin) to snip the skin free.

The eyes will have a clear shield over them, which can be cut off after skinning. This shield protects the rattlesnake's eyes from dirt and foreign objects, and is not necessary for the mounting process.  Once the skin around the eyes has been separated, the rest of the head is easy. You should now be able to remove the body completely.

Fleshing the snake:

Lay your snake skin on the towel on your workbench. The towel will cushion the skin while you apply pressure to it during the fleshing process.

With your fish fleshing tool, start scraping the meat off of the skin. Make sure you scrape with the direction of the scales, not against them.  Fleshing a snake skin is fairly easy and goes quickly.

On the head, you will have to use your manicure scissors to cut the thin muscle that runs along the jawline. This is not hard to do, and won't take long.  Make sure you cut the muscle off all along the edge of the mouth, top and bottom. Nothing needs to be done to the nose cartilage.  At this time, you can also cut off the clear shield over the eyes.

Preserving the skin prior to mounting:

For our purposes, it is best to tan the skin rather than just pickle or borax it.

Any snake tan will do, and yield the same results.

The reason for tanning the skin is that the tan will contract the skin some, and won't let it stretch out as much as if you were just to pickle or borax it. The skin will still be elastic, but it won't be as stretchy. The snake will retain more of it's natural shape, and there is no danger in overstuffing the snake either. The skin will also retain all it's natural colors, and will make painting it afterwards unnecessary.

Make sure to rinse the snake in a relaxer before mounting though to prevent it from drying out too fast.

Oiling is not necessary here, and really not wanted.  While the snake is in the tan, you can go ahead and start working on the armature.
Building the armature and attaching the head:

The best material we found for building the armature is steel wire. However, steel wire armatures do require welding, since two wires will be needed to be welded together to counteract the springiness of the steel. On smaller snakes, aluminum wire similar to the wire found on small mammal mannikins could be used, but it is not recommended since it will not hold it's shape as good and could twist the snake during the drying process. For our purposes we will use the steel wire since this is the way we do our snakes.

You must first measure the body length of the snake, minus the rattles and minus the head. This is how long your wire needs to be. After you cut two wires to the right length, you need to start bending them into the same position as the snake was when you first positioned it on the antlers. This is where a picture or drawing comes in handy.

Once you are happy with the pose of the wire on the antlers, you need to weld the two pieces of wire together.  At intervals of approximately 6 to 10 inches (depending on the size of your snake), you need to weld in a small piece of wire to seperate the two long wires from each other. The pieces are all different lengths, so the snake will have a tapered armature similar to it's own body shape. Thinner at the head and tail, and thicker/wider at the midsection. It does help if you save the skinned out body for references.

Now, once the two wires are welded together, position the armature back onto the antlers to make sure nothing was bent out of shape during the welding process.

Now you can start to attach the foam or carved head. Drill out a hole just big enough to insert the wire of the armature into the back of the foam head.  The deeper you can drill the hole, the more secure the head will be on the armature.  Once you checked that the hole will accomodate the wire and the head will be on securely, you can glue the head onto the wire.  I would use an industrial strenght glue for added hold and strength of the head. You do not want it to come loose during the mounting process.

When you glue on the head, make sure your armature is positioned right on the antlers (which should be hanging from the wall like in the finished mount) so the head won't be glued on crooked.  At this point, you may want to adjust the wire a bit, depending on how you want the snake to hold it's head (looking straight out, looking up, etc).  Keep in mind where the mount is going to hang on the customer's wall.  If it is going to hang up high, you may want the rattlesnake to to look down so you can view its face better.  If it will hang low, have the rattlesnake look straight out or slightly up. Once the head is attached to the armature and the glue has set, you can make the final adjustments to the head before mounting.

I usually cut the tip of the nose off of the foam head and carve a small hole. This will allow me to insert the actual nose of the snake into the hole rather than having it sit on top of the foam head, which would look unnatural. Remember, the actual nose with all its cartilage is attached to the skin, so you need to make room for it on the mannikin. Just before mounting, I fill this hole with Critter Clay. This will fill out the space around the nose, and keep it from shrinking.  Plus, it will also hold the nose securely in place and keep it from shifting around.

There is no need to cut the lip slot for snakes as you will not have to tuck the lips like you would on a mammal and gamehead. 

Drill the holes for the pits with a small drill bit. Make sure the direction you are drilling is accurate for the specie. The pits are located off the side of each nostril, and the opening is more off to the side than going in straight from the front.

If is of utmost importance to have good reference material on hand if you want to create an anatomically accurate mount.

When setting the eyes, make sure you are positioning the pupils correctly. Again this is where your reference material is important.  Rattlesnake pupils are vertical, not horizontal. A very small amount of Critter Clay behind each glass eye will help to hold the eye in place. Place a small piece of clay right above the eyes to emphasize the shield they have. It is sort of like an upper eyelid, but unlike in mammals, is not moveable and a large scale covers it. It is for protection of the eye. You are now ready to mount your snake.
Mounting the snake:

Once your rattlesnake has been removed from the tan and rinsed with the relaxer, you are ready to mount it onto the armature.  You are going to need a different set of materials now.  Have them ready to go on your workbench prior to removing the snake from the tan.

materials needed:

vermiculite or very fine sawdust
Elmer's glue or hide paste
small pointy modeling tool
Q tips
small artist brush
small plastic cup
small spoon
wooden rod or stick with a round end

The first thing to do is to mount the head. Slide the skin onto the armature. Peel back the skin on the head and apply some glue to the foam head. Any glue will do. Just make sure there are no lumps in it which could show afterwards through the thin skin. Now pull the skin back over the foam head and adjust it in place. Be careful not to get any glue on the skin itself.

It is best to glue the lower lip into place first. Use Superglue for this. You can either use the gel type or the regular one. The gel type is not as runny and messy, but sets up quicker. The gel is a bit cleaner to work with, and gives you more working time.

Make sure before you glue the skin that you line it up correctly with the lipline on your mannikin head.  Do one side first and when it is set, do the other side.  Rattlesnakes have a larger scale in the front of their lower lip and it is easy to line up the lips accurately as the scales will tell you.  On the underside of the lower jaw, right in the middle is a small indention.  Make sure that you have your skin lined up correctly and that the indention is in the middle on the mounted snake.  A bit of extra glue in this area is a good idea. You may even want to apply a little Superglue to the skin in this area prior to glueing the lower lip.  This way your indention is there to stay, and won't move out of place afterwards.

Once you are finished with the lower lip, place the nose in the hole on the form.  You will have to push it in.  Any extra clay that gets pushed out of the hole can be removed before glueing the upper lip.  Do the upper lip the same way you did the lower lip.  Make sure that there is no space visible between upper and lower lip.  Don't overlap them either though.  Again, look at your references they will tell you.

After the lips have set, and won't move out of position anymore, you can work on the pits.  Your nose should be in place by now and the pits should be right above the holes you predrilled earlier.  Adjust the hide some so you can correctly set the pits.  Once the hide around the pits is lined up right, it helps to stick the end of a cut off Q tip in it for a few days to hold it's shape.  Do the same with the other pit. 

Now start working on the eyes.  Adjust your hide accordingly and with your small modeling tool tuck the skin around the eye.  Look at your references to recreate the correct eye shape.  Make sure your eyeball sits in deep enough as not to stick farther out than the small hood above the eye, which is to protect the eye.  Do the other eye the same way.  Rattlesnakes don't squint their eyes like mammals do, so make them large.  Keep your eyes clean with a small dry artist brush while you work.  If you can't see what you're working with, your eyes won't turn out right.  Rattlesnakes do show a little bit of white in the front corner of the eyes, so a small space can be left there for later finish work if desired.  It is not a neccessity though, unless it is a competiton mount.  You are pretty much finished at this point with the head.  Adjust the skin on top of the head and behind the neck.  You are now ready to begin filling the body with vermiculite.

Before you start filling the body, you may want to put a small amount of clay at the neck junction behind the head to help with the transition.  I found this to be helpful, or you'll end up with too fat of a neck.  Rattlesnakes have fairly thin necks right behind the head, unlike colubrids, whose head extend right into the neck without any visible change.

Begin filling the snake by pouring some vermiculite into the skin.  The skin should be a tube at this point.  Depending on where you placed your curves, you may have to cut up the belly somewhat more in order to work around a curve.  It is almost impossible to fill the snake properly if it is tubed at a curve.  While you pour some vermiculite into the snake, use your stick to push the vermiculite further down into the body.  You want it pretty tightly packed without over filling it.

Every so often, shape your snake a little to prevent overstuffing, especially at the head/neck juncture.  Unfortunately, this part of the mounting process is very tedious, and can take several hours to complete, depending on the size of the snake, and experience of the mounter.  Just take your time with it.

Once you get close to the part of the skin where it starts to be split, begin sewing it up.  Instead of regular thread, I use Spider-Wire fishing line, but you can use any thread you like as long it is strong, durable and has no stretch.  Upholstery thread is suitable as well.  Make sure you choose a neutral color like either white or beige so it blends in with the color of the snake's belly.

Use a very small curved needle for sewing. I use a one and a half inch curved needle.

Begin your sewing by running your needle through both sides of the skin and then making a tight knot. Tuck the leftover string into the snake body so it won't show.

Now using the baseball stitch I push the needle through on the underside of a scale and go through the loop of the string to tie it off. Don't cut the string just keep going.  I tie off every stitch to prevent the seam from opening up during the drying process.  If you enter the skin with your needle from underneath the scales rather than pushing it into the scales, the scales will actually cover up your seam and it will be virtually invisible.

Sew a stretch of about four inches and then fill the snake with vermiculite again.  Every now and then recheck the head and face to make sure nothing moved out of position.

Don't worry too much about shaping the snake to it's anatomical accurate body shape while your are filling it.  This will come later. You do want to smooth out the curves though, and make sure that you don't under fill them, or work wrinkles into them.

Once you get close to the tail, take care of it before you get too close to the vent. Fill the tubed tail with clay and make sure it fits onto the wire.  Shape it.

I usually just fill the vent area with clay as well, since it is easier for me to work with the clay than loose vermiculite in this spot.

Continue sewing and filling the snake with vermiculite till you get close to the vent.  If you have only like an inch left to sew fill the rest of the skin with clay.  Finish sewing up to the vent and tie off the thread.  Run your needle one more time under the skin of the snake and come out of it about an inch further down from the seam. This way you run the rest of your thread under the snake and you can cut it off without accidentally cutting open the seam again.

Shape the area of the vent and with some Superglue glue the two sides of the vent back together again using your references for accuracy.

At this point you want to clean your snake off some.  Wipe off any clay or vermiculite and position your snake on the antlers.  Now your final shaping will begin.  Start at the neck/head junction ( you want it to be smooth and thin) and work your way down towards the tail.

Make sure the belly is flat, and not round.  Rattlesnake's underside is always on the flat side, even when they hang suspended from a branch or rock.

The body shape is somewhat on the triangular side, which means the body tapers towards the back of the snake. Make sure you shape the backbone of the snake accurately.

Snakes do not have wrinkles in their skin like mammals, so work out any wrinkles you find, especially in the curves.

Watch your scale pattern and color pattern.  The diamonds need to be lined up and positioned on the back of the snake.  If the snake body lays up on an antler tine it is normal for the antler tine to indent the snake body.  So don't worry about that indention. You want it there.  It makes the whole mount realistic, as if a live snake was wrapping itself arround the antlers.  Make sure the shape of the tail is accurate, as it will set up on you first, since it is filled with clay.

Since snake skin is very nonporous, it takes quite some time for them to dry.  This will give you at least a week or more to work on the snake.  Reptile skin also doesn't pull and shrink as much during drying as mammal skin does.  This means that you won't have to worry too much about shrinkage in the face, or skin pulling away from the eyes or nose.  Still you are going to have to check it every day for at least two weeks.

You can dry a reptile skin quite quickly by setting it outside in the sun.  I only do this if I absolutely have to.  Slower drying time in my view gives you a better result, plus you have time to catch any mistakes and correct them.  Once the snake has completely dried, it is time for the finish work.

Finish work:

Snakes require very little if any finish work.  If you cleaned off the eyes right after mounting, and removed any excess clay, almost no finish work is needed there.  A very small amount of white apoxie in the front corner of the eyes to recreate the membrane is probably all that is needed.  Sometimes snakes lose a little bit of color around the eyes as well.  With a small artist brush, and some brown/black color, you can just touch it up gently.

Turn the snake over and look at the seam.  If it did seperate a little, fix it with neutral colored apoxie.  The neutral color will blend almost perfectly with the colors of the scales, and no painting will be required afterwards.

As for a finishing touch, I lightly spray my snakes with a gloss afterwards.  I use a fish wet gloss.  Emphasis on slightly.

Rattlesnakes don't glow, but they do have a light soft sheen to them.  A light dusting will give the skin this sheen and bring the whole mount to life.  Your snake is now ready for delivery.
For rattlesnake taxidermy, or other taxidermy services, contact Evelyn at
Billington Ranch Taxidermy.  Phone 1-254-793-2120