Instructables
Make your own Mardis Gras mask out of water-hardened leather.
 
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Step 1: Material

Start with vegetable-tanned (also known as saddle-skirt) leather. I picked mine up at a local Tandy Leather. Get 5/7-weight leather (that is, between 5/64" and 7/64" thick). Thicker is OK, though you'll get more shrinkage (less soak-time may help that). Thinner won't harden as quickly, will be brittle and won't hold a shape very well.

You'll also need paint suitable for leather (fabric paint usually works).

Step 2: Cut pattern

Cut a mask pattern, allowing for about 30% shrinkage.

Step 3: Cool Soak

Soak leather in cool water for 10 minutes.

Step 4: Heat water

Heat a pot of water to 180°F.

Step 5: Hot soak

Soak in hot water for around 90 seconds. The leather will shrink, curl and thicken, and then start to uncurl. The longer you soak it the stretchier it will be at the start and the smaller, harder, thicker and more brittle the end result will be.

Step 6: Shape

Once the leather comes out, you have about 5 minutes to stretch and shape it before it becomes stiff. For a good face-shape be sure to add bumps for the bridge of the nose, eyebrows and cheekbones. If you have any dangly bits they can be twisted or braided, and they will harden into whatever shape you set them. Over the next 10 minutes, give it a pinch every now and then to make sure it stays in the shape you want, then let it dry overnight. By morning, it should be hard as wood.

Step 7:

If you decide now that you need to expand the eyeholes or change the outline you can use a drill or saw. Otherwise, you're ready to paint it, using a paint suitable for leather. I used several coats of "3D" fabric paint. Mardi Gras colors are green, purple and gold. Add ribbon-ties if you like. Have fun!
legamin5 months ago

I work with leather and hadn't thought of that use! (Though historically you are perfectly justified..) recent advancements in leather conditioning (since the 18th C) have made modern costuming in leather more durable and comfortable.

You should start by getting a friend that you trust to help you create a deep (or full) face/head mold..don't forget to leave breathing holes.. Then use that to create a positive mold of your head in a durable material both moisture and heat resistant. This will keep you from both sticky and hot procedures in forming.

After you cut your leather (to a pre-designed paper pattern which saves heartache and leather) refine what yo want to acheive. There are two population treatments for this now which give similar results. 1. (More modern) water down water solvable wood glue by 50/50..Elmer's classroom craft glue will not give good results. Soak the leather. Spray a release on your head mold. Remove leather and after five to ten minutes and form it as desired on your mannequin.

2. Old timey...better(?) way.. Safely melt wax to a clear state liquid. (Flammable, learn to do this safely). Heat oven to 400 deg. F and wait for full temp. Place finished leather piece into oven and heat thoroughly..about five to eight minutes for detailed face mask.. Now remove and quickly plunge into melted wax (use safety precautions and very heavy rubber gloves..especially for the next step..). Let soak two to three minutes fully submerged and pull it out. Time is important! Form it to your mannequin head as desired and let cool. You can make minor adjustments and such later but it must be pretty accurate the first time. Good luck, use extreme care and all safety knowledge.

You seem super-knowledgable. Have you posted any Instructables yet? I bet a lot of people could benefit from your accumulated wisdom.... :)

I'm in the middle of one which is taking some time, an overstuffed leather couch from the shattered frame outward to the paint abraded surface. A huge long project. Inbetween weather I'm building a large hot tub deck which has to swing an enormous 8 tonne hyper dynamic load...which will lend heat to a hydroponics green house...from the hot tub out building...heated partially by sun and partially by drier output.. So I've started filming, picture taking, bumping into my neighbor's car with a renal excavator..oops!...but it will be a few months in finishing each project and editing. My next dream is a full leather and thermoplastic sheet, metal strips, rods cams and gears full body robotic suit as costume head to foot for steam puck 18th C period functioning automaton suit...But that's going to take a year to be fully functional and lit throughout with fiber optics...I'm excited but running in too many directions as you can certainly relate...(?). Thanks for the huge compliment!  I've been a student of everything for most of my 52 years and had a dad that passed on his 'renaissance man' learning..so I have been very blessed.
mrfoltz6 years ago
Very informative... Can you sculpt with this process or is there a different way to soften the leather in order to manipulate it??? For example to make original roman armor? I sculpt female and male life sized torsos with fiberglass but would like to learn how to do leather torsos? Thanks...
legamin mrfoltz5 months ago

if you can cover your fiberglass torso with heavy waxed paper sprayed on both sides with plenty of release, you can create a sturdy mold of that torso...an identical match to it. Sand it clean smooth when finished and re-enforce it for strength. Now cut your leather to size, soften it with water, wax, oil or lacquer as desired and lay it perfectly positioned over your positive mold. (Be sure you have prepped your molds with release or you're just making a leather sandwich). Now apply the negative mold while the leather is still hot. Apply as much pressure as you dare. If you built them up well, they can withstand several hundred pounds. Now start the fans to cool your creation. Don't worry about drying it yet as it takes about a week to be sure that the stretch is permanent in all the subtle details. In a week it will be what it will be. You can carve, cut and trim the still damp leather. Resist dyes or conditioners until it is dry. I tend to leave mine on the positive mold to work on it and leave a slow gentle fan on it until it dries. Shrinkage should eventually 'pop' it off the mold without distortion. If you're planning on doing this for an Easter play at this point I would suggest going and buying thermo plastic sheets that you can pop off every half hour and paint...

Bug (author)  mrfoltz6 years ago
You can, and the leather is quite soft for the minute or two after it comes out of the water. You only have a few minutes before it becomes stiff though, so you'll need to work fast (or apply to a mold). I borrowed this technique from people in the SCA who use it to make armor, so it should work just fine.
sumguysr6 years ago
if the leather is dyed before will this work? will it hurt the dye? can it be dyed afterwards?
legamin sumguysr5 months ago

you can use water dyed leather for this with good result.. Oil dyes tend to resist malleability once the dye has cured...but with a little heat all things are possible! As for dying afterwards, yes, unless it is ALREADY dyed...leather doesn't re dye to a different color easily. You will need to buy paint.

Bug (author)  sumguysr6 years ago
All the dyed leather I've seen is chemical tanned, which will not work with this process (you need vegetable tanned leather). There may be such a thing as dyed vegetable-tanned leather, but I suspect it'd be a specially product -- definitely post a comment if you discover otherwise.
MissChiff Bug5 years ago
You can definitely dye leather after it's been stretched and dried like this. Any kind of leather dye will work, and you can mix some great colors. Just be careful to paint the dye on and not over-saturate the leather, or it will become soft again. To make sure it stays in shape, you can coat the back with varnish. Then not even the rain will ruin your fun!
Sun Gear4 years ago
how do you soften the lather and keep it soft?
legamin Sun Gear5 months ago

paste conditioner. Like Dr Jackson's hide rejuvenator.

whiteoakart7 years ago
I bet some leather manufacturer has scrap bits and pieces for sale cheap. Have you looked into that.
Bug (author)  whiteoakart7 years ago
I haven't, though it's certainly possible. The key is to get vegetable-tanned leather of the appropriate weight -- I find a lot of the scraps I see around are chrome-tanned, which by design don't harden much in water.
cuchulain92 Bug4 years ago
Has it occurred to you to try using oil instead of water? As I understand it, hardened-leather armor was called cuir-bouille in the Medieval period.

If you are going for hardness and permanence, nothing beats the soaking and multi-coating of heavy hide in the Japanese Urushi lacquer. I have work with this for years because of the amazing strength and beauty of the finished product.

This is the lacquer (exactly the same today as then) used by the Samuri to harden the leather and coat the metal surfaces of their armor.. So tough that many fine well preserved examples still exist four centuries later. It was recorded that arrows, heavy spears and even flintlock fire bounced off this lacquer hardened armor! Alas it failed under newer weaponry commissioned to defeat these warriors.

That said, you can still find authentic Urushi lacquer online for about $160-$200 per ounce. (It is very rare, comes from only one scarce type tree that grows in high altitudes and the manufacture is monopolized by a single company...and export is very rare)...other than that, if you are patient you can accumulate several ounces as I have over the years.

Tandy sells scrap by the pound. You get to choose what you need and the heavy stuff is most common. Just don't expect giant pieces..

I have seen scrap leather at American Science and Surplus. In Colorado Springs, there happens to be a leather store at 208 South 22nd.
Anonbonbon3 years ago
do you have any tips for making a form to shape the leather around? I'm doing a pauldron for a LARP, and want it to form around my shoulder. Should I just find a way to keep it on my shoulder until it's stiff enough to hold it's shape? Or would a form be easier? This tutorial was very helpful though, thank you.

cover as much of your shoulder as you plan to use/require for the mold in plaster and gauze cast (there are better and more expensive methods but I'm an old costumer that uses what I know). For heavens sake, shave the entire area and spray on a release like silicon release or Pam will work..this makes it muchless permanent ant painful in removal! Let it harden fully (it will heat then cool). Carefully remove and build up a pouring skirt around the edges. Now you can spray a release around the inside of your mold. Paint it with a thick coating of craft store latex. Then fill it with very dense hardening foam..the DIY stor type will work but is not as durable as a 5lb density used professionally -available at insulation specialty shops. Be carefully as this stuff expands and is IMPOSSIBLE to remove from carpet and furniture! Let fully expand, harden and cure overnight. You have a fairly sturdy cast of your shoulder now. Enjoy creating!

Does leather have a grain or does it shrink evenly in all dimensions?
Does your skin have grain? This is cow skin, ask a cow! :-)
Bug (author)  xenobiologista7 years ago
Near as I can tell it shrinks evenly in all dimensions, though you can stretch it in one dimension and not in another while it's still wet.
Chiana_Rei2 years ago
If you want to sculpt it afterwards, you just have to re-wet the area to be manipulated, just work in small sections till you are done, there are many leather working tools that can simplify this process, but I find a flattened and rounded bit of coathanger a few dull x-acto blades and some precision screwdrivers to be the best tools for sculpting
Tenz5 years ago
will this work if i want to make a harden sheath?
coronis35 years ago
Sweet! Thanks doll, I'm gonna try some of this :)
Gauthier8 years ago
Since visiting Venice, making my own mask has been on the long ToDo list - thanks for the clear Instructable.
Yeah, when I was in Venice, I noticed that they had some crazy masks all over the place. (Also, delicious pizza!) Those masks were the first thing that jumped into my head when I saw this instructable.
shortone5 years ago
I totally made one of these! I used 4-weight leather and just got it wet, after cutting out my design, and plopped it onto a plaster face cast and worked it with my fingers :D for paint, i used acrylic with a layer of pearl ex powder on top (SHINY!) turned out beautifully
Closet_RAt7 years ago
Great instructable! (take that Firefox spellcheck!) Quick Questions... What duration of hot water soak do you recommend for a durable mask? 60 seconds or 90 seconds? And is it possible to attach two or more pieces of these together (using rivets or something?) Thanks for your help and keep on crafting!
Bug (author)  Closet_RAt7 years ago
I'd say closer to 90 seconds, but it'll probably depend on the thickness of your leather (I basically went until it started to uncurl again). If you do some experiments comparing the two, please post your results!
whiteoakart7 years ago
I had no idea you could do this. I will be sure to pass this on to interested parties. thanks.
jifblumoon8 years ago
thats awsome