Skinning a deer for a shoulder mount

The importance of proper skinning technique for trophy mounts

If you successfully hunt a deer or other big game trophy that is worth getting mounted, you most likely want it to look as good as possible. One of the most important steps is skinning and caring for trophy in the field.

A trophy that has been skinned properly is going to make for a better final result. If skinning cuts are made in the right places, they are much easier for your taxidermist to conceal. If cuts are made in the wrong place, there is not much that can be done to hide them. A good example would be if the throat has been cut on a deer. This is nearly impossible to entirely conceal.


The aim is to remove enough skin to cover the entire mount using as few cuts as possible in the right places. This will be different depending on the desired mount and the position in which it will be mounted. If the mount is going to be a shoulder mount or a pedestal, you can skin it in a way that will make it suitable for all mount types and positions.

Caping in the field

The only thing you must have is a sharp knife. You can cape anything from a rabbit to a bull or a moose with this technique using just a knife with the animal lying on the ground. I use and happily recommend this knife.

Other things that might make it easier include a hoist, a helper and a clean area to work in.

Removing the cape from the carcass

The steps of shoulder caping most big game animals are as follows:

  • If the animal has antlers or horns, make a “short Y’ cut at the back of the head. A pig or a female deer that is for mounting does not want to be cut down the back of the neck at all.
  • Skin as much of the neck as you can reach through the short Y cut
  • Cut a ring right around the abdomen between the end of the sternum and the belly button
  • Cut a ring around the front legs at or just above the knee. Cut off leg at knee.
  • Skin as far up the shoulder as you can reach
  • Cut a ring around the front legs, at or just above the knee
  • Detach the shoulder blade from the rib cage
  • Pull the shoulder blade out, taking the skin off the leg like a sock
  • Repeat for the other shoulder
  • Skin up the neck to meet the short Y
  • Once you have skinned to the throat, sever the spine at the axis joint, immediately behind the skull

Next steps

Time is your enemy here. From the moment the animal is down, it will begin to decompose. Controlling the growth of microorganisms that will cause the hair to loosen and “slip” out is a major concern for any skin you would like to preserve.

The best thing at this point is to get the trophy to All Over Taxidermy as soon as possible. Most taxidermists are happy to receive a trophy with the cape attached to the skull and will skin the face themselves exactly how they like to do it.

If you can’t immediately get to the taxidermist, there are a few options. If you have a big enough freezer, the best option is to bag up the trophy so it doesn’t get freezer burn and put it in the freezer until you can deliver it. Labelling the bag is definitely recommended, if I thaw a bag of crayfish that was delivered as a skin, I will be eating well that day.

If you don’t have a large enough freezer, you will need to head skin the animal and freeze just the skin, or turn, flesh and salt the skin if you have no access to a freezer.


For removing the skin from the head, again the only thing you need is a knife. The sharper the better. A scalpel or Havalon type knife with throwaway blades is an easy way to ensure you have a sharp knife. A small paring knife that is sharp works just fine too. I like to have both on hand and use whichever suits best for that part of the job. A medium to large flat head screwdriver is useful but not absolutely necessary.

The following links are the items I use for headskinning and can recommend for sale on Amazon:

Scalpel handle

Havalon folding knife

Replacement blades for either handle

Victorinox paring knife

The steps for headskinning are as follows:

  • This step is only for if the animal has horns (goat, sheep, tahr, chamois etc.), DO NOT do this if it has antlers (deer). Cut the skin off where it joins the horn. Right up against the horn.
  • Open the Y cut left and right towards the ears. Follow the skin up onto the back of the ears as far as you can.
  • Cut off ears flush with the skull. You will take off the earbutt muscles and you should cut through the ear canal where it is a thin tube.
  •  Peel away skin around horns/antlers. If it is a deer, it can help to use a flat head screwdriver or similar to pry the skin away from the antler pedicles. You want to keep all of the skin in this area, there should be no hair left attached to the horns/antlers.
  • Skin forward around throat and over forehead, paying attention not to go into the eye socket yet
  • You need to keep the skin that is on the inside of the eyelids. Cut down into the back of the eye socket where you will see the dark of the iris. This is where you cut the skin off.
  • Cut off skin where it joins the eyeball all around
  • Skin very carefully out the front of the eye socket. You will find the tear ducts and need to be right on the bone to avoid making a cut at the front of the eye.
  • Follow the skin into the preorbital duct. It’s easier not to cut through if you come from below.
  • Repeat for other eye
  • Skin forward towards the nose. Put your finger in the corner of it mouth to be sure you don’t cut through it as you get close. On the bridge of the nose, come all the way to (but not through) the nostrils
  • Coming from the front, cut along the gumline next to the teeth both top and bottom
  • Skin the bottom jaw to meet what you have skinned already
  • Pull the skin away from the bottom jaw and join the two gumline cute through the cheeks, making sure you leave at least 2cm of inner lip skin all the way around
  • From the front of the nostrils, cut against the bone up into the nostrils.
  • From the bridge of the nose, where the cartilage turns to bone, cut down to meet the other cut

Congratulations, you have successfully head skinned your trophy!

If you have access to a freezer, turn the cape right side out so the flesh side is not exposed. Roll the skin into a ball with the face and ears covered in the middle. Bag and tag the skin and get it frozen. The cape will be safe for some time in the freezer, with freezer burn or a failed freezer being the only major concerns in the first year or so.

If you do not have access to a freezer, you will want to split and turn the cape before salting it.

Splitting and turning the cape

The salt can only penetrate the cape from the flesh side, and even then it can’t penetrate very far. You need to open up any areas that are covered so the salt can penetrate. You also need to remove any fat and meat from the entire cape as the salt will be hindered by the meat and totally stopped by any fat.

The cleaner you can get the cape, the less likely that the cape will have any hair slip.

For the lips, nostrils and eyes, the skin from the inside is attached to the skin on the outside. You will need to split this to let the salt in. Basically, you want to follow the skin towards the edge of the lip and “roll” the meat off towards the edge of the inner skin.

Be very careful not to go too far and cut through somewhere like the edge of the eyelid.

You need to turn the ears inside out as well, so the salt can protect the entire ear.

  • Skin up the back of the ear until you are past any meat and there is only the ear cartilage left.
  • There are some very thin membranes, you want to be right against the cartilage to make things easier.
  • There are special ear opening tools, but I use the handle of a dessert spoon to separate the cartilage from the skin on the back of the ear. This takes some practice, but you will be able to get the spoon within 5mm of the edge over the entire ear.
  • Turn the ear inside out and use your finger to open the rest of the ear right to the edge. If you don’t go to the edge, you risk the rim of the ear losing all its hair as it will miss the salt and tanning that it needs.


The body of the cape likely has some meat and fat on it. It is important to get this off so the salt can penetrate. This can be done with the same knife you used earlier, a drawknife/machete over a board or a pressure washer does a good job but makes a big mess. I do this step just before salting and use a pressure washer.


This step keeps the skin from decomposing and losing its hair. It should only be done once the cape is fully split, turned and fleshed as this is the point at which salting will keep the entire cape safe from decomposition.

  • Spread the cape out of a clean surface and liberally spread non-iodised salt all over the flesh side of the cape. I buy 20kg bags of fine stock salt from a farm supply store.  
  • Make sure you cover every inch of the hide. Watch for any wrinkles where the flesh side is stuck together, pay particular attention to the face and ears.
  • Make sure salt is in and around the lips, nostrils, eyes and ears.
  • Double check that salt is everywhere.
  • Let it sit for 10 mins and then hang it up to let the juices drain out
  • Come back tomorrow and repeat the salting. Pay attention to if you missed any spots

After two saltings, the cape should be safe until you can get it to the taxidermist, but be wary of very humid environments that can make a cape rot even though it has been salted.

Common issues

There are a few mistakes and less than ideal practices that are often brought to the taxidermist

A long cut right down the back.

The most common thing I see coming to me is a cape that has been split right down the back line. This is not a big issue, but you should be aware that it may be difficult or even impossible to hide the stitches all the way over the shoulder. Especially if it is something with short hair like a fallow deer with a summer coat.

The cape has been cut off too short.

This is a hard problem to fix. People often think a shoulder mount is only to the shoulders, when in reality it needs the skin from right over the shoulder blade and the entire brisket.

If a cape has been cut too short, it won’t reach around the form and either the cape will want replacing, or the form will need to be cut down to where the skin can reach. The best way to be sure this doesn’t happen is to cut the cape plenty long enough. A good rule of thumb is to cut it somewhere between the end of the sternum and the belly button.

The cape is slipping hair.

Hair slip is what happens when anything goes wrong. If a skin gets hot, wet, dry, dirty, forgotten etc. etc. the hair is going to start to slip. Mild slipping can be managed by the taxidermist, but by the time handfuls of hair are falling out, or critical points such as eyelashes let go, the cape becomes a lost cause. It doesn’t happen often, but it can be hard to know what exactly went wrong and caused a hide to slip.

Errant cuts.

This is the most preventable issue. If your trophy is to be mounted, take the time to do a good job. On many animals, it is possible to “punch” the skin off which is normally a quicker and safer method of skinning than anything using a knife. If you are not experienced with headskinning and you are likely to be in a situation like a long hunt in the mountains without access to a freezer, get some practice in on meat animals. Make your mistakes on skins you don’t want hanging on your wall for the rest of your life.


With this information, you should be able to get an appropriate sized cape off an animal, only cutting it where necessary. This allows for the best possible trophy to be created for you. The best thing you can do for your trophy is to get it to All Over Taxidermy as soon as possible. Following that, get it frozen until you can deliver it. If you have no access to a freezer, you will need to get the skin salted to ensure it is in the best condition possible.

I recommend anyone who would like to try headskinning to try it on one you don’t intend to keep. This way you can learn the shape of the animals and any tricky bits that you need to be careful of.