Introduction: Leather Plague Doctor Mask
For this project we are creating a pair of custom leather Plague Doctor masks.
Quick history lesson: During the bubonic plague in Medieval Europe cities would hire masked Plague Doctors to tend to the infected. More information on Plague Doctors can be found on Wikipedia here.
If you have any questions about this project that are not addressed here, please feel free to ask in the comments!
Step 1: Prototyping
Before moving up to expensive materials like leather, I started by prototyping the patterns in L200 foam. A similar version of this foam can be found at your local craft or fabric stores, often called "Fun Foam" or "Craft Foam." Mine started as a 4'x8' sheet from Foam Mart here in Los Angeles, and I use it for prototyping on all kinds of projects.
For this project I was using a set of patterns I created in the past, but I would be modifying the masks to include goggles and making some minor improvements in the overall form. The biggest difference is that for this project I would be using a laser cutter for the final pieces, rather than hand cutting each individual piece. This takes us to our next step...
Step 2: Measuring and Digitizing the Prototypes
The prototypes were carefully measured and digitized. To digitize the individual pieces I photographed them over a cutting mat that has a 1"x1" grid. The photographs were then processed to remove lens distortion, flatten out the perspective, and scaled so 1 inch in the document matched the 1"x1" grid in the photograph. From there it was just a matter of carefully tracing the individual parts in Adobe Illustrator to create the paths that the laser would eventually follow when cutting out our material.
Step 3: Laser Cutting the L200 Foam
Once the patterns were digitized I laser cut some test pieces out of L200 and assembled a few foam versions of the mask. These masks were then used for test fitting on various head sizes so I could determine final length for the various straps, and allowed me to make minor modifications and refinements to the patterns before moving on to leather.
Step 4: Laser Cutting the Leather
Cutting the leather proved a bit challenging, but eventually I was able to get everything calibrated to produce high quality pieces. To start I made a small test pattern that included all the basic elements of the mask patterns in a small 2"x2" square. Those elements include a dashed stitching line, curved lines, small holes, heavy engraving, and fine engraving. Next I cut 10+ 2"x2" squares of leather and started my tests. With each test I would fine tune the laser power, laser movement speed, number of passes to make a full cut through the leather, and engraving depth/contrast. The goal is to cut the leather without burning the edges too badly. Eventually I settled on settings that required 2-3 passes of the laser to fully cut through the leather. The leather was also covered in blue masking tape to protect the surface from smoke damage.
Step 5: The Leather After Laser Cutting
After laser cutting the leather I allowed to it to soak in a bath of warm water for a few hours to wash off the burnt edges and allow for easy removal of the masking tape. Between soakings the water was changed, and the process repeated until the water remained clear.
The pieces were then left to dry overnight. I also flipped the leather every few hours to insure that both sides would fully dry out, and had a fan blowing over them to help speed up the process.
Step 6: Staining and Sealing the Leather
Now that the pieces have all been cut out and cleaned, it's time to start staining. I used a medium brown water-based stain on both sides of each piece, followed buy a matte-finish water-based sealer to protect the leather and keep the stain from transferring to anyone wearing the masks.
Step 7: Assembling the Masks
With the individual pieces all stained and sealed assembly could begin. First the edges of the mask and straps that would contact the performer's skin were rubbed with beeswax and run over with a tool called an edge-slicker. This rounds off and smooths the edges.
Next the stitching holes were individually punched with an awl to temporarily expand them to allow for stitching. The holes will eventually close up and lock around the thread. Next the pieces were stitched together with a heavy waxed thread and all thread tie-off points inside the mask were protected with a dab of beeswax to prevent them from rubbing against the performer and protect them from wear.
Finally the straps, complete with buckles, were riveted to the mask.
Step 8: Preparing the Goggles
Now that the mask base is assembled it's time to start work on the goggles. I started with black plastic welding goggles and removed their straps. I also removed the circular rubber covers for the vents on the sides of the goggles. These would eventually be covered with a metal piece to add a bit of style/contrast to the goggles.
Next the goggles were roughed up with wire brushes, sand paper, and files. Large gouges and scratches were added that would be accented during the weathering process.
Prior to painting, small holes were drilled around the base of the goggle that would be used to stitch it to a leather ring that would in turn be stitched to the final mask.
The goggles were then cleaned with acetone to remove any oils or contaminants, masked, and sprayed with 2 coats of a matte black primer designed for use on plastics.
After the primer 4 layers of gold metallic paint were then sprayed onto the goggles and left to cure overnight.
Step 9: Weathering the Goggles
After the paint had cured they were hit once again with the wire brushes to add small scratches in the gold paint.
Next a heavy wash of black acrylic paint was brushed onto the goggles and quickly wiped off with crumpled paper towels. This leaves dark staining in all the deep scratches and dings, and also leaves small streaks on the surface of the goggles. They instantly started looking like aged brass.
Next a more watered-down wash of a reddish brown was applied, followed by multiple washes of a pale green to give the goggles a nice aged patina.
The picture for this step shows the goggles at this point, prior to the following 2 steps that really make them pop.
To make the goggles look more like real metal I dry-brushed bright gold enamel paint over the edges and high-points of the goggles to simulate metal exposed from wear and use of the goggles.
Finally the goggles were sealed with a glossy varnish that deepened the weathering and brought out the metallic qualities.
Step 10: Attaching the Goggles
After the goggles were painted I attached small metal detail pieces over the vent holes in their sides. These silver pieces were also weathered with brown and patina green washes to age them a bit. Their silver appearance provides a bit of contrast to the aged brass of the goggles, and adds a bit of style. You can also see that they still have a good gap allowing air to flow into the mask and help prevent the goggles from fogging up.
Next the goggles were stitched to leather rings using a lighter weight brown waxed thread. The entire goggle assembly is then stitched to the mask using the same heaver waxed thread as the rest of the mask.
I also laser cut some smoked acrylic lenses that were just dark enough to make the lenses appear pitch black when the mask is being worn, but allow for great visibility even in low-light environments.
And finally the masks were completed! This was an amazing project, and I'm really happy with the overall quality of the finished product.