Papilio thoas - from papered to set
Updated: Nov 4, 2018
These photos show the main steps in preparing a butterfly for the displays. I thought it would be interesting to show the process on one single specimen rather than the hotchpotch in the other set of photos. Papilio thoas is a vibrantly-coloured specimen from Peru, bright yellow against black, and is great for learning the art as it has very strong veins in its wings which make it easier to use the setting tool to move them into position. The other specimens in the shot are Papilio blumei (looking quite dull because it hasn't been opened up at this point) and Papilio rumanzovia, with its ruby ocelli - which is why it is usually displayed to show the underside. To the right, on the setting board, are Idea idea, Idea blanchardi, and Idea leuconoe gordita.
I've described the method that I personally use, but there are many different methods, for instance weighing down the wings with pieces of glass, or setting the wings in a different order. I have seen people prepare them at great speed in Paris, taking only a couple of minutes to prepare each one, but I really think that this is a process that has to be done slowly and calmly, because they are so delicate and a single slip of the dissecting needle will shred the wings or snap the antennae.
Butterfly taxidermy takes quite a while to learn how to do it well, with plenty of mistakes along the way. I've tried to make it look easy here, and in fact it is relatively simple to describe - but it will take quite a few tries to set them properly if you don't yet have the experience.
The butterfly arrives 'papered' inside a triangular envelope, with its wings folded.
The first step is relaxing the specimen so that the wings can be moved into place. If you try to move them before the thorax is soft enough, the brittle wings will snap off and the specimen is ruined.
The butterfly is then put onto the setting board and the wings are eased down onto the surface by putting the pergamine paper between them and then pulling gently down.
With the wings flat on the setting board, I use a dissecting needle to tease the wings into position. It's essential only to push against the veins, never on the surface of the wings themselves, as they will immediately tear if you do this.
Working from top left to bottom left, then top right to bottom right is my preferred method. Other people like to do both upper wings before moving on to the lower ones, but I find that it is far better to get one side into position first.
As each wing reaches the position you want, pins are put around the outside, as close as possible to the edge without touching it. This holds the paper tight against the wing and prevents it from slipping.
Using the dissecting tool takes a bit of practice. It's best to hold it quite flat to the surface of the board so you are pushing rather than dragging, but it all depends on the space available for the tool (very often the most suitable points for the tool to push against are hidden beneath the paper).
Once the wings are in position the antennae must be set. They dry out a lot quicker than the thorax, so it can help to dab their base with a cotton bud dipped in boiling water if they are stiff. They slide underneath the paper and you can then use a blunt pin to push them into position. I don't like to use the dissecting needle for this as it is sharp and can cut an antenna in two if it pushes straight up against it, but sometimes it's necessary because the forest of pins makes it impossible to reach them without the long handle to help you.