"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Alligator European Mounts: Interview with Matthew Beck of Legacy Skull Preservation Inc.

In April I visited with Matthew Beck of Legacy Skull Preservation Inc. in Weeki Wachee, FL. Mr. Beck specializes in European Mounts. He grabbed my attention a month or so prior in a blog post that featured a gator skull dipped in a grassy camo pattern.

I was hooked.

Like most other semi-successful hunters, I have a collection of skulls just sort of sitting around the house like you’d find in a den of cavemen. They were bleached the good old fashion way – in the sun, sitting in an ant pile. As I’ve come to learn, this is horrible.

So I had a skull from a 7ft gator taken on a hunt a couple years back doing nothing but collecting dust, teeth fallen out and kept in a cup. After describing to Mr. Beck the condition of the skull, its numerous glue jobs and what I had done to achieve its chalky white glow, it took convincing for him to accept this challenge to clean and dip it in the pattern of my choice. Nonetheless, accept it he did, and I am breathlessly excited to have it back to put on display.

More than this, though, it was a wonderful experience meeting with Mr. Beck in his shop. His work is remarkable, as his passion for this craft. His mounts are elegant and would stand out in any trophy room. As you’re about to learn, preparing European mounts takes patience and a great deal of talent.

I asked him if he’d take time from his schedule to accommodate an interview, and he kindly accepted.

IN: What are your Gator Hunting Plans for this summer?

MB: Both my wife and I drew permits. I’m going with a friend, and we are going to try to pull two alligators using his Gheenoe. Hopefully this will give us the opportunity to get into some areas that we would have trouble getting to with a bigger boat.

My wife and I are going to take my 14 year old niece to get her first alligator. This is probably the hunt that I’m most excited about. I would rather watch a kid take their first gator than take one myself. I try to take one of the kids in the family every year.

IN: Tell everyone about that Monster you have mounted in your house?

MB: I took the “Monster” at an undisclosed location. He was a little over 11 feet long. He was missing nearly 2 foot of his tail. I’ve had many guides and professional trappers tell me that he is the gator of a lifetime. He was the first alligator I ever took. I have a shoulder mount of him in my living room, and I smile every time I look at it.

IN: With those giant gator heads in your shop, what keeps you from laughing in disgust at people such as me who bring you inferior-sized skulls that’d been bleached in the sun?

MB: I understand that more than preserving skulls, I am preserving memories. I have many large and interesting skulls. A few of my personal favorites are a skull from an eight-foot alligator that my son took when he was 11, a skull from an alligator that my wife took, and a special four-point whitetail that I shot.

I would like to think that I have seen it all, but every year I get something in that I can’t believe. When people bring me a skull that they have tried to clean and failed, I try to give them an honest assessment of what I think I can do with it. Often times I can “fix” the problem and give back to them a presentable product. If the skull has been boiled or harsh chemicals applied the chances of getting it to look “acceptable” are greatly diminished. I hate to have a skull leave me looking poorly.

IN: How long have you been working on European Mounts – as a hobby and professionally - and what got you started?

MB: I started cleaning skulls professionally four years ago. I have been doing it as a hobby for myself and, reluctantly, for friends for much longer. After cleaning my first alligator skull for a friend I decided to start Legacy Skull Preservation Inc. I cleaned his skull because at the time we had a hard time finding anyone that could do an acceptable job.

IN: Run us through the bare bones – ha! – process of treating a gator skull and what problems do you run into along the way? What is the typical time to complete one?

MB: The bare bones....skull humor!

Every skull is different but I will try to provide an overview. The first step is to remove all flesh, skin and tissue. Brain flushed out and excess flesh cut away. The skull is then ready for dermestid beetles or maceration.

Maceration is a bacterial bath that is maintained at an optimal temperature for the bacteria to break down and remove all flesh and tissue. This process takes 7 to 15 days.

The next step is to remove all grease. This is a process of time, temperature, and solution. The skulls are placed into a solution of cleaning agents and maintained at a constant temperature. The solution is changed frequently, sometimes as often as every day. This process can take 4 to 6 months depending on species, age, and condition of skull. The solution gently removes all grease and staining. It is a long, slow process but one that I find necessary to maintain the integrity of the bone and to keep delicate bone structures in place.

The next step is whitening. I use industrial strength Hydrogen Peroxide.

The final step is drying, articulating (gators tend to fall apart), gluing teeth back in and sealing with a museum grade sealant.

IN: What gave you the idea to dip skulls in camo paint?

MB: I can’t claim credit for it, but I don’t recall where I saw it first. It is becoming very popular. A skull that is dipped still needs to be thoroughly cleaned to insure that the film creates a permanent bond. At first I was not impressed with the idea of covering up my hard work as I take great pride in what I do. It was definitely something that had to grow on me. I will say that some of my favorite skulls are the ones dipped in camouflage that mimics an animal’s natural environment. An alligator dipped in the Boggy Vizon Marsh pattern is one of my favorites!

IN: What is the worst thing a client can do to a skull before he or she brings it to you?

MB: I certainly don’t want to give anyone any ideas. The best thing a customer can do is to follow the instructions of my website.

Treat the skull as if it were going to a traditional Taxidermist. The fresher the better - freeze it as soon as you can. Skulls left out to spoil stain and are difficult to get fully grease-free. Cut the head off well below the skull. I would rather have a little extra than have the back of the skull cut off. If they have any questions, give me a call - I will gladly walk them through the process so that they can get the best looking skull possible.

IN: How would you prefer a client to bring you a skull?

MB: My Website has directions on how to mail skulls directly to me. Please call before mailing. In some situations I’m able to pick up or meet a client in the Tampa Bay to help save them a little money.

IN: Since you are a professional chef, give us a gator recipe you enjoy.

MB: I’m still looking for the perfect recipe. My family enjoys it fried, ground and cooked on the grill.

Here are some general tips:
1. Ice down your Alligator as soon as possible, it is warm here and meat spoils quickly.
2. Clean and trim the meat thoroughly - remove all but the whitest meat.
3. Tenderize it all with a hand held needler or a fork.
4. Marinate in buttermilk or, our favorite, a little honey, orange juice and oil.
5. If you are frying, it is better to cut it into smaller pieces and cook quickly being careful not to overcook.
6. Ground gator can take the place of any ground beef just be aware that it is very lean.
7. An extra splash of Olive oil or ¼ stick of butter helps when you are cooking it.
8. Grill quickly and brush with extra marinate. Serve hot off the grill. Once it cools it loses all its charm.

Smaller pieces of alligator make a lovely Sesame “Chicken.” I make this without a recipe but will write it down. Next time I make it, I will share it with your readers. This will be a perfect excuse for you to invite me back.

Please visit Legacy Skull Preservation Inc. at www.Legacyskull.com. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail Matthew at mbeck@legacyskull.com. In addition to alligators, Mr. Beck will also mount deer, hogs, wild sheep, and variety of other game species. He has a gallery of unique skulls for sale you certainly will want to check out.

With Gator Season starting in a month, successful hunters will want to know ways to commemorate a first-rate hunt and preserve an awesome trophy.

I strongly recommend they get in touch with Matthew Beck.


Cort said...

That's a pretty wild looking mount! Sounds like he knows what he's doing and does a damn good job of it!

Great interview!

Anonymous said...

Now how cool is that! Those skulls look terrific.

Great. Now I really wanna a gator!