WET SPECIMENS: AN UPDATED POST (WITH A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON)

Way back in 2015, I wrote a general guide to creating wet specimens. After more than three years, and getting tons of questions, I have decided it is time for a sequel. I recommend reading through that post in addition to this one before you begin a wet specimen project. This will give you a good sense of the cost, risks, and realistic timelines for the process so you can decide if it’s something you would like to try. I offer many services, including making pet memorials or custom wet specimens, by request. Just shoot me a message!

Veiled chameleon hatchling in vintage sanded glass specimen jar, part of my collection.

Veiled chameleon hatchling in vintage sanded glass specimen jar, part of my collection.

This post explains how to fully preserve wet specimens, including safety precautions and instructions for material disposal, using the exact techniques I use. I have yet to see any “tutorial” posted on Reddit or YouTube that properly and safely describes how to fully stop tissue decay and preserve a specimen that will last longer than a few years.

Fluid-preserved specimens, also popularly called wet specimens or embalmed specimens, are samples of biological tissue that have been preserved with a fixative and then stored in a permanent liquid solution in a jar or other receptacle. Traditionally only used in research settings, these types of specimens have become somewhat popular as home decor in the last five to ten years.

Before I delve into this, I want to teach you about the whats and whys of this type of preservation. Therefore, this post is split into a part one and part two. If you don’t care about the history of taxidermy and related practices at all, you can skip the first half, but it is my opinion that knowing about WHY taxidermy and preservation has evolved over time could help you be more innovative and successful in your endeavors.


PART ONE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF FLUID-PRESERVED SPECIMENS

THE BIRTH of fluid-preserved specimens

Frederik Ruysch

Frederik Ruysch

Here’s a little background for the history buffs: The practice of embalming small animals and their parts is widely accepted to have been started by Frederik Ruysch in the 1600s. Born in 1638, Ruysch studied anatomy but quickly realized that cadavers for study were expensive and difficult to procure, so he started to brainstorm his own methods for preserving bodies in order to make them last longer during the dissection process.

Illustration of several Ruysch specimens from the  Public Domain Review .

Illustration of several Ruysch specimens from the Public Domain Review.

Ruysch used alcohol-based serums for preservation and tweaked the formula over time. He took several decades to finalize the recipe, but eventually came up with something he called liquor balsamicum. The composition of the solution itself was not revealed until the year 2006, when an embalming researcher named Erich Brenner revealed that it contained clotted pig’s blood, Berlin blue, and mercury oxide or mercuric sulfide, a red mineral. Yum.

A depiction of one of Ruysch’s displays, featuring infant skeleton’s weeping into handkerchiefs, as featured in  Alle de ontleed- genees- en heelkindige werken…van Fredrik Ruysch… vol. 3  –  Source .

A depiction of one of Ruysch’s displays, featuring infant skeleton’s weeping into handkerchiefs, as featured in Alle de ontleed- genees- en heelkindige werken…van Fredrik Ruysch… vol. 3Source.

Not only did Ruysch pioneer the field of arterial embalming, he made it possible for students to learn from cadavers year-round. Prior to the practice of embalming, specimens could only really be used during colder months due to the stench caused by bacteria in the summer. Additionally, he worked to train midwives on proper practices.

By the time he turned 24, Ruysch had started his own museum that contained skeletons, mummified organs, fluid-preserved specimens, and also had a collection of intricately-decorated jars in which he kept specimens. Many of the specimens he kept were human infants and fetuses, which he purchased from midwives (with whom he worked) when they experienced a loss. In addition to preserving the fetuses in jars, he also embalmed and mummified them and posed them in still-life dioramas. His daughter helped soften the mood by decorating with flowers and shells.

Ruysch gathered significant momentum with his work and sold the entire collection to Peter the Great in 1717, along with the recipe for the preserving liquor.

Some of the preserved collections have held up over time, but the dioramas are no longer intact. What is left can be viewed in person (or online) via the Kunstkammer of Peter the Great in Leningrad Academy of Science.

MODERN applications of fluid-preserved specimens

Nearly every school, university, and natural history museum on the planet has fluid-preserved specimens. If you’ve ever dissected a specimen like a frog, pig, cat, or eyeball in biology class, it was preserved using fluid - you just may not have realized that it was a wet specimen since it probably was given to you on a tray instead of in a jar.

Typically, fluid-preserved specimens in museums are referred to as “alcohol collections” or “ethanol collections” and they are just that - stored in alcohol. Because of their flammability, these types of collections are typically kept in fireproof rooms in the underbellies of museums, with thick doors that automatically seal at the sign of fire.

Specimen I photographed on display in the California Academy of Sciences.

Specimen I photographed on display in the California Academy of Sciences.

Each specimen has its own scientific value, but as in any type of specimen collection, having multiple specimens dating across several years or decades can be extremely useful to researchers. Specimens in collections should always be labeled with the species, the name of the person who found it, cause of death, location of death, the date, and the name of the person who preserved it.

Human brain specimen, which I will be teaching students how to restore, in the collection of St. Xavier University.

Human brain specimen, which I will be teaching students how to restore, in the collection of St. Xavier University.

Other information could include tissue samples, taken and put into a deep freezer with a corresponding identification number on the tag, and for certain animal groups scientists will also record things like the animal’s sex, weight, certain measurements, stomach contents, and even things that change with age or time of year such as eye color and molting status. These should ALWAYS be written with indelible ink. Don’t use an alcohol-based ink (like a Sharpie) if you are submerging the tag in alcohol. Jennifer Lenihan Trimble of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology recently devised a great way to avoid label degradation over time: thermal labeling with a thermal sticker printer!

So what is all of this information and all of the tissue actually used for? Scientists can do DNA sequencing on old specimens to detect changes in species over time, and sometimes through this type of genetic work they are actually able to identify completely new species that had never been described before! Because researchers have been collecting specimens for hundreds of years, there are extinct species that lie within museum walls. Theoretically, it may eventually become possible to clone animals like the Passenger Pigeon and reintroduce them into the wild, should it fare well for the ecosystem at the time this practice becomes possible. All of the information contained in specimen collections allows researchers to learn as much as they can about every single type of animal, from mollusks to elephants, to keep existing populations safe and thriving so that our most precious endangered animals don’t become extinct.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “We get it. Tell us how to preserve our own specimens!” and I hear you… here goes!


PART TWO: HOW TO PRESERVE SPECIMENS IN FLUID

I did make a general tutorial several years ago, with a plethora of suggestions and possibilities for materials, but this is specifically what I do when I work on specimens myself. First you will want to gather your materials. Keep the specimen in the freezer until you have everything you need. Again, make sure you read this ENTIRE tutorial before you start. It’ll help keep you safe.

You will need the following:

While the process of actively injecting the specimen takes less than ten minutes, even for beginners, keep in mind that you will need to allow at least two weeks for fluid transfer to occur before you can transfer the specimen into its final storage solution.

Some of these links are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase something using these links I may receive a small commission (around 3% of your total). This is at no additional cost to you and the pennies I receive add up and allow me to continue publishing tutorials like this. Thank you for your support.

Sourcing your specimens

I adhere to a model of sustainability in my taxidermy. What I mean by this is that ethics are subjective, so I don’t like the phrase “ethical taxidermy” because every person has their own ethical guidelines. Hitler had his own moral code and so did Mother Theresa, and for this exact reason I developed sustainable taxidermy.

If you don’t care where your specimens come from, that’s on you… but remember that even if something falls within your personal code of ethics, it may not be legal to possess certain types of animals in general or without special permits. You may find these blog posts helpful:

Part of the invertebrate collections at MCZ.

Part of the invertebrate collections at MCZ.

As far as procuring specimens, if you don’t already have a particular item in your freezer, there are a variety of ways to get your hands on something. People constantly accuse me of killing animals for my work but reality is that all living things die eventually. I never have and never would kill something just to stick it in a jar. Anywhere you can imagine animals die, they do… farms, breeders, getting hit by cars, hunting, trapping, pet stores, you name it. Once you find a connection with someone who works in a related field, you’ll soon have your hands on a specimen. If you’re looking for something just to practice on, I would recommend contacting someone who breeds small mammals for snake food. If one of those mammals (like a mouse) dies of unknown causes, it’s unsafe to feed to a snake (if it died from illness, it could make the snake sick) and will usually just be thrown out. This is your chance to give “life” to something that would otherwise be discarded.

Make sure what you are doing is LEGAL. I can’t stress this enough. Research wildlife parts laws in your area and DO NOT, under any circumstances, violate bird law. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 goes hand in hand with bird protection laws in many other countries up and down the path where most North and South American birds migrate, and you could end up in big trouble if you possess so much as a feather from any protected species. In a majority of U.S. states it’s not legal to collect roadkill without a special educational permit, and you can’t hunt without a license either. Each city, state or province, and country has its own laws governing the possession and use of wildlife and their parts, so bone up on that legal knowledge to make sure you aren’t in violation of anything.

Now that you’ve procured a specimen safely and legally, let’s talk about the steps of preservation.

SAFETY PRECAUTION ALERT!!!

You will be using formalin for this project. Formalin is an aqueous solution (meaning that particles have been dissolved in water) consisting of formaldehyde and water. FORMALDEHYDE IS FLAMMABLE AND CARCINOGENIC. I do not recommend that you work on this project without wearing a respirator. Do not work on this project in the vicinity of anyone not wearing a respirator who has not consented, and never do this type of work around any children or living animals. This is best completed in a room which you can close off, complete your project, and ventilate after leaving. For instance, I wear a formaldehyde-safe respirator mask and work in my studio. I lock my pets out, complete my projects, and open the window before leaving the room for several hours to allow everything to air out.

OSHA guidelines state that it is safe to have up to 15 minutes of unprotected exposure to formaldehyde per day. I do teach this method in my classes but I adhere to these guidelines and try to keep it to 5 minutes or less just to err on the side of caution. Formaldehyde can cause cancer and birth defects. DO NOT WORK ON ANY FORMALDEHYDE-RELATED PROJECTS IF YOU ARE PREGNANT OR TRYING TO BECOME PREGNANT. Your baby will be born with deformities and illnesses. This is not a joke.

So long as you take safety precautions, you’ll be fine.

Wear a respirator with fresh filters and a pair of safety goggles (not glasses, you want them to seal to your face and protect your eyes from the gas). Always wear gloves and always get fresh gloves if you need to de-glove for any reason.

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As long as you’re safe, these are the steps to creating a wet specimen:

  • Make sure your specimen is thawed out completely. Dry any dampness (even from melted ice) as well as you can. Prepare your workspace by working on a tray covered with paper towels, or a puppy pee pad, so that you can dispose of any leakage easily.

  • Assemble your syringe and needle if you haven’t yet, taking time to tighten the Luer lock with pliers if needed. This will help you avoid air bubbles.

  • Open your formalin and insert the needle into the liquid. Slowly withdraw the plunger to minimize air bubbles. When the syringe is full, point your needle up directly at the ceiling so the syringe is parallel to the walls. Flick the syringe a couple of times to gather all of the air bubbles together, just like you see doctors do on TV. Using your non-dominant hand, hold a folded piece of paper towel over the end of the needle so it’s covered. Give yourself a few inches of space between your hand and the needle so that you don’t slip and poke yourself. Slowly depress the plunger on the syringe only until the largest air bubble is gone (no need to worry about teeny tiny bubbles). The paper towel is there to absorb anything that leaks out.

  • Always keep your specimen down on your work space. Many of my students are tempted to try to hold the specimen in one hand and inject with the other. DON’T DO THIS - you run a huge risk of pricking yourself or even embalming yourself. With the specimen down on the tray or pad, start poking your needle into the specimen and injecting a small amount of fluid with each prick. Make sure to pay special attention to the head, neck, belly cavity, lungs, legs, feet, and tail. If you are working on a partial specimen like an organ or just a head rather than a whole animal, use your discretion to figure out where to inject. An average mouse will take about 5-7cc of fluid. An average adult rat will take about 30cc of fluid.

Right after injecting, the liquid will be pinkish.

Right after injecting, the liquid will be pinkish.

MORE INFORMATION ON FORMALIN

  • Formalin CAN be filtered through a coffee filter and reused. I dispose of it when it starts to look murky or dark brown.

  • In regards to disposal: http://water.usgs.gov/admin/memo/policy/wrdpolicy93.044.html
    Spilled or used formaldehyde is considered a hazardous waste and must be handled as a solid waste under RCRA. The generator--be it in the field office or the district office--must contact a hazardous waste contractor for appropriate disposal under RCRA regulations. An Environmental protection Agency (EPA) identification number must be obtained for each site from which disposal of a regulated material or waste will be made. Instructions on how to obtain an EPA identification number were included in the "Hazardous Materials Assessment" document transmitted on May 14, 1993, by the Chief, Branch of Operational Support. Uniform Hazardous Waste Manifests (EPS form 8700-22) and records must be maintained on the amounts of waste formaldehyde, storage time, and the contractor involved in the hazardous waste recycling.

  • If this doesn’t make sense, basically you just need to find a hazardous waste treatment plant near you and when you have a jar or two full of formalin that needs to be disposed of, contact them. There may be a fee associated with this disposal. Pay the fee. NEVER dump formalin or anything containing formaldehyde into the trash, ground, sewer, sink, shower, toilet, etc. It WILL get back into our water stream and it WILL kill humans and animals if you do not act responsibly. You may also be able to contact a local funeral home and see if you can pay them a small fee to dispose of your formalin along with leftover embalming fluids and liquid biohazards.

  • As you inject, you will notice that the specimen will appear bloated and pink fluid will start leaking out. This is actually a good sign, so don’t worry about it too much. If you feel that too much is leaking out, stop actively injecting the specimen and continue using your needle to poke a hole every centimeter or so. These holes are important for the fixing process.

Several weeks of soaking later, and the liquid will be greyish.

Several weeks of soaking later, and the liquid will be greyish.

NOTE: Wet specimen preservation uses two types of liquid solution: an acidic fixative (in this case, the formalin) which halts all bacterial activity and actively preserves the specimen, and a more neutral storage solution (in this case, alcohol) which will serve as a clear liquid to keep the specimen in for permanent usage and display.

  • The holes that you create encourage a process called fluid exchange. When you have sufficiently injected your specimen, place it into a jar of formalin so it is submerged, and seal the lid. Fluid exchange occurs when the fluids from inside the body (like blood) leach out into the fixative (formalin) and are replaced by the fixative (formalin) leaching into the body. This effectively preserved the entire specimen from the inside out. You will not get the same effect by just dumping alcohol over a small animal and keeping it in a jar.

  • Keep in mind that the position in which you place your specimen is how it will stay forever. The tissues will tighten and will not be able to be moved/bent/repositioned without breaking the specimen itself.

  • Clean up your work space by wrapping up any pads/paper towels/rubber gloves and throwing them out in an outdoor garbage can. Always make sure you put the cap back on your syringe if you plan on using it for additional embalming projects and LABEL IT so that someone doesn’t find it and try to use it for first aid or something.

  • Your specimen should be submerged in the formalin, but if it floats a little, don’t worry too much. Whether it floats or not, you should firmly but carefully shake your specimen every three days for a period of two to three weeks. This encourages the fluid exchange to occur but also helps dissipate any small bubbles that may be trapped beneath your specimen’s skin. After a few tries shaking it, the specimen should sink to where it’s supposed to be. If you follow my instructions through a full three weeks of shaking and your specimen still floats, it’s probably something wrong with the specimen itself (i.e. it wasn’t put in the freezer soon enough after death) and not something wrong with your technique.

  • After the shaking period is over, it’s time to move your specimen to a permanent storage solution.

  • Ethanol is great, but 70% isopropyl alcohol is readily available at any drug store. The main difference is that isopropyl alcohol has a slightly larger molecule, due to the fact that it has been poisoned so nobody can drink it. This is a practice dating back to prohibition. Both ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and isopropyl behave the same way in this application.

  • Wearing gloves, goggles, and your respirator, you can simply fish your specimen out of the jar and place it into a separate jar, or you can take it out and rinse it.

    NOTE: Rinsing is especially helpful to remove any hardened blood or other tissue that has “leaked” out of the specimen. These bits of tissue are simply liquid that has reacted with the formalin. As you recall from above, formalin is acidic and reacts with biological tissue by “fixing” it, which means it halts bacterial growth and slightly hardens the tissue. The “leakage” will appear slightly pink as a “growth” from the holes you created with your needle, and should be easily rubbed off under running water.

  • Because I own so many jars and I do this so often, I typically just place my specimen into a new jar and top it off with 70% alcohol before sealing the jar. However, if you do not have an extra jar, I would put the specimen on paper towel while you momentarily dispose of the formalin or put it in another container, then replace the specimen in the same jar and top it off with alcohol.

STORAGE & CARE

After following all of the steps, your specimen should look great in a clean jar with fresh alcohol.

After following all of the steps, your specimen should look great in a clean jar with fresh alcohol.

  • Always store your specimens away from sources of heat, like fire, open flames, direct sunlight, a radiator, etc. Alcohol and formalin are highly flammable so don’t store them near a stove, fireplace, don’t smoke around them, etc. Use common sense to decide where in your home your specimens will be safest.

  • Sunlight will degrade the specimens.

  • Store away from pets and children.

  • Never EVER eat, drink, or allow anyone else (human or animal) to eat or drink any part of your specimen, including any of the liquid solutions. If your jar breaks, use gloves to carefully pick up the large glass and specimen and dispose of it immediately. Absorb any liquid with cat litter or sawdust (along with sweeping up the leftover glass) and put it all in the trash. Make sure to wash the floor afterwards. I do realize that I just said a few paragraphs up never to throw formalin in the trash, but absorbing it this way and disposing of it is obviously safer than having a puddle of carcinogenic liquid laced with shards of glass in the middle of your floor. If you have the opportunity to contact your hazardous waste disposal and treatment center before throwing anything in the trash, please do so.



TROUBLESHOOTING & FAQs

  • I put my finished specimen in alcohol a few weeks ago and the alcohol has turned yellow. What do I do? Specimens are organic and will continue to leach dark liquid over time. You have two options. The first is to just let it do its thing, and the second is to treat your specimen the same way you did when you first put it in alcohol. Use gloves and wear your respirator, transfer the specimen onto paper towel or into a new jar, empty out the old alcohol (alcohol can be flushed down the toilet), and replace the specimen in the jar with fresh alcohol.

  • My specimen is floating. What do I do? If your specimen is still in the first few weeks after completion, make sure you’re following the instructions from above and shaking it every few days to dissipate air bubbles. If your specimen has been completed for a long time and is suddenly floating, it is likely that the animal was either already decomposing when you started, or you did not preserve it properly. Using the waste disposal guidelines from above, dispose of the entire thing as described and make sure you have a fresh specimen and follow the directions to a T the next time.

  • Can I use a plastic jar? If you are a chemist and are positive that the composition of the plastic is compatible with formalin and with alcohol, sure. If you are not a professional chemist, stick to glass. Some plastic will melt when it comes into contact with chemicals like this. The plastic lids that come with jars from places like Uline, and all of the jars I linked to in this article, however, are safe to use.

    If you have other questions, please make sure you have read through this entire article as well as my last specimen tutorial. I would also suggest reading the comments. I will probably not respond directly to the comments left on this post, but I will reply to questions sent through my contact form so long as you follow the instructions on the form. Thank you.

I offer an array of taxidermy classes, specimens for sale, tutorials, and kits in addition to fine jewelry. If you like learning about natural history, follow along on Instagram. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you learned something useful. Enjoy!


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MY FAVORITE FILM CAMERA

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Since the first time I laid eyes on a Yashica T4, it became my favorite camera. Back in 2010 I was spending a lot of time at house and techno clubs in Detroit, and I was using a Walgreens loyalty point-and-shoot film camera to document everyone busting a move. This is where I get a little long-winded. Deal with it.

The Walgreens camera was great. The camera itself was $20 and came pre-loaded with a roll of basic film. The deal was that you'd shoot your film, bring it back to Walgreens to be developed, and they'd load your camera back up with film - FOR LIFE. This was the era when one-hour photo was a service available at every Walgreens, and if you asked for a CD only with no prints, processing plus scans cost only $5.99.

I quickly developed rapport with the guys who worked the tech counter at my Walgreens and soon discovered that if I asked nicely, they'd just hand me a new roll of film with my camera instead of loading it for me. I'd take the roll home, put it in a different camera, shoot it, and then bring it back with my loyalty camera for processing and a new roll of film. Eventually I bought a second loyalty camera just so I could have a few rolls of free film in rotation. It was AMAZING.

At the time, Detroit also had a movie industry tax incentive, and at one of the rooftop parties I attended I met a Hostel 3 (lol @ the fact that someone made a third Hostel movie) crew member named Justin who took interest in my camera. He pulled a Yashica T4 out of his pocket and then used his phone to show me some photos of nude women that he had taken with that camera. It sounds like the weirdest and most unwanted interaction to have at a party but I LOVED the quality of his art and started looking for a T4 of my own on eBay. Luckily for me, Justin had multiple T4 cameras and very graciously gifted me one. I'm eternally grateful!

Yashica T4 on  Amazon

Yashica T4 on Amazon

Discontinued in 2002, the Yashica T4 is a cult classic, predominantly due to its use by famed photographer Terry Richardson. This point-and-shoot is well-built, a little heavy, but it has a stellar 35mm f/3.5 Zeiss T* four-element Tessar lens and it's weatherproof (not waterproof though!). Richardson shoots with two at a time to allow the film in one camera to advance while he shoots a frame with the second camera and then switches back, but most hobbyists don't need (and probably can't afford) two.

Mine is the T4 Super which means it has a Super scope which works kind of like a periscope and allows you to shoot from the hip while looking down into the camera. I bought Jason a regular T4 without Super scope as a gift because I found it for only $2! He loves it and when the opportunity presented itself at an estate sale, he bought himself a T4 Super (with the scope), so now we have three total. Since the T4 was discontinued and is well sought-after, these cameras usually come with a hefty price tag but I can assure you, it's an investment you will love forever and if you find one for less than $300 you should snatch it up immediately. If it's less than $100 don't worry if it's broken either, because they have insane resale value.

The T4 is marketed as Yashica and as Kyocera so it may have either or both logos on the front, and comes in a regular and Super version. These cameras may also be light grey or black so don't let that throw you for a loop - just look for T4 on the front. The T3 and T5 are also comparable if you ever come across them at a thrift store or at a good price online but they're much more rare to find.

After Walgreens stopped processing film in-store, I switched to using Kodak Portra 160 at Justin's recommendation. It's a little pricier than the standard Kodak Gold film available in drug stores, but I promise it's worth it. Portra film has excellent tonality, especially on skin, which makes it perfect for portraits. I prefer the 160 speed to the 400 but both are great and what you purchase really depends on where you plan on shooting. Since I mostly shoot in daylight I can use slower film.

I occasionally use expired film from an estate sale in my T4 as well, so the rest of this blog post is a mix of different types of film. Technically I could still use my loyalty camera to get free film from Walgreens since it has a lifetime guarantee, but I don't trust the lab they outsource to and have switched to The Darkroom instead.

Lake Michigan shot on  Portra 160  with  Yashica T4

Lake Michigan shot on Portra 160 with Yashica T4

Jason shot on  Portra 160  with  Yashica T4

Jason shot on Portra 160 with Yashica T4

Jason shot on  Portra 160  with  Yashica T4

Jason shot on Portra 160 with Yashica T4

Garfield Park Conservatory shot on  Portra 160  with  Yashica T4

Garfield Park Conservatory shot on Portra 160 with Yashica T4

Plants shot on  Portra 160  with  Yashica T4

Plants shot on Portra 160 with Yashica T4

606 Dog Park shot on  Portra 160  with  Yashica T4

606 Dog Park shot on Portra 160 with Yashica T4

One oldie but goodie of me (with no tattoos to boot!) in the Detroit River shot on  Portra 160  with my  Yashica T4  by my friend  Jarod Lew

One oldie but goodie of me (with no tattoos to boot!) in the Detroit River shot on Portra 160 with my Yashica T4 by my friend Jarod Lew

My Yashica is trusty enough that I use it for all of my test rolls. If I get a big batch of film from an estate sale or thrift store, I shoot one roll from each type to make sure the rest of the batch is worthwhile. I typically go to the Garfield Park Conservatory because the lighting is consistent and the subject matter is always beautiful.

Expired color slide film shot with  Yashica T4

Expired color slide film shot with Yashica T4

Expired b&w film shot with  Yashica T4

Expired b&w film shot with Yashica T4

Expired color slide film shot with  Yashica T4

Expired color slide film shot with Yashica T4

Expired b&w film shot with  Yashica T4

Expired b&w film shot with Yashica T4

Expired color slide film shot with  Yashica T4

Expired color slide film shot with Yashica T4

Expired b&w film shot with  Yashica T4

Expired b&w film shot with Yashica T4

Expired color slide film shot with  Yashica T4

Expired color slide film shot with Yashica T4

These are just a few of my favorites from my last six test rolls. For more, check out my Instagram page. I share a mix of my film photos and digital photos of my taxidermy and jewelry work there too.

My most important piece of advice when it comes to dabbling in film photography for the first time is just to have fun with it!

It's a lot better than letting little things stress you out. And while I love my Yashica T4, at any given time my favorite camera is always the one I happen to have with me... so if you can't afford a T4, fret not - you can still create amazing art with as little as a disposable camera. It's just a matter of perspective.


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TIPS FOR SUCCESS SELLING YOUR WORK AT HANDMADE MARKETS, CRAFT SHOWS, + OTHER EVENTS

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As a maker and seller of handmade jewelry and taxidermy for the better part of the last decade, I'm finally on the good end of the learning curve when it comes to finding success selling my work at shows and events. In addition to planning my own trunk shows and handmade markets, I've also been a participant in a fair amount of events.

I'm covering the following:

  • How to find events to participate in

  • What to bring to your events, indoors and out

  • How to set up successfully

  • How to make sales

  • How to break down your setup

  • How to translate visitors into customers


Find An Event

The first thing you need to do is find a show or event to participate in! Without an event, the rest of this advice is pretty useless. I've personally moved around the midwest a fair amount in the last few years, so each time I've moved I have made it a point to connect with makers that either (a) I look up to or (b) whose work is similar to mine in order to find out which events they are vendors at. If you're really shy and don't want to make contact with anyone directly, go ahead and creep on other brands' Instagram accounts for the past year to find out which local events they have participated in.

Me with my friend  Randi  at the Renegade Pop-Up, May 2017

Me with my friend Randi at the Renegade Pop-Up, May 2017

  • Use your notes app to make a list of events.

  • Google each event to find out when the deadlines for applications are.

  • Mark the deadlines on your calendar.

  • Before applying, ask around and read reviews to see if the shows are worth it.

  • Make note of how the events are promoted, whether the people running them are respectful of their vendors and behave professionally, and it definitely doesn't hurt to ask past participants if they feel they got their money's worth

  • When applying, it's also worth noting whether you'll have a table provided or if you need to bring your own, if there is WiFi available for your payment processing device, and if you'll have access to electricity.

  • If there is an application fee or a booth fee, make sure you can afford to kiss that money goodbye in case something goes awry at the event (like bad weather) because those fees are almost always nonrefundable.

  • Once you find a show you want to participate in, go for it! Make sure you're honest on your application so that the curators can ensure you won't be directly competing with a very similar vendor.


What To Bring (Intro)

When you get accepted to an event, make notes on all of the things you'll need to bring. If you need to buy anything, it's better to make an investment in higher-quality display items that you'll use for years to come rather than cheap-looking items you'll end up throwing away when you upgrade. I can't stress this enough, having wasted a lot of money on cheap crap and then having to buy the better, more expensive version after the original broke. Here are some of the things I use to set up my displays.

My number-one investment is a folding wagon. This will make your life infinitely easier! It squishes closed and pops back up easily and you will LOVE not having to carry your heavy items and risk jostling them around before you've even gotten to the event. If your work is heavy or large, here is another option. If you'll be going through any rough terrain, this is the wagon for you because of its wheel configuration.

What To Bring To An Outdoor Event

For outdoor shows, a nice tent with straight legs and side walls that zip closed is a must. This one comes with the side walls and a wheeled case which makes it easy to transport. Don't forget to bring wrap-around sandbag weights to hold your tent down in the wind -- you can even see if the vendors in the booths surrounding yours would like to wrap the legs of your tents together!

Speaking from experience, wrap-around sandbag weights are the way to go. Bricks are NOT a good idea because the last thing you want to do after a long event is carry bulky cinderblocks to your car and then store them until the next time, and it's wasteful to keep buying them and throwing them away for each event you do.

Along the side walls of my tent I like to hang vintage medical posters I'm selling. I recognize that most people don't have very large medical posters to sell, so other things you can do are:

  • Drill a hole through each end of a 1/4" dowel and hang it horizontally on the wall of your tent. Use metal hooks on the dowel and hang necklaces from it.

  • Get a banner printed with your business logo and hang it from the back wall of your tent. This gives you much more visibility than putting your banner on the front of your tent or table.

As you can see from my photos, I also like to decorate my booth with streamers and pennant banners during the spring and summer months. If you sell small items like pins, patches, jewelry, or little figurines, it's nice to keep them in a glass case so they don't blow away. Plus, it gives your booth a high-end feel and discourages people from stealing anything that's a little more valuable than other pieces. I use my glass case to house my cast sterling silver and bronze work so that when people want to see something, I get to talk to them about the products and tell them the story behind each piece. You'll see in some photos that I also have wooden boxes (which I painted pastel colors) full of dried beans that I use for displays, but have found over time that they are MUCH better suited for indoor events.

I like to line the bottoms of my flat cases with dried black beans, fancy gravel, frosted glass, or glass marbles.

What To Bring To ANY Event (INDOORS & OUT)

If tables are not provided, I like folding tables that fold in half and have a carrying handle or, even better, wheels on the bottom! This will make your load-in a breeze if you have to get your table more than twenty or thirty feet. The last thing you want to do is exhaust yourself setting up and then be completely wiped out during your actual business hours. I have two each of these and these which means I can configure my displays any way I want to!

Close-up of the  wheels

Close-up of the wheels

You will also want a portable chair for every person working - if you bring a friend to help out, get them a chair too because inevitably, everyone will want to take a break at some point!

Cover your table! It's amazing how many shows I've been to where I see vendors without tablecloths, struggling with their sales, wondering why their setup that looks like a garage sale isn't attracting any customers. Pick a neutral color or a color complementary to your branding or items. I chose forest green for my setup because it looks great with all of my copper, brass, gold, bronze, and silver work and I have matching tablecloths for all four of my display tables at large shows. I love these machine-washable cloths that are big enough to cover my tables with plenty of fabric leftover to drape over the front for a polished look.

I draw people into my tent or to my table with fun, informative, and sarcastic letterboard signs. I have four, and this size gets you the most bang for your buck.

  • "Please don't feed the animals. They're already stuffed." I added my Instagram handle to this one because I know people take photos of things like that, and maybe they'll follow me too.

  • "Don't haggle, it's tacky." Lots of people think this one is funny too! I use it at Renegade and other big events where people try to nickel and dime me. The irony is that if people don't haggle with me and are respectful of my work, I usually offer a discount or a free small item.

  • A list of the payment methods I accept. This is a no-brainer. Once people see PayPal and Venmo they might spend money they weren't planning to spend before.

  • "Ask me how to save $25 off your first taxidermy class!" This is how I get people to talk to me about my work! I get them to sign up for my email list and then email them a coupon the day after the event. Works like a charm!

You can customize your signs to fit your business. It's an affordable and clean way to bring in new customers and connect with them. Don't forget stands to hold them up on your table!

Another idea for displays, in the same vein as the beans and glass cases mentioned above, is to purchase some old picture frames from a thrift store, remove the glass and backing, and set the frames on your tablecloth. Fill up the inside of the frame with your beans/gravel/marbles and then nestle your products inside! You can spray-paint the frames any color (or use those cool metallic paints!) to complement your products.

Instead of just laying items out on the tablecloth, elevate your products with special display items like ring stands (in black or white) and necklace holders. Putting small loose items like keychains onto a plate or in a bowl can make your display look much more polished.

I also like the way that a slab of marble or slate looks on the table, but they're heavy and difficult to maneuver. Try covering a thin slab of wood (like plywood) with marbled contact paper instead!

If your event is taking place in a dark space, whether it's at night or not, it's a good idea to bring battery-operated lights. I have three of these, one for each end of a 6' table at bar events and one for the middle. This allows you to avoid the awkwardness (and tripping hazard) of snaking a million extension cords through a dimly-lit bar or venue. Make sure your lamps are fully charged on the day of your event, and if it's a multiple-day event make sure you bring them with you to charge them overnight as well!


Setting Yourself Up For Success

Me with some of my work at Renegade Craft Fair, September 2017

Me with some of my work at Renegade Craft Fair, September 2017

I bring a power bank for each device I need to charge. One for each of my lamps, one for my cell phone, and potentially another for my card reader depending on how much traffic I'm expecting. Again, you want to make sure your power banks are all fully charged on the day of your event, and if it's a multiple-day event make sure you charge them overnight too.

If you didn't catch on by now, you're going to need a way to take payments too! A card reader is a must. PayPal and Square are both good choices. I personally use Square because it's widely used and the design of the reader is pretty sleek. Square is compatible with Apple Pay too. If you use my referral link for Square, you receive free processing for your first $1,000 in sales (and so do I). I also set up accounts with Square Cash, PayPal, and Venmo (which are all listed on one of my signs) so people can pay me any way they want to.

Of course, you're going to want to accept real cash too! I make my prices even dollar amounts so I don't need to have coins on me. I usually bring $100 in small bills - $40 in $1 bills, $40 in $5 bills, and $20 in $10 bills. Usually your first customer or two will pay with larger bills (or exact change) so you don't have to worry about running out of change. Some people like to use a cash box and others like to wear a fanny pack. I personally prefer always having my money with me, like if I need to run to the bathroom, but the choice is yours. This fanny pack is extra fun!

Bring a friend to help you out! They'll keep you company during slow times and if you buy their food and drinks, they'll probably help you load in and load out too. It's REALLY NICE to have a helper when you need to go to the bathroom!

My Renegade Pop-Up decorations, May 2017, taken by  Certee

My Renegade Pop-Up decorations, May 2017, taken by Certee

Don't forget these little things either!

  • Duct tape - if you bring in an extension cord for your electronics, YOU are responsible for making sure nobody trips on it!

  • Regular clear tape

  • A pair of scissors - don't underestimate how much you'll end up using these

  • A sharp pocket knife - see above

  • Zip ties

  • Extra price tags for when some of yours inevitably fall off and get lost - if you don't sell jewelry try these with a piece of tape on the string

  • Business cards and a business card holder

  • A clipboard with a few paper mailing list sign-up sheets and a pen

  • Extra pens because someone will inevitably steal yours

  • A snack or two

  • Gum or mints (nobody likes buying stuff from someone stinky breath!)

  • Bottled water (a reusable water bottle is convenient and better for the planet)

  • A pack of tissues

  • Wear something comfy but professional and bring a jacket if you think it may be windy or cold

The day before your event, make sure you pack up your items in Rubbermaid tubs (go to Target or another big box store to choose which size you like best) with locking lids and load everything into your vehicle and park it somewhere safe. Try the app SpotHero if you don't have a garage of your own. If you don't have a vehicle, rent a mini van! The night before the event, plug in ALL of your devices (including lamps) and ALL of your power banks so they have a full night to charge.

The day of your event, follow the load-in instructions provided by your host. If you are able to park nearby and just use your wagon to wheel things into the area of your event, I can't recommend that enough. Set up your tent first and then focus on tables, tablecloths, and then hanging up anything that needs to be hung afterwards. This is where your zip ties will come in handy.

Merchandise your booth in a way that makes things easy for shoppers, and give yourself an area for your body to go while you stand and talk to people while allowing them to move freely. If you're at an event with just one table, stand behind it and talk to people over the table instead of standing in front of it and blocking shoppers' views. Use the space under your tables to store your bins and back stock.

As items sell, rearrange the merchandise you have left to fill in gaps. People like to shop from full-looking tables.


Making Sales

Customers are the cornerstone of your business. Without people buying your goods, you're just someone who makes stuff that nobody wants. I started making and selling friendship bracelets when I was in middle school. They weren't special, but I would bring them to school in a zip-lock baggie and could sell them to kids in the lunch room for fifty cents each just by sitting down and talking to them.

In a world with more than 1.7 million Etsy shops, chances are that your work isn't 100% unique and it might also not be the most affordable work of that type that your customers can choose to buy. What makes your products special is YOU. It's proven that if a shopper feels a connection to a seller, they're more likely to buy what you're selling.

Me with Jason at Renegade, May 2017. He is a ray of sunshine and REALLY helped me come out of my shell as a seller that weekend.

Me with Jason at Renegade, May 2017. He is a ray of sunshine and REALLY helped me come out of my shell as a seller that weekend.

The easiest way to connect with someone right off the bat is to ask them a question that's engaging. Jason has definitely helped instill better selling habits in me. Instead of just "How are you?" try asking someone how their day has been so far. If a shopper is wearing something that you genuinely think is cool, ask them where they got it - but only if you mean it, because empty compliments are very transparent and you don't want to fake making someone feel special. Ask them if they're having fun at the event and about the coolest thing they've seen so far. These are all good ice-breakers that will start a more meaningful conversation than the closed-ended "How are you/Doing well, how are you/Doing well" type of interaction.

Once the conversation starts, talk about your products as the customer looks at them. Do they show interest in a certain necklace? Show them the matching bracelet and tell them about where the stones were mined. Do they spend extra time looking at an art print? Tell them about what inspired you to make the painting in the first place.

If someone lingers for awhile on an item but then puts it back and starts to leave, quietly offer a slight discount and see if that helps! Oftentimes I'll also do a small discount if someone buys more than one item if the person is really nice. If they act like they're entitled to the discount or they try to haggle, I usually don't give them any price breaks. Remember that nice people who get slight discounts are more likely to tell their friends about you or become repeat customers, whereas entitled people are more likely to act entitled and unsupportive of your work whether they get a discount or not. It's up to you to decide if offering a discount will be beneficial.


Break It Down

When it's time to break down your booth or tent, allow lingering customers a few minutes to finish shopping without rushing them out. You never know who's been waiting all day to make a big purchase. If it's more than 15 minutes after the end of the event and you really need to leave, gently let your customer know that you are required to break down and ask them if there is anything you can start to wrap up for them.

If you're just on the overnight portion of a two- or more day event (meaning the event resumes the following day), remove your valuables, cover your tables, and zip up your tent if you have one. If you're just doing a one-day event or it's the last day of a multi-day event, follow the rest of these guidelines as you'd like.

Me in front of my booth (plus a dead bird and one of my sassy signs) at Renegade in September of 2017 - note the necklaces hanging in the background!

Me in front of my booth (plus a dead bird and one of my sassy signs) at Renegade in September of 2017 - note the necklaces hanging in the background!

After the customers are gone, or if someone is still shopping through one section of my work, I'll start to break down another section. Use your plastic tubs and start to wrap up fragile items, then use your Tetris skills to pack them together in a stable way. I have two of these plastic organizers that I use to store my necklaces, one per section, so they don't get tangled. I also store rings in the compartments. I noticed that sometimes the chains from my necklaces kind of move into other compartments, but they don't get tangled and this is still the best organizer I've ever purchased. I've tried drinking straws, rolling necklaces into fabric, etc. and none of those options work as well as this organizer.

Your knife and/or scissors will come in handy when taking down signs and any other hanging display items.

Use your tablecloth(s) to wrap large, bulky, or fragile items and pack those into your Rubbermaid tubs too. If you have a tent, pack your tubs into your wagon and move it out of the way so you can take your tent down. This is when it's helpful to have a friend or helper. One person can stay with the items and the other can take the wagon to the car, load the items in, and come back for the rest. It is a LOT easier to load out a little bit at a time than it is to try to drive your car into a fair or right up in front of the event space for loading out.

As you pack up, remember to stay organized. Is there a rack you use at home or in your studio to hang items? Pack it into your car last so you can unpack it first and hang your items back up as needed. Common sense is your friend here.

Whatever you do, remember that you're responsible for EVERYTHING you bring into an event. Throw away your trash and recycle any refuse that you can!


Customer Conversion

The last major thing I want to talk about is converting visitors to your booth or table into customers in the future. Not every shopper is going to have money or an ability to purchase your goods on the spot, but almost everyone has email! Put out a clipboard with an email sign-up sheet and encourage everyone who expresses even the slightest interest in your work to sign up on the list.

Talking to a customer at my Crampus Holiday Market (benefitting an organization called  Chicago Period Project ) in December of 2017. Photo by Chris Rios.

Talking to a customer at my Crampus Holiday Market (benefitting an organization called Chicago Period Project) in December of 2017. Photo by Chris Rios.

You can offer people a discount on the spot if they sign up, but my favorite way to encourage new email subscribers is to give an incentive of $25 off their first taxidermy class if they sign up for the list. Of course, most people reading this are not taxidermy teachers, but there are other things you can do in a similar vein. If you're a fiber artist, offer a free pattern to anyone who signs up. If you're a jeweler, offer exclusive early access to your new collection for subscribers. The idea is to offer something exclusive that they can only get by allowing electronic contact.

Follow up after your event by sending your new subscribers an email welcoming them to your list and thanking them for supporting your business. Make sure you include whatever it was that you promised in exchange for their sign-up! In the email, include links to your social media, web shop, and your website. If you don't have an email list, I like using Mailchimp. Mailchimp even gives you the option of sending a separate email to new subscribers which means after you import your new subscribers, you don't have to select their names individually.

The $25 discount on taxidermy sign-ups for new subscribers has gotten me lots of email sign-ups, but has translated directly into sign-ups for lessons (which means money!) and some product sales as well. Offering a discount is a win-win for everyone involved.

Do you have any other words of wisdom for participants in handmade markets and other craft shows? Let me know in the comments!


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