DEER LODGE — Frank Slaughtner and his son, JR, of Deer Lodge are avid hunters and over the years had a number of European trophy mounts done.

In 2004, they purchased a starter colony of dermestid beetles and put them in their garage so they could do their own mounts. The beetles eat animal flesh, are the preferred method of preparing skulls, and are commonly used by museums, Frank said.

Soon, friends and family started bringing their heads to the Slaughtners to be cleaned and whitened.

“It didn’t take very long for it to become obvious the garage wasn’t the best place for the beetles, so we purchased a small utility shed we call the beetle house, but the processing and mounting are still done in the garage.”

Not satisfied with the “cookie cutter plaques,” they also started making their own from a variety of materials. No two are exactly alike.

By 2006, the demand for their European mounts increased enough they decided to make a small business out of the hobby and became licensed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as Bone Head Skull Works — “a name that seemed to fit,” Frank said with a grin.

The business has been growing every year.

“We researched and considered hydrographics for a number of years, but the money wasn’t there and we were unsure about the interest before,” Frank said, “but this summer we decided to expand the business to include hydro-dipping.”

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Hydro-graphics, also known as immersion printing, water transfer printing or hydro-dipping, is a method of applying printed ink designs to three-dimensional surfaces.

“We can dip anything — wood, plastic, metal or glass; if it can be immersed in water, it can be sprayed and dipped,” JR said. “It’s pretty cool stuff.”

JR said he got interested in customizing rifle stocks, and people asked about dipping, so they decided to provide the service. The Duracoat finish customizes and waterproofs each firearm, he said.

Hydro-dipping gives the Slaughtners flexibility not only to customize trophy skulls and plaques, but to customize so much more — firearms, archery equipment, knives, auto, snowmobile and ATV parts, helmets, water and wine glasses. JR said the computer-generated graphics offer endless possibilities.

Prior to dipping, the piece to be printed goes through surface preparation and priming. Frank helps with preparation while JR does the priming and immersion printing.

JR explained that a polyvinyl film with the graphic image to be transferred is carefully placed on the water’s surface in the dipping tank. The clear film dissolves after he applies an activator solution. The item is dipped and the ink adheres to the item and will not wash off. Then it is allowed to dry and is sealed.

“It is just as strong as automotive paint when it is dried,” JR said as he proudly displayed some of the finished products.

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