Ever wondered about making something with your own hands, for yourself or to gift to someone else? Something beautiful, delicate, rare. Something filled with personality and something so unique that no matter where it went it carried it’s uniqueness with it?
Welcome to the Butterfly project!
I know we can find these framed taxidermy butterflies online but there is a great sense of satisfaction when you make them yourself. They can also turn out to be cheaper if you’re planning to make many. If you have a little bit of patience and a little bit of time, do try this at home! As delicate as butterflies can be, they add colour to your life and an element of elegant quirkiness to your space. You can either make just one for your desk or your mantel, or you can make a few and accessorise that blank wall. It’s all art!
How to make them?
They aren’t super easy, but all you need is a little bit of patience and trust me, it’s worth it. I am going to show you how I made mine and share with you links where you can buy various things to make it easier!
1. Buy some dried butterflies!
You’ll need to purchase some real ‘dried’ & ‘unmounted’ butterflies. This is also referred to as Papered Specimens, Loose Specimens and Dried Specimens. The specimens are dried with their wings closed together, wrapped in paper and unmounted. They look something like this:
It’s important to make sure that you’re buying ‘Ehitcally Farmed Butterflies’. I sourced my dried unmounted butterflies from Natural History Gifts on Etsy and got an amazing bunch of exotic species! You’ve got to be careful handling them and storing them. They are ever so delicate. Make sure to keep them away from direct sunlight as their colour can fade. Also keep them away from moisture to stop them from going mouldy. I popped in some of these moth balls (bought from Amazon) in my butterfly storage box to keep them from pests. If you follow these steps to protect your butterflies they should last forever. If you don’t like the idea of using taxidermy butterflies or if you simply don’t have the budget, you can print these super realistic graphics from this website onto really good quality matte paper. Cut them out very carefully and you’re done!
2. Tools you’ll need to do this:
There are some basic tools that you will absolutely need for this project. For someone who hasn’t dealt with insects in the past or has the budget for buying professional tools, I can say that these are the bare minimum tools you’ll need but they are very easy to source:
– A Tupperware container : Make sure it’s in good condition, big enough and airtight.
– Sponges: You can use any kind of store bought sponge that will absorb water. Make sure they are clean and unused.
– Metal Mesh : Make sure it is clean and fits your container. If its too big, you can cut it to your container’s size with strong scissors or pliers.
– 2 Pairs of Forceps : You’ll need 2 of these to help you handle the butterflies. You want to avoid touching the butterflies in case their wings get smudged.
– 1 foam board/Styrofoam/cork board : Anything that can take a few pins.
– Insect Pins : they come in little packs of 100.
– Tracing/grease-proof paper : You’ll need these to protect your butterfly while spreading them.
– Shadowbox/deep frame : These can be difficult to find. Make sure the frame is at least 20mm deep.
3. Relaxing your butterfly:
The butterflies that you purchase are going to be ‘dried’, which means that they are ‘stiff’ with their wings closed. You’re going to need to first relax these butterflies to be able to spread them. Create a relaxing chamber/humidity chamber with your Tupperware and sponges. Place your sponges in the Tupperware and carefully pour some hot boiling water onto these sponges slowly. Spread the water evenly onto the sponges. Do not over fill the Tupperware. Once you’ve done this you need to place your wire mesh on top of the sponges. This is to protect the butterfly from touching the sponges directly. Do not let your butterfly touch the water or sponges. This deteriorate the specimen. Take a little piece of kitchen roll and lightly dampen it with hot water too and place it over the butterfly. Try to create a arch over the butterfly with the damp kitchen roll maintaining no contact. Cut a tiny bit of the moth ball and place it in one corner of the Tupperware mesh, however this is not absolutely necessary. Now, put the lid on and close it airtight. Carefully place the Tupperware in a cool and dry place away from direct sunlight for at least 24 to 36 hours. The amount of time you need to leave your butterfly in there totally depends on the size of the butterfly. Larger butterflies could take 48 hours. It’s best to keep an eye on your butterfly every 24 hours to check if your butterfly is ‘relaxed’ (wings should open up with Forceps easily). Keeping them in the container for too long results in mould and decay. Avoid opening the Tupperware too often to keep the humidity intact. I know you’re excited but try to resist opening it!
4. Spreading your butterfly:
Once you’re butterfly is ‘relaxed’ the wings should be easy to spread. There may be slight resistance so proceed with caution. This step takes more patience then ever. The wings, body, legs and antennas can be very delicate and break. Use your Forceps to lift the butterfly from your container and place it on your board. I generally tend to use a layer of tracing paper on top of the board (under the butterfly) to make it more manageable. Now, how you place the butterfly depends on what board you are using. Only because I am using an easy cork board instead of a professional spreading board, I find it easier to place the butterfly on its back with its legs in the air to avoid damaging its body. Pick up the butterfly, turn it over so its back is facing the board. Then move it downwards onto the board while gently spreading its wings sideways. (N.B. Make sure the forceps are doing the spreading, not the pressure of the wings on the board, or else you may bend or kink the wing)
Now, you’ll need to pin the butterfly to the board. Take one of the insect pins and gently put the pin through the ‘thorax’ of the butterfly. The little diagram below shows you exactly where the thorax is on the butterfly. It’s basically the part of the body between the head and the abdomen.
Once you’ve pinned the butterfly down, it’s is now secure, allowing you to spread the wings. To increase stability you may want to add 4 additional pins on either side of the body to fix it in place and stop it twisting around the central pin. However, make sure you do not pierce the body or the wings with the additional pins in any way whatsoever.
Once the body is secure, take the backside of the pin and slowly drag the ‘upper wing’ upwards to spread it. Place a strip of tracing paper on top of the wing and pierce two pins, one just above and one just below the wing, to hold it in place. Remember, you’re not piercing or damaging the wings in anyway. Make sure the tracing paper strip is taught enough to hold the wing in its place.
Now follow the same steps for the second ‘upper wing’. You want to make sure that both wings look symmetrically spread and are secure under the paper strip. It may be hard to spread the wings due to a little bit of stiffness but be gentle and try not to use your fingers or any sharp objects that could damage the wings. That’s why I find it is best to use the smooth ball on the backside of the pin to get a steady grip.
You may also need to spread the hind wings depending on your butterfly species. In this case I found it unnecessary, however, if you feel that you need to do this for your butterfly, follow the same technique. In this case, I have just secured the hind wings to avoid any dis-formation during the drying process.
You may also find that your butterfly’s legs or antennae are not in the right place. You can use these paper strips to set them right. I found that my specimen’s legs were akimbo, so I placed them in their closed position and lay a strip of paper across the thorax to hold them down.
Leave your butterfly pinned to the board for at least a week to dry out again. Keep the board in a safe and dry location with no direct sunlight or humidity. Pin a moth ball to the board if you think it needs that extra protection.
5. Mounting your butterfly:
There are endless ways to mount your butterfly. Here’s how I did it. This stage needs a bit of pre-planning to avoid any damage to your specimens. Be careful while taking your butterfly off the spreading board. Take out all the pins and tracing paper surrounding it first. Then gently take the butterfly off the board by the main thorax pin and make sure the pin is still through the thorax. Cut a piece of foam board to the size of your frame. You’ll need this to pin your butterfly on before you insert it into the frame. I found that I needed to snip the sharp end of the pin my butterfly was on for it to fit within the depth of the frame. Carefully pin your butterfly onto the foam board however you want to display it. I also found it useful to apply a drop of PVA glue to the pin where it was attached to the board to prevent the pin from swivelling.
You can also add a little tag under the butterfly naming it’s species, gender, etc. I referred to this great book called ‘1000 Butterflies: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Most Beautiful Butterflies’. Position the foam board into the frame ensuring you butterflies have not moved and secure the back of the frame.
And Done! Don’t worry if you don’t get it perfect the first time. It took me a couple of tries too but the end result is very fascinating. I have something to add to my workspace that inspires me. You can now spread all your butterflies and store them in a nice box ready to be displayed! Head over to my Pinterest board for some more butterfly inspiration and ideas!