I love a good sideshow gaff, and the Pyewackett and Pecke site has posted a rare treat: Build notes and photos for a great-looking FeeJee Mermaid prop. Artist Dan Baines has a five-part series of posts detailing the prop: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
(Incidentally, if Baines’ name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the artist responsible for the great mummified fairy hoax in 2007.)
Some of his techniques and materials are probably out of range of the average home DIY-er: The mermaid’s claws, for instance, are made from 3D-printed bird feet, and Baines made a custom silicon-rubber texturizer to create the impression of scales. However, there are other, less esoteric, ways to achieve similar effects: Replica animal claws are available at places like The Evolution Store, you can use claw-looking things like dentalium shells, or you can simply mold the things individually out of polymer clay. Instead of clawed fingers, it might be interesting to give the mermaid webbed hands instead; in that case, the model duck feet used for taxidermy would look great.
The scaly texture on the tail could be created by lightly pressing the head of a large nail into the wet covering on the skin in an overlapping pattern. Although not flexible the way a silicon mold would be, the “coarse” section of a cheese grater might also work. (There are also dog treats made of real dried fish skin; I’m curious as to whether they’d have sufficient depth to be used as a mold.)
For the front half of the mermaid Baines used an 18″ medical skeleton model and a resin cast of a human infant skull. He unfortunately doesn’t specify where he got either; the Skeleton Store has a replica of a full fetal skeleton, but it’s a tad pricey. Their Frugal Fernando seems about the right size for the ribs and arms, and instead of a fetal skull a replica monkey skull might be a cheaper option; after all, the original taxidermied FeeJee Mermaids were made from the front half of a monkey attached to the back half of a fish.
This would be a fantastic display piece, and would look great as part of a cabinet of curiosities. The next time you vacation at the beach, be sure to dig around souvenir shops for dried seaweed and similar oceany stuff which could be used either as detailing on the body (feathery kelp might make interesting fins) or to add “carnival exhibit” interest to the display stand.
Bonus link: The Propnomicon site has a nice post mortem discussing this build, with further suggestions for materials and techniques more suited to the amateur builder.