They've got a good head for cleaning animal skulls

Apr 1 2010 - 7:10pm

GREENWOOD, Wis. -- Dave Scheffler normally doesn't pay attention to when bear hunting season starts, but he figures it out when his mail carrier starts bringing bear heads to his door.

Scheffler would be perfect for TV's "Dirty Jobs" since, as the owner and operator of European Skull Mounts, he processes more than 1,000 animal heads each year, turning them into something Georgia O'Keeffe would have gladly painted.

Scheffler is a king of craniums, a dean of noggins. Heads roll in to his workshop in rural Greenwood, about 45 miles southeast of Eau Claire. He works year-round, though naturally the busiest time is during the fall hunting seasons.

With the help of thousands of dermestid beetles, who basically work for food, Scheffler and his family turn heads from buffalo, whitetail deer, antelope and pretty much any animal that is legally hunted into a bright white skull mounted on maple plaques.

It's an odd profession, but apparently demand is high enough to keep Scheffler and a handful of others who process skulls in Wisconsin active. Despite the lingering recession, business is booming.

"When the economy is good, we get lots of mounts," said Scheffler's wife, Vicki. "When the economy turned bad, then we started getting the really big ones."

Said Scheffler: "The ones that would've gone to a taxidermist."

Scheffler charges $50 per skull, compared with hundreds of dollars some taxidermy mounts can cost.

The majority of his customers are sportsmen who want a keepsake from their hunt. He also handles skulls for taxidermists and artisans who paint them and sell them as art.

Jerry Coppus only handles skulls wholesale, processing more than 2,000 a year for taxidermists from his home in Freedom. Most of his customers are taxidermists in Minnesota and Michigan; he specializes in deer and bear heads, leaving the exotic animals for other skull processors like Scheffler.

Coppus admits the work isn't for everyone.

"I enjoy it. Most people can't stand the smell," Coppus said in a phone interview. "I used to paint cars years ago and I spent a lot of time around lacquers. It's got to be really bad for me to smell it."

Scheffler got involved in skull processing about a decade ago when his uncle decided to retire. His uncle asked if he was interested in taking over the business and offered to provide him with his stock of dermestid beetles and equipment.

"I said, 'No way.' I guess he took that as a 'yes,' " said Scheffler.

It only takes 24 hours for the beetles to do their job. Scheffler, who also operates a cabinet-building business, cuts the wood for plaques from maple trees he grows on his property.

He's handled orders from every state in the United States, even Hawaii, where someone sent in two wild boar heads and one from an axis deer.

This week, on the floor of Scheffler's workshop, a quarter-mile from the building where the beetles are tightly controlled, rows of skulls were lined up waiting for finishing work by his Scheffler's sons. There were skulls or buffalo, steers, whitetail deer, antelope and two horses. The horse skulls belonged to an equine dentist.

John Mower, an artisan and cattle farmer in Chippewa Falls, has taken about 20 heads to Scheffler for processing, mostly from his Scottish Highland cattle. Mower then paints and decorates the skulls with arrow points or copper or stone pieces before selling them. Mower tried skull processing on his own but realized how difficult it is and likes Scheffler's work.

"Properly cleaned, it's a piece of natural artwork," said Mower. "It's all done in kind of a more condensed way of the way animals naturally return to the earth."

Scheffler has done cat and dog skulls for pet owners but doesn't like to do them since the teeth are so small and time-consuming to put back together for the mount. And in case you're wondering, his Web site has a disclaimer: "Please do not inquire about human skulls!"

Scheffler was approached by a medical school about processing a human skull and -- although it's legal, as long as permits are in order for scientific facilities -- he declined.

When people ask Scheffler what he does for a living, he usually says cabinetmaking. When pressed, he'll explain his skull business.

Coppus isn't shy about what he does.

"Well, I wear a red shirt that says 'Jerry's Skull Cleaning' on the back. When people see it they go, 'Oh, geez,' " said Coppus. "I enjoy the work and I make really good money."


European Skull Mounts:

Jerry's Skull Cleaning:


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