Kelly Double has worked in his Mt. Airy Taxidermist shop for 31 years.
MOUNT AIRY — Unlike most workers, Kelly Double's day job is one that provides him an opportunity to combine two passions — art and the outdoors.
Double, 50, is the owner of Nature's Best Artistry Taxidermy. He graduated from the Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy on June 21, 1984, and began his business the next day.
"I've been doing it ever since," Double said, surrounded by his works in progress. A life-size fox, the bust of a lion, a bear, a chicken, a boar, a wild turkey and a bass were among the hunted trophies that lined the walls and floor of his studio, located off Bennett Branch Road.
"What I really enjoy about it is basically I'm only limited to my own imagination," Double said. "I can see it here, I can recreate it, and that's what I really like about it."
It all began when Double was in high school and his father began researching trade schools.
"My father actually noticed taxidermy school and asked if I'd be interested in that; being interested in wildlife and art, it just seemed natural," Double said.
Double said he enjoys the challenge of recreating each animal as they would be found in nature.
"An instructor told me, 'You'll never master this until something walks off the bench,'" he said.
Last Thursday, Double worked on the cape of a white-tailed deer, an animal that accounts for about 60 to 65 percent of his business. With a delicate hand, he ran water over the animal's dry nose and dabbed it with a white compound in order to recreate the texture that would have been there when the deer was alive.
Taxidermists must have an understanding of the anatomy and muscle structure of an animal in order to transform the appearance of dead, lifeless animals.
"You need to know bone structure, you need to know muscle structure," Double said. "We recreate trophies for the clientele; clients may travel all over the world, and they send the hides of the skins back to me. From there, we choose what pose they are looking for."
In order to pose the animals, taxidermists must know how to accurately recreate the form and anatomy of the animal, he said.
"We create that animal as close as possible to the way it is found in nature," Double said.
To do so, taxidermists typically fashion animal hides over Styrofoam forms, that are either commercially or custom made.
"If they want it in a certain pose, we take that form and we cut it up and then we'll screw it back together and start posing it out so ... the right bone structure is in place," he said.
Once the hide has been properly fastened to the form, Double airbrushes the skin, fur or feathers of the animal, he explained.
The most challenging animals tend to be fish and birds, he said.
"One reason is the birds ... have so many feather tracks, so it's knowing where everything lays," Double said.
Fish also pose a challenge, because they lose pigmentation in their skin, which has to be painted with paint pigments, oil sticks and charcoal, Double said.
"You have to recreate that coloration of the fish without making it look like the paint is sitting on top of the fish itself — you want depth to that look," Double said, pointing out a lifelike taxidermied fish hanging on the wall.
Although his job requires working with dead animals, he doesn't find the work grim.
"When the animal is skinned we're dealing with muscle, we're getting into the muscle we're not going into the inner parts," he said. "The best way to describe it is you take a banana, you peel the banana, you take the meat part out and you skin it; that's all we're working with."
Unlike many taxidermists who do the job part-time or as a hobby, Double has made a career of the trade.
"At one point there was a lot of people in it. ... It is a very tough way to make a living," he said. "You get a lot of guys who get into the business because they like hunting, and think it will carry over and it doesn't; I've seen a lot of taxidermists come and go in my 30-plus years."
Double now has more than 1,200 clients and works six days a week, he said.
Longtime client Bruce Chaney, a turkey hunter who lives in Mount Airy, said he has been sending the game he hunts to Double since about 1990. Chaney said it is hard to find a talented taxidermist.
"He does quality work; he's very conscientious about what he does," Chaney said. "He does things the right way, even if it takes longer, which some people don't like."
Clients with custom requests that require more time can expect to pay more, Double said.
"This is a business, and we are in it to make money," he said. "If it takes more time and more material, of course, we charge more."
The average cost of a shoulder mount is about $550, Double said.
"I get calls all the time asking the two famous questions: How much and how long?" Double said.
Double said the turnaround time for a single taxidermied animal ranges from six to eight months due to his high volume of work. Although that seems like a long time to wait, he said some taxidermist can take up to a year to complete a project.
Double said he plans to continue the trade until he retires.
"I can't imagine working for someone else," he said.