Over the summer during Pennsic, I made a plan with a friend of mine to learn his craft of leather mask making. I made a deal that during the course of Pennsic I would make a mask. Drake hauled all of his supplies and gave me the great gift of tools and, most importantly, knowledge. I don't think I can ever repay him for all that he did for me that year at Pennsic!
I would like to take some time now to discuss the process, with pictures. He is an incredible teacher and I am hoping I have learned enough that I can pass along all I have learned and share this incredible wealth of knowledge.
The mask making procedure began with needing to create a negative of my face.
Here I am all prepped and ready. To make a negative, it is best to fully protect your hair, so we used both a shower cap and a t-shirt. The shower cap was nice because it would allow for a very obvious line when the negative and following positive was complete as to where a comfortable end point for the mask is.
Once ready, I laid down on a table to be at a comfortable height and put vaseline on my eyelashes and eyebrows so that nothing would stick to them. That would have been rather painful. Straws were then placed in my nose, which I had to hold, and a piece of cloth went into my mouth so we could have a definition between where my upper lip and the bottom of the mask would comfortably be. Once I was prepared, an alginate mixture that held good definition was placed on my face followed by plater bandages to a thick layer that would easily make a good positive. The following picture was not me but my partner in crime that wanted to do the same challenge at Pennsic, Brooke.
After letting everything dry, the negative was carefully removed and dried before a release agent was sprayed inside so that a positive plaster could be poured inside. The result was uncanny... and a little ghostly.
Once the positive was released, it was time to start crafting. An oil based clay was used and built up on the face to create a mask of sorts. You will notice that there is a blank area around the bridge of the nose. That is because it creates a point of reference for how and where the mask will sit on your face. With everything else built up, to make certain the mask still fits comfortably to your specific face, a point of reference is necessary and highly recommended.
Here is a picture of Zagna, my first mask, as well as a picture where, after casting, I cut her in half so it is easier to visualize how much the clay is built up in the mask.
After the clay is built up and the design is somthing satisfactory, it is important to smooth the clay as much as possible. There are two reasons for this. One reason is so you have less problems with removing the negative from the positive. The second is that you will need to do a lot less clean up work with the cement positive you will eventually be making in the end.
After finishing the clay mask, a dam is built with the remaining clay around only the form of the mask by about 3/4" all the way around. This is so when you pour in the plaster you will be using for a negative, it stays in a specific area. As with each pour that is done, it is important to remember a releasing agent. It is also important to pour into the detailed areas first and use your fingers to gently keep air bubbles from remaining and get the plaster everywhere it needs to be.
After the plaster negative of the clay form is made, more daming is done to build up an even wall all around the edge of the negative. A wooden plaque which will be used to nail the leather on to is guaged along what will be the back of the mask form and screws are placed into it at angles to help strength the mould all the more.
Not much of the negative will remain. No matter how much you try and cut down, the problem is you suddenly have something that easily can have undercuts that will keep the plaster from removing nicely from the cement. Here is a photo of the few chunks that remain after removing the positive cement from the plaster mould.
The plaster can be removed with a gentle rawhide hammer, always knocking gently away from the actual mask form. Once the cement is free, make sure to seal it with something that will keep the cement and wood from ruining in water.
The next step is wetting down the leather. It takes soaking and massaging and squeezing the leather to release all the tannins and make the leather soft and plyable to work with. When it is, you can start to work it down along and onto the form of the mask. Start at the highest point, which is usually the nose, and stretch and pull the leather until, when you turn over the mask, you know there wont be any shifting.
Carefully begin tacking the wet leather down along the wood backing, cutting and overlapping small areas where needed. If there is a large portion that will not tack flat, that will most likely need seaming when you are finished.
Here is Zagna after tacking down the wet leather. And although the nose doesn't need seaming, it is obvious the upper lip will.
Once all of the leather is tacked in place, it is time to begin working with your tools. You don't want to work on the weather when it is too wet, so give in a little bit if you can. The pecking and burnishing will work a lot better when the leather is only a little damp. If it dries out too much, you can always re-moisten it with a spray bottle of water.
These are the tools that are needed: a horn hammer for pecking and a smooth wooden instrument for burnishing (or any other smooth and hard piece of material. Horns/antlers that were smoothed down were also used).
Pecking is the act of making very small dimples on the leather using the thin end of the hammed. You always want to work from the highest points downwards, stretching the leather in those directions. After pecking, the burnisher helps to smooth and seal the leather, working with the fibers to help it keep the form you are pressing it into. Here is an example of a piece of leather that has been wet (on the left), pecked (on the right), and burnished (in the middle).
The differences are subtle between the unfinished and the burnished on such a small piece, but when you look at the finished working mask, it is very obvious the shine that the burnishing creates. Here is Zagna, finished with her pecking and burnishing.
As you can see, seam work still needs to be done as well as cutting out the eyes. The next step, really, is to cut the mask free of the cement block so the eyes and skiving for the seam work can be done.
The seam work is simply making three flaps that are then skived down tremendously thin so that they will not make a huge differentiation from the rest of the mask. The eyes follow the shape and lines of the mould form and should be easy enough to follow and cut out before burnishing to finish them.
Turning the mask over, the entire inside edging needs to be skived feather thin so it can then be notched and glued into place, often with a wire edging as an extra safe precaution to help the mask keep its shape. Here are photos of the skiving and turning before the notching, and after the notching once everything is glued into place.
After a layer of polish on her front and a layer of laquer to keep sweat from ruining her on the back, all she needs is a strap to hold her in place.
And here she is, Zagna, all finished.
Here are some extra photos of things I learned along the way and some of the other masks I am working on. If you would like to know more, please come and find me with my whole display at King and Queens Arts and Science this coming February.
We all make mistakes. Mine was not realizing that my container I was carrying Zagna around in wasn't fully closed and she fell out on the Pennsic streets. Of course, I didn't think anything about it at the time and kept working. But when I cut the leather free and the pressure was no longer there, her face fell in half. Since I would like to use her again, I found some gorilla glue...
...and tied her tight together. She is still in working order and now appears very much like she is an extant find because of my mistake.
This was my beginning thoughts for a Fosca mask. I am very glad I revamped the entire idea and tried again.
This is a negative of the revamped Fosca who is a much creepier mask choice.
This is her both in her cement form and with the burnishing process underway with the leather. She is a creepy mask and I love it.
Here is the beginning of Pantalone, a wrinkled, worried sort of man.
A side by side comparison of two different Pantalones, ready for their leather stretching phase.
This is the latest mask, Brighella. He is just about ready for his cement pour.
Update: I have continued working on the masks and have displayed them twice now, once in a competitive setting. I displayed at the EK King and Queens bardic/A&S competition in 2017 and at Pennsic 2017. Here are pictures of the display, as they are interactive explanations of how masks are made.
New masks are continually being made and a lot of research has been done as to how the masks were made, finding graphic representation of masks in period, and trying to recreate the mask of movement through body language as well as the actual face mask.