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Mount Antlers Like a Pro
June 2016
Dan Martinez

I took up hunting in the mid-90s. While I had some initial success, enough to lock-in my interest in the sport, I went many seasons after that with sporadic success, or no game brought home. Well, thatís hunting, right?

But in the last couple of years, success has come more regularly. It seems like the critters know that Iíve paid my dues in the hunting fields for enough years now, that they are honored to come and stand in front of my gun barrel!

Iíve taken two decent bucks in the last two years, and now Iíve taken my first bull elk. Youíll always hear true hunters tell you, that the real trophies are not the heads on the wall, but the memories of days spent in the field.

For that reason, those hunts that I seemingly came home empty handed, I really didnít. Those empty-handed hunts donít make for the best newsletter stories, but I have wonderful photo sets for all of them of good times with my sons as they grew up.

And for the hunts that we did come home with game, writing up the story for this newsletter helps to cement the memories like nothing else. So I really appreciate having this forum to share those stories with you, and for allowing me to be able to relive those experiences time and again whenever I want to.

But like most hunters, I do like to have tangible trophies from those successful hunts that I can hang on my wall. I donít mount my javelina heads. For those I am content with the ďtrophyĒ photos. Neither do I mount my cow elk heads. When was the last time you saw a cow elk head on anyoneís wall? Nor do I mount the heads of the bucks I have taken. But I do mount the antlers.

There are several reasons that I donít mount the heads. First, you have to be a lot more careful to preserve the cape at the time you are processing the kill in the field. Second, I just donít want furry heads hanging on the wall in my home. Third, a professional head mount costs a lot of money that I would rather spend on a new gun or other things.

For my first three bucks, I bought inexpensive, ready-to-go antler mounting kits such as you find in the local sporting goods stores, like the Allen antler mounting kit.

This kit consists of a pressboard mounting plaque with a wood-grain lamination on the front. The instructions tell you how to cut the antlers off the skull, leaving a small section connecting the antlers. I epoxied a piece of wood cut and shaped to size, underneath the skull portion to give the skull section some support.

Then the antlers with skull section is screwed down onto the plaque, and the kitís skull cap is placed over that and held in place using upholstery tacks and small brads (tiny flat head nails). The kitís skull cap is made of styrofoam with the green velvet cloth glued on. The green velvet is a bit loose around where the antlers come out, so that the velvet can be pulled around the base of the antlers before being affixed to the plaque with brads. This leaves the area around the antlers a bit wrinkly looking.

The Allen kit comes with a triangular brass plaque at the bottom for recording details about the trophy. Using a Dremel tool with an engraving bit, I would record the species, the date of kill, and the hunt unit where the animal was taken. Because this is done by hand, it ends up being a little irregular looking, like handwriting.

I would also save one of the cartridges that the critter was shot with and mount it above the brass plaque. I would polish up the cartridge, then hit it with gloss clear urethane spray to preserve the shine. I would mount it to the plaque using .020Ē diameter safety wire.

These home-brew antler mounts were just fine for my first three sets of small antlers. However when I took that nice 4x4 mule deer in 2014, I knew that those antlers deserved a better mounting job than a cheap DIY kit.

My first thought was to have the antlers professionally mounted by a taxidermist. I got some quotes and the cost was in the $150 to $200 range. But I wanted it to look essentially like my other three mounts Ė green velvet skull cap, engraved brass plaque, cartridge mounted on the plaque Ė but professionally executed. I wanted that continuity of style so that it would look right hanging next to my other antlers.

There is one over-riding reason that I am a dedicated do-it-yourself-er: If something is important that it be done exactly right, there is no other way to get that, but to do it yourself. Iíve learned that lesson over and over. No one else that you hire has your vision, or will take the care that you will to do the job exactly how you want it done. When hiring someone to do a job for you, you must be willing to accept a less than perfect job. Thatís just how it is.

So that is why I decided again to do it myself, but this time to start with a professional quality taxidermy kit. This kit I purchased from an outfit named Whiskey Legends (http://www.whiskeylegends.com/). The kit I chose is the Classic Deer kit. From the description on their website, this kit includes:

  • An independent antler form - The antlers are mounted to the form, and then the form is attached to the plaque. This is the proper way to mount antlers.
  • Genuine Leather - Highest quality antler mount form cover available.
  • Machť - Creates a finished look between the antlers and form.
  • Batting - Helps cover up any imperfections for a smooth leather finish.
  • Finishing Rope - Creates a finished look between the leather and antler bases.
  • Screws - Attaches the antler base plate to the form, and the form to the plaque.
  • Step-By-Step Instructions - Contains photographs, to guide you through the mounting process.
  • Solid Wood Plaque - No fiber board, no laminates, no fake wood stickers, no painted edges- we use hand selected ¾ inch wood and each plaque has a flush, wall mount hanger.

The rest of this article will essentially be a descriptive photo essay of the process of mounting the antlers from my 2015 mule deer buck. Those horns were a bit smaller than the 2014 buck, but I documented this mounting job with lots of pictures.

After letting the antlers dry for a couple of weeks, to prepare the antlers for mounting onto the antler form, I made sure that the skull section was even by final-shaping them on a benchtop belt sander.

The antler form, also known as a manikin, is a hard foam form with a piece of plywood embedded on the flat bottom side. The area where the antlers mount is a flattened cut-away section. It is important to shape the skull bone to sit in this pocket of the manikin so that the antlers will mount to the form with a naturally projecting angle. The manikin of course, is meant to represent the top of the deerís head.

The Whiskey Legends kit came with drywall-type screws for attaching the skull plate to the antler form. But I screwed up. You need to drill a couple of holes in the skull plate so that the threads of the screws wonít cut into the bone. But absentmindedly I drilled those holes all the way through the plywood in the bottom of the form. So when I went to screw those screws into the antler form, the screw threads had nothing to bite into. Oh well. I substituted countersinking machine screws from the bottom, holding the skull plate to the form with nuts. The photo above shows me cutting off the excess screw length with the Dremel cut-off wheel.

After the antlers are mounted to the form, the next job is to mix up the paper machť and use it to fill-in the area around the skull plate and shape it to match the contour of the rest of the antler form. After this, you need to let it dry completely for several days.

After the machť dried, I lightly sanded it to remove the worst of the lumpiness, but because the next step is to apply batting material, sanding is not really required. The batting helps to hide any imperfections of the transition between the machť and the foam of the antler form.

The batting is stretched over the top of the form and secured on the bottom with a staple gun.

Whiskey Legends includes a piece of leather to use to cover the antler form. You can use either the smooth or the rough side out. Since I wanted it to have the green velvet look of my other antler mounts, I applied green leather dye to the rough side of the leather piece.

After allowing the leather dye to thoroughly dry, it was time to install the leather cover onto the antler form. To start, you need to measure the center-to-center distance between the antler bases on the form and cut two holes in the leather plus two straight cuts at approximately 45į degree angles to the holes.

Alright, this is where it starts to get a little tough. There will be a lot of do, then undo, then re-do. You want to get the leather stapled down all the way around the bottom of the antler form with no wrinkles visible from the top and sides. You will have a lot of excess material that you will eventually trim away as you work your way to the goal of no visible wrinkles. Many staples that you put in at the start will be pulled out later only to be replaced after cutting-in so-called ďdartsĒ, or wedge shaped cuts in the material.

After enough pulling, stretching, struggling, and reworking, you will get to:

Voila! A major milestone!

To cover up the edge of the leather at the bases of the antlers, the next step is to install a rope border under the flare at the base of each antler. This gives it a nice finished look. I cut a piece of rope (included with the kit) to the correct length for each antler. Using my wifeís hot glue gun, I laid down a bead under the antler flare, and pressed the rope into place. The joint where the two ends of the rope come together is placed at the back.

 
Now itís time to turn our attention to the wood plaque. Rather than amateurishly engraving a brass plate by hand, I ordered a brass plate professionally engraved with the information for this buck. It has sticky-tape on the back so all that was needed was to peel off the backing and press it into place:

 
 
Next is to install my cartridge case. As described earlier, I polished it up, then sprayed it with clear urethane. I positioned it where I wanted, and using an ice pick, I marked where the safety wire holes needed to be. Then I drilled the holes all the way through the thickness of the wood. Safety-wiring is a skill I learned in the Air Force.

 
Finally, the last step is to secure the antler form to the plaque. This can be a little tricky because the screws are attached from the back, but you need to check from the front that the antler form is positioned correctly.

So there you have it. From raw antlers to finished mount. Now that Iíve done this a couple of times, I can now buy just the constituent parts that I need from a taxidermy supply house like McKenzie or Van Dyke's (actually, I think both of those places have the same owners). A good source for the wood plaques is Walnut Creek Hardwood.

Buying just the parts that I needed was exactly what I did when it came time to mount my elk antlers. Doing it this way may or may not be a savings over buying a complete kit. Either way, the real savings comes from doing it yourself, not having to pay for someone elseís labor and expertise. When I do it myself, it still doesnít come out perfect. There are small flaws here and there. But those flaws are a lot easier to live with when they are your own. Itís tougher to swallow someone elseís imperfections when you have paid good money for the job.

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